When I reached out to Janna over email to request an interview, Janna suggested that we meet here, at The Malayan Council on Winstedt Road. When our meeting finally rolls around, I dig into a decadent slice of ondeh-ondeh cake, and start Janna off with the all-time favourite question of law school admissions panels everywhere: “Why law?”
The class-of-2018 NUS Law graduate’s response to this cult classic is as unexpected as it is relatable:
“I don’t know why. Why did I do law? I’ve always asked myself this question, even up till now.”
It’s Ok Not To Be Sure
While the words ‘law student’ usually conjure up the image of that single-minded secondary school/junior college/polytechnic classmate who’s already amassed a formidable portfolio of law-related achievements by the tender age of 19, this self-professed “jack of all trades” took the scenic route to law school.
A quick scroll through Janna’s LinkedIn profile reveals many surprising qualifications for a lawyer: a year spent studying a Creative Writing for TV and New Media course, a Biomedical Sciences diploma, several part-time jobs, as well as certificates in Applied Psychology and Silver Modelling.
Receiving the generous sponsorship of a female philanthropist in her hometown of Ipoh gave Janna (who is a native Malaysian) the opportunity to study in Singapore. But although Janna’s benefactor paid her school fees at Singapore Polytechnic and living with her relatives in Singapore helped minimize her living expenses, Janna had to juggle her studies with many part-time jobs to cover further expenses and potentially repay her two siblings’ student loans.
These gigs ran the gamut from freelance writing to giving private tuition to selling handicrafts.
While she initially started off selling painstakingly hand-stitched paper notebooks, she later invested part of her profits into acquiring skills that would allow her to break into more profitable and less time-intensive crafts like jewellery making.
“I think I sold hundreds and hundreds of handmade notebooks with paper cutting covers. So I customize the covers, and it’s really hand-stitched notebooks. Then, I made enough profit to move into the next craft, because I needed a craft that was not so time-consuming with higher profit margins. I started dabbling with woodwork, with clay, resin… like, a whole bunch of materials, honestly, until I finally settled on jewellery, lah. Although I don’t really wear jewellery myself at all.”
After receiving her polytechnic diploma, Janna headed to NUS Law School instead of pursuing Medicine (a course many of her Biomedical Science coursemates aspired towards) because she wanted to do something that would have a direct impact on people’s lives—but was deathly afraid of needles.
And the rest is history. “Would I go back and do it again,” asks Janna, “or would I just go straight into law as soon as I can?
To her, the answer is obvious:
“Definitely not! Because it’s given me a broader perspective which helps when I meet clients. Let’s say if the business is in metal. To understand the legal issue, you might need to know not just about how a business is run, but also about the metal industry. Nothing in law school prepares you for that, right? You just learn the legal aspects. But because I’ve done biomed, because I’ve done creative writing, and all that, I feel much more exposed to different industries. I guess that varied experience does give you a bit more perspective. Especially in this day and age. A lot of these sectors are so, I feel, intertwined today. Nothing exists in a vacuum anymore, none of these degrees out there. That’s why I think it was beneficial for me to have had the experience of doing multiple things.”
Dabbling in her many side hustles also equipped her with other valuable skills that are transferable to her practice today.
“I mean, there’s a whole process—you need to learn, apart from making the object itself, you’ve got to learn a bit of marketing, how to set up a website, how to do a bit of coding for the website, how to handle clients… things like that.”
She Wants To Solve Inequality—By Offering Opportunities
As established earlier, Janna is a Malaysian. Coming to Singapore from her small town in Ipoh initially presented as quite the culture shock.
“I wouldn’t say I was in poverty, lah,” she quips. “But as a Malaysian from a small town, coming to Singapore…”
It was difficult. Those are the words that she leaves unsaid. In her first year of polytechnic, Janna would mentally convert every expense she incurred from Singapore dollars to Malaysian Ringgit.
“It’s like, you cannot eat anything, you know? Because, even though chicken rice is like three dollars, to me, at the time it was like, 10 RINGGIT? Like, no! I’m not going to pay 10 ringgit for chicken rice? So I would just eat, like, bread or instant noodles.”
That brush with student poverty was what got Janna thinking while she was a student at NUS. She had been lucky to have marketable skills, but what about those who hadn’t? So while in university, Janna founded a social initiative called The Necessary Good, which sought to equip the underprivileged with skills to earn a supplementary income for themselves.
“I got the concept from how I’d worked hard to improve my situation? When I was younger, I went for a lot of mission trips with my parents , so I’ve always been very interested in thinking about how to deal with inequality. Like, I would not have been able to afford my education in Singapore if not for my sponsor. So to me, where the injustice or where the unfairness in the world is, lies in unequal access to opportunities. Just the fact that someone gives you that opportunity, that can really make a difference. I had a sponsor/scholarship for my entire education. So I was thinking: I also want to give that opportunity, as much as possible, to other people.”
Her Plans For the Future
As an associate with two years of experience in legal practice under her belt, Janna finds herself at that stage in life we call ‘adulting’. At times, the part of her that still feels like a small-town girl from Ipoh can’t help but think about how different it feels, trying to be an adult in a city like Singapore.
“Living in a small town, my parents were always very giving people, generous people who never saw the world in terms of how little we had but more in terms of what we could give. But then I think in Singapore, I feel like there are a lot of things to worry about, for yourself. Especially at my age.”
You start off thinking about buying a house. Then, you start thinking about buying a car. And then, it’s about paying for the wedding and having a child, and sending him for the extracurriculars he or she needs to stay competitive—piano lessons, ballet classes… you get the picture.
“I feel like in Singapore, it’s very hard to see past yourself,” Janna sums up. “And I get it. Because I’m feeling it now, right? So it’s like, look at how much money I need to save for myself and my family, and it’s really very hard to see past that need. Nobody sees charity or like helping someone else as an obligation.”
She cites her rent and upcoming wedding as examples of current cost pressures that she’s facing. And that all feeds into Janna’s greatest fear—becoming so caught up in the rat race of life that she forgets how to give.
For the moment, Janna is comfortable with where she is at Heng, Leong and Srinivasan LLC. She likes her boss, Mr Srinivasan VN, and she likes the firm’s culture. She enjoys the close camaraderie between her teammates, and she’s learning to take the lead in mentoring her juniors.
“I mean, to this day, my dream is to start some kind of social enterprise that is not only sustainable in itself, but also has a very robust business plan that teaches other people to be sustainable.”
Still, she’s wary of calling her dream business a ‘social enterprise’, citing examples of exploitative business practices that she doesn’t agree with.
“Some of them will be like, ‘This bag was made by this group of vulnerable women in Singapore, and we’re selling it for 50 bucks.’ But then you ask, ‘Eh, how much did the women get paid?’ And then you find out that they get paid 10 bucks per bag. But if you’re paying them $10 to sew an entire bag by themselves, then you’re not offering them an opportunity. You’re a part of the problem.”
But for now, Janna plans to stay in legal practice.
“If you want to make any kind of change in the world, you need to have a voice, lah. I’ll start by changing the minds of the people with the power to do it. Because if I can change those who have the means to effect this change, wouldn’t the change be a lot bigger?”
When we get up to leave the restaurant, Janna generously pays for both our meals with a discount coupon that she (true to her thrifty ways) happened to have in her wallet. Then, she walks back home to her apartment a stone’s throw away from the restaurant.
In short, Janna Wong, Associate at Heng, Leong and Srinivasan LLC, is the most relatable lawyer that you’ll ever meet.
This article does not constitute legal advice or a legal opinion on any matter discussed and, accordingly, it should not be relied upon. It should not be regarded as a comprehensive statement of the law and practice in this area. If you require any advice or information, please speak to a practicing lawyer in your jurisdiction. No individual who is a member, partner, shareholder or consultant of, in or to any constituent part of Interstellar Group Pte. Ltd. accepts or assumes responsibility, or has any liability, to any person in respect of this article.