Eugene starts his day at around 8 in the morning, just in time to catch the companies in the West Coast before they end work. Then, he checks in with his associates at WTS Taxise. “Especially in this Covid-19 period, it’s important to ensure that everyone is coping well,” Eugene says. In the afternoon, he works with his European clients, then follows up with clients from Asia. Later in the evening, he takes time to review his own affairs.
One thing is clear from Eugene’s routine above – he is no stranger to cross-border work and clients. As a lawyer that specialises in international tax and international trade, one area he works on is helping clients look at their global value chain issues. To elaborate, this consists of dealing with a company’s manufacturing operations, research and development, and interacting with stakeholders along the supply chain. In addition, Eugene plays an advisory role on the planning side by optimising businesses tax-wise and trade-wise, as well as working on regulatory and compliance matters.
Are there many lawyers doing what Eugene does?
“Tax lawyers are actually quite a rare breed,” he says. “Most tax professionals work in accounting firms, and very few work in law firms. Unbeknownst to most lawyers, Singapore plays an important role in the global tax strategies for many multinationals, since we have the unique combination of having a robust business friendly environment, along with tax policies that encourage high value activities locally.”
In fact, Eugene’s work is fairly niche. There aren’t many tax lawyers to begin with, let alone one who also specialises in international trade. “Tax and trade are somewhat separate disciplines, and most that work in one discipline rarely work in the other. Schools don’t teach these two disciplines together either,” he shares. However, Eugene is poised perfectly at the intersection of both – and has now set up a high-end specialised boutique practice, WTS Taxise, in what he determines to be a current legal market laguna.
The story of Eugene setting up WTS Taxise makes one wonder if all this was designed by an invisible higher power. The stars aligned when WTS Global, an international leading tax practice, happened to be looking for someone who could helm their reformulation of their Asian strategy. Back then, Eugene was on his two year sabbatical – “just chilling”, he says” – after 17 years at Baker & McKenzie. But no longer, as he accepted the job to work on WTS’ Asia strategy. That strategy was approved by the network’s global board in 2019.
But Eugene did not stop there. WTS then needed someone to implement that strategy, and Eugene rose to the occasion. Since WTS required a member firm in Singapore to be a flag bearer for the network in Singapore, Eugene then set up WTS Taxise together with fellow co-founders and tax and transfer pricing mavens, Irving Aw and Sam Sim. And that is the story of how WTS Taxise came about. Eugene laughs, “None of this was designed, truly fate has a strange way of playing itself out.”
Indeed, it does. Eugene did not start out with a definite goal of doing tax and trade, but he did have an inclination towards it during his schooling years. Back in law school, he developed an interest in harmonising laws. “Business is global, but there is an inherent conflict because laws are jurisdiction specific.” That sparked his interest in topics like investment and bilateral treaties – tools to facilitate harmonisation and to reduce friction when goods and services cross borders.
By the curious hand of fate, he “fell into tax accidentally.” During his time at Baker & McKenzie in Hong Kong, the tax department took the trade lawyers on board, giving Eugene his first foray into indirect tax issues. After working on GST issues and indirect taxes for several years, Eugene realised that customs and tax cannot be segregated. When he moved back to Singapore, he began looking into the area of tax more holistically. “I didn’t think I was going to stay in this field for long, but it really keeps me mentally alert. I am still intrigued by this area of practice up till today.”
Eugene recounts a memorable case he had worked on. He had once advised a fast moving goods company that was transporting detergent around various countries, on their supply chain structure. Do not be fooled, for this task is more logistically challenging than it seems to be – detergent is a commodity that is not easily transported, and incurs high transportation costs due to its weight and bulk. “This meant that we had to plan our supply chain with this in mind.” What Eugene took away from this experience was: “When rubber hits the road, it’s vital to understand what this means on the ground, to appreciate the context and realities your client has to deal with.”
One myth that surrounds tax practice is the assumption that you have to be extremely numerate. “That is simply not true!” clarifies Eugene. “You need to look at the laws and statutes and defend your position, which is no different from many other areas of legal practice. Given, you’ll need to understand a company’s financial statements, but that’s about it.”
Another cap that Eugene wears is that of a technopreneur’s. After years of having a taxing career at Baker & McKenzie, Eugene embarked on a two-year sabbatical where he recharged and relaxed, dabbling in technology and entrepreneurship as well. He is the co-founder of Otters Online, and PrivEx, a legal start-up and an online digital exchange respectively. “Technology is amazing!” he exclaims. “Once you’ve developed the secret sauce, the scalability of the solution is immense! It’s fairly cerebral until you get into it, then its about the nuts and bolts. This is really exciting to me because I get to meet a whole different group of people like programmers, data scientists, angel investors, and venture capitalists.”
Apart from meeting people of different professions, Eugene has also met people from different backgrounds and cultures, pointing to his open-minded disposition towards different perspectives. There were two significant instances that shaped Eugene’s international outlook – the first, law school. He pursued a Masters in Law at McGill University in Montreal. Interestingly, the geographical location of McGill reflected the nature of his studies. “Montreal was like a crucible of common law, French civil law and US law jurisprudence. This was very much in line with Comparative Law, which I was studying then.” This fateful intersection opened Eugene’s mind to the different methods employed by different traditions to solve similar issues.
“The legal cultures can have very different starting points, but somehow always arrive at a fairly similar result. Perhaps it is all guided by a higher logic.” Eugene then offered an illustration on how different systems ultimately come to a similar result. For example, having the concept of good faith imbued within civil law makes up for the less verbose legislation that may not have accounted for everything. He also gave me a brief history of laws, from the earliest Roman Civil Code, to the Napoleonic Code, and it’s clear that Eugene is truly passionate about what he studied in school. “Undoubtedly, the people at McGill broadened my horizons too. I had schoolmates from continents like Africa, Europe, North America, Latin America and the Middle East. And McGill was the reason I could interact with schoolmates like that on a personal level. You don’t get that connection if you don’t live here,” says Eugene.
The second instance was his job at Baker & McKenzie’s China Practice Group which had lawyers from Hong Kong. Mainland China, Singapore, Malaysia, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, US – Eugene’s colleagues were culturally diverse. “If you think that those who disagree with your view are wrong, it may be because you’ve been conditioned to look at an issue with one right answer only. But with experience, you realise that there is more than one right answer in life – and the question would then be which answer is better or the best one.”
“When you get to a certain stage, getting an answer is no longer enough. There are in fact very few geniuses who can think outside the box, but you eventually realise that there are many different boxes out there, and that knowledge helps you redefine your own box!” Eugene dishes out a valuable piece of advice, (while chuckling because tax lawyers do draw lots of boxes in their line of work!)
This piece of distilled wisdom is the product of years of experience. His position as the Co-Chair of the Tax and Trust committee in Law Society, and his recent award of the ‘2021 International Trade Lawyer of the Year’ by The Asian Lawyer are testaments to Eugene’s illustrious tax lawyer career.
When asked about what he hopes for the future, he answers: “I hope to see better representation of the interest of tax lawyers, as well as to engage them in being part of the conversation on tax policies with IRAS or on tax legislation.”
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.