Gems of Life
Simple girl-next-door, accidental lawyer, and new mother, General Counsel of CapitaLand Limited, Michelle Koh, shares about the values she treasures and precious lessons learnt in life
Issue: Mar 2014
Ms Michelle Koh, who has been with CapitaLand for almost 14 years, calls her job as the Group’s in-house legal counsel a “perfect fit”
General Counsel, CapitaLand Limited, Michelle Koh, has many gems that she treasures. More priceless than jewellery, the gems she holds dear are the precious lessons learnt and the treasured values passed on to her by the people who had made a difference in her life.
“I am not a jewellery person,” she confesses with a wry smile. “The most precious thing to me would be my family.”
Priceless Principles from Parents
Ms Koh’s mother made sure she passed down precious values to her that would see her through life
Ms Koh recalls a simple childhood in a humble household. For a long time, her mother was the sole breadwinner because of her father’s ill health.
“My family was so poor that we had to live in our grand uncle’s garage,” she recalls.
Her mother worked in a factory in the day and would take on odd jobs at night either sewing or ironing to supplement the family income.
“Because of that, I was imbued with the value of hard work. My parents always told me that it is through hard work that we can be useful and move up in life,” says Ms Koh.
(Picture on Left) Ms Koh (standing 1st from left) at a friend’s birthday party; and (picture on the right) when she was about 18 years old
After her father recovered, her parents made a living running canteens at construction sites. In the way they ran their little stall, Ms Koh learnt yet another lifelong lesson.
“There would be times when suppliers would undercharge or customers would overpay. But my mom would always make sure she paid them back. She took great pains to teach us never to take advantage of people,” she recounts.
Although the family was not well off, they were always taught to be “grateful for what we have as what we have is what we need," another important value Ms Koh holds to.
Ms Koh (left) with her younger sister and parents at a family holiday in the Swiss Alps
Valuable Encounter with Chance
After graduating from Ngee Ann Polytechnic with a Diploma in Building Management, Ms Koh started work at Pidemco Land Limited’s contract department, taking care of building maintenance contracts. Pidemco Land would later merge with DBS Land to become CapitaLand.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to be or what I wanted out of life,” admits Ms Koh.
Ms Koh (third from left), showing off her unique style in casuals, at a pre-graduation photograph-taking event at Ngee Ann Polytechnic
A few years later, Ms Koh, by then working with Esmaco Pte Ltd, chanced upon an advertisement on a distance learning course leading to a law degree by the University of London.
“I am not a mathematically or technically inclined person. But when I was in the polytechnic, I had studied some law modules and I remembered I liked those very much,” she says.
Studying while working, Ms Koh graduated with a Second Class (Upper Division) degree after three years. The decision to go into law was a valuable one. It not only defined her career path, it gave her a direction and drive in life she had never had before.
(Picture on the left) Ms Koh just before receiving her certificate and (picture on the right) posing with friends at her graduation from the University of London
Treasured Traits of a Lawyer
She practised law at various law firms for five years before joining CapitaLand through Pidemco Land Limited after the merger in March 2000.
“I have never looked back since I joined CapitaLand. I enjoy each and every working day. My job is such a perfect fit for me,” Ms Koh enthuses.
Ms Koh (sixth from the left) at a CapitaLand Singapore (Commercial) retreat with colleagues
From a junior officer, she worked her way to becoming the head of the Legal department at CapitaLand Singapore Limited. The Strategic Business Unit (SBU) was, at various time throughout her 13 years with the SBU, responsible for supporting several other SBUs in legal matters and provided her several opportunities.
“I was exposed to different kinds of business from office and retail mall investments to integrated developments and financial services.”
In 2013, Ms Koh was appointed General Counsel, a position that requires her to manage the centralised Legal and Secretariat functions to deliver legal, corporate governance and compliance services to the Group.
“With the increase in demand for more than just excellent legal service, centralisation allows for greater flexibility of resource utilisation and expertise to be combined in a single team so that we can more effectively serve our internal clients. It is also good for the team because there will be more opportunities for them to undertake more challenging and varied types of work thus giving them more opportunities to develop their expertise and better themselves,” explains Ms Koh.
The years being in corporate law have also taught her lessons that she treasures.
“One important trait of a lawyer is to be able to seek useful mindsets” because “how one thinks determines how one acts”, she explains. She shared one of what she considers to be useful mindsets – “We work with people who have built the company and strive to sustain it. Our job is to help the company to progress and to provide options, not to tell them what cannot be done.”
Ms Koh (1st row, 4th from right) was admitted to the roll of Advocates & Solicitors of the Supreme Court of Singapore in 1995
Cherished Characteristics of a Boss
These same opportunities and lessons are what she hopes to provide to her staff.
Ms Koh considers herself privileged to be working in CapitaLand where good bosses and colleagues who are intelligent and driven are aplenty and this drives her to be at her best at all times. She has learnt from her interactions with people in CapitaLand that it is important to appreciate people’s abilities.
“This brings out the best in people”, says Ms Koh.
“So, when I set a task, my style is not to micro-manage. This goes with my belief in appreciating the ability of others to contribute. Of course, it is important that they also know that guidance is available if they ever need it.”
Prized Heirlooms for Junior
Ms Koh with her six-month-old son, E-Ler, whom she hopes to impart a positive attitude towards life
Just as she nurtures those who work with her, Ms Koh also wants to nurture the next generation.
“I recently adopted a baby,” she reveals. “I have always wanted to be a mother. I feel I would be missing something if I didn’t become one. Having a child makes my family whole.”
Her long hours at work on weekdays may mean that she only sees six-month old E-Ler for brief periods every day. But weekends are all his.
“I lead a simple life and so the transition to becoming a mom has been a natural one. Indeed, I don’t have time for some of the things I used to do anymore, but I don’t mind,” says Ms Koh who is happily married to a finance professional.
“I would like to pass on to my baby boy a positive attitude in life because it helps you to manage the challenges you face. Related to that is the belief that everything happens for a reason.”
Quoting screen siren Marilyn Monroe as she ended the interview, Ms Koh says, “Everything happens for a reason. People change so that you can learn to let go. Things go wrong so that you can appreciate them when they are right. Sometimes good things fall apart so that better things can come together.”
No price can possibly be put on these precious jewels gleaned from life’s journey. These life lessons and values have certainly seen Ms Koh through many an adventure and encounter in her life and are precious beyond words to her.