We met Jennifer Yeo on a Monday afternoon on the 21st floor of the Monetary Authority of Singapore building. Occupying most of it are the offices of Yeo-Leong and Peh — a Singapore-based law firm she started 30 years ago, which she now chairs.
In a conference room with a floor-to-ceiling shelf taking up one wall, lined with austere-looking legal titles, we discover that she has cleared her entire afternoon for “a very important personal appointment” — even though she had a very busy morning, which included a trip in and out of Johor Bahru, into the office, chiefly to meet us.
We should also add that the very gentle, soft-spoken Yeo met us without the faintest idea what we would be talking to her about.
But her gentleness, down-to-earth humility and patience are the first three things that strike us — someone like her should otherwise have a packed schedule of tasks and appointments; she was only in Singapore for about a week for her book launch (more about that later) before heading back to Hong Kong, where she and her husband are now based.
In the two hours we spent with her, we came to understand the fulfilment of the idea that two people in a marriage or a long-term relationship become more like each other as the years pass. Anger or frustration at someone like Yeo would have been virtually impossible because she was just so calming and peaceful to be around.
But all that said, we should get the elephant in the room out of the way first.
Chances are, you’re wondering — if it’s International Women’s Day, why, of all the female CEOs, big-name public figures or politicians there are in Singapore, are we interviewing a lady who is best known as being her husband’s wife?
But then again, you might be among the group of people who know more about her than just that.
Pretty much Superwoman
For one thing, Yeo-Leong and Peh has about 240 staff, with another office in Shanghai.
After her third and youngest son, Frederick, was diagnosed with leukaemia at age three, she fought for almost 10 years for his survival, even taking months off work to travel to the U.S. with him for a bone marrow transplant, and staying with him till he recovered fully.
We’re telling you this because it was after this experience that she started Viva Foundation, which has made great strides in children’s cancer treatment in Singapore thanks to ties established by the foundation between the National University Hospital and the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Tennessee, which was instrumental in her son’s recovery.
And she did both of these while being the wife of a foreign minister — which meant juggling work, visits and meetings all over the world with international dignitaries.
Oh, and yes, you might have noticed — she recently wrote a book about the laws related to marriage.
But at the same time, Yeo, who is now 58, admits to us rather candidly that she feels she had never excelled at any of the roles she has been playing.
“I think I always felt I was rather mediocre… there are just so many hours in the day, so I always felt I was not the best mum and neither was I the best lawyer. So it’s a trade off and you have to accept that, you know. You have to make your choices. For me, I wanted to be a lawyer and I wanted to be a mum and so, people helped to make it happen.”
Jennifer Yeo, lawyer entrepreneur and mother
In an interview six years ago, Yeo said she started her own practice in 1987 out of a desire to “do something outrageous”.
It was only two years after she started Yeo-Leong and Peh that the Yeos started having children — and they came one almost immediately after another: Edwina came first in 1989, then Edward in 1990, William in 1991 and Frederick in 1994.
This wasn’t planned, though, explains Yeo — in the first four years of their marriage, they were not able to conceive even though both of them really wanted to have children. As they were both Christians, they could not explore options like in-vitro fertilisation, either.
“We prayed for three years to be blessed with one, so by the time the first one came, I was so overjoyed, and it was such a happy time… and although it was a lot of work, if you have ever been through a situation where you wanted so much to have a child but somehow you didn’t have one, I think, you know, life takes on a different meaning when you finally have your first child. And so, I was so overjoyed and at that point, I wanted so many, so many children.”
Here’s an idea of what was happening in Yeo’s early years with her new firm: she was growing the company, having babies, and then her sister and brother-in-law started having children at around the same time as well —
“When I (was) having my babies, my partner, Adrian Peh, would help to fill the role… there were times when I couldn’t come to work because I just had to rest and during the maternity leave, so he would keep everything going, and this happened the same too for his own wife, my sister, and she had three children — I had four — all around the same time.
For the first five, six years, we were having babies. In five years, there were seven babies.
But we were also very committed. So for example, for myself, in those days, we used to have two months’ maternity leave, not four, but I only took one. So after one month, I would go back to work, because there were just so many things to be done.”
Yeo is ready to share that she had, and could afford help — three helpers, to be exact — and her family only reduced the number to two after the children finished secondary school. After they grew up and started going abroad to study, and especially after the Yeos moved to Hong Kong, they now have just one helper at home.
Jennifer Yeo, wife
And of course, no story about Yeo would be complete without a generous dollop of details about her marriage to our former Foreign Minister, George Yeo.
You might already know the story of how the plucky Yeo, then a fresh NUS Law graduate, went up to the air-force major in the earliest stages of their courtship and asked him, “Are you single?”
But what you don’t know is that the Yeos did not register their marriage in Singapore — they did it in 1984 in the U.S., where they exchanged their vows at the St. Paul Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
“So if you do a search in the ROM in Singapore, you’ll think, ‘I don’t see their names here, these two people are single with four children!’ Oh, but (by) then, I was already a lawyer at the time I married my husband, and I knew the law, and the law recognises this foreign marriage because the foreign marriage was celebrated according to the local laws.
And very importantly, it’s a monogamous marriage, so it’s recognised in Singapore. So, no escape, no escape for my husband!”
We asked about their dynamics, and Yeo said quite readily that as the elder of two children, she is very gung-ho about doing things, a trailblazer and a go-getter, as opposed to her husband, the youngest of his siblings, who is far more relaxed about things.
In fact, so laid-back was he that Yeo tells us, for instance, that she only learned he was a President’s Scholar a year into their relationship:
“He happened to casually mention something about it in passing, and then I asked him ‘Why didn’t you tell me??’ and he said, ‘Well, you never asked.'”
Here’s how she describes him:
“He is also very smart, since young, and this is something that is inborn. He has this great talent to be able to project into the future with only very little information in the present and this is a gift, it’s God’s gift to him and he can see far. And it comes so naturally to him, so he’s very relaxed about it, so I think maybe that could be part of it.
And in any case, you know, his style is to let the children be what they are, and his feeling is that ‘the water will always find its own level’, and he always says, the children mustn’t be pressurised to be like us, they have to be like themselves…
They will do well if they are born with that intellect, but not everyone is born with that intellect or ability in that field, and so then they must pursue… the gifts they are born with, so he always said that and over time I realise he’s so right and he’s usually always right.”
That can’t have been easy, we thought to ourselves — being with a man who is “always right”. But Yeo sees it differently — in fact, despite his always being right, she says he is a “person of humility”.
She says he apologises when they get into disagreements, even when she suspects herself to be in the wrong, and his humility and serenity — alongside the trigger of a near-death experience on his part, from a severe case of the measles during the 1997 General Election — was what converted her from Anglicanism to Catholicism, the faith he professed.
“That’s why… after 13 years, I realised he’s a better Christian than I am, so I decided I was ready to be a Catholic. And I thought George would say, ‘Good, lets get a priest right now before you change your mind’, but he didn’t.
In fact, he asked me, ‘Are you sure? You better think about it, be very sure before you do it’, because he says it’s a big step, it’s a matter on conscience, and he didn’t want me to change my faith on his account or anything. “
Jennifer Yeo, woman
So all this brings us back to Yeo as a woman. Has she ever felt resentful of the fact that despite all her personal achievements in life, she is still ultimately seen as “the wife”?
Here’s what she said:
“I admire George very much and I learned a lot from him and from being the wife, so the result is that I follow him around and I hear his views and it’s quite eye opening for me, and so over these past 33 years, I think that we have grown together. I’ve accompanied him on many trips and many situations, and I find that I’ve had a lot of opportunities and a lot of exposure that I otherwise would not have had if I were not the wife, so I’m quite happy to be the wife…
We have developed in such a way that there’s a lot of ‘we’ in the relationship; it’s a very dynamic relationship. George always says that in a marriage, the couple should enhance each other and in a good marriage, they would not detract from each other. So it’s mutually enhanced.”
And yes, she believes one is no less of a woman because she might be playing the supportive role to a successful man:
“Women, I think, we have our own identity, but in a sense, we also measure our success by how successful our loved ones are and that is why we, women tend to be sacrificial. So it’s almost like a mission.”
Now, before you start to think she’s saying womanhood is only fulfilled in being a wife and mother — to sidetrack, Yeo did her first birth with epidural, the second with a painkiller called Pethidine, and the third and fourth with just laughing gas — here’s what she’s got to say about women’s inherent strengths:
“I feel that women are made to be more tender than men are, so therefore, maybe, more emotional, more loving, maybe, than men, who tend to be more intellectual. Another difference I gather is that women are more multitaskers. Men are less so…
I think that we have this natural ability, maybe because of the gender, to do all these things, whereas men tend to be more focused on one thing at a time and tend to be more intellectual and so, because of this, I think that part of womanhood is to be of service and I think that, at the end of the day, it’s all about love. So if you are a woman, and you’re single and you don’t have children, then you should be doing what you love… in the process, you will be blessing a lot of people, and in that sense, you are not limited to your family members. The whole world is your family and there you are making a difference.”
So if we might offer a response to the question we posed at the beginning of this story, it might be that Yeo is more of a woman, in many, many ways, even if she is better known as being George Yeo’s wife.
Sure, she lived a life of privilege growing up, and perhaps even now, which would have helped her to live out all these aspects of womanhood. But she is cognisant of that, and is channelling great energy, her vast network of people in good place and esteem, and her own resources into meaningful work such as saving the lives of children with cancer.
“I have network, I have access, I can help more and I should do more.”
And that’s a great way to be a woman.
Top photo by Joshua Lee