SEE PHOTOS: Annabel Pennefather has made her mark in the fist-thumping arenas of sports and law—by being nice. Her World finds out how from our Woman of the Year 2004
Growing up in the sleepy hollow that was Jansen Road, anyone could tell that pretty little Annabel Pennefather was a girl meant for great things. It’s not from the way the child of five played hockey with her father in their front garden, or by her sweet and inquisitive nature.
One could tell by the life her late grandmother led. Born in 1903, Alice Pennefather was a Eurasian woman ahead of her time. Part-Japanese, part-Scot, she held a job well into her old age. In her youth, she was a hockey, badminton and tennis champ. And if these qualities didn’t draw tsks-tsks from the conservative society she lived in, the fact that she wore an off-shouldered gown at her 60th wedding anniversary should have done the trick.
What does this woman, who passed away 22 years ago at age 80, have to do with this year’s Her World Woman of the Year?
She is the woman whom Annabel, 56, calls her role model for life. “She was a strong, sporty woman,” Annabel says fondly of her grandmother, “truly a pillar of our family. She definitely held her own.” If she were alive today, it is safe to say that Alice Pennefather would have said the same of her granddaughter.
Annabel has chalked up a laundry list of achievements in the polar worlds of sports and law, enough to full three lifetimes, without so much as shaking a fist. Her latest job title is legal consultant, and head of Singapore’s first dedicated sports law practice at Harry Elias partnership.
Her other day job is a sports administrator, whose most public contribution to date was to lead our country’s athletes to the Athens Olympics and give Singapore its strongest smell of a gold medal. Her efforts recently earned her the prestigious Asian “Women and Sport” trophy from the International Olympic Committee, that recognises her promotion of women in sports.
SHE STARTED AT FIVE
At risk of stealing credit away from her, it has to be said that based on her genes alone, it’s highly unlikely that she could have failed as an outstanding sportswoman and lawyer.
For one, hockey was in the Pennefather blood. Annabel’s weekends spent dribbling a puck on the sand pitch of the family’s black-and-white bungalow was valuable lesson time with her father Percy, who was a police inspector but was better known as the hockey captian that took Singapore to the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne. Her mother is homemaker Ruth Richards, who was also a national hockey player.
As a student of CHIJ Primary and Secondary, Annabel’s knack for wielding a stick made her captain of her school teams. The sporting streak continued into adulthood, when she joined the national team and captained it for 10 years in the 1970s. Last year, she was appointed the first female president of the Singapore Hockey Federation and made Team Singapore’s first female chef de mission to the Olympics.
None of this was achieved under pressure, because “I was lucky to have parents who didn’t push me or nag me overly about balancing hockey and my studies,” she says modestly. “I enjoyed the sport and happened to progress faster than my peers in school. That spurred me on.”
Her father stepped in only when she was on the cusp of choosing her career. She had wanted to be an air stewardess, to see the world. Or study foreign affairs, for the same reason.
But like most Asian parents, her father had wanted her to make more of her life, by being a doctor or lawyer. And she listened. “Since I couldn’t stand the sight of blood, I chose law,” she recalls of the simple decision.
And that’s Annabel’s way. She makes everything look like a happy coincidence. Put her on a path and she will pursue it to the end, to the best of her ability, without a hair out place.
How does she make it so look easy? With “very high EQ”, was the first thing that shot out of one journalist’s mouth when her name came up. This is a woman who embodies Theodore Roosevelt’s take on diplomacy: “Walk softly, carry a big stick.” When you meet her, she disarms you with a genial smile. Then she makes the effort to make you feel at home.
Knowing that I work at a woman’s magazine, she breaks the ice at our first meeting with the question: “What colour is in season now?”, so we launch like girlfriends into fashion talk and how she keeps her nails in top shape with a manicure and pedicure every Saturday. She doesn’t need any advice really: This is a woman who knows how to be one.
Her hair and makeup are soft and understated but never plain. She is striking in her classic trouser suit, stunning in a gown. She speaks in self-deprecating tones, putting every achievement down to timing, hard work and perseverance.
Asked to describe her personal and management style, she uses the phrase “softly softly”. She once said: “People get turned off by strong, powerful emotions. If you have a combative approach, you evoke a similar response. By using a softer and well-argued stance, you get them to react that way as well.” It’s hard to imagine quiet persuasion sitting well with the aggression needed on the sports field, and in someone who is a hotshot lawyer to boot.
For 25 years, she had advised the government on groundbreaking changes to property law. After becoming the first equity partner at Donaldson & Burkinshaw back in the early 80s, she rose to assume vice-presidency at the Law Society of Singapore in 1995—both rare feats for a woman. She attributes her ascent to the “old fashioned way” of achieving success: “I wanted to be the best I could be.”
Her boss Harry Elias, 68, who has been friends with Annabel for nearly 30 years, has only glowing praise for her: “She persuades without effort or bulldozing. She has a reputation of being fair-minded, friendly and able to reach and solve problems.”
What about being in the sporting arena, where sparring is not confined to a battle of words?
SHE HAS PATIENCE
Her sports contemporary, Ivy Singh-Lim, also 56 and the recently retired president of Netball Singapore, is known for being a stark contrast in personality to Annabel. She admires Annabel’s approach. “God gave her the greatest gift. She is extremely patient with fools. I’m not like that at all. I will tell the bugger to buzz off.” These “buggers” are used to Ivy’s table-thumping manner, but how does the mild-mannered Annabel get her male-dominated audience to sit up and listen? Annabel says: “I don’t try to be one of the boys. I’ve my own way of doing things.
“My being a player, sports administrator for women’s hockey and a technical official for the International Hockey Federation gave me a background where I could sit and talk to them across the table and make sense. Once you get their respect, it’s easier for them to give you the opportunities to do things that wouldn’t have come so easily otherwise.”
Her skills at diplomacy were applauded during the Athens Olympics over the Joscelin Yeo debacle. The national swimmer had snubbed an official dinner, a move deserving of disciplinary action as harsh as dropping her from the team. The incident eventually faded with a hush. Annabel’s cool but firm stance was reflected in a statement to the press: “My point of view is not to make an issue.”
A CHANGE OF HEART
Annabel wasn’t always this sea of eternal calm. Her daughter Vanessa, 32, and a pilot with Silkair, notes that the turning point in her mother’s life was when she found out she needed an operation.
During a routine health check, Annabel was told that she had a 2.5cm hole in her heart. This was in May 1996, when she was 47. She went under the knife immediately because, if she had waited any longer, she would have needed a heart transplant.
That same year, she split up with her first husband, a pilot to whom she was married for 25 years. “While I was making progress at work, I was facing a lot of stress as I had to devote 100 per cent of myself to the law and the various committees I was on,” she recounts. No success is without sacrifice; she felt she had been less tolerant a person than she could be, and family ties were strained.
When she looks back on that year, she counts herself “lucky” for how it changed her. She was wearing many hats at the time, including chairman of the CHIJ school board and vice-president of the Law Society.
“If you have too much on your plate, you can’t do anything well,” she states firmly with the benefit of hindsight. “You have to accept that you’re not Superwoman.” So she relinquished her extra-curricular posts to concentrate on sports administration. “I decided there are lots of lawyers who could do that job, but not as many sports administrators.” She followed up her decision by co-chairing the Women and Sport Group here after attending an inspirational women and sport conference in Lausanne.
By now, if her choices appear to be driven by circumstance, they’re not. Her passion for sports is cogent. “Sports is a test of the human spirit. I drew so much from sports—the challenges and the joys. I’m grateful for my awards. But I asked myself, how can I help others to use sports to develop opportunities for themselves?”
These days, she jetsets around the world as Singapore’s sports ambassador, meeting visitors and promoting the country, but not without pacing herself.
“Life is not just about the job. I learnt I should manage my time better. When you have time for yourself, you will have time for others and they can sense that.” She has also learned the rewards of delegation, by offering ideas and playing role model to younger sportsmen and women, much like the way her grandmother had done for her.
“You’re grooming others take over when you want to move on,” she points out. As Singapore’s chef de mission to the Olympics last year, she was entitled to five-star accommodation outside of the Games Village. Instead, she shared an apartment with the swimmers in the Village. She explains: “This is not just a ceremonial role. You need to eat and sleep with the athletes to know what they’re going through and cheer them on.”
She had to be their logistics mistress and key motivator. “I tried to instill a sense of belonging, security and confidence in the athletes, so they know their interests are being taken care of and they can compete without any worry. Being on the ground with them helped build rapport, otherwise not possible if I had stayed outside of the Village.”
This attitude has endeared her to her troops. Women’s national team hockey player Sheena Hoong, 20, attests to Annabel’s dynamism: “She doesn’t need to do this but, before every tournament, she will give us a pep talk to encourage and pull us together.”
The president of the Singapore Tenpin Bowling Congress, Jessie Phua, feels that Annabel is an inspiration for other women to not just play but have a say in sports. “She has shown how women can contribute to sports in more ways than one.”
HER LIFE FORCE
Annabel calls her daughter Vanessa her best friend and confidante. Thinking back on the period after her divorce makes her chuckle, because the tables were turned and Vanessa was giving her dating advice.
“My daughter was very understanding. She felt that I deserved to be happy after all that I had gone through that year. When I met my second husband, I asked if I should go out with him, and she said: ‘Oh cool mum. Just go!’”
She married Hong Kong businessman Harbans Dillon in 1999. He had a freight business in India at the time, so they spent several years travelling there. And when she is not working, she spends time with him, listening to jazz and reading inspirational books. So it’s not all go, go, go anymore.
If there is one thing she can’t live without daily, it’s “a few moments of peace to think about my day”. “If you keep going on without reflecting, you’ll feel like a mindless robot. Some ruminating gives me my balance.”
When she looks back on her life, I believe she is also summing up her future. “Whatever gifts or talents we’re blessed with, we’ve got to give something back. I did what came along, what I was interested in, and what I could do. And whatever I did, I gave everything I could to be the best I could.” HW
1972-1977: Specialised in property law and international business transactions after graduating with a law degree from the University of Singapore. During her 11-year stint with law firm Donaldson & Burkinshaw, Annabel was made its first female equity partner in a century
1970-1980: Captain of the National Women’s Hockey Team. She was a national player from 1964
1995: Vice-president of the Law Society of Singapore, one of a handful of women to serve in this position
1998-2000: Council member of the Singapore Sports Council, tournament director of the Women’s Hockey World Cup, chairman of Women and Sport Group Singapore from 1999 and tournament director for Women’s Hockey at the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000
2004: Singapore’s first woman chef de mission to the Athens Olympic Games. In May, she led Singapore’s first sport and law practice. She was named the first woman president of the Singapore Hockey Federation in July