“Watching children play can reveal a lot about their personalities,” observes Rachel Eng, as she looks towards the Tiong Bahru Adventure Playground, a treasured spot she used to play in when she was six years old.
The now 46-year-old mother of three and joint managing partner of WongPartnership LLP – one of the top three law firms in the country – recalls watching her son as a toddler at a playground and learning that his timidity around the slides stemmed from concern for others, because he was worried they might get hurt sliding down. So, what would Eng’s parents have gleaned from her when she was that age? “They would have said I was always cautious and careful. I never broke any rules, even when playing.”
So it is felicitous that she wound up a lawyer, and an esteemed one to boot. Eng began her career in 1992 with Allen & Gledhill before moving to Messrs Arfat Selvam and Gunasingham. She joined her current firm in 1995, got promoted to salaried partner just two years later, and, by 2010, became the first woman to head a law firm in Singapore. But training for the corporate jungle can unknowingly start at a young age. She says: “It’s good for children to experience just a little bit of risk and danger.
“It’s important to learn how to pick yourself up after you fall – or at least learn how not to fall too badly. Playgrounds these days are too safe; they’re so well-padded. If every safety precaution is taken at that age, children won’t learn anything.”
The Tiong Bahru Adventure Playground is indeed a far cry from the version in Eng’s memories. When the 3.3ha Tiong Bahru Park was first built in 1967, its playground was modest and featured only swings, monkey bars and a roundabout. Eng’s parents would drive her and her two siblings out here a couple of times a month, and the children considered it a treat as it was more spacious and less crowded than the playground below their old apartment. Today, the Adventure Playground is worthy of the name, with its flying fox, tilted “runaway” train structure, mini-maze and roundabout.
But, even if Eng was a child again in this age, she would stick to the old sites. “They were basic but that way you create your own fun and make the most of what you’ve got. You had to learn how to kick yourself off on a swing, to see if you could stand on it, or to find a way to sit in the middle of the roundabout while it was spinning. They left a lot to the imagination and encouraged creativity.” And this is a quality that separates great minds from conventional thinkers.