After years as a high-achieving career woman and high-profile advocate for women’s rights, you’d think Trina Liang would have every reason to take a break from being a role model who rarely hesitates to speak up for underprivileged, unrepresented members of her gender – but you’d be wrong.
Ms Liang, 47, has never been one to sit on her accolades – she has plenty to choose from – preferring instead to give voice to those segments of society that have captured her attention. Having started her career as an investment banker, she now has a day job as managing director of research consulting firm Templebridge Investments. She also has a full-time gig as one half of a Singapore power couple – husband Edmund Lin is global head of the Financial Services practice at management consultancy Bain & Company.
Ms Liang, an immediate past president of the Singapore Committee for UN Women, co-founder of the Financial Women’s Association Singapore and board member at a slew of business, educational and charitable institutions, is an outspoken advocate for wage parity and bridging social and gender gaps. She has given speeches at business forums and written about it in the op-ed pages. “It is not a time to be shy about asking questions to ascertain if you are being paid fairly,” she wrote in a Straits Times opinion piece earlier this year.
More recently, she set her sights on the food world, in particular the key role that women play in the decision-making process. World Food Future (WFF) for women (www.worldfoodfuture.com) is a one-day conference, to be held in March next year, that aims to demystify perceptions about food and shine the spotlight on hot-button issues. Business leaders, policy makers and scientists will talk about what they are doing in the food world. There will be panel discussions on topics like nutrition in schools, innovations in the industry and efforts to improve traceability and sustainability. It all points to a busy few months ahead, but for a multi-hyphenate like Ms Liang, it’s simply business as usual.
Tell us about your vision for World Food Future.
Meeting a whole new bunch of people in a totally new industry is very rewarding, and taking myself out of my comfort zone is what I wanted to do. Everyone needs to have a fuller knowledge of the food world because it’s moving very fast in terms of technology, with food scares and fake news. I wanted to highlight the role of women in the food world because more than 90 percent of food-consuming decisions at home are made by women. It’s interesting to me to look for gaps and try to do something about it. The idea of a conference was just that: an idea. We needed to make sure it could work. There are a lot of different food tribes in Singapore and hopefully, this will bring everyone together in one platform.
The food world is not particularly gender-specific, so why the special focus on women?
At first this conference was supposed to be just about the future of food, not with any particular gender focus. Then I went to a meeting with a senior industry person who told me that I wouldn’t be able to find women to take part in the panel discussions. After 15 years I wanted to move away but that one meeting made me sit up and pivot, become more specific. I always felt that there should be high representation given the number of decision makers who are women. It’s also somewhat personal because my mother died at a young age – three weeks before my A levels – and my grandmother had diabetes. I don’t have kids but I wanted to do something relating to children. It was a shock to hear that Singapore has a high incidence of diabetes and 13 percent of kids are obese, so I wanted to do something that would help to augment the school syllabus.
You’re a regular fixture in the society pages but it’s your record as an advocate for women’s rights that has defined you. What prompted you to get involved in the first place?
It started in 2001 when I was co-founder of the Financial Women’s Association Singapore with (recently appointed head of institutional banking at DBS Group) Tan Su Shan. The vision was to have a platform for a range of women bankers to come together to talk about their experiences, commiserate among themselves. At that time, it was fairly revolutionary because the finance industry was not a place for many women. We wanted to help the next generation of women bankers. Talking about salaries was not very much done, and little was discussed regarding issues with women bankers. In banking you tend to focus on your own sector but as president at UN Women, I felt that a social gap could be filled, particularly with regard to foreign domestic workers having a day off, and implementing sex-trafficking laws. In 2013 the government passed laws on enforcement of sex-trafficking laws and providing a weekend day off for foreign domestic workers.
When did you realise you were a serial multi-tasker?
I think in secondary school, I was playing netball, taking part in athletics, on the debate team and in the military band. From there I realised I could do a lot of things – it is possible to do multiple things and do them well. I don’t really reflect too much, I’m a doer, not so much a thinker.
With so much on your plate, how do you organise things, allocate your time and stay focused?
I try to put things in three boxes: very urgent, nice-if-can, and almost-a-distraction. Having the ability to say ‘no’ nicely is also useful: that way I can concentrate on what is urgent with laser-sharp focus. I try not to be where there are already a lot of voices, I seek out different places where voices need to be amplified. Every Sunday, I look at what’s on my calendar for the week and try to figure things out. I am never at a loss for things to focus on but if my friends or family need me, I’ll be there.
Who are your personal heroes?
Two of my heroes, surprisingly, are Carl Lewis and Michael Jordan. The first thing I wanted to be in life was a PE teacher. I remember crying when I saw MJ coming out to warm-up during a Bulls game in Chicago. When you ask my friends, they have a very different impression of me: they will always talk about my netball activities first. I was naturally sporty – my father wanted a boy, if that makes sense.
Have you always been driven to succeed in everything you do?
When I was a student in London, I literally couldn’t afford to fail. For years, my friends tried to get me to go to a pub near where I lived. When I finally went there, everybody stood up and clapped.
This article was originally published in The Business Times.