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Lee Siew Hua
Tuesday, Aug 12, 2014

Singapore

Nominated MPs: A flashback of Chia Yong Yong

The Straits Times | Lee Siew Hua | Tuesday, Aug 12, 2014

Ms Chia Yong Yong in Raffles Place where she works. Workplaces can be more inclusive for people with disabilities, says the president of the Society for the Physically Disabled.

When Ms Chia Yong Yong won a cherished place in law school in 1981, well-intentioned folks questioned her parents: Why send a daughter with a disability to university?

But her parents believed that a degree would give their eldest child wings one day - a level of independence and income to live a fuller life even as she struggles daily with a nerve and muscular disorder.

Her father, Mr Chia Cheng Heng, who had a subcontracting business, decided to drive a cab to ferry her to the National University of Singapore.

Her mother, Madam Teo Kee Wei, held a series of menial jobs to boost the family income, including confinement nanny, chambermaid and factory worker.

Though neither parent had much opportunity to study, they made sacrifices for their four children. Her father had stopped schooling in Secondary 3 when Chinese school riots in the 1950s prevented him from entering the examination hall. Mum had three months of schooling in her late teens.

Today, Ms Chia, 51, is an accomplished corporate lawyer and has been president of the Society for the Physically Disabled since 2008.

Last year, she was appointed to the 26-member committee overseeing Our Singapore Conversation, and sought inclusiveness for people with disabilities.

She started tripping and falling in kindergarten, but was diagnosed with peroneal muscular atrophy only at 15. As her muscle tissue progressively weakened, she used crutches, then a wheelchair. She has not been able to stand for 20 years and her hands have grown limp and curled as well.

Her father, now 76, is still the family chauffeur, partly to stay active. In his Toyota Corolla Altis, he assiduously drives Ms Chia to work at Raffles Place, where she is a consultant at Yusarn Audrey, a law firm specialising in intellectual property.

Along her career path, she also set up two law firms with partners, but moved on when job offers came in.

"I love my work. I love that I am challenged to think about issues that I've not thought of before and putting deals together," she says.

In her office with a view of the Marina bayfront, she sits in her wheelchair at her desk, custom-built for her at a lower height. She uses dictation software or dictates notes to her personal assistant.

Clients do not mind making a trip to her office. One of them is private banker Ang Eng Hieang, 52, who first met her in 1995 when she did the conveyancing work for his first private property purchase.

He recalls: "She was not just very professional in handling her work, but also very sincere in her approach. It was a refreshing change from the clinical approach of many professionals in Singapore."

Mr Ang refers friends and business associates to her.

"All of us are most happy to pop by to meet her and work around her physical restrictions."

Her alma mater, Paya Lebar Methodist Girls' School, too worked around her mobility issues - yet treated her as normally as possible.

Her former secondary school principal, Mrs Winnie Tan, 76, gave her ground-floor classrooms. Friends helped her to the laboratory and chapel on the second floor, exemplifying the school's ethos as a "household of love and faith", Mrs Tan says.

Ms Chia's younger sister, Leslie, now 46 and a hospital administrator, has the same condition but the siblings never asked for special privileges, says Mrs Tan.

Indeed, Ms Chia says: "If I was too talkative, I would be made to stand up. The teachers didn't treat me differently."

She was active in the school choir, Christian Fellowship and Literary, Drama and Debating Society.

In university, she could still write quickly enough to complete her examinations. But she had to navigate the hilly Kent Ridge campus with its "killer" stairs. Ms Chia was not daunted, however, says lawyer Susan Yuen, 51, a friend since Primary 1.

"She made friends easily and got the class hunk to pick her up and carry her,'' she quips.

"What is special about Yong is her can-do attitude. Despite her difficulties in getting around, she will still participate and contribute in whatever way she can. She does not shut herself away because of her disability."

When Ms Chia graduated, her pupil tutor was the late Harry Lee Wee of Braddell Brothers. He put out word that she was available to work. After her pupillage, the formidable lawyer kept her on till she found a job several months later. "He was a very good lawyer with a good heart," she says gratefully.

Her disability has not stopped her from loving her work and certainly not from travelling either. She packs her bags twice a year for overseas vacations and church camps. Australia, Thailand and most recently, South Korea are destinations of choice.

"We stay at the same chalet in Perth, house No. 70," she says. They rent a car though they do not tour ambitiously - mainly they enjoy a change of scenery for a couple of weeks with the family.

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