Yi Wong is the general counsel of Singapore-based real estate management company Lum Chang Holdings, which he joined recently from Yeo Hiap Seng (Yeo’s), where he was Group General Counsel. Wong’s previous experience includes in-house roles at Singapore Airlines and Tiger Airways, and stints at law firms including WongPartnership.
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ALB: What have been some of the highlights in your career? And what are some leadership lessons you have learnt?
Wong: Supporting the transition during and after Covid when I was at Yeo Hiap Seng (Yeo’s) from 2021 to June this year. Plugging into wider company initiatives by providing support from a legal perspective (what we can do and cannot do from a regulatory and legal angle), was both challenging (no precedents!) and yet fulfilling (impacts the company in greater and deeper ways than any department alone). Leadership lessons that particularly stood out for me included how the legal team had to think not just critically and technically but also commercially because challenges generally required are not black-letter law positions. At Yeo’s, the real challenges were how to curate them into what the business could or could not do to ensure the company's survival through the pandemic.
ALB: How would you describe your strategy for your legal team?
Wong: To consistently maintain core competencies (legal technical skills) and apply solid foundations flexibly to suit the commercial needs of the various business units and serve as a business enabler. When I was at Yeo’s, we adopted technology as and when feasible, but we were cognisant of the cost and human resources constraints in implementation as a reality.
ALB: How important is company culture, according to you? What kind of internal culture are you looking to foster both within your team and your business as a whole?
Wong: Extremely important. Walking the talk sets the tone more impactfully than just seeing posters along the corridor espousing mission statements and core values is what you need. For example, I and my team encourage creativity and flexibility. Translating this into actual work involves empowering and allowing the team to explore beyond the scripted precedents of engagement, honesty and low risk of mistakes.
ALB: What kind of compliance system would you like to establish for your company?
Wong: Compliance is critical to survival and reducing the time spent “firefighting,” so I have always made efforts to adopt a proactive instead of reactive approach. Nothing is perfect, and everything can continuously be improved for future-proofing or predicting what can still go wrong. We try to mitigate risks in advance without being too bogged down at the outset.
ALB: How would you describe your approach to technology? How has the use of tech within your team evolved since you started at the helm, and what is your blueprint for the next year or two in your team?
Wong: I have always seen technology as an enabler – not something to replace anyone’s job or a magic bullet that can solve problems overnight. It must also not burden the legal team with requiring too much input and maintenance to the point that the team has to spend more time. In that regard, my team at Yeo’s tried to automate simple processes such as contract workflows, from requisitioning for a simple NDA to getting all parties’ signatures to more complex matters such as outsourced agreements and incorporating the due diligence components of the counterparty into the transaction flow. My blueprint is to continually improve and work towards fine-tuning where hiccups occur.
ALB: How would you rate the current standard of legal services available in your jurisdiction? What do law firms do well, and what could they do better?
Wong: Singapore law is relatively straightforward, with fewer grey areas than other jurisdictions we encounter. That said, because of the regional nature of many businesses in Singapore and how deals these days inevitably have a cross-border element, I appreciate firms that can serve as a one-stop shop for us, coordinating the foreign legal counsel as well as linking back to their clients how any foreign issues may impact them.
ALB: When it comes to cooperating with external lawyers, what qualities or capabilities do you believe are the most critical to not only the work itself but also a sustainable long-term cooperating relationship?
Wong: As the evident low-hanging fruit, the short answer is costs – it isn't easy because we need to balance cost considerations and be fair to outside lawyers. Tying into that, if a law firm can justify their fees with speedy and accurate advice, plus being commercial and understanding clients’ way of thinking and working, plus if there is a bonus of knowing the macro landscape (having a good relationship with regulators, the authorities, all legal and above board of course!), that is treasured.
ALB: What is the best piece of advice you have ever received?
Wong: Personally, it is that work is a means to an end, and that end is your life, family, and health. This is important even professionally – if you get your perspectives right, it makes one more empathetic towards colleagues and more aware of stress and mental health management towards one’s self, which translates to better productivity and relationships at work. I also believe in the saying that people quit bosses, not companies. So, the above also goes a long way in talent retention, fostering a healthier, more conducive workplace where people remain committed and can forge a long-term, meaningful career.