Inspiring struggle

I stumbled across this article when I was browsing through The Electric New Paper and I would have done myself injustice if I dun share the story of this person in my blog cos she just fits so perfectly into the main themes of my blog. Okay, this title of this article is called 'I'm alive because of my son'.

MANY people know Ms Engelin Teh as one of Singapore's top lawyers, one of only five women who have made it to the ranks of Senior Counsel.

But not many know that behind that picture of success is a woman who once almost gave up on life, a woman with such low self-esteem that she regarded herself a failure as a wife, a mother and a lawyer.

It was in 1997 that Ms Teh, then 42, was hit by a personal disaster - she was going through an acrimonious divorce, her law practice was not going anywhere despite her 14-hour workday, and she felt distanced from her children because of her workload.

The darkening gloom also made the Christian reject God's existence.

And it took her to the edge.

In a revealing interview with The New Paper, Ms Teh recalled the day she wanted to end it all.

It was a Saturday evening in October 1997. She did not know then, but days later, her gloom would be lifted by the highest honour a Singapore lawyer could hope for.

Holding a bottle of sleeping pills, she went into the bedroom of her sleeping 9-year-old son, Iain, and gazed at him.

'I felt that my whole world had ended. I was a failure as a wife, I was a failure as a mother and I was even a failure in my career, which was stagnant.'

She was about to swallow the pills when the boy awoke.

It was her son's words and concern that drove some sense into her, she recalled, in tears.

'He said: 'Mum, what are you doing?'

'I broke down and cried. And he said 'Mum, stop it!''

'I then told him, 'You know how I feel?'.

'He said, 'Yes, I know how you feel. You can't make dad want this family. But you still have cheh (sister), ee cheh (2nd sister) and me. We will always be here for you.' '

Her son then snatched the bottle of pills from her, led her into her bedroom and was with her until she fell asleep.

'I had told myself before that I would never go to church again,' Ms Teh said. 'But I went to church the next morning. I told God I was sorry,' she recalled.

But all that is behind her. She is now a firm believer in the truth of what may seem a cliche: Every dark cloud has a silver lining.

As it turned out, the 'silver lining' appeared just three days after that night.


She received a telephone call from the then Registrar of the Supreme Court, Mr Chiam Boon Keng, who told her that she had been appointed as Senior Counsel, the equivalent of England's Queen's Counsel.

It's a rare honour bestowed on Singapore's finest lawyers who have excelled in their field of practice.

In Ms Teh's case, she was recognised for her exceptional litigation skills, as well as her expertise in handling even the most complex cases.

'I told myself: 'Wow, just when I was failing everywhere. If I had taken my life that Saturday, this news would have come after I had died.' '

It has been such a lesson for her that she now treasures what she has - her 'three wonderful kids' and good friends.

So when Ms Teh recently lost a much publicised suit brought by a former consultant of her law firm, some people expected her to keep out of the public eye.

Instead, on the day the Court of Appeal gave its verdict, Ms Teh was attending meeting after meeting with her clients and business associates. She did this despite feeling down.

The court's decision left Ms Teh and two of her law firm partners $400,000 poorer because they had been ordered to pay ex-consultant Evelyn Chia for work done while she was in Ms Teh's firm.

Ms Chia had sued them after her services were terminated.

During the trial, High Court judge Lai Kew Chai had described Ms Teh's conduct as 'quite appalling', saying that she had timed the termination thinking that she would not have to pay Ms Chia for work done.

When asked about the case, Ms Teh admits that despite the brave front she put up after the case, she felt 'rather depressed' over it.

As her firm's head honcho, she has to bear the lion's share of the payment to Ms Chia as well as her legal costs.

While this would cause a huge dent to her savings, she said it is not the money that bothered her.

'I would be able to earn it back. God will give it back to me. For one thing, I have good health. Hard work has never been a problem for me,' said Ms Teh.

'But what hurt me most was the judge's remark about me.'

All her life, she said she has worked hard to build her integrity. It is 'the most important' thing in her career.

She said that for a while, she was worried the judge's remark would make her lapse into the inferiority complex she had as a child when she grew up in a poor and tough environment.

'I feared that clients would think badly of me. I started to ask myself: 'Will they look at me and think that I am someone who could have done that?' '

At one stage, she became so paranoid that she thought the decent thing to do was to quit her firm and leave the firm's nine other lawyers to run things.

Fortunately, her colleagues and friends helped her overcome the pain.

She was pleasantly surprised to learn that many people did not even think about what the judge had said of her.


'My partners and friends told me: 'Actually we never even thought about it that way.

'We just thought she had to pay $400,000, poor thing,' ' she said.

Ms Teh is also heartened by the support her friends and colleagues gave her by taking turns to be in court at her hearing.

For example, a 'good, good' friend and fellow Senior Counsel who works in the building opposite her office in Ocean Building, Mr Davinder Singh, was one of her lawyers.

He represented her for free, even though Mr Singh, commands top fees.

Another good friend sent her an SMS offering to give her $100,000 to help her pay for the damages.

Said Ms Teh: 'I told her I don't need the money, but it was her noble intentions that brought me to tears.'

Many of her clients had become her friends and they sent her flowers throughout her court case, she added. One bouquet arrived just before our interview earlier this month.

It was from a general manager of a foreign bank in the same building.

His message? 'We love you and we care for you immensely... Continue to smile'.

'These are the things that keep me going. Although it has been tough, I tell myself I have so much to be thankful for, my family, my friends,' she said, her face brightening up for the first time in the two-hour interview.

She now hopes to put the unhappy episode behind, move on and keep her firm going.

'In the past, I would just cancel meetings and hide myself.

'But now, I tell myself: 'No, I am already 50 years old. God has given me the strength to go so far. I can continue.'

'And I have to continue because I cannot let my family, my colleagues and my friends down.'


Whoaz! Consider her story. Someone at the lowest point of her life, going to take her own life one night, and suddenly things just happened and wah la, she's a Senior Counsel. I just go 'whoaz' 'whoaz' 'whoaz'. Absolutely marvelled by her life, though the 'downs' she went through are those which I dun think anyone would want to go through either. But this certainly reminds of something I read in a book recently. Problems are created so that people can grow from the problems. Everyone will certainly mature as they encounter and tackle each problem they face in a sensible and appropriate way. Imagine this: what would life be like if there is no problem and everything is just so perfect? I remember in Matrix: Reloaded, it is mentioned that the first Matrix was so perfect, that everyone got what they wanted. But the problem became that it was too perfect and everyone began to reject the program. Imagine life as the Matrix (I'm not suggesting that we are living in a Matrix), what would life be if we do not encounter problems?

The moral of the story, problems are created to make us grow and each time we emerge victorious with a problem, we can be sure that the rewards are there for us, just like what this lady of the story has gone through. She went through her problems (luckily though) and today stands as a Senior Counsel, certainly represent a peak of her career. But to my fans and readers, think about it, do you encounter any problem now which you feel hopeless about? Why not we face the problems and not run away from them, just like what Ms Engelin Teh had done, though she almost tried to escape by death? Everyone has problems, but it's the way people deal with their problems which distinguish some people from others.

Well, I have written enough and till the next story sprouts, I say goodbye.


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