Tuesday 19 November 2013

Undaunted by disability: Chia Yong Yong

With her can-do spirit, lawyer Chia Yong Yong has never allowed her struggles to get in her way
By Lee Siew Hua, The Straits Times, 18 Nov 2013

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.

She relishes Thai food and finds the people exceptionally warm. Memorably, one New Year's Eve a dozen years ago, train after train on the Bangkok Metro was packed. "Then came this group of young men with coloured hair and tattoos. They stopped everybody at the station and ushered us into a train."

Typically, the sisters travel with their helper, Ms Dewi Muliana. They travel heavy, with wheelchairs, walking frames and a shower chair.

With so many logistics, it delights her that Korean service is exemplary. Once, a server at the Sheraton Seoul D Cube City Hotel noticed her helper shelling crab claws for the two sisters. He returned with a platter of the delicacy - shelled.

She has visited South Korea four times. Last year, a Korean friend, Mr Tommy Ryu, was determined that she should enjoy the snow on the Dragon Peak of the Yongpyeong Ski Resort, where the hit drama Winter Sonata was filmed.

"It was overwhelmingly beautiful and magical. Like a dream that one would not want to wake up from, but for the cold. We could not have done it without Tommy and Dewi," says Ms Chia, who is learning Korean.

While going over her old photographs with Life!, she lingers over a picture of herself when she was aged 10, with her arm draped around Leslie, who was five.

Her hands were still normal then, she says with a hint of wistfulness. Hands are a detail that go unremarked in photos - and much of daily life.

But she has to consider what her hands can or cannot do every day. She hesitates a long moment when her assistant takes our Delifrance lunch orders. Finally, she chooses macaroni.

She explains: "I love baguettes and wraps. But they are not easy to eat." Sometimes, she lets a friend feed her when a dish is unwieldy.

Handshakes too are awkward. She has not figured out whether to extend her curled hand.

"Maybe I should just greet the person first and bow. I like it in Korea, I just bow."

There is no trace of self-pity.

National University of Singapore law lecturer Stephen Phua, 50, who first met Ms Chia in church and law school 25 years ago when she could walk without crutches, says he has never seen her express negative emotions. Instead, she has an infectious cheerfulness.

"Witnessing her daily struggles with simple tasks heals my weariness and calms my impatience. She epitomises an indomitable spirit with a gentle soul," he says.

He is energised by her gratitude and extraordinary outlook in life, he adds. "Like her selfless parents, she takes nothing for granted. She has never failed to say 'Thanks' with a big bright smile when help is offered."

Her optimism is rooted in the prized inclusiveness she experienced while growing up and, vitally, her Christian faith.

She has sat on the board of deacons at Zion Bishan Bible-Presbyterian Church until recently.

A singleton, she declines to discuss dating and marriage, but says simply with her sparkling smile: "I am quite happy the way I am."

She acknowledges that parents would want their children who have disabilities to have a spouse to care for them. Yet there is a "mismatch", she adds philosophically. "How many parents would want their children to marry someone with a disability?" she wonders.

Her parents do worry that she and her sister will be bereft in old age.

"Our retirement strategy is to employ caregivers," she says. She and sister Leslie, who is also single, live with their parents in a MacPherson terrace house.

There is a younger sister and brother, in their early 40s, who work in administrative roles and are married with children.

Meanwhile, with the United Nations International Day of Persons with Disabilities coming up on Dec 3, she reflects that she was an "unwilling volunteer" when conscripted to volunteer at the Prisons Welfare Committee after graduation.

Years of dormancy followed before she helped the Society for the Physically Disabled as a board member in 1997. She was too "paiseh" (embarrassed) to say no, but felt out of her depth for a year.

"I had grown up in a sheltered and loving environment. I felt that if I could make it, why not others?"

By the time she rejoined the board in 2004, she realised: "I saw people with disabilities with much potential. If they had the same opportunities as me, would they have better jobs?"

The society works with 4,600 clients with disabilities that are either congenital or acquired later in life, for example, stroke and accident victims. It has 3,000 volunteers.

She still keeps the dream of inclusiveness in all dimensions alive, and is sharp in her analysis of what schools, work- places and insurers can do.

She is plumping for universal health insurance, for instance. She cites South Korea's system, which is funded with tax subsidies and employee contributions.

"So far, it has proven to be viable." She maintains: "Insurers, as much as they make profits, should play a role in being socially responsible as well."

Singapore has a late-starter advantage in learning from real-life cases. "But if we delay, we could end up with people who may not be able to benefit from the full range of health services. Or we may ultimately burden our health system."

Mr Abhimanyau Pal, 47, executive director of the society, indicates that she is a wonderful face for the society as she has gone through every phase of life with disability. Her passion shines through and she fully believes in inclusion.

"Sometimes, she is quite tough. At the same time, she is very approachable and reasonable," he says.

As Ms Chia surveys the horizon, she thinks independent people with disabilities will be the norm as more and more of them graduate and get good jobs.

"A society that moves ahead without regard for those less advantaged cannot be regarded as progressive," she says.

"We have seen from the political perspective how societies disintegrated because those disregarded had taken to the streets."

When Singapore makes space for them, she says, it is a sign of true success as a society.

My life so far

“I remember that I had a lot of fun running around and playing in the longkang, which had guppies. I lived in a kampung at Lim Tua Tow Road till age seven. I played rounders, a game called Big Balloon and shuttlecock. I also skipped. I thank God I had an opportunity to play.”

Chia Yong Yong, on memories of an able-bodied childhood

“It’s clear that people with disabilities need to change perceptions of ourselves. But it’s very much tied in with how society views us. At the same time, we mustn’t have a charity mindset. That's why employment and integration are important to break out of the charity cycle. We can become contributing members of society. Imagine what that does for our self-worth, and how much relief it is for our families.”

On how people with disabilities perceive themselves

“We can’t legislate passion and we can’t legislate motivation to care for your neighbour. We are too small to support a quota system. What we would like to do is work on the basis of matching willing employers with workers. There is already a minority unhappy that carpark lots are reserved for people with disabilities. I don’t think society is ready for something as comprehensive as a Disabilities Act.”

On whether it is time to write a Disabilities Act

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