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Robson Lee

Become – High Profiles
June 7, 2019

Robson Lee leaves no room for awkward silences. The loquacious lawyer envelopes you in a warm verbal embrace right from the get-go, making any ill-at-ease journalist feel like a guest-of-honour in his capacious Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP office.

You can tell a lot about a person by the way they furnish their personal space. Books of the self-help and educational variety, piled to the sky, reveal the tireless reader’s intellectual zest. Chinese paintings, Buddhist statuettes and other cultural trinkets—of which, most are gifts—offer a window into his inner life as a man of peace, who meditates daily and extols virtues of humility, hospitality and helpfulness.

Amidst these ostensibly grandiose artefacts, however, his most prized possessions (two gifted replicas from the 80s of the Hwa Chong Institution tower block, where he had his classes as a student) hold more sentimental than monetary value.

With what seems like a thousand fans, switched to the highest setting in an air-conditioned room, and a raging storm outside, it was a matter of time before my nose started leaking mid-conversation. “Are you alright?” he asks, turning the fans on his table off in a knee-jerk reaction, despite his greater need to keep cool. I nod, impressed by his gallantry.

Robson wears many hats, and has in his long-standing career accomplished an enviable number of milestones. Anyone would feel intimidated by his sheer stature and reputation. Yet, none of it was for bragging rights.

He juggles and manages his time attending to his clients and his responsibilities as a single father to his eight-year-old daughter. And as if he doesn’t already have enough on his plate, Robson welcomes pro bono projects as well. His latest effort in pulling off the largest school celebration in Singapore (Hwa Chong’s record-breaking centennial anniversary saw more than 12,000 guests, including the attendance of guest-of-honour PM Lee) was one of his ways of giving back to the alma mater, to which he attributes his triumphs in life.

“I’m here to solve problems for clients and serve and service them in a way that makes them feel like I’m their family doctor,” shares the chairman of the HCI Board of Directors, who goes above and beyond the call of duty not to increase his fame and wealth, but to do justice to the people who rely on him.

Robson Lee: The Lawyer Who Does the Impossible

Partner, Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP & Chairman, HCI Board of Directors
Text by Angela Low
Photography by Yew Jia Jun

ANGELA LOW: You led the organisation of the 100th year anniversary celebrations of Hwa Chong Institution, which made the record as the largest school anniversary dinner with more than 12,000 guests. How did you pull that off? 

ROBSON LEE: We had a very strong team of volunteers, old boys, teachers, students and distinguished alumni. It’s a great network that spans from Singapore to Guangzhou to London to New York. More than 15 of our alumni are also ministers and members of parliament.

ANGELA: How long did it take to organise such an event? 

ROBSON: Work started seriously in 2017 when I came on board as chairman of the Hwa Chong Institution Board of Directors. Before that, I did a lot of things for the school. I was instrumental in merging Chinese High School with Hwa Chong Junior College to form Hwa Chong Institution in 2004. It’s the first merger of two private, government-aided schools. I did the legal work, liaised with the Ministry of Education and rallied the stakeholders. 

I was also one of the founders of  Hwa Chong International in 2005, which is now very well established. I have even inked a deal to set up a similar international school in Guangzhou Knowledge City with the support of Ascendas-Singbridge. We signed the deal on 12 February this year. 

ANGELA: Why did you decide to build a school in China?

ROBSON: Well, we were invited by Ascendas-Singbridge to export the Singapore brand of international school education to China. From our experience, we find that a number of our students come from China. In fact, I started Hwa Chong International with only 85 students. Today, we have close to 1,000 and it’s a profitable institution.

ANGELA: How many of the students actually come from China?

ROBSON: It varies, but at any point in time, we’ll have students from Taiwan, China, South Korea, the ASEAN countries, and even Russia. It’s a very good mix. All these students from different countries and backgrounds come here to be educated in our curriculum, which is primarily bilingual and bicultural with a strong emphasis on English and Chinese. That’s something you don’t see in a local school. You may have one or two PRs, but they are the minority. In an international school like ours, at least 50% of any cohort comes from foreign countries. 

Today, no one doubts that Hwa Chong Institution is equal to Raffles in terms of the number of scholars who have gone to Ivy League schools. I think we hold a record with the most number of President’s Scholars. We assembled all these positive qualities and attributes of Hwa Chong Institution, and set it up under Hwa Chong International. It’s different from Hwa Chong Institution, which is a “through-train” that goes directly to your A-Levels. I didn’t want to cannibalise Hwa Chong Institution, so I was instrumental in working with the principal and senior staff to structure Hwa Chong International to qualify as an International Baccalaureate (IB) school shortly after it was set up.

For want of a better comparison, Hwa Chong Institution (“HCI”) and Hwa Chong International (“HCIS”) are like Toyota and Lexus. HCI caters for the local students, while HCIS focuses on educating global scholars who come from different educational systems and international cultures. What we’re exporting to Guangzhou is the IB programme. It’s something we’re tremendously proud of. The benchmark we use to measure Hwa Chong International’s achievements is not by the number of straight A scholars we produce. We want to train a breed of successful, young people who are not just good in their scholastic abilities, but are also better-rounded. Although we look at your PSLE results for the Singapore students, we don’t emphasise on cut-off points. We take in people who may not necessarily be the best in terms of national scores.

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"Life is never about attaining a particular level of achievement before you can wear the hallmark of success. Success in life, and this is linked to the way we educate our students, is being able to manage failure." 

ANGELA: How would you describe the ideal candidate?

ROBSON: There are no ideal candidates. Everyone is different. 

ANGELA: Or rather, what is the school looking for? 

ROBSON: We look for people who have a strong quest for learning, people who have strong values and want to excel and contribute to society when they are successful, people who see life as a long-term learning process that doesn’t stop when you graduate.

ANGELA: Isn’t it rare for a young person of 13 to have the mind-set that life is an endless learning process? 

ROBSON: It’s about whether you have certain attitudes. It’s not that we’re looking for gems. We don’t prejudge. Some people are just better off doing their A-Levels. For instance, the IB programme includes a lot of project work. If you have difficulties with teamwork, we’ll gently tell your parents that you might want to look at other options other than IB. 

ANGELA: What is your personal definition of success?

ROBSON: Life is never about attaining a particular level of achievement before you can wear the hallmark of success. Success in life, and this is linked to the way we educate our students, is being able to manage failure. There will be times when you trip and fall. There will be times when things go wrong in your life, your family, relationships and career. For example, artificial intelligence may disrupt your entire industry. AI is known as a job-eating machine. I’m relearning the law now as AI, crypto and blockchain become more popular. These were alien things to me when they first appeared five years ago. 

But rather than wail in despair and wait to be sidelined by competition or be made obsolete, I go out there and say I want to learn. I want to learn from people like you, from the younger generation, because the young can teach me things I don’t know. Over the years, I’ve transitioned from reading physical newspapers to reading the news from my mobile devices. I used to write cheques painfully and arduously, a task that can take me hours to complete. Now, I just click a few buttons and I’ve saved half the time! Success in life is not an ultimate, “once you’ve achieved, you’re there” sort of thing. You have to continuously learn from your mistakes, and learn vicariously from other people. 

In my life, I’ve been through some very difficult moments, but when things don’t work out for you, how do you recover your balance, and get on the move by learning from what you have experienced? You aspire. You set a higher bar for yourself. You jump, you fall down, you pick yourself up, and you jump again. That’s why I look at people who have overcome acute handicaps and disabilities as role models. One may not have gone through the traditional route of education, but if you have a sense of direction and you’re prepared to change course when things don’t work out and re-motivate yourself with what’s current and relevant, then you’d never have to fear disruption. You’ll never be stranded, left mired in helplessness and depression.

I was a senior partner at a local firm, Shook Lin & Bok. I was very comfortable. I spent 21 years there from 1994 to 2015. Today, I’ve become a global equity partner at an international law firm, Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher. It was a quantum leap in my career progression because I have faith in myself, was prepared to work hard and to learn fast in a global organisation.

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ANGELA: Was there any fear when you made that leap?

ROBSON: I felt that this was an opportunity that I couldn’t miss because I’ve always wanted to work at an international practice, so I made the jump. My education in Hwa Chong imbibed in me the importance of capturing two high grounds in life—high moral ground and high intellectual ground. The character development that I received in school also instilled in me an untrammelled dynamism of spirit, a good sense of balance in all the key faculties of viz, psychological, emotional and physical to harness what it takes to rise to the occasion to overcome and to confront obstacles and challenges as mere speed bumps and not insurmountable roadblocks. That’s why I’m the strongest proponent of failure management as part of education. It’s the kind of training and exposure that we’ve had, even though we did not have Nobel laureates visiting us in the 1980s when I was in Hwa Chong unlike the present-day students in Hwa Chong Institution. It’s through little pieces of inspiration that are interwoven into your psyche fabric and become an inextricable part of your reflexes. 

“The impossible I do at once. Miracles take a little longer.”

ANGELA: Do you remember any of those pieces of inspiration? 

ROBSON: We had motivational talks from my school principal and teachers who always encouraged us to do the impossible. That’s why I have a personal motto: “The impossible I do at once. Miracles take a little longer.” [laughs] I’m a strong supporter of Chinese education. If you read the Chinese classics, you’ll read about great characters in China with great endurance, perseverance, humility and positivity. You’ll put things in proper and balanced perspective and realise that there are many people who are worse off than you, people who don’t have homes, jobs or children.

ANGELA: You must have a lot of emotional resilience.

ROBSON: I credit that to Hwa Chong and the six years I spent there. What you learn at an early age before you become 18 is very impactful. It seeds the DNA for you to learn how to respond to crises, manage problems and come out on top. That’s the most important skill you need to cope with life. You also have to prioritise what’s most important. For me, it’s my family, my job, and my responsibility to society. Presently, I am holding a number of pro bono positions. I am also an office bearer in the Securities Investors Association of Singapore, where we help retail investors when their investments in listed companies go wrong.

Of course, we only have 24 hours in a day, so time management and your ability to synthesise complexities are very important. I don’t know if you did further math. I didn’t, but I have lots of good friends who did, and they always tell me, when you have a very complex problem, solve the easiest parts first. It’s like when you see a big piece of steak, you have to cut it into smaller, bite-sized pieces and de-bone it before it becomes manageable. 

ANGELA: With so much on your plate, what does a typical day look like for you?

ROBSON: Well, you’ve got to sleep lesser.

ANGELA: How many hours do you sleep each night?

ROBSON: At least four. Sometimes six. I’ve learnt how to meditate more as a form of rest. I don’t immediately lie down and drop dead, so to speak. [laughs] I meditate to calm myself down. When I do it, I don’t think about my problems. I just remain still and focus on the unity of the mind, body and soul. I learnt it from a very elderly friend of mine, who lived to a ripe age of 92 before passing away peacefully. He was a very successful person, in the sense that he went through a lot of ups and downs, but brought himself back and did very well. 

Meditation helps when you have a baby because you have to get up at night to feed her and it’s not in the nature of life that men are best equipped to do so. Yet, you must give her not just physical and material, but also emotional support. You need to make sure that she can cope when she goes to school because she’ll see that her classmates have a mother and father, and start asking questions. You have to manage that and make sure she doesn’t feel insecure.

ANGELA: Do you drop your daughter off at school every day?

ROBSON: I wake up every morning at about 5:30am to prepare her for school, make sure she has her breakfast and dress up properly. When she was in kindergarten, she was already taught to be independent and take the school bus. She’s learnt from young to be toilet-trained, to bathe, to dress herself up, to eat. She can even bake now at 8. I got a teacher to come every Wednesday to teach her baking and music. This year I was very happy because for my birthday in February, she baked me a cake.

I don’t believe my child needs to be a straight A student, but I think she needs to have that strength and character because in her life, she’s going to encounter challenges, though I hope not similar problems to what I’ve encountered. What I do is very simple. I give her a safe, happy and secure environment. I have two maids, one to look after her exclusively, and one to look after the household. I also spend as much time as I can with her. We frequently travel long distance trips together during her school holidays.

Robson-Lee-Art-1

ANGELA: In the many years you’ve been the chairman of the HCI Board of Directors, I’m sure you’ve had to make some tough decisions. What’s one of the toughest decisions you had to make?

ROBSON: The decision to go to Guangzhou was a big challenge. I had to convince my board members, my stakeholders—we have over 300 members—that this is a progressive step to take. Also, you may not know why there’s an MRT station in Hwa Chong called Tan Kah Kee. Tan Kah Kee was the founder of Chinese High. I was instrumental in the process of naming the station after him. I had to deal with various government departments, the LTA and SMRT.

ANGELA: What about in your law career?

ROBSON: It’s a challenge when you deal with big projects. Sometimes I have to work in three time zones—Europe, the US and Singapore. We also get requests for help from our Middle Eastern office in Dubai. As a Singapore partner, I support my fellow partners in other offices. The ability to manage people is very important. Personally, I get along well with people, even though I can be very firm in conducting negotiations for my clients. I can build connections fairly quickly. This helps because you need to respect people, listen to them, and be less of yourself and more of others. Practising social graces like courtesy and thoughtfulness helps a lot as well.

"I’ve always subscribed to the philosophy that every piece of work must have that hallmark of excellence."

ANGELA: What’s one thing that you’re currently trying to get better at?

ROBSON: The new technology. I’m reading about AI furiously. I refuse to be disrupted. In terms of life, I’m learning to be more humble. The more you learn, the more you realise that you don’t know a lot of things. And of course, I’m trying to make as many friends as possible. You learn to be more conscious about what you say and do because it has an impact on other people. A single word that’s not put in the best way can create a lot of issues. This is important, especially when you’re working in a team and relying on people to help you put things together. The centennial celebration at Hwa Chong was a very good learning experience. There will be competing requests and demands. How do you strike a balance without being accused of favouritism or unfairness? Listening is also something that I’m continuing to learn. Sometimes it’s what’s unspoken that tells you volumes.

ANGELA: What’s the longest time you’ve spent working on a deal?

ROBSON: It can take months or years.

ANGELA: Have you ever experienced a burnout?

ROBSON: [laughs] No. I’ve learnt to take little rests in between. During lunch, for example, no one comes in here.

ANGELA: Have you always wanted to be in law?

ROBSON: Yes, but not as a kid. I wanted to be a fireman as a kid, but I found that when I was in Chinese High School, I didn’t have to work very hard in English. It came to me naturally. I could connect to people and express myself. I was even a debater representing Chinese High School. I can be a very demanding person because I set very high standards for myself, but I take care of the people who work with me. My secretary has worked with me for 20 years. Each of my maids has worked with me for more than six years. I have friends from secondary school, who I’m still in close contact with.

I believe people are your greatest assets. That’s why I agree to remain as a non-executive and non-independent director after I did the legal work for the listing of Sheng Siong. It’s a very people-driven business. It started as a huge provision shop of sorts. Today, no one doubts that it’s a billion-dollar business. It’s a place whose values I identify with. The three founding brothers came from Chinese High, so there’s a certain affinity, a cultural identity that syncs with mine. They take care of people, and put others before themselves.

ANGELA: Ultimately, what gives you fulfilment in the work that you do?

ROBSON: I’ve always subscribed to the philosophy that every piece of work must have that hallmark of excellence. When you pick up a BMW, what is it that people pay a premium for? It’s not just the steel shell, engines and leather. People pay for the attention to details, the after-sales service, the quality and technology deployed in terms of functionality. No point having an electronic back scratcher, right? [laughs] Likewise, a law firm is not an institute for further legal studies. It is a business. To build a sustainable legal practice, I’m here to solve problems for clients and serve and service them in a way that makes them feel like I’m their family doctor.