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Helen Yeo ’74 recently made a gift of $200,000 to NUS Law School, for the purpose of establishing a bursary. Victor Katheyas ’13 talks to her about the inspiration behind her donation. 

Early this year, the Helen Yeo Bursary was established by Law School alumna Helen Yeo ’74’s very generous gift of $200,000. The gift, to be expended over the next decade starting from Academic Year 2011/2012, will allow Law School to award four bursaries each year to Law undergraduates, with each bursary valued at S$5,000.

To those who know her, Helen’s very generous donation is not surprising. In fact, one could say that giving is second nature to her.

Growing up, Helen observed her parents helping relatives, in big ways as well as small. For example, her parents helped to financially support a widowed aunt who had limited financial means. In other instances, the help rendered was not financial, but entailed personal effort and time – her parents would ask her brother to do “handyman work” at an aged relative’s home, or ask her to accompany an aged relative to the hospital for a medical appointment.

“It rubbed off on my siblings and me that we ought to help those who need assistance, whether it be monetary or simply time,” she said.

She put this principle into action when she entered legal practice, engaging in pro bono work regularly, and also supporting lawyers in the firm she set up, HelenYeo & Partners, in their pro bono work.

 

“Choo Han Teck ’79, when he was a partner at HelenYeo & Partners, did close to a dozen assigned cases for capital punishment before he went up to the bench. This obviously had limited benefit to our bottom line but we saw it as part of our pro bono work.”

In early 2011, inspired by the Chief Justice’s speech at the Opening of Legal Year 2011, Helen donated $100,000 to the Law Society of Singapore’s Criminal Legal Aid Scheme (CLAS). The Chief Justice had suggested that corporate lawyers should donate 25 hours of their earnings in lieu of 25 hours of volunteering, if they were unable to do the pro bono work. Helen says her conscience was pricked when listening to the speech, and she was inspired to contribute towards CLAS’ work of providing legal advice and representation to needy accused persons who are charged with a non-capital offence and who cannot afford to engage a lawyer – work which she cannot engage in personally, but is able to help with financially.

An accidental lawyer

It might come as a surprise that for someone with such a successful career in legal practice, Helen did not always aspire to be a lawyer. She confesses that her decision to read Law was made on the basis that Arts students at the National University of Singapore at the time were made to study Science subjects during their first year. 

Having entered Law School more or less by default, Helen found that she did not enjoy studying law either. “For the first three years of Law School, I regretted having chosen law,” she says. “I only began to like law after spending five weeks in the Legal Aid Bureau during my third year long vacation. It was then that I saw the practical side of law in helping people solve their problems, and I liked that.” 

Upon graduation, she started work at Chor Pee & Hin Hiong, where “all the young lawyers had to do all the work.” While she initially did some divorce and family law, she found herself drawn to commercial work.

“Though seeing human problems at work was interesting, the work could not compare with the adrenaline-churning work of doing corporate transactions or running a commercial litigation case,” she explains. “I like seeing business at work and talking to business people – what they do with their businesses fascinated me.”

At that time, lawyers were not as specialised in their practices as they are today, she says. As such, she did both corporate work as well as litigation – she even appeared as junior counsel in a matter that came before the Privy Council.

In 1992, Helen set up her eponymously-named law firm, HelenYeo & Partners. About a year later, she decided to focus on her corporate practice and not take on any more litigation work. This also allowed her to devote more time to her duties as managing partner. Under her leadership, the firm grew and expanded into overseas markets such as Vietnam and China.

Ten years later, HelenYeo & Partners merged with Rodyk & Davidson, Singapore’s oldest law firm. Helen became its managing partner, and held this position for the next eight years, till 2010. She is now a senior consultant at Rodyk & Davidson, and her responsibilities include looking after existing client relationships and helping the firm develop more clients.

Helen, who had a strong Catholic upbringing, acknowledges that her career trajectory has been extremely “blessed.”  She hopes, therefore, that the bursary will “provide new generations of students with the opportunities I had that led to a fulfilling career and put me in a position to help people.”

Passing on the blessings

Helen had been considering making a contribution to Law School for some time, and at the end of 2010, she decided that her gift should be in the form of a bursary, to be expended within ten years.

Of the four recipients of the Helen Yeo Bursary this academic year, two are in their second year, and one each from the third and fourth years of Law School. All four described their financial situations as being relatively tight.

Some of the recipients have to work as private tutors, to supplement the family income and lessen the financial burden on their parents. One said that the bursary would go a long way towards paying for expenses incurred while participating in a student exchange programme.

All four recipients are greatly appreciative of Helen’s generosity. Just recently, she hosted them to lunch. Having had the opportunity to meet her in person, one of the recipients exclaimed, “Mrs. Yeo is extremely approachable, friendly and nurturing. She’s so willing to extend her help and to give us any career guidance.” 

It would seem that the Helen’s enthusiasm for giving is set to continue through this generation of students whom she is helping. One recipient is inspired by her example: “I was extremely touched by how much she cared even though she knew so little about us. I truly hope that one day I will be like her and extend my help to mentor and nurture the younger generation too.” This is certainly a legacy which Helen would be pleased to see continue.

 

 

“It rubbed off on my siblings and me that we ought to help those who need assistance, whether it be monetary or simply time.”