Lakshanthi Fernando – Advocate for Women’s Empowerment
Highly-principled. Strong-willed. Passionate. These were the words that came to mind when I first heard Lakshanthi Fernando speak during the Women Leap event back in March.
I practically ambushed her after the event and asked if she would be willing to be interviewed for my series, Succeeding in Singapore. She agreed though it took some time before our schedules aligned. She was travelling; whereas, I was busy with my new job.
3 happy canines greeted me the minute I stepped into her home. Melted my heart, and for a moment, made me wish I had a dog. Thankfully, the moment passed, or I would have found myself explaining the sudden appearance of a dog in our apartment to my cat-loving partner.
Aside from the happy puppies, I noticed a distinctly Asian – predominantly Sri Lankan I was told later – decor though a blue-coloured medium-sized elephant on top of the TV console stood out. It wasn’t the only elephant in the apartment. In fact, there were a few more on the shelves though not as colourful. Lakshanthi admitted her love for the large mammals when I commented on them.
In a way, I can see why elephants would appeal to her.
While there is gentleness in the giant beasts, there is strength in them, a perseverance that defies drought, war, and famine.
“Having grown up in a 23-year civil war, that moulded who I am.” Lakshanthi explained.
That and being surrounded by strong women made her into a person who stands up for what is right.
Lakshanthi is passionate about women empowerment and the rights of the minority. She believes in righting wrongs and saying the difficult things though they are challenging because that’s the right thing to do.
I have always looked up to strong women who are able to remain true to who they are, and not forced to take on the behaviour of men, in order to succeed. As the Managing Director of two law firms, Lakshanthi clearly ticks the “have succeeded in Singapore” box for me. She is the Managing Director of CMS Holborn Asia, “a Formal Law Alliance with CMS Cameron McKenna Nabarro Olswang (Singapore) LLP, two (law) firms (that) provide the broadest range of Singapore and international legal services from one platform.”
I wanted to know how she was able to navigate the cultural and gender divide to be where she is now. A Sri Lankan, she moved to Singapore and has been in the country for nearly 15 years. She considers both Sri Lanka and Singapore her home and has no problems about cultural identities. Her pride in her Sri Lankan roots were evident in the books, vintage posters, artworks, and even photographs of Sri Lanka.
“I have a lot of Singaporean friends, and I very much identify with a number of values and cultures in Singapore,” she said.
Her legal experience spans not only years but countries, “including Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, India, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Thailand and the People’s Republic of China.”
If that’s not impressive enough, Lakshanthi specialises in international arbitration. Anyone who has ever dealt with arbitration would know how difficult it is to get different parties to agree to resolve disputes. That she represented “clients as lead party counsel in ad hoc and administered arbitral proceedings under most major institutional rules and procedures, including the Singapore International Arbitration Centre (SIAC), International Chamber of Commerce (ICC), Hong Kong International Arbitration Centre (HKIAC), London Court of International Arbitration Centre (LCIA) and United Nations Commission on International Trade Law (UNCITRAL)” made me silently applaud her.
How did she do it and can other women follow in her footsteps?
“If your goal is to succeed in your career, you should find the right mentors, and surround yourself with the right people and the right women who will support that,” Lakshanthi said. She credits her success to these in addition to working in an organisation that believes in meritocracy, which values talent and women.
“That brought me through challenges and difficult periods in my career when I was wondering what I should do next, and whether this is the right place to be. It’s wonderful to have mentors who’ve been there, done that. And I have a number of mentors, not just one or two. I have number of mentors, both men and women who have helped me through that,” she added.
Everyone is talking about mentors nowadays so I had to ask: How do you find those mentors?
“I wish there were a list that was circulated…I think there are a number of organisations that are trying to put together or have already put together some type of mentorship network. But you find your mentors at different stages in your career.”
There was no magic formula. Instead, she identified people who she could learn from, could respect, had a lot of experience, and who were willing to share.
But what about the challenges? Women face more challenges than men at work.
“Some of those challenges are not because they’re women, but because the system is set up a different way. You can be viewed as challenging or too assertive or too ambitious, too emotional, too this or too that, but if you know where it comes from and you know that that is not correct, I think you’ll have a stronger view of yourself and know that you are not inhibited in any way by being a woman.”
With regards to the legal profession, she acknowledges that the stress and pressure were contributing factors why there are difficulties retaining women.
An article in the Straits Time back in 2015 found that around 66% of women in the mid-category, those who have reached 7 – 12 years of legal practice have stopped renewing their practicing certificates. Anecdotal evidence showed that the societal pressure on women’s roles played an important factor. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/more-mid-category-women-lawyers-forgo-practising-cert
Lakshanthi believes a business case can be made to support women progress in the organisation; though she also cautions that not all women want to become partners or go into private practice. She reminds businesses that they have a responsibility to empower women succeed, if that is what the women in their organisation want.