By Jolie Fong and Joseph Khaw
Genie Gan is the Head of Public Affairs & Government Relations (APAC), Kaspersky. Genie’s story is one of diverse professional experiences, which brought her to become an entrepreneur and also work in professional services (in accounting and law), showbiz, the public sector, non-profit, and now government relations and public affairs in the private sector. In this article, she shares how each of her experiences led to another and gives advice to young people keen on entering the fields she has worked in. She also encourages young people to be open to new domains of work.
I started my career as a fresh Accountancy graduate. My first job was in a Big Four accounting firm, and I worked on audit and corporate advisory. It was during the peak of a global financial crisis and the environment was a very challenging one. I found my time working in assurance services and auditing unsatisfying, though. It was not a good fit for my personality.
As a very young person then, much as I knew what I didn’t like, it was hard for me to put a finger on what I liked. During my first job, I chanced upon the opportunity to become a recording artiste through a client. Inquisitive and ever-willing to explore fresh options, I stepped into the limelight as a singer-songwriter and media personality, cutting four solo albums, became an ambassador for several brands, and did very interesting commercial gigs along the way.
As the record industry was already in an era of maturity thanks to rampant piracy of intellectual property, I explored ways as a first-mover in launching my music through creative means, such as through my blog site, and legal music streaming websites which allowed me access to a wider overseas market. My latest album was also launched in the form of a thumb drive which was unheard of in the industry.
Behind this public persona, I ran a brick and mortar music school which I felt was necessary to pay the bills. To start the business, I didn’t want to take a bank loan or borrow from my parents. So I emptied my savings account – had to close the account as it literally couldn’t meet the minimum required balance – and survived on bread with peanut butter for three months!
It all paid off in the end as the business broke even in three months. It turned out to be a good business model since I was able to be the poster girl for my own business. I was truly blessed, for things to have turned out well for this business venture.
The business grew in the years to come, from merely providing lessons for classical music instruments to also conducting classes for Chinese orchestral instruments, dance, and my pet areas – vocal training and public speaking.
Throughout this entrepreneurial and showbiz journey, I was busy with the day-to-day running of the business whilst attending media interviews, holding concerts, doing some acting, making appearances at events and promotions, spending long hours at dance choreography sessions and in the recording studio producing music.
Thankfully, I was blessed with the financial resources and time (albeit very limited!) to pursue a postgraduate degree in Law at the National University of Singapore from 2008 to 2011. In 2011, I was awarded the Spirit of Enterprise award and shortly after, decided to pursue a full-time career in law with a Big Four law firm and got called to the Singapore Bar.
As a fresh lawyer who had the benefit of a few more years of prior work experience than my peers, I felt I owed it to myself to better know what I wanted, to weigh my options early in the day and be more targeted with setting career goals for myself. While in a Big Four law firm, I had the opportunity to work with very large corporate clients, public listed companies, but the idea of being a transactional lawyer drawing a very good salary was not appealing enough to me.
I’ve always been a cause-driven person — never doing something just because it pays me well. I would very much rather do something because I’m passionate about it. As idealistic as this sounds, I wanted to do something that would allow me to make the world a better place. In 2012, I was offered a position in the Ministry of Law. That kickstarted my career in the Public Service, which I am very grateful for.
Even today, I still carry with me this romanticised idea and passion of continually being a centre of influence to bring about good things, going the extra mile without being held back by tradition or “the usual way of doing things”, and inspiring others to do the same wherever possible; for goodness begets goodness.
I worked on legal industry policy that impacts the legal sector and often has a spillover effect on the wider society. I was privileged to be given exposure to a wide variety of work, including serving as Special Assistant to Minister K Shanmugam, from whom I learnt tremendously while doing the work as well as through observation of how he processed his thoughts and made tough decisions. Through this experience, I was exposed to interacting with other governments as well as working with colleagues from other ministries and agencies in Singapore as many policy matters sit at the intersection of law and other aspects of government.
In 2017, I was posted as Singapore Delegate to the United Nations General Assembly and was based out of the Singapore Mission Office in New York City. I spent most days and most parts of each day at the United Nations Headquarters doing fieldwork, i.e. negotiating positions among fellow member states on issues which I was responsible for, soft-lobbying, or building diplomatic relationships while at it. It was initially daunting because the delegates from other countries were usually very seasoned and much older than me. Plus, it was an international stage with 193 member states after all, and every word that was spoken and how it was spoken mattered.
I felt very high strung throughout my time there as I felt responsible for my country’s position on issues and there was much at stake. I didn’t want to allow myself to make any wrong moves. Easily clocking up to 20 hours on occasions and averaging 16 hours in any given day was common. But did I forget to mention? I had my fan girl moments when I bumped into celebrities like Angelina Jolie and Robert De Niro at the United Nations Headquarters!
After I returned to Singapore in 2018, I took up a position in the Law Society of Singapore as the Director and Head of Department for Representation and Law Reform. In my role as Director, I worked closely with the government and other stakeholders such as Non-Governmental Organisations, civil society, and the general public. The job required me to engage with stakeholders on the ground, which was a great experience in understanding how people think, and the real issues people struggle with.
I learnt a lot from this job. In the Ministry, I was privileged to double-hat portfolios which expedited my learning. I made it a point to always carry a can-do spirit, and I think people could see that. I also believe in being faithful with small things for when people feel they can entrust you with the smaller things, larger opportunities will follow.
As part of a huge machinery, it is also important not to forget that it takes many moving parts to get the job done. So there is no time to be ego-centric or to score credits for yourself. It is important to “think team” and be mission-focused.
Firstly, many legal services will become more commoditised. Technology has caused shifts towards automation in some run-of-the-mill legal services. I am no prophet, but I think that conveyancing, will writing, very simple procedural law services and administrative legal services will be subject to these shifts. In fact, the delivery of some aspects of these services has already changed in recent years.
Secondly, the public function that lawyers play will be heightened. Lawyers mustn’t care solely for their own business or owe a duty only to their clients. There is an increasing space for lawyers to contribute to the public, for example through pro-bono services. This is not constrained to your home jurisdiction. It could mean getting involved in the larger international community and contributing in whatever way you can. So this applies for practising lawyers as well as corporate counsel; people who are armed with legal knowledge and can therefore contribute. There is a clear role for lawyers to play in giving back to society in bigger and better ways.
Lastly, the area of dispute resolution and management is also changing. We were never a litigious society to begin with and Singapore is moving increasingly into the alternative dispute resolution (ADR) space, which I am deeply passionate about, especially in mediation. Mediation feeds my aspiration of making the world a better place. Very simplistically put, de-escalation of disputes and having that infrastructure in the dispute resolution system to accommodate and facilitate this form of de-escalation is the ADR framework we see here. Awareness in the general public is also increasing, especially with last year’s Singapore Convention on Mediation. As a practising Mediator and a mediation coach, it made me a very proud member of the mediation community.
I’m currently at Kaspersky, managing Government Relations, Public Affairs for the Asia-Pacific region. Kaspersky is a global cybersecurity company that has deep threat intelligence and security expertise which are constantly being transformed into next-generation security solutions and services to protect businesses, critical infrastructure, governments and consumers around the globe. Over 400 million users are protected by Kaspersky technologies and we help 250,000 corporate clients protect their network. These are just numbers of today and they are increasing as we speak because we are constantly expanding our global network through outreach and awareness-building efforts.
Our company’s mission is to build a safer tomorrow, as part of a global responsibility to make the world a safer place. I joined Kaspersky as it really puts its money where its mouth is, doing exactly what it says, which is very much aligned with my personal ethos.
Shortly after I joined the company, we have been remote working because of the global pandemic. As you’d imagine, it is never easy to navigate relationships and subject matters which are all new when one starts. To do the work that I do from a distance and without the benefit of face to face meetings has been the greatest challenge thus far.
But it is what it is, and I’m doing the best that I can each day to still deliver, regardless. There is no better time than now to exercise maximum creativity and to find new ways of getting the same things (and more) done.
I wouldn’t. Not because I’d never made mistakes but because even through my mistakes, God seems to have turned them around for my good. But this is what I say only now that I’ve matured somewhat.
When I was younger, I questioned myself a lot because I have the natural tendency to beat myself down and question myself when a mistake is in sight, or when a situation sits in the grey area. Quite the opposite from most people, the first questions I usually asked were, “Oh dear! Is it my fault? Did I cause it? Is there something I shouldn’t have done or could have done better?” My closest friends often chided me and still remind me these days to be kinder to myself.
I see now, in retrospect, that it was my relative inexperience that caused me to be insecure. I cared a lot about what people thought of me. But now, I’ve come to a place where I truly can love myself more and even embrace my own mistakes. I have realised how each mistake has formed useful lessons for me and through my imperfections, I am as human as can be. This humanness has caused me to come across as an authentic person to others who interact with me; the first step to many positive and meaningful relationships!
I have come to realise also that there are generally no right or wrong decisions (apart from clear-cut criminal and morally wrong actions) – only right and wrong decisions for you. There is a lot of room for us to make these decisions and pick the best ones for ourselves – the decisions I made were therefore based on how well I knew myself at any given time.
To sum up, I take myself much less seriously these days and love laughing at myself. There is nothing to regret as living life with regrets will only hold me back from doing more and better.
Try both, if you have the opportunity like I did. Then pick whichever resonates with your aspirations. No two people are the same, so my decisions, which were based on my ideals, may not work for you.
My prior experience in the public sector and involvement in voluntary non-profit work allowed me to be in touch with people and life issues across different parts of society. This has helped me to bridge the gap between people and policies, which is crucial in the roles that I played in every organisation I worked in and now. I’m a big believer in Public-Private-People (3P) partnerships. Due to my range of experience, I can better appreciate policy rationale and decisions and stem the gap between the private and public sectors.
Broadly speaking, I live life curiously.
I work well under pressure and I thirst to learn. Whenever I feel I’ve stopped learning on my job, I know I need to initiate a change. I have so far dealt with it by seeking out new postings within an organisation or by changing jobs when there are better growth opportunities elsewhere. But to adapt well to changes, one must be comfortable with the discomfort that comes with any change.
I strongly advise students to put themselves out of their comfort zones, for that is where one can truly learn and understand one’s strengths and weaknesses.
Be curious, for those who aren’t by nature.
And for those who are, stay curious.
I have always been so since I was very young. Especially if it doesn’t hurt anyone, it is good to try new things and accumulate fresh experiences.
For example, growing up in a very sheltered environment, I intentionally started working very early on for fun, dabbling with runway modelling since I was a teenager; an idea which my parents were probably not very fond of but were too nice to disallow me to try. I recall how my mom would be there to see my every modelling gig. In fact, she has been most supportive and was there for almost every one of my performances or public appearances and recording sessions.
I understand what concerns young people, especially those aged 20 – 25, are faced with. The employment market follows the state of the economy in general, and the market is currently soft due to the effects of the pandemic. This adds to the fact that many youths in this age group are already grappling with not knowing what they would like to do. Often, people know what they do not want to do but find it difficult to ascertain what they want to do.
Currently, I mentor several youths in that phase. My advice to them has consistently been to:
(1) be patient. It does take time for one to find out one’s calling and some take longer than others;
(2) develop a broader sense of perspective in ordered to make more informed choices. And this takes time because it requires one to get out there, meet many people from different sectors, talk to people to find out more about what they do, what their jobs entail, find out which domain areas are aligned with one’s interest and strengths;
(3) be practical. Try not to leave a job without concrete plans in mind; and
(4) keep an open mind. There are always three possible answers to decisions – “Yes”, “No”, and “Not now but maybe later”. If you’re not sure, don’t be too eager to park it in the “No” bucket. You can place it in the “Not now but maybe later” bucket. It took me great courage to plunge headfirst into the technology industry which I was neither trained nor experienced in previously. It has been parked in the “Not now but maybe later” bucket for the longest time. But I cannot run away from the fact that technology is the future and cybersecurity business which my current company is in is has particularly huge growth potential. I cannot find a better time than now to take the plunge, especially since the opportunity arose. And I’m enjoying every day of my job! So glad I finally transferred it from the “Not now but maybe later” bucket into the “Yes” bucket. Truly, no regrets.
It is, actually.
Just to give one example, I started out in showbiz, but it really was not for me. I discovered that I hated getting out there in public and being told what to wear, what to say, right down to what songs I should sing and what persona to carry. Plus I am naturally an introvert; just a very well-adjusted and trained-extrovert. But the silver lining is that while I was trying my hand at showbiz, I also started my own business, which turned out to be a fantastic growth opportunity!
And through that experience, I understand the hurdles which SMEs and start-ups are faced with. I can then put it to good use, and therefore mentor a few aspiring young (and some not-so-young) entrepreneurs. So what started out to be a “trial and error” has turned out for good in more ways than one.
You owe it to yourself to live your life to your best, so that one day, you can write your own story.
The following are some articles I had written which may be useful references. Feel free to take a read and reach out to me for a chat if anyone likes!:
- This is an article addressing my juniors at the Bar, which include advice relevant to any young person regardless of discipline:
- This is an article on what the Singapore Convention on Mediation was all about and why it is Singapore’s crowning glory: