Law & More: The Boase Cohen & Collins Podcast

Episode 30 - Saniza Othman

July 21, 2023 Niall Episode 30
Law & More: The Boase Cohen & Collins Podcast
Episode 30 - Saniza Othman
Show Notes Transcript

This time, we welcome Malaysian lawyer, philanthropist and patron of the arts Saniza Othman. In a wide-ranging discussion, Saniza talks about her legal career, her support for artists both modern and historic, charitable work and diverse hobbies. She speaks with our Senior Partner Colin Cohen. Stay tuned. 

Host: Colin Cohen
Director: Niall Donnelly
Producer and VO: Thomas Latter      

[00:00:32] Colin: Welcome to Law & More. And today I'm delighted to be joined by Saniza Othman, a woman of many, many talents. Originally from Malaysia. She's an experienced lawyer with a multifaceted legal career.

[00:00:46] Colin: Including a stint as a Barrister in London. She's a passionate patron of the arts, heavily involved in various charitable causes, and also happens to be an experienced, adventurous sailor. Saniza, welcome. And as I always ask my guests, what's been keeping you busy recently?

[00:01:05] Saniza: Hi, Colin. Thank you for having me. It's very kind introduction. A couple things have been keeping me busy. I've just recently finished an art exhibition three months long in Singapore, and we just finished a book talk.

[00:01:18] Saniza: And of course, now that Hong Kong's open, there's a lot of community engagement. And then, of course, I've got a couple boring business bits. I have two transactions closing simultaneously in two different jurisdictions. It's a bit of everything everywhere all at once.

[00:01:36] Colin: Before I delve into these interesting topics, I want to go back in time and I want you to tell me a little bit about your upbringing.

[00:01:44] Colin: Some diplomatic connections, perhaps?

[00:01:47] Saniza: So yes, you're right, Colin. My parents were diplomats for the Malaysian government, and I was born in Tokyo, one of their postings. I feel privileged to have grown up as a third culture kid. And spent my childhood in Tokyo, Jakarta, and of course, Malaysia.

[00:02:05] Colin: Do you speak Japanese?

[00:02:06] Saniza: Sukoshi.

[00:02:07] Colin: Ah, I'm off to Japan on Thursday.

[00:02:09] Saniza: So I joke that I speak many languages badly. 

[00:02:13] Colin: Good, tell us this, obviously you went to school, University, you went to Aberystwyth.

[00:02:19] Saniza: That's right. 

[00:02:20] Colin: Why there? 

[00:02:21] Saniza: I went to read law at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth. And I guess not everyone would know of a small town in Wales, but you should know that King Charles, Prince Charles, then, as he was, went to the same university to learn Welsh. To answer your question, I went to University of Wales because I was interested in the law and that was where a lot of established Malaysian lawyers went. And I thought that I would try and get back into establishment at that time. 

[00:02:50] Colin: You studied law. For Malaysia, you did your bar exams, to become a Barrister. Tell us a little bit more about that. Why a barrister? Why not Solicitor or anything else?

[00:02:59] Saniza: I suppose because I like to talk. No, but on a more serious note, I was sort of thrown into the law. So growing up in an Asian family, my choices were doctor, engineering, accounting and law, and as it was.

[00:03:14] Saniza: And I wasn't good at the sciences. I didn't like the sight of blood. And I thought I'd give it a go in the accounting. But I soon, sorry to the all the accountants listening, and I saw found it terribly dull and it bored me to death. And so law was my lifesaver. And then after going through law school I decided that you had to specialise. And I decided I wanted to go to the Bar and it was a good calling. And I found it was right. And I got lucky, I suppose, when I applied to Bar School, I got into my first choice Inns of Court School of Law. And then there was no looking back. 

[00:03:49] Colin: You did a pupillage? 

[00:03:50] Saniza: That's right. So I did my pupillage at, it was then called 2 to 3 Gray’s Inn Square.

[00:03:56] Saniza: Now it's known as Cornerstone Chambers. And, of course, the Head of Chambers back then was Anthony Scrivener. And I think Anthony Scrivener probably requires little introduction, but I guess it was because he was the Bar Chair, Chairman of the Bar in 1990.

[00:04:11] Saniza: And of course, here in Hong Kong, he's known for the Carrian case.

[00:04:16] Colin: Tony Past, a very, good friend of mine. And I remember I instructed Tony on numerous occasions. In the case he was out here. What happened, was that my leading counsel, Martin Thomas, now Lord Thomas, somehow got himself very, very ill. Got a bad fever and he couldn't appear in the Privy Council. And Tony stepped in at the last moment for me. And that was the case regarding attacking the two week rule for domestic helpers here in Hong Kong.

[00:04:43] Colin: You may remember at the time, the government imposed these restrictions and you had to leave your employment. But anyway, we went to the Privy Council, had a wonderful thing. Of course, lost gloriously. But that was it. But Tony was a great, great man.

[00:04:55] Saniza: I agree. And I feel quite privileged to have done my pupillage there.

[00:05:00] Saniza: Actually, that's the reason why I know of Boase Cohen and Collins, because you guys were on the list of names of people to meet , when I relocated from London to Hong Kong. But I was really lucky, I think that after pupillage I managed to get some bread and butter work in the UK.

[00:05:15] Colin: Tell us about that, I'm very interested as to the type of cases you were doing, cause Tony was a sort of, it was a criminal set.

[00:05:21] Saniza:  So I actually did my pupillage under James Findlay who took silk and who's also the head of Chambers. I think a couple years back.

[00:05:30] Saniza: So a lot of my work was bread and butter work as it is when you first start your practice. It excluded family and criminal work. I got enough repeat work and that to me was very exciting because I think it felt like things were going right. And I have fond memories of my time.

[00:05:47] Colin: Now you are in London and now you talked about relocating to Hong Kong. 

[00:05:52] Saniza: Yes.

[00:05:52] Colin: Why?

[00:05:53] Saniza: I relocated from London to Hong Kong for love at the turn of the millennium. My then fiancé, now husband, was posted from Geneva to Hong Kong during the Asian financial crisis. So we pretty much had a long distance relationship. And bearing in mind, this was at a time where everything was on a 56K connection.

[00:06:18] Saniza: So we had the emails. There was no social media, no WhatsApp.

[00:06:25] Colin: This was in 1990s? The early 90s. 

[00:06:28] Saniza: No fast forward a little bit, late ish, late 90s.

[00:06:31] Colin: And you came into Hong Kong and you worked for some well-known establishments. Who were they? 

[00:06:36] Saniza: Actually, when I am first moved to Hong Kong, I thought I would only stay here for a few years and then I'd go back to the UK, that was the plan. But I came in and I was actually headhunted into bulge bracket investment banks. And I had no idea what I was getting to at the time.

[00:06:54] Saniza: I soon became knowledgeable about derivatives. Or as Warren Buffett says, weapons of mass destruction. And I learned a new language. Things like swaps, forwards, options, futures, and underlyings, FX, indices commodities. 

[00:07:11] Colin: So you worked in Hong Kong as in house. 

[00:07:13] Saniza: Counsel.

[00:07:14] Colin: In house counsel, enjoyable? 

[00:07:16] Saniza: Yeah, enjoyable. I enjoyed my time. I think it suited my personality. I liked being part of a team. I liked working. And you had a lot of stakeholders engagement. And I learned a lot. 

[00:07:26] Colin: And also I'm quite interested, at that time, quite a few people did this, to sort of get some more qualifications, and you got involved in arbitration because you did the LLM at Hong Kong University. You then became a qualified arbitrator and mediator, accredited mediator as well, what took you down that road?

[00:07:45] Saniza: That's a great question. I think after working in investment banking, I think I suppose I tried to redeem myself a bit. And it seemed right to pick up new skill sets and try my hand at ADR.

[00:07:58] Saniza: And I think it was a natural progression because I actually enjoyed working in that kind of environment. And I think very much as a derivatives lawyer working in a bank, it was very transactional and that almost pushed me to that side of that part of the law. And I think going back to school and learning about ADR was life changing because I used my new skill sets.

[00:08:20] Saniza: Almost immediately in my everyday life, things like mediation, negotiation, and trying to work things out in your life. And I found it almost like having new skills in a toolbox.

[00:08:33] Colin: Did you ever do arbitrations and do you ever do as an arbitrator formally or do mediations? 

[00:08:39] Saniza: So I use a lot of the skills that I have back again, acting as arbitration and mediation judge to inspire the new generation, actually.

[00:08:48] Saniza: And so I do a lot of moot work. So I've been helping out for about a decade on all the moot competitions, the previous moots and the various competitions that ran out in Asia Pacific. 

[00:08:58] Colin: Yes, I've judged those training sessions through Chinese U and Hong Kong U.

[00:09:03] Saniza: Yes, that's right. That's right. 

[00:09:05] Colin: I've been involved in that as well.

[00:09:06] Colin: So, tell us a little bit more about what you were doing after you left the banks. What's your day to day? Before I get into the arts and all the rest, but I'm a little bit more interested as to what other things you've been doing.

[00:09:17] Saniza: So I have a varied day. I suppose I describe to people, I have a portfolio. So I have a portfolio of the law, community service, the arts, and I also have a small boring business at the side that I do in real estate, but that pretty much keeps me busy at any given day.

[00:09:37] Colin: And what's quite interesting that you're very passionate in the things you've been doing and you've been giving back to the community. Tell me about your involvement in some non-profit organisations and what made you do that as well.

[00:09:49] Saniza: Okay, so that's a great question. So I think in terms of what I do, I think I really believe in the three Ws. Maybe I should start off by saying that I believe in the wisdom, the work, or the wealth, and what I mean by that is when I give back to organisations, I believe you can do it through your time, through your subject matter expertise, and through resources, basically.

[00:10:15] Saniza: And I don't believe there's a right or wrong way to do things so long as you give back. And I suppose how I divide or choose my causes is I do it through the arts and culture, education, diversity, and then children issues. So I help out quite a few organisations, maybe just to share.

[00:10:33] Saniza: So I qualified as a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators. And after that, I started helping them out on the East Asia Branch, and I did that for five years. Helping with the programming on the diversity. I was the Diversity Chair of the Subcommittee. I also help out my alma mater. And that's something you and I have in common I think Colin. 

[00:10:53] Colin: I also an honorary lecturer, and I'm also a external examiner, I was up there recently. Yes. And I was a lecturer, and I worked at Hong Kong U 83 to 88. As a lecturer of a law faculty. 

[00:11:05] Saniza: Right. So I had the great pleasure to go back to do my Master's at Hong Kong U. And I'm the chair of the Alumni Association. I was pulled in from the faculty and they asked me and the alumni to help out. And I moderate a speaker series for them.

[00:11:22] Saniza: I mentioned I also like mediating and acting as an arbitrator judge because I think it's very empowering to engage the new generation.

[00:11:29] Saniza: And a lot of my time is also carved out for the arts.

[00:11:33] Colin: Tell me a little bit about that. I know that you have a great passion, is art. I know you're an avid collector and you support various artists. How did that all begin?

[00:11:43] Saniza: So I think it probably one of the nicest thing about growing up as a third culture kid was being part of other people's culture.

[00:11:51] Saniza: And my parents instilled in me a love of the arts and culture and museums from a young age. And I'm often asked, why does art matter? And I reply, imagine a life without literature, without the visual arts, what would be the joy of life? And for me, art is really the highest form of hope.

[00:12:10] Saniza: And I think in today's world, we need hope more than ever, actually. So I think there's so much conflict, there's so much polarisation. And for me, I think art brings people together and so it's really a form of soft power. And I can find shared connections and the love of humanity through the arts. And that's why I'm very passionate about the arts, because I think it brings people together.

[00:12:32] Saniza: And I'm really privileged to have been involved through my love actually, through my collection. So, just a little bit about our collection. My husband and I co-founded the Michael and Saniza Collection back in 1999. And through this collection, we share our art.

[00:12:50] Saniza: It focuses on a pioneer artist, Yong Mun Sen, women artists, game changing artists, disabled artists, and Chinese contemporary ink. And through this collection, we try and organise. So I like to lend our collection to institutions so that art is to be shared. We firmly believe that.

[00:13:10] Saniza: But then, in addition to sharing the physical work, it's also very important to create a dialogue with the artists, producers, movie producers, art academics. To talk about the art, to find out why it was created so that we can have a meaningful conversation to bond, basically.

[00:13:27] Colin: Yes and that's quite interesting I wanted to mention that your husband, Michael Yong-Haron has been very instrumental in your setting up the collection as well. Can you tell me a little bit about this specific collection, I think our listeners will be very keen to know a little bit more about that.

[00:13:43] Saniza: The part of our collection, why our collection began in 1999 was to collect grandpa's artwork. So my husband's grandfather is called Yong Mun Sen. He was a self-taught artist. He was born in 1896 in British Raj Sarawak. So I think what's very interesting about him is although he was self-taught and there really was no art ecosystem at the time. He had the foresight to create institutions, art societies. So I think at least three have come as about of him with collective efforts with other people. And he was also progenitor of the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, which is the oldest art school in Southeast Asia. In fact, this year we celebrate its 85th anniversary.

[00:14:26] Saniza: But what is curious about this is that Michael, and many people are surprised to learn this, is he didn't inherit any of grandpa's artworks. So every piece in our collection was bought back from the market. And we had to go back out there to find his artworks through private sales through auctions.

[00:14:46] Saniza: So I think by doing that, you learn a lot about the artist. We now have about 70 artworks.

[00:14:54] Colin: Any left out there? Are you still hunting them down? That must be quite interesting. How do you go about doing that? I'm interested in that, you must do a lot of research trying to find out where they are.

[00:15:04] Colin: I presume they may be in some person's house who doesn't realise they have a painting by your grandfather.

[00:15:09] Saniza: Yeah, that's a great question. So I think a lot of this is luck. And so we've been at it for about 20 plus years. And you're right. Sometimes people don't know about what they have. But through creating knowledge, sharing it and having exhibitions, people become aware. Social media, the Internet helps a lot.

[00:15:29] Colin: Of course. 

[00:15:30] Saniza: And of course, I think as people pass and the collection goes on within the family. This is an excellent opportunity.

[00:15:37] Colin: That is fantastic, it's important. Now, let's talk a little bit about Hong Kong. Obviously, I just want to tell our listeners that you are a founding patron with your husband of the M+ Museum, a committee member of the Museum of Art, and you're very closely connected with the art community.

[00:15:55] Colin: When I first came to Hong Kong, I think we were in the dark ages, I was here in 81. And then slowly now where we are right now with over the in Kowloon M+, the Palace. We are really coming in to be the centre of the art world. Art Basel as well. So tell us about your involvement and how you've helped to encourage Hong Kong as being a centre of the arts and culture.

[00:16:17] Saniza: Thank you. I think I've been really, really lucky to be involved with institutions. So take, for example M+. I think it was really lucky that Suhanya reached out to ask us to be Founding Patrons of M+.

[00:16:30] Saniza: Likewise with the Museum of Art, The Friends, Nancy Lee reached out and asked me to join the committee. And also I help out with Asia Society. I'm on their Arts and Culture Council and Alice Mong reached out to ask me to join. So I think it's amazing that Hong Kong has these wonderful institutions and it's come a long way.

[00:16:52] Saniza: So I think when Hong Kong first started, the auction scene was thriving. So there were a lot of auction markets and you can see some amazing art. And I always say to people, do visit auctions because they bring old masters in and it's wonderful to be able to go there in one weekend and see the old masters. And it's just at your doorstep. 

[00:17:11] Saniza: But I think it's been amazing that we've been able to be part of this journey to see the art grow in Hong Kong and to see so many homegrown institutions like M+ of course, The Palace Museum and then local scenes like Parasite. And I think it's a wonderful time to be in Hong Kong because there's an amazing art ecosystem.

[00:17:30] Saniza: So it's just not the auctions. You have museums. You have curators here. And so this is exciting. And I think the future is up because I see Hong Kong's space as not only the centre for Chinese art. I think there's a lot of interest for modern art, contemporary art if you look at M+ museum. That we love our history,

[00:17:51] Saniza: you go to palace museum. And I think in order to have a good art market, you need a thriving ecosystem. And I think that is very apparent here. And I think I'm really lucky to have been part of this actually. 

[00:18:03] Colin: And think we're very fortunate to have lots of people, not only like you, but others who are really encouraging and putting Hong Kong on the map as the place to come to, that it's coming here and the opening up of Hong Kong with all the difficulties with COVID, et cetera, that we are now a real centre, not only for the tourists as well, but art and, coming here, like Art Basel was huge. Although it's very commercial, art Basel, but it's good.

[00:18:28] Saniza: I didn't mention that, and of course, the art fairs and you're right. So for me when I do work in the art, I always think, and I don't want to make this preachy, but how to preach to the non-converted how to get people who are not in the arts to be interested in the arts. So I think Hong Kong's an amazing platform for that.

[00:18:44] Colin: I think that's good, especially M+ because I noticed lots of school kids, even I pulled my grandson into M+ didn't want to go. But then he saw the setup, then he got quite interested, the way it was set out, and the different exhibitions, it was very, very well set up. 

[00:18:57] Colin: I'd like to go to another interesting topic, you’re Vice Chair, you mentioned it, of the Malaysian Chamber of Commerce and the Malaysian community. Tell us a little bit about that connection with your roots for Malaysia and what you try to do to help Malaysia promote itself here in Hong Kong

[00:19:12] Saniza: So, let me, first of all, I'm probably a little bit biased, of course, about the Chamber because I am a Founding Sponsor.

[00:19:18] Saniza: How I actually got involved through the Malaysian Chamber was I was asked by the Chairman Dato K. C. Gan, who is part of the Hong Leong Group also J. W. Marriott, and Dato Seri Cheah Cheng Hye, who is the Warren Buffet of the East, to come and join EXCO.

[00:19:35] Saniza: And as it so turns out to be, I was lucky to be the first woman Vice Chair. And the Chamber has really got great diversity now because we've got a number of women board members within that. And my contribution is I head up the Interchamber and Partnership Committee. And we try to look for collaborative ways to work with the community to share the Malaysian brand.

[00:19:58] Saniza: And also just find ways and I use arts and culture as one way, and just Malaysian businesses to come here. We're very proud that we have grown to 600 members and I think we're the largest Southeast Asian Chamber in Hong Kong. You don't need to be Malaysian to join the Chamber.

[00:20:17] Saniza: And something I have to mention that we're really proud of at MAYCHAM is our Malaysian Chamber Student Trust Fund. And since its inception in 2016, we have raised 15 million 1 5 million dollars Hong Kong to grant to students. So we found that a lot of Malaysians students come to Hong Kong.

[00:20:38] Saniza: And they study, and they're sometimes given a grant, an award, a scholarship to study, but no one actually takes care of their living expenses. And so, we've now dispersed 12 million to date to over 120 students for their living expenses.

[00:20:53] Saniza: And I think this is something that's quite unique to the Malaysian Chamber. We're proud of it.

[00:20:58] Colin: That's absolutely fabulous, and then I wholeheartedly agree with, I mean, the great thing about Hong Kong is our diversity from all chambers. They all come together to enhance and develop everyone's lifestyles here.

[00:21:09] Colin: You have a very, very busy lifestyle and I understand that, I'm interested in how you manage to have a little time off with this boating. I mean, you're a seafarer. I want to get it right. You're a qualified sailor with boats up to 50 feet and scuba diving. What's all that about? Every weekend on the boat? So I presume your husband's got your massive yacht, which you do go out to decompress on because you're so busy.

[00:21:35] Saniza: No, Hong Kong's a great place to live. It's in the centre of everything. Really, again, really lucky to live here in Hong Kong, centre for many things. So I suppose that's my love for diving began because I was actually exploring ecotourism in Malaysia.

[00:21:50] Saniza: And so we certified ourselves, As a nitrox and advanced diver, and there's some amazing places to be seen. An hour away, you're in Cebu. A couple hours away, you're in Redang, Tioman, Sipadan. And then if you go long haul, but this is the beauty of Hong Kong. It's connecting everywhere.

[00:22:09] Saniza: You get to go to Mexico, the Red Sea, the Great Barrier Reef, and because you're here in Hong Kong, I think we were really lucky to be able to get our PVOL license, of course, the pleasure vessel operating license. 

[00:22:22] Colin: That means you can drive boats

[00:22:24] Saniza: That's right. Of up to 50 ft. So it's not big boats, just a little tiny, but it's wonderful because we've got so many islands and Hong Kong's amazing that way.

[00:22:33] Saniza: I mean, Hong Kong's ecotourism is amazing. It's just beautiful. You've got the mountains, you've got the sea, and I think it's just as a result of living here, you just take advantage of the beauty that Hong Kong has to offer, right?

[00:22:45] Colin: Just last week and I was just hiking. I went to places which I've even I've never been to before, which are just around the corner and survived.

[00:22:52] Saniza: That's right, that's right. 

[00:22:54] Colin: I always like to ask my guests about the current situation. You've been in Hong Kong many, many years. We've been here, we've all seen the difficulties, the pandemic, the troubles, the politics, and we don't need to go down that particular road. But I get a sense you have a great affinity with this city.

[00:23:11] Colin: Your thoughts on its future? Are you going to stay here? Is this your home? 

[00:23:16] Saniza: So as to your first question affinity for Hong Kong, you're right. I think I have a strong affinity for Hong Kong for two reasons. I think the first one is I chose Hong Kong to be my home. I've lived here far longer than anywhere else.

[00:23:29] Saniza: It's a fantastic city. I tell this to people, once you find your tribe and you find the reason to be here, it's efficient, it's amazing. And you feel a love for it. I mean, look at us here, Colin. You're originally from the UK. And this is your home for, I think 40, 50 years.

[00:23:46] Colin: 43 years, odd.

[00:23:48] Saniza: Right, and this has now been my home for 22 years. And of course, there is a family connection for me on my husband's side on his maternal side. His family is very much entrenched in Hong Kong. His grandmother was a civil servant here, and she worked for the government until the 90s. And his family is entrenched in education and the law.

[00:24:10] Saniza: So for me, also, there's that family aspect, and that makes Hong Kong home for me. My thoughts, as to your second question, on the city's future. So I'm going to use the analogy of an hourglass. So on one end, you've got China. In the middle, you've got Hong Kong. On the other end, you've got the world.

[00:24:29] Saniza: So for the longest of time, the focus was Hong Kong as China's gateway. Now, I think things are changing and basically, I think our role for Hong Kong is to bring China to the world. So if you look at the various connect schemes in the financial world, the bond connect, the wealth connect, the stock connect.

[00:24:51] Saniza: I feel that we can bring China to the world on one side. And for my Chamber of Commerce work, I know there's a big push for family offices. And I think the role of Hong Kong here is to encourage family offices from ASEAN, my DNA, and of course the Middle East, and then there's a lot push to come here to Hong Kong to make it.

[00:25:13] Saniza: So for me, I think the future is looking very bright in Hong Kong. We're evolving into this new role. And I mean, at the end of the day, Hong Kong has always been about internationalism. So I think I'm very positive about Hong Kong,

[00:25:27] Colin: You're Home, of course, this is your home, This is where you're staying.

[00:25:30] Saniza: Yeah. 

[00:25:31] Colin: That's great, it's been a pleasure and honour talking with you. Thank you so much for joining us on Law & More. 

[00:25:37] Saniza: Thank you, Colin. Thank you.