Courage & Integrity: Sitpah Selvaratnam's Roadmap to Becoming a Fiery Lawyer
By: Nithiyah Tamilwanan
Acouple years ago, we interviewed Sitpah Selvaratnam on her first book, which was an exclusive insight into the arrest of Equanimity, the superyacht purchased with 1MDB funds by wanted businessman, Jho Low.
We learnt a bit about the woman behind the impressive career in maritime law – and she was absolutely awe-inspiring! So, when I heard that she was due to release a second book, I (yet again) jumped at the opportunity to interview her.
Yes, this is my second feature with the extraordinary Sitpah Selvaratnam… And yes, I was still incredibly nervous!
As soon as she spotted me peering into the meeting room, she stood up with the biggest smile on her face. I received the warmest hug imaginable. Sighing in relief, I thought to myself, “This is going to be just as great as the first time.”
As we sat down for the interview, I glanced at the front cover of her new book. It features a full shot of a beaming Sitpah with the title sprawled across one side of the cover: ‘Resolved! 8 Strategies to Be a Fiery Lawyer without Violating Your Integrity and Personality.’
My first question was naturally about the content of her exciting second release.
“I consider this book to be a compass to navigate through a chaotic world – both internally and externally. In fact, it helps me navigate my world. Every time I feel off centre, I pick it up and, very quickly, I’m back on track,” she says.
Sitpah goes on to describe ‘Resolved!’ as a guide, designed to reassure readers that they can have success without compromising integrity and personality.
The brilliant maritime lawyer even coined a term to help emphasise this point – SwithCOIN (Success with Courage and Integrity).
“You know, like Bitcoin?” she laughs.
Sitpah strongly debunks the notion that one is unable to succeed due to a lack of ability.
“That is completely untrue! I think we struggle with success because we lack courage. All we need is courage, combined with integrity, and before you know it, you’re living to your fullest potential!”
The eight strategies put forth in this book are tailored to ensure that young professionals are able to anchor themselves in their values as they overcome challenges.
It essentially sets out a guide to an alternative way of living – happily and wholesomely WITH success.
I was curious as to what inspired her to write this book. Why did she decide to share her secret to success?
“Over the years, people have constantly asked me how I do it all – career, family, society. Well, this book is the answer – it tells my story and how I managed it. It wasn’t easy but I found a recipe and now I want to share it,” she smiled.
But that was only one aspect of her reason to author this second book.
She constantly wondered why some people would sell themselves short. Why would they choose shortcuts as opposed to being true to themselves and their values? Was it because things got too difficult?
These ponderings led her to devising this alternative roadmap. She was determined to help people realise that they can achieve success without having to compromise.
I was enamored by the sheer determination in her voice and it reminded me that Sitpah has never just been an ordinary lawyer who has found success – she is driven by passion, grit and a selfless desire to uplift those around her.
You cannot help but be blown away by how she has managed to achieve the unimaginable while staying grounded, intent on finding ways to build a community of dreamers.
This is evident in how Sitpah chooses to spend her time. In the past two years alone, the lawyer has been heavily involved in all things career related.
Aside from her day job as a litigator and arbitrator, she is currently Co-Chair of the Asia Pacific Sub-Committee of the Equal Representation in Arbitration Pledge. Sitpah has also thrown herself back into conducting workshops on living skills for young adults.
“But most importantly, I had a big wedding in the family! My eldest daughter recently got married and that was certainly a high point in my life,” she grinned.
I sat there in awe, and the question surfaced before I could help myself: “How do you have time for it all?”
She laughed, “And that is exactly the question that prompted this book!”
Sitpah recalled a quote she mentioned in our previous feature – time expands with passion. She highlighted that the key is to find what you are passionate about and choosing to focus on these aspects.
“You can make conscious choices to focus on what you are truly passionate about and everything else will just fall into place beautifully,” she decidedly says.
When I asked Sitpah about aspects of her career she was most proud of, her answer was wonderfully unexpected.
She looked deep in thought as she explained,
“You know, honestly, I’m truly proud about the fact that I constantly choose to be the person I am. I choose to be the loving and giving daughter, I choose to be the wholesome companion for my husband, I choose to be the understanding mentor to my children, I choose to be the clever lawyer and wise arbitrator.
The material high points come and go but this is my substance and it is what I’m truly proud of.”
Minding The Gender Gap
Our conversation then shifted to the issue of female representation within the legal industry.
Sitpah describes how things have progressively improved for women in law over the years.
"For example, before the Equal Representation in Arbitration Pledge, the percentage of women appointed as arbitrators was less than 20%. But since the inception of the Pledge, about five years ago, there has been tremendous increase- close to 30% in some parts of the world!"
She is of the view that conscious initiatives like the Pledge will only make things better for representation in law.
However, the lawyer does not think that gender inequality has been completely eradicated.
Sitpah highlighted the 2022 report by the Bar Standards Board of the UK that reveals the wage disparity within English lawyers at the Bar. It was reported that the average income of female barristers is 52% of male barristers.
She then brings us closer home to the situation here in Malaysia. Although women make up more than 50% of the members of the Bar, there is a glaring inequality in the way work is distributed.
“It is rare to see a woman leading a team of lawyers in a big case. This could partly be caused by cultural influences, especially here in Malaysia.””
The author lamented the effects of gender roles in our society, especially how women are expected to be the primary caregiver in households across the country.
Throughout her career, Sitpah acknowledged how she was fortunate to never be told to ‘take a backseat and allow her husband to provide for the family.’
“But for the women who do face these questions, I will say this:
I have no qualms about being who I am and thinning myself across the board because I am living my best life. And this is an asset to the world as I contribute to so many facets of society! This is what we should ALL be doing!”
With the right emotional engagement, Sitpah believes women can do it all and that our purpose stretches beyond the role of ‘mother’ and ‘wife.’
She emphasized how this engagement should be encouraged by the various stakeholders within our legal industry. From law schools to law firms, women should be recognized and given equal opportunities in terms of employment and distribution of work.
“And to ensure women are not objectified at the workplace, law firms should also introduce policies on sexual harassment. This should never be something that women are expected to tolerate to move forward in their career,” Sitpah said decidedly.
Positive coaching, mentoring, counselling, workshops, updated studies on statistics – the expert lawyer suggested multiple ways in which law firms, law schools and the Bar Council could guarantee the effective participation of women in the legal arena.
Grappling with Disillusionment
That is how I would describe this process of figuring out my purpose and what exactly it is I want to do. For some people, this decision is easy but not so much for others.
Speaking to a world renowned lawyer who, after 30 years in the industry, still speaks with such passion, you cannot help but feel inspired. Perhaps this process does not need to cause such turmoil?
“This disillusionment you are feeling is a boon, not a bane!” Sitpah exclaimed, with a knowing smile.
“It is simply highlighting to you that there’s misalignment between what you are now and who you really are. Which is why these internal conversations you have with yourself are so important.”
Sitpah explained how this process will help us discover our authentic selves and this will carve out a pathway to push back against systems that should not be working as they are now.
She continued, “This generation is cleaning up systems that should no longer be in place. Just look at all they have been trying to change within law firms – from sexual harassment policies to emphasizing work life balance and respect.”
Sitpah insists that these are valid demands and they have given way to an interface between the generations.
“Law firms need to be more open and they need to listen to this new generation of lawyers who are trying to reform this rather outdated system. It should no longer be a top down approach, but rather a space that allows for constructive two-way conversations.”
It was incredibly refreshing, listening to an experienced, senior lawyer recognizing and advocating for changes we all want to see in the legal sphere.
At the end of our interview, I asked if she had any advice for young law graduates and lawyers who may be struggling with internal conflicts and disillusionment.
“Well there are 95 pages of advice right here!” she laughed, flipping through the pages of her book.
“In an nutshell, always remember that emotions are your dearest friends. They teach you so much about where you should be going. Don’t walk around them, walk through them so you can truly find your purpose.
Spend time identifying what comes naturally to you and gives you joy. This will attract abundance and you will find yourself achieving success without compromises or shortcuts.”
Who knew that all these unanswered questions could potentially be stepping stones to greater things that lie ahead?
As a young woman, navigating the world of work in this new normal and deciding if legal practice is truly my purpose, this conversation could not have come at a better time.
I walked out with a renewed sense of hope and comfort – I might not have all the answers now, but I know that success is imminent. I just need a little bit more COIN!
No words will ever do justice to the wonder that is Sitpah Selvaratnam. Her book, Resolved! 8 Strategies to Be a Fiery Lawyer without Violating Your Integrity and Personality, will most definitely alter your perspectives on attaining success within the legal arena and beyond.
Visit http://www.resolvedtobeafierylawyerbook.com/ to get your copy today!
Images courtesy of Moo Tik Pin