In many ways, Trina Liang’s journey has been like LOUIS XIII, made by craftsmen who knew not what would happen decades after the eau de vie was distilled
In March, as the world celebrated International Women’s Day, luxury Cognac LOUIS XIII released a campaign called Believe in Time. The campaign was striking, not only for the fact that it paid tribute to the concept of time as an irreplaceable element of the LOUIS XIII craft, but also because it closely mirrored Trina Liang’s journey in becoming one of Singapore’s most eminent advocates for women’s empowerment. The managing director of Templebridge Investments is also one of the foremost advocates for food sustainability in Singapore, and to say that her philanthropic work is extensive would be an understatement.
What keeps her motivated? “I’ve been doing it for so many years that I feel it’s part of my DNA and my purpose in life,” she says.
It all began somewhat innocuously. Liang had no idea of the whirlwind that would set her off on a lifelong journey as a catalyst for change. She had just received an invitation from Tan Su Shan, then executive director at Morgan Stanley and the current group head of Institutional Banking at DBS, to be part of the Financial Women’s Association (FWA) of Singapore.
At the time, Liang hadn’t thought much about it—she was an investment banker just starting to find her feet in Hong Kong after having transferred from London in 2001; the good old days of the bustling financial hub would have put paid to any form of life outside work, especially for the financial sector. And yet, it was here that the seeds for her activism and philanthropic endeavours were sown.
“It wasn’t a common thing to have a networking group of women, especially in banking,” she recalls. “ I think when you’re in your silos, you don’t think about what you can do for society, what you can do for other women, and what you can do to mentor the young women coming up in the space.”
Similar to how LOUIS XIII collaborated with changemakers Solange Knowles, Mati Diop and Guo Pei in a convergence of artistic visions, creative fields and cultures for its campaign, the FWA kicked off with women members representing the whole of finance, including private, commercial, corporate and investment bankers; all with unique perspectives and expertise. Liang and her fellow members came to realise that, collectively, they had the means to address important issues that women in their professional sphere should be looking at.
“It was a concerted effort to use our network and our collective financial power to effect change in society, particularly for women; what gaps there were in the government in terms of women’s policy that needed to be addressed and if we could fill those gaps,” she explains. And they started off focusing primarily on women’s issues; the first of which was for young single mothers who were not supported by the government.
Despite Liang’s impressive curriculum vitae that included stints with UN Women, she is forthcoming and candid about the fact that she never had a grand plan. Her contributions originated from modest beginnings, birthed simply from a desire to make a difference by leveraging whatever she had. You could say that she put her faith in doing the right things, and believed that things would get better with time.
It brings to mind a quote, often attributed to Bill Gates in one form or another: “Most people overestimate what they can do in a day and underestimate what they can do in a lifetime.” It cannot be more appropriate in the case of Liang’s ventures. Her journey is seemingly one of unstoppable momentum; a culmination of decades of good work and shrewd decisions.
In many ways, it was like fine Cognac; like LOUIS XIII, made by craftsmen who knew not what would happen decades—sometimes even a century—after the eau de vie was distilled. They know only that they had to produce the finest liquid that their hands and know-how could muster, so that the cellar master of their generation, or the next, would have the perfect components to nurture and to blend into a work of art.
Likewise for Liang, she believed that she was able to make a difference through her networking abilities. “I think people recognise the work I was doing in the women’s sphere then because I was in FWA,” says Liang. She believes that her high-profile roles had built her a network of associates who are fully aware of her body of work and sought her expertise for their causes. And it snowballed from there.
Liang herself is known as a champion of women’s rights and equality and started supporting these causes in the early 2000s, when the world was a different place. Back then, she says, only the US, Europe and Australia were ready to push the agenda.
Over the years, she has written articles trying to bring issues like boardroom representation and the gender pay gap into public conversation. She is well aware, more than most, that lasting change takes time, but believes also in the necessity of “planting seeds” in the right places.
“Certain things have to be in motion for something to happen. We needed the right things to come into place. Most important is the government—whoever is sitting in government needs to believe that the cause is something to champion at the time. It took a while to find that ‘people’s champion’ but finally in the last two or three years I would say after Halimah Yacob became president of Singapore, things started moving. Plant those seeds and hopefully they grow in time,” she explains.
Liang is cognisant of the fact that having the right people in the right jobs and in the right moments is more effective for meaningful change. Revisiting the LOUIS XIII analogy, the Cognac house represents the antithesis of what people expect of modern production, eschewing an obsession with speed and scalability in favour of quality over quantity; long-term results over instant gratification. Liang has a similar role, nurturing the many cogs in the social machine with patience, waiting for the day they all catch and set the wheels for a revolution in motion.
And she’s certainly appreciative of the progress that has been made—from 5.2 per cent representation in the boardroom in 2005 to 19.7 per cent today as well as the growing importance of ESG (environmental, social and governance) factors as criteria to list a company on the Singapore Exchange. ESG covers pressing issues such as the gender pay gap, minority representation, age discrimination as well as sustainability measures.
Liang is also hoping to drive awareness and change to the field of food sustainability, which is her other primary concern. “I felt there was a rising trend of people who wanted to understand what they were eating and how that impacted their bodies.”
She is speaking from experience, having had a health scare that precipitated her growing interest in the field—she had spotted a gap that she felt strongly about filling.
Thanks to her vast experience and carefully cultivated networks, Liang recognised that they had to approach the issue of food sustainability “as a whole” as opposed to “piecemeal”, and the result was the World Food Future conference in 2019, which called together food industry stakeholders—businesses, government bodies and scientific authorities—to kickstart the conversation, tackling issues like combating obesity and how to do so without compromising Singapore’s reputation as a food paradise.
While she suffered a setback when the 2020 edition of the conference was scuppered due to the pandemic, Liang was able to see the upside. “Once COVID hit, everybody understood food security. I didn’t need to do anything.” In the meantime, she got together her friends to discuss sustainability as a whole as opposed to sectors. It would lead to her establishing Women in Sustainability & Environment (WISE) after COP26 (United Nations Climate Change Conference 2021). “The long-term goal is to find partners in other Southeast Asian countries and get them to start their own WISE,” she adds.
Aside from her high-profile advocacy work for women and sustainability, Liang and her husband Edmund Lin, a partner at Bain & Company, are known for their philanthropy work. They started Lin Foundation, with help from the Community Foundation of Singapore, to celebrate their 20th wedding anniversary. The foundation supports causes that they hold dear to their heart.
For Lin, it was an opportunity to create international educational opportunities for students of the Singapore Management University through scholarships; for Liang, it was a range of causes for women like United Women Singapore, the arts like the Singapore Repertory Theatre, and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA). “A lot of people identify me with women’s empowerment, sustainability and even education because of my husband. But really, the closest cause to my heart is SPCA. I rescued a dog 10 years ago and she’s very close to me,” she beams.
Just as Diop and Knowles’ collaboration is also a celebration of process, layering elements that build up into an artistic production that embodies their spirit along with “the feminine spirit of Mother Earth”, the Lins can look to their life’s work as a culmination of belief in doing whatever they can, whenever they can, to give back to society.
Liang acknowledges that her friendships, especially those forged that fateful year in 2001, were crucial to her advocacy breakthroughs. “I do think that it sounds really cheesy, but my friends have been a real treasure in this journey, because if I didn’t have this group of women supporting me, I don’t think I would have been able to achieve half of what I have. We support each other and that is what keeps us going,” she explains. “In 2001 it was like, oh my God, I’m getting thrown all this work and I don’t have time to focus. But it was probably the smartest thing I did that year.”
What’s often not spoken is the reality of uncertainty, especially in the realm of advocacy. In a way, there has to be an implicit belief that one’s actions will come to fruition with time. Although Liang started on her journey just over 20 years ago, she notes that many positive changes have only taken effect in recent years. And despite the long wait, she considers herself fortunate to be able to see them.
Banks like BNP, DBS and Westpac have their own women’s groups and groups like Women in Private Equity have also sprouted; she would like to think that the FWA had a part to play in all of this when it started all those years ago. Liang laughs at the suggestion that she might have had a hunch that things would pan out this way. “How? There are so many things that need to be in place. You don’t know what the moment is and when it will happen.”
Perhaps then, it was the inevitability of the power of belief—belief in oneself, the belief of true friends, and to believe in time.
Visit the LOUIS XIII website to discover the creation, Believe in Time, and the artistic campaign
LOUIS XIII is available for purchase in Singapore at the brand’s shop-in-shop in The Whisky Distillery’s flagship store at One Raffles Place. Opened in 2021, the first of its kind shop-in-shop offers the widest range of LOUIS XIII products available in the domestic market in Southeast Asia, including large and rare bottles. Interested customers may also contact Kristine Lim, private client director for LOUIS XIII, at [email protected] to enquire about purchasing