International Women’s Day Edition: The ’80s—Ms. Sugidha Nithi

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This is 1 of the 11 interview features as part of our International Women’s Day Special Edition.

By Shaun Loh (21A01A) 

RJC alumna Ms. Sugidha Nithi (RJC, 1982) is a distinguished litigator and businesswoman. As the CEO of Sugidha Nithi Consulting, she provides client-focused solutions to business challenges and risk assessment. We spoke to Ms. Nithi on her time in Raffles, her hopes for women in business and her vision for minority women in the future. 

1. What are your fondest memories of studying at RJC in the early 1980s? What were your favourite activities to do at the Grange Road campus?

The Grange Road campus was actually called Raffles Institution (till 1981). The name changed to RJC when the school moved to the Paterson Road campus in 1982. I have so many great memories of my time at RI and RJC. My fondest memories are of playing frisbee in the basketball court at RI during breaks, rehearsing for (and performing in) the play, “Julius Caesar”, performed by the Raffles Players in 1981 at Victoria Theatre, rehearsing for and performing at the Drama Festival at the Drama Centre in 1981 (in a play written by Mohan Sacchariah), supporting my friends at the athletics meets and rugby games and my favourite pastime, hanging out in the canteen (both at RI and at RJC) with friends. I made some amazing friends in RI/RJC and am still very close friends with a few of them till today, 40 years later (this year)! 

Ms. Nithi’s time in RJ! 

2. As an active participant in civil society with women’s NGOs like AWARE, how else do you think our local civil society can progress and improve?

I think we need to actively engage with young men and women on issues relevant to society and our country so that more of them start thinking about these issues and myths and misconceptions are dispelled. Such engagement will also lead to more young people getting actively involved in helping the less fortunate in our community, in addressing systemic issues and helping move forward the agenda for global issues that we should participate more in.  

3. When you first started off as a lawyer, were there any barriers you faced as a female professional? How did you overcome them? 

There was (and is) an unspoken barrier for women who want to be litigators because there was (and still is) a perception that men make better litigators. Also of the women who do start off there, not many seem to want to practice litigation and change course along the way (probably because it is a difficult job to combine with raising a family). This made employers favour men over women when it came to hiring. Despite my Second Class Upper degree, it was not easy to secure a job doing litigation. This was made worse by the fact that I am a minority, which was the least favoured hire at the time. I did eventually get a good job at M/s Tan Rajah & Cheah, a boutique litigation law firm with no prejudices and great work ethics, and I had a great career there with many opportunities. Another barrier in the very early years was not being treated as an equal by male litigators, especially the older ones. They had a tendency to assume I was not as good as they were and would be somewhat condescending to me. Instead of trying to prove my worth to them when they behaved like this outside Court, I used it to my advantage (because it meant they were underestimating my capability) by turning up in Court very well prepared for all my cases and giving them a very (unexpected) challenge in Court. 

3. What other challenges do you think women rising up the corporate ladder face?

I think one of the biggest challenges women face when trying to rise up the corporate ladder is that they are still judged on things other than their performance. “Likeability” is a huge factor—more so for women than men—which nobody really admits to. Other factors include how women dress, how they interact with people (for example strong, opinionated women are often perceived as aggressive or difficult whereas strong, opinionated men are seen as leaders and go-getters) and their family situation (do they have young children, are they planning to get pregnant, do they have old parents to take care of etc. etc.—factors that affect men less as these are seen as the women’s duties still).

4. As a woman of minority race, have you felt like you had to overcome any additional obstacles to reach your goals?

Apart from the fact that it certainly is an obstacle to being hired, it is sometimes an obstacle to attracting clients as well, who have the similar perception that male litigators are more aggressive and better. In addition, Chinese clients will often have a subtle preference for Chinese lawyers. The best antidote is to consistently perform well for your clients and then rely on word-of-mouth recommendations from these clients. 

6. Any advice for women in Singapore looking to join business?

My advice is to be fearless and refuse to condone any form of bias. If you come across as having little regard for such things whilst putting forward your best, kick-ass self, you are going to stand out and get noticed! 

6. Throughout your life or career, did you have any female role models? How did they inspire you?

I actually did not focus on any role models. I had a huge amount of self-belief that if I set my mind to something, I could accomplish it … and I just went about doing just that! 

We thank Ms. Nithi for her time, and wish her all the best in running her consultancy firm and other endeavours.

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