Both an independent woman and family figure, SHABNAM ARASHAN makes life’s responsibilities seem like a breeze, learns Suhana Ab.
It is 12.30pm and Shabnam Arashan arrives for our lunch date right on time, looking polished in an understated Carolina Herrera pale yellow top, sharp black Alexander McQueen pants and not a hair out of place. Just so you know, this is after a turbulent morning of rushing to pick up her son, Raoul, who had taken a spill while playing football in school.
“He’s OK, just a small sprain on his finger,” she says with relief, as she points to a photo of the seven-year-old’s bandaged finger on her iPhone.
Being able to attend to such misadventures herself is something that the 30-something appreciates. After all, motherhood was the main reason why she chose to leave behind a decade-long legal career in 2012 — a decision which continues to surprise many around her.
But chatting with her today, it’s clear that Arashan — the perfectionist who once relished in approaching work with gusto, diligence and commitment — doesn’t regret her decision to exit the thrust-and-parry frenzy of the corporate world one bit.
With a cup of chamomile tea in hand, she lists the dilemmas of working mums: One of which is how they are constantly strapped for time — exactly the predicament she was in when 12-hour work days were de rigueur.
“When he was sick or participating in a school performance, I would be absent because I had to be in the office or at court attending to a trial. It always made me feel guilty,” she confesses.
Eventually, the guilt gnawed so much at her conscience that she felt the best way forward was to leave the law firm altogether. “I thought to myself that family comes first so here I am…” she muses.
As if right on cue to illustrate how the last two years have brought mother and son closer than ever before, the phone rings. It’s Raoul calling to ask permission to watch television in the middle of a school day. With ear to phone, she whispers to me apologetically: “Sorry, give me a minute. He’s milking [his injury] to get what he wants.”
Now fully hands-on with Raoul, Arashan is able to indulge in the simple things with him, such as meals and walks, something she used to miss out on. Even on days like today, where she gets to meet with other grown-ups, she’s only a phone call away.
But while Arashan may be a devoted mum, she’s not a stay-at-home one. Mindful of the need to establish her own independent identity, she still practices law, but as an assistant director (volunteer) with the Legal Aid Bureau, a department under the Ministry of Finance that renders legal advice to underprivileged individuals.
After years of taking on pro bono cases at her last law firm, it was only natural that she make the transition to volunteer. “It was something that I wanted to keep on doing despite leaving full-time work,” she explains. The thrice-weekly sessions keep her grounded, she adds.
“I meet people from all walks of life with real issues. And by that, I’m talking about not being able to afford basic needs such as a home, food and water,” she says. “It reminds me that we all need to be grateful for what we have been blessed with and never take life for granted.”
Being able to extend her help to others is what the self-professed optimist considers as a perk of her profession. One who believes in imparting knowledge and inspiring others, Arashan very nearly became a teacher instead. Fortunately (or unfortunately), she found that she did not have the all-important trait required of the teaching profession — patience.
It was a fortuitous encounter, at age 18, with some of her father’s lawyer friends who spontaneously suggested that she embark on an attachment at their law firm that set her on her path today. Enjoying the work, she decided to enrol in the law faculty at the University of Hull in London.
After qualifying as a lawyer, Arashan stayed on in the English city for another four years, returning only in 2002 to work at B.Rao & KS Rajah. A year later, she joined Haridass Ho & Partners, the firm where she began to specialise in maritime law.
It was her experiences working at the latter that has proved to be particularly invaluable. Especially more so now that she is weighing her father’s request to take a position at Selat Offshore, the shipping company that dad Arashan Ali founded in the 1980s and which operates in Dubai.
While she hasn’t yet agreed to join the family business, the younger Arashan has started to learn the ropes of the trade. And all bets are on her assuming the position. After all, it would be quite tough to decline the request of her father, a man that she looks up to and admires unconditionally. When fully inducted, she is poised to look after the contracts and legal arm of the business.
“My dad worked hard to build his company. His tenacity to achieve what he has and how he didn’t let anything get in his way is, to me, amazing. I would like to help grow what he started but of course, at a pace such that I have time for my family,” she says thoughtfully.
Arashan and her dad have always enjoyed a good relationship. A day doesn’t go by where they don’t talk on the phone. To her, he is more than just her father. He is a good friend, confidante and teacher.
What, then, is the best life lesson that he has taught her? “Oh, so many,” she replies without hesitation. “He always reminds me to never let ego rule you as it clouds your judgment.” A second lesson, which she holds close to her heart, is be true to yourself.
“How is success measured? By money; we all know that,” she says matter-of-factly. “However, money is not the be-all and the end-all. It is good for you to buy things but what you truly need is meaning. What is the point of having money when you have no meaning in life?”
To have meaning in life is to be passionate about your work and having a good family foundation, as well as friends who are loyal to you and you, loyal to them, she concludes: “These are the things and qualities that enhance you to be a better person — a person true to yourself.”
Her husband, Rajendran Kumaresan, a lawyer and former equity director at a law firm shares in this philosophy. Dubbing him as her “rock”, Arashan reveals that it is him who keeps her grounded, focused and real.
“I admire his tenacity, ambition and passion. He’s my best friend and I value his opinion. And to think, I’ve never been like that,” she chuckles. “I usually am sure of my opinion on things but now, I ask what he thinks.”
The romantic-at-heart met her husband of nine years at the Subordinate Courts Bar Room. She was chatting with their mutual friend when he walked up to say hello. A few exchanges later, the couple went on their first date and as they say, the rest is history.
Now a consultant to his former law firm, Kumaresan is being groomed by his father-in-law to take on a full-time leadership role at Selat Offshore. In the past year alone, he has made dozens of trips to Dubai to tend to the company.
The time away, Arashan admits, does take a toll, making whatever quality time they have together absolutely precious, be it watching a movie or a quiet dinner date. “You just need to enjoy each other’s company, no rocket science required,” she quips.
One thing that she enjoys doing for her husband is cooking her signature dish of Iranian biryani, which was taught to her by her mum Shaheda Arashan, from a recipe that dates back to her great-grandmother. Meal times, she tells us, are great for family bonding.
“My mum instilled very strong family-oriented values in me — to have filial piety and that family always comes first,” she shares.
When Arashan is not busy volunteering at Legal Aid and being a family woman, she is who we would call a fashion nerd. Throw her a question about the latest runway collection of a brand she loves and chances are she’ll be able to wax lyrical about the designer and his inspirations. Ask for her opinion on a trend and she will deliver a razor-sharp and often witty observation that makes perfect sense.
As expected, she is a voracious reader of fashion tomes and enjoys delving into intensive research whenever she spots a gown or look that she likes. “I definitely do my homework. I want to know the story behind it, the material used, what the designer thought…absolutely everything,” she declares. Haute couture in particular, she says, has elevated her appreciation for workmanship. “The execution is meticulous and the result is always stunning.”
Arashan admits that as she gets older, she has become more selective as to what goes into her wardrobe. “I like uncomplicated designs and tend to go for pieces that have not been worn by others. I also favour designers who are under the radar and who I predict will do well. Like they say, less is more,” she shares.
When asked what her favourite items in her wardrobe are, her answer takes us by surprise. “I don’t have any,” she says. “They are what they are — material possessions. I like beautiful things but I do not have an emotional attachment to them.”
Instead, what is precious in our cover girl’s wardrobe is a collection of drawings and notes written by her son, as well as the cards she’s received over the years from family and friends. She and Kumaresan even keep the clothes their son wore home from the hospital as a newborn in a safe.
Another item that she holds dear is a handmade card gifted to her by a young boy — a beneficiary of the Legal Aid programme — whom she had helped secure compensation after a motor accident. “I was so touched and felt great inside,” she says.
CREATIVE DIRECTOR CATHERINE WONG
PHOTOGRAPHER MICKY WONG
FASHION STYLIST TOETY LIANG
PRODUCER SUHANA AB
HAIR ARTIST GREGO OH USING L’ORÉAL PROFESSIONAL TECNI.ART
MAKE-UP ARTIST MARJORIE TEO USING YVES SAINT LAURENT BEAUTÉ
PHOTOGRAPHY ASSISTANT JASON ANG
FASHION ASSISTANT ISAAC LIM