Photo: The Peak
If you need some #fitspo, scroll through Trina Liang-Lin’s Instagram profile. This lady means business when it comes to her fitness regimen; nothing comes between her and finishing those bent-over rows or dropping huge sets of push-ups.
The results you see have been eight years in the making, the last one and a half of which was intensive training. As the immediate past president of the Singapore Committee for UN Women, and an outspoken champion of social and gender inequality issues, Liang-Lin has sought to better the lives of different communities.
Yet, in her busyness, the managing director of investment research consulting firm Templebridge Investments admits she neglected her own wellness – until she received a wake-up call in the form of a government letter.
“Eldershield,” the 48-year-old deadpans. “It’s like getting the national service call-up letter for a guy. I think it’s a bit of a shock for a woman. I thought to myself, I actually have to start preparing for old age.”
“It’s like getting the national service call-up letter for a guy; I think it’s a bit of a shock for a woman.”
“By the time Eldershield comes, it’s also at a stage when you become more introspective about life. My mum died at 40. My family has a history of diabetes, so I am at risk. I was pretty fit in school – I played netball and I was in athletics. You just think you’d always be fit. The years of wining and dining catch up.”
To equip herself for the future, she devoured knowledge from different avenues like books – she cites Dr Michael Greger’s How Not to Die, Tim Spector’s The Diet Myth and Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma as being most impactful – and going for retreats and seminars. And in her quest, she noticed disparate parties – from government agencies and food companies, to academics and consumers – echoing a common concern: the future of food – its safety, nutrition and innovation, sustainability in its cultivation, impact of its growth on the environment and so on.
“Yet these stakeholders are not getting together to talk about it,” she says. “You have to break out of the ‘why bother’ stage. As an economist, you’re trained to look at the future and risks in any which way, and prepare for them. I’ve had a personal journey that I feel the community could benefit from. In my research into the current state of play, I’ve found that existing conferences are either for trade or too academic; I wanted to attend some of those but couldn’t because I wasn’t part of the industry. The consumer is the central piece (that is consistently left out).”
Fresh from stepping down from her position at UN Women just last year, Liang- Lin is back at it again: empowering people.
The multi-hyphenate has set up a social enterprise, Halo Health Asia, which aims to promote conscious food decisions by providing consumers with the latest in nutrition and food innovation. Its flagship annual event, the World Food Future for Women (WFF) conference, will debut this month at One Farrer Hotel, and its school nutrition programme, Foodsteps, is slated to be rolled out next month. Initiatives to involve the greater community will follow next year.
Her own food journey has been about understanding her body, experimenting with different flavours and becoming more aware of the effect that certain foods have on her – she’s realised that eggs have a negative effect on her gut, and has grown to like parsley, which she “hated as a kid”.
“I believe in enjoying the moment. I try not to be too hung up about these things. I eat everything – and very happily so. But I might consciously cut back the day after get-togethers,” she says. “You may say you don’t like vegetables or fruit. I really believe that there’s bound to be one that you like – you just haven’t found it yet.”
Eating competency – which is determined by eating attitudes, food acceptance, self-regulation of hunger and fullness – is one of the core topics that will be discussed at WFF. In a bid to make the conference more accessible – she refused to throw a one-night charity gala because “who are you really trying to impact?” – and to encourage more meaningful conversation, she’s bucking the trend of sky-high prices for similar events.
Net proceeds from WFF, which costs $267.50 per person, will fund Foodsteps. At press time, 23 of 30 tables had been sold.
“Do we want such important discussions to be confined to spaces that encourage only a certain group of us who are lucky enough to be part of that group?” she says. “This is important information that needs to be pushed out into the community.”
“From my background, there’s always this thought process – how do you make it into a movement; how do you involve others; why should it be just a personal decision; and why should we rely on government agencies? It ought to be something that encapsulates more partnerships towards a goal.”
It won’t be the first time Liang-Lin has pushed the envelope and changed status quo. In 2001, she was roped in by Tan Su Shan, then an executive director at Morgan Stanley and now DBS’ new head of institutional banking group, to co-start the Financial Women’s Association of Singapore.
It was the first peer support group of its kind for women in the financial world, and has since spawned many women groups within financial institutions.
Long before Stem (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) became a buzzword, she launched a UN Women campaign called Girls2pioneers in 2014, which aims to raise awareness and cultivate skills in the aforementioned disciplines among students.
To date, over 20,000 students have participated in this programme. She and her team at UN Women also successfully lobbied for a mandatory rest day for foreign domestic workers.
“I’m always searching for areas where there are gaps that are overlooked or which I feel will be important in the future. Then you move on when you feel that there are enough people in that space,” she says. “I like having many things going on and pushing myself out of my comfort zone to learn something. I like to tick off boxes.”
Road less travelled
The morning light that fills the gilded interiors of the Atlas bar, where this interview takes place, drapes gently over her arms and shoulders, showing off the muscular definition that she has worked hard to achieve. Don’t get excited – we’re chatting over coffee.
Her initial struggle to set foot in the gym on a regular basis nearly ended her fitness journey prematurely. But as her mind grew more curious about wellness, the physical work “naturally followed”. It’s been 18 months since she got serious about fitness and, now, she’s moving nearly twice her body weight in sled pulls and prowlers.
The day before this interview, Liang-Lin had broken new ground with diamond push-ups. With hands positioned such that the index fingers and thumbs make a diamond/triangle shape, this variation forces the elbows to remain close to the body and primarily targets the smaller and weaker triceps.
“Isn’t it amazing that I have become stronger and more flexible than when I was half my age?”
Trina Liang-Lin, on the results of her intensive fitness regimen
“I managed to do 10 to 15. It’s really tough. I’m still considering whether I should put up this video. I think people are getting sick of me and my push-up clips,” she says with a chuckle. “People really started noticing body changes when I amped up my weights and muscle-building routines. Isn’t it amazing that I have become stronger and more flexible than when I was half my age?”
As it has turned out, the revitalised faculties of mental toughness and physical endurance are what Liang-Lin is leveraging on in her new pursuit. Never mind that she’s never organised a conference. Never mind that it “makes no sense from a time/effort perspective”. It’s the best route to take, she insists, when trying to educate and build a community.
Indeed, those first few months of planning this project were a heady rush of ideas; she admits she was “kind of all over the place”. But she committed herself to fulfilling tasks, such as learning coding. She also wrote every word you read on the WFF website. She’s grateful for friends and even ex-staff who have been supportive, even though “some of them said they didn’t really understand what I’m trying to achieve”.
“I’ve always gone into big establishments such as UN Women Singapore – you know what to do next, because the framework is there. The difficulty of this is not having a map at all; you decide how it’s drawn. When setting up a new venture, it’s about knowing who to talk to in the initial, middle and end stages. In the first two years, you lean very strongly on your own first tier network, who are your close friends and sounding board.”
Like Jonathan Kua, ST Engineering’s senior vice-president of technology planning, who was one of the first persons Liang-Lin discussed her new venture with.
“If he had told me, ‘Trina, I don’t think this will work,’ I wouldn’t have gone ahead,” she says. Kua, who was previously Economic Development Board’s director of the new businesses group, then introduced her to Ralph Graichen, a biomedical and nutrition expert at A*star. Both Kua and Graichen are WFF advisers.
“I like the challenge of keeping up with things. That gives me energy. Some people have told me I’m mad. I feel I’m in a position where my network can bring about change in the community.”
Here’s to the crazy ones.
Here's to good health
In her journey to a better state of mind and body, Liang-Lin has sought restoration in retreats. Kamalaya in Koh Samui, Como Uma Ubud in Bali and Aman-i-Khas in India are her top three picks. Those places have also renewed her appreciation for local fruit like jambu air, guava and papaya.
“The staff in all three places make sure that their food is wholesome, nutritious, lovingly prepared and customised,” she says. “A majority of food that they source is sustainable and grown in local communities. The chefs are happy to share recipes and advise you on good nutritional eating – and are clearly interested in guests’ well-being.”
This article was first published on The Peak Magazine.