Gavin Foo

She was a role model for women and a sports icon who left a mark on Singapore’s sports scene. Annabel Pennefather will be best remembered as one who worked tirelessly to give women and girls the opportunities to participate in sports. 

Yesterday, the 72-year-old died of heart failure.

A recipient of Her World Woman of the Year 2004 award, Pennefather constantly offered ideas and played role model to younger sportsmen and women. She once said: “You’re grooming others to take over when you want to move on.”

Pennefather had a notable list of achievements in the polar worlds of sports and law. In 2004, when she took home the Women of the Year award, the then 56-year-old – an accomplished lawyer – was a legal consultant, and head of Singapore’s first dedicated sports law practice at Harry Elias partnership. 

In the same year, she led the country’s athletes as Team Singapore’s first female chef de mission to the Athens Olympics. Pennefather, who was also the first female president of the Singapore Hockey Federation, also earned the prestigious Asian “Women and Sport” trophy from the International Olympic Committee, which recognises her promotion of women in sports.

Photo Credit: The Straits Times

She was heavily involved in the local sports scene, having played hockey from a young age. The CHIJ primary and secondary alumnus was a national player in 1964 and became captain of the National Women’s Hockey Team in 1970. She held the position for 10 years and was a familiar face in sports news. 

Her late grandmother Alice Pennefather, a Singaporean badminton and tennis champion, was her role model. Pennefather said in one Her World interview: “She was a strong, sporty woman…truly a pillar of our family. She definitely held her own.” 

Pennefather’s parents were also sportsmen. Her father was hockey Olympian Percy Pennefather, and her mother was national hockey player Ruth Richards. Carrying on her family’s sporting legacy, Pennefather’s charisma and passion led her to take on many important roles.

From 1998 to 2000, she contributed vastly to the sports scene. She was the first woman to be co-opted into the Singapore National Olympic Council (SNOC) executive committee and later became its first female vice-president. She also became a council member of the Singapore Sports Council, and a tournament director of the Women’s Hockey World Cup.

In her hands, Singapore’s flag always flew high. Pennefather was Team Singapore’s Chef de Mission for many South-east Asian (SEA), Asian, Commonwealth, and Olympic Games. 

Photo Credit: Lim Sin Thai

In 2018, she stepped down after nearly 20 years of service as SNOC’s vice-president. She was succeeded by Ben Tan, the four-time SEA Games sailing champion.

Pennefather was also known for her diplomacy. Pennefather, who considered her daughter Vanessa as a friend was also a supportive parent. Her daughter, who is a Silkair pilot, once said: “People get turned off by strong, powerful emotions. If you have a combative approach, you evoke a similar response. By using a softer and well-argued stance, you get them to react that way as well.” 

Team Singapore said in another tribute post yesterday: “Her relentless pursuit of excellence transcended her sport. She was an outstanding lawyer too. But it was her gift to women and sport that she will be remembered most for. She used that hockey stick like a wand creating a myriad of dreams for women as they broke boundaries and tore through history books.

“She showed the female athlete it’s possible to strike a balance between sport and a career and she showed all athletes the importance of serving the country way after your playing days are over and she showed the community the importance of recognizing Singapore’s forgotten female Olympians.”

The Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations (SCWO) said Pennefather, a pioneering sports administrator, was due to be inducted into the Singapore Women’s Hall of Fame in March, but the ceremony was postponed to March next year due to the COVID-19 situation. She will be inducted posthumously.

Photo Credits: SNOC

Annabel’s achievements

1972-1977: Specialised in property law and international business transactions after graduating with a law degree from the University of Singapore. During her 11-year stint with law firm Donaldson & Burkinshaw, Pennefather was made its first female equity partner in a century

1970-1980: Captain of the National Women’s Hockey Team. She was a national player from 1964

1995: Vice-president of the Law Society of Singapore, one of a handful of women to serve in this position

1998-2000: Council member of the Singapore Sports Council, tournament director of the Women’s Hockey World Cup, chairman of Women and Sport Group Singapore from 1999 and tournament director for Women’s Hockey at the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000

2004: Singapore’s first woman chef de mission to the Athens Olympic Games. In May, she led Singapore’s first sport and law practice. She was named the first woman president of the Singapore Hockey Federation in July

2006: Elected as the first female Vice-President of the SNOC

Served as the chef de mission at the 2006 Asian Games

2010: Served as the chef de mission at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi

2012: Awarded the Public Service Star as a testament of her devotion to volunteerism

2013: Served as the chef de mission at the 2013 SEA Games

2018:  Stepped down after nearly 20 years of service as vice-president of SNOC.