All is fair in love and war. It makes no difference to me who is standing on the other side.
Decked out in a sharp suit with a nifty tie, Gan Guo Bin looks like your run-of-the-mill white-collared Singaporean working in the bustling financial district of the downtown core. Tailored pants, sleek briefcase paired with glossy shoes, he fits the part of an investment banker – but no, not even close.
In a world of puns and innuendos, one can literally classify Gan as a crime-fighter.
The 29-year-old Gan is a full-time practicing lawyer, as well as a martial arts practitioner – specifically in the art of Taekwondo.
Notable Taekwondo black-belts in popular sports culture include UFC fighters Anderson Silva, Anthony Pettis, movie star Chuck Norris, and footballer Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Avid chasers of American legal-drama ‘Suits’ could draw Gan as a close comparison to leading character Harvey Specter; who was seen in season four as a competitive boxer – but let us leave this for later.
“I’m currently a lawyer at Winston Quek and Company, and I’ve been practicing law for two years.” said the affable Gan. “Taekwondo wise, I was competing on the national team for a few good years. If I could pick up another vertical, maybe boxing. I’ve always liked the endurance factor in it. I won’t be taking part in it because the head trauma from sparring isn’t really ideal for my line of work.” he joked.
After 12 years training in the discipline, Gan recounts to us the amusing thought process on how he embarked on this journey.
“Actually, I’ve always had a fascination with martial arts and when I went to junior college, I saw schoolmates wearing funny uniforms. I thought to myself, it must be karate or something like that so I wanted to join. Little did I know it turned out to be Taekwondo, and I never looked back since.”
Gan saw his efforts turn into fruition when he was called up for the national team.
“I was training in JC from ’06 to ’07, two days a week. I was really interested in it so I kept going back to the gym and practiced alone sometimes. Then the dreaded call for national service came.” as he let out a faint groan.
“The two years was difficult for me to train, I managed to do some here and there but ultimately couldn’t fulfill what I wanted. I went to university and that was when I joined the Taekwondo Club in NUS (National University of Singapore). From there I trained and in ’12 there was a program at the National Training Centre where people get invited to go and train with the national athletes. I managed to stick it out there following a good performance at that year’s National Championships. Eventually, I was fortunate enough to be selected for various tournaments across the world.”
2012 proved to be a breakout year for Gan as he won the National Championships as well as awarded the Best Player of the Tournament. His performance at the Nationals earned him a trip to Mexico to represent the country at the World Taekwondo Championships. He was eventually knocked out in the round of 64 by Mario Guerrera but went home with a fascinating dinner story and experience.
“To be honest, I was severely overwhelmed at Worlds. So what happened was, when you start the match you bow, and the moment my eyes met his, I was already on the ground. The fella was so quick that I got kicked three times and couldn’t even react to it. It was so fast and by the time I realized what was happening, I was lying on my back. So that really messes with you, you know?”
“I was thinking to myself, did I get kicked three times? Or was it once. It definitely felt like three.”
And as all athletes do, Gan faced a similar adversary – injuries.
In 2014, Gan headed to South Korea and Hong Kong for intensive training and he alternated between both countries on a monthly basis. Disaster struck just three weeks before Nationals.
“I was so ready to compete, and I felt like I was in the best shape in my life. In fact, during the whole training stint, I was feeling 110 percent. And then one day at training, it just happened. The scan revealed a torn ligament and there was really nothing I could do about it. I felt really disappointed and almost decided to quit the sport entirely, especially after slugging it out in Korea and Hong Kong. It felt like everything had gone to waste.”
It took Gan six months before finally being able to kick without the nagging pain. But this was perhaps a turning point for the young attorney.
Due to his long working hours, Gan could not maintain his strenuous schedule on training at the gym but instead, took on a coincidentally similar role to his career – as a referee. The transition from competitor to referee might seem tedious to the average joe but Gan assured us that it was never the case. Rather, it allows you to mediate the fight with an advantage.
“Essentially what makes a good referee is that you must first be well-versed in the sport. And what better way to be involved than to actually have experience competing in it.”
Many would agree that the best referee is the one who does not interrupt the flow of the game but have their presence known to penalize infractions. It is widely considered an art of being invisible but present at the same time. Across all sports, it is fair to say that good referees will rarely receive recognition.
Gan added that as national selectees, they were also all encouraged to attend refereeing courses to better grasp the rules of a fight.
“There are concealed fouls and veteran moves that players all try to do. The thing is, the referees can’t really notice unless they’ve been in that situation before. As a player, it allows you to know what the referees are looking out for, you know what causes the point deduction, what you have to look out for and in the long run, it helps you significantly in your scoring.” he concluded.
However, in the past decade, tradition has made way for modern elements to further enhance precision scoring albeit giving up the true nature of a combat sport.
Instated in London 2012, competitors were introduced electronic vests that recorded contact, then in Rio 2016, headgears with sensors came into effect. The sensors reduce the risk-reward ratio for combatants to execute a flurry of kicks or high impact maneuvers which were popular in the early ’90s. Now instead, the legs are used more defensively to deny contact with the vests.
Nonetheless, Gan’s opinion was parallel to the federation’s direction.
“When you kick high enough and connect with the blow, the judge looks at it and gives you the point according to what he perceives. It is very subjective, much like ice-skating or even boxing to an extent. Judges give points based on what they see and hear. So to remedy that and remove human subjectivity, technology came into the picture.”
To Gan, fighting a court case, as cliché as it may sound, is almost identical to a Taekwondo fight.
“It’s really quite similar in a sense that, how you perform has nothing to do with the day itself. Aside from factors like who is your opponent, or who the referee is. I mean these things are out of your control. But to me, whether or not you win is determined by how much work you put in before. In a Taekwondo fight, it’s how long you spent in the gym. If you haven’t been training regularly, if you don’t put in the hours, then you shouldn’t expect to win.” Gan declared.
“Similarly for a case, if you don’t put in the hours for reading papers, you don’t do your meticulous investigation, you don’t read between the lines, once someone brings up a point you cannot answer there’s no time for you to go back and read. So, it all boils down to preparations beforehand. Don’t be misled by the movies or ‘Suits’ where a fresh piece of evidence gets presented, that does not happen in reality. And you will never get that opportunity.”
Speaking about ‘Suits’, Gan himself follows the series intently and has an interesting take on its legal authenticity.
“Most realistic part of the show? Mike Ross working ridiculously long hours!”
“I can attest to that!”
“Jokes aside, as I mentioned, last-minute evidence is definitely fictional, you can’t do that in court. Last minute evidence, last-minute appeals, random lawyers coming in to argue other cases, these are improbable. The only thing that I think is really similar is really the work hours and the fact that a lot of matters get settled before going to trial.” he added.
Through his years in the courtroom, Gan shared with us some compelling issues he faced.
“Back in the day, I started out handling a lot of divorce work. The natural inclination is to be affected, and as a human being, you would to some extent feel empathetic – unless you’re psychotic. It’s not so much as to isolate yourself from their problems but truly try to understand what they are really seeking for. In fact, most of the time family matters tend to be able to settle amicably outside the court. That’s what I’ve come to realize.”
According to Gan, some of the toughest cases are those which straddles borders. He shared with us a particular lawsuit by a parent who had their child abducted overseas by the spouse. Under Singapore’s law, if there is no treaty in this specific aspect with the other country, the case will be in limbo.
Aside from the emotional factors, being an attorney is no walk in the park, and Gan wants to put down the notion that lawyers have no work-life balance.
“I don’t believe it’s a question on whether firms give you enough work-life balance. The more important question is, what do you want out of work? If you’re the one doing the work, you can see the work translate into, for example, financial gain if that is something that you’re interested in. Then it’s not a question of work-life balance because you’re happy to go to work because you’re working for something you’re getting rewarded.”
“For me, every case I take on I learn something new. My own self-fulfillment is helping my clients get justice on what they deserve.
On which is harder, getting a black-belt or passing the bar exam, Gan’s responded swiftly.
“Oh definitely the bar, a hundred percent.”
“When you put in the hours and meet the requirements, you’ll get the title of black-belt. But passing the bar is a matter of distinction. You have to excel before you even get there.”