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Being Kiasu Dad… Just Once A Week

18 July 2012

Neil Humphreys says it's all for a good reason.

Singaporean parents touch my arm sympathetically and nod their condolences. They can’t begin to imagine what I must be going through. For them, it must be worse than a family bereavement.

I left Australia to return to Singapore. My loss must be ever so painful.

When I explain that I came back, partly, for my daughter’s education, sympathy quickly turns to contempt.

“You sold out,” a Singaporean auntie and long-time friend said. “You used to tekan all the kiasu Singaporeans in your books. You said our students studied too hard, you said it was counterproductive and now you’ve become another typical, kiasu parent. Shame on you, ang moh.”

She didn’t say the “shame on you” part, but her tone and demeanour did.

Intriguingly, I’ve been accused of “selling out” on more than one occasion, apparently rejecting the carefree, bohemian ideals of my earlier Singaporean books to become just another kiasu clone.

It seems that I’m a “sell out” unless I pull my daughter out of school in K1 so she can hang out with Hells Angels, marry a bearded biker called Bub and carry out drug runs to Colombia.

Rest assured there hasn’t been a sudden metamorphosis into Kiasu Dad; just a continuous evolution, I hope, of sensible, practical dad.

Mandarin Chinese will be a pivotal language by the time my daughter reaches 21. (If nothing else, she might need conversational Chinese for those international drug runs with Bub the biker.)

Few other countries underscore the value of multilingualism – and the cultural and economic barriers put up by being monolingual – quite like Singapore.

Growing up in a distinctly ordinary secondary school in London, most English students struggled with English. Asking them to learn a second language was like asking them not to set fire to the science benches with their Bunsen burners. It was never going to happen.

When I first arrived here in 1996, I had a friend from Yorkshire in tow. For three months, I was the interpreter, translating his English – into English.

It seems that I’m a “sell out” unless I pull my daughter out of school in K1 so she can hang out with Hells Angels.

But I can’t speak Mandarin beyond its rudest words (I’m fluent in Hokkien on this score). Nor can my wife and most of Australia. So we moved back from Australia and joined the tuition centre traffic at weekends.

On Saturday mornings, the creaking lifts of Marine Parade Central pack in so many parents, children, rucksacks and folders that we should start bleating while we wait for the sheep shearers.

When we all spill out onto our respective floors in search of academic enrichment (very popular tuition word, that one), I watch other children scurry through the glassy facades of their centres, duck behind a partition and disappear for the next hour or so.

I’ve no idea what goes on behind those partitions. In my mind’s eye, children are strapped to electric chairs and given a quick zap whenever they get their seven times table wrong (well, this one’s particularly tough.)

When the children finally emerge, they waddle out carrying a dozen textbooks, looking like the hunchbacked King Richard III .

They can’t even attend “run-of-the-mill” tuition centres anymore. They must attend elite tuition centres staffed by Super Tutors; you know, the Stop-A-Speeding-Bullet-and-still-Get-an-A-For-Maths Tutors.

So I think one Mandarin class a week is more than enough extra academic enrichment for my little one.

I didn’t “sell out” to kiasuism or succumb to tuition centre addiction. I just provided a vital language opportunity for my daughter that didn’t exist in Australia.

A regular, sensible education will take care of everything else. And she can always come to me for the Hokkien.


Neil Humphreys’ new Singapore book, Return to a Sexy Island, is available at major bookstores.

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