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From left, Claire, Aira, Pann and Renn Lim in their home studio.

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The various editions of RUBBISH famzine which the family create and sell together.

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Rene Tan, Chuah Woei Woei and their daughter, Lara, in Venice.

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Clockwise from top, Cheng Liang Kheng, son Aaron, wife Sally Ong and sons Bryan, Christen and Darren.

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Despite his busy schedule, Mr Cheng still finds time to pursue his own interests.

Father's Day: Good Dad, Cool Dad

Singapore fathers are carving a middle ground between old-school Asian disciplinarian and liberal Western parent
Jun 14, 2019 5:50 AM

IN DECEMBER 2018, an article titled “The Relentlessness of Modern Parenting” published by The New York Times (NYT) went viral, with tens of thousands of online shares. It described how parenting has become more expensive and time-consuming than before, and how parents across all social classes are burnt out from helping their kids with homework and enrichment activities.

Just months before the article was released, KJ Dell’Antonia, a regular contributor to NYT’s parenting pages, published the book How To Be A Happier Parent. From her extensive research, she found that happier parents take a more hands-off approach to parenting, which includes not putting the kids’ needs above their own, teaching them to be self-reliant and allowing them to fail at some things, even.     

Happier parents, it seems, accept that they cannot fully control how their children will turn out. They do their best to discipline and reason, and hope the kids develop the confidence and common sense to do the right thing. They also take time away from parenting to pursue their own interests, shifting their perspective from “I’m raising a child” to “I’m raising an adult.”

Parcsen Loke, deputy head of programmes and development, and family life coach at the 19-year-old Centre For Fathering in Singapore, says: “Self-care has become a more important concept in parenting. Studies show that caregivers – of children, old parents or invalid spouses – need to take care of themselves too.

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Singapore dads say they’re not the strict disciplinarians their own fathers were. But they’re also wary of the more permissive parenting styles propounded by some experts, opting for a middle ground that allows them to be both authoritative and loving.

“Many have moved away from the non-demonstrative, emotionally-absent Asian father archetype and are involved with their children’s development,” says Mr Loke. “"But we also recognise that there’s no one single model for what a good father can be. Oftentimes, a good father has to be a different father to each of his children, because each child is complex and has his or her particular needs. At the end of the day, only your child – and no one else – can say if you’ve been a good father to her or him.”

This Father’s Day, we meet the modern fathers who are well on their way to earning the mantle of “Good Dad”.

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Pann Lim, 45,
Co-founder and Creative Director of Kinetic Singapore        

Pann Lim has never read a single parenting book in his life. And he doesn’t aspire to be the “perfect dad” either.

“As with all things, if you want to do it ‘perfectly’, it will be very stressful,” he says. So instead of fretting over the latest fads or findings on parenting, the creative director of the much-lauded agency Kinetic Singapore says: “I simply put in my best effort within the means and time that I have.”

Some might say Mr Lim is being modest. After all, he, his wife Claire, and their children Renn, 16, and Aira, 13, are the only family in Singapore who have their own award-winning family magazine, the RUBBISH Famzine series. You would often see them together at art book fairs hawking the famzine, which takes on wildly creative forms such as being sold in a traditional biscuit tin or a garbage bag.

Mr Lim says: “The famzine is just something fun and creative that we can all do together. I want my kids to understand how to execute a project like the famzine seriously. And at the same time, the famzine is a way for us to archive our family memories.”

The four also make up Holycrap.sg, an art collective started in 2011 after Mr Lim saw how much his son loved doodling. They call themselves that because “crap” is an acronym for Claire, Renn, Aria and Pann. They’ve held exhibitions of art works created by the various family members.

Mr Lim says: “I see our children as an extension of ourselves and our style, though at the same time, they have their own characteristics and personalities. So I enjoy watching these people who are a part of myself grow up and learn new things. I also enjoy seeing them tackle various challenges from their own youthful perspectives… I think of fatherhood as a two-way street where we’re both learning from each other.”

As progressive as Mr Lim’s parenting attitude may be, he is not averse to disciplining them the old-fashioned way. He says: “We shower them with unconditional love. But if they deserve a slap on the thigh or the arm, or a small slap on the face, we do that. Or else we sit them down and talk to them sternly. We don’t tolerate disrespect, especially if it’s towards their elders… In fact, if they don’t do well in studies, that’s fine by us. But they must treat people right. That’s far more important.”

Mr Lim credits this belief to his father whom he describes as a “traditional, no-nonsense Asian father”. But at the same time, he considers himself different from his father in crucial ways: “For instance, my wife and I are very accepting of the LGBTQ community. Our children’s godmother is gay, and we have a number of LGBTQ friends. But I don’t think it’s a community my father would be supportive of.”

Mr Lim also differs from his father in that he thinks of his children as “friends to be treated with respect and to sometimes guide”. Apart from those rare occasions when he has to discipline them, he sees them as people with their own goals and ambitions, and wants them to chart their lives without interference from him or Claire. The couple refuse to be the stereotypical Asian “Tiger” parents pressuring their kids to attain scholastic and career success.

He says: “I love watching them grow and finding their own feet. That’s probably why I don’t find parenting draining at all. I enjoy letting them be who they want to be, and being with them just gives me that warm and fuzzy feeling.”  

***

Rene Tan, 55,
co-founder of RT+Q Architects

Architect Rene Tan is not the sort of father who would breathe down the neck of his only daughter Lara, nor constantly nag her to do her homework. “I’m very much the opposite,” says Mr Tan, 55, co-founder of RT+Q Architects. “Rather than stress her out to study or practise her viola, I constantly remind her to relax, chill and sleep early.”

Mr Tan and his wife, Chuah Woei Woei, had Lara eight years after they got married. The couple married after a year of dating and felt that they would be better parents if they waited for some time before having a child.

Despite them being parents at an older age - Mr Tan at 40 and Ms Chuah in her 30s then - it was a choice that the couple don’t regret. Neither did they think about having another child.

“We didn’t have much help then as our parents live in Penang,” says Ms Chuah, who works in a bank. Lara, now 15, also didn’t want a sibling. “We asked her before, and she told us not to worry as she is fine by herself,” says Ms Chuah. Mr Tan adds, “parents need to listen to their kids.”

The proud father describes his daughter as “self-driven and very sensible”, and as her parents, they hardly ever had to worry about her.

He laughs when asked if he considers himself a tiger dad. Lara, a secondary three student, jumps in and declares, “If anything, he’s like a kitten. I’m not even a tiger daughter, I’m a Godzilla daughter.”

She describes herself as very ambitious, while her father does not compel her to do things, but nudges her gently.

Mr Tan says, “Fathering has been simple because Lara has a great mother in Woei Woei, who is the perfect example for her to emulate. What she is today is 90 per cent her mother’s hard work and care.”

Ms Chuah plans Lara’s needs and time, and when her daughter was younger, she  would come home at lunch time to spend time with her. Even today, she still walks Lara to school.

Mr Tan says, “My role is to fill in the blanks.” He provides for her what she cannot learn in school, such as exposure to the real world. He does this by taking the family on holidays, to places such as Petra in Jordan, to see the Northern Lights in Iceland and to Machu Picchu in Peru.

As a music lover, Mr Tan also makes it a point to show Lara leading concert halls, great opera houses and famous libraries of the world, because “music shapes our hearts and literature, our souls,” he says.

The love for music has rubbed off on Lara, a soprano with New Opera Singapore and a viola player.

Mr Tan believes his parenting instincts come from learning from his father, who isn’t a pushy person. “It is all about balance.”

There are rules that he sets himself, such as leading without stifling and sharing without imposing. “There has to be a balance between guidance and letting the child parent themselves; between giving them roots and stability and wings and freedom; and setting the child right when the need arises and allowing her to discover and right her own wrongs,” he says.

While being a father is a full-time job, Mr Tan hasn’t forgotten about spending time with his wife. They go out on dates, movie nights and on short getaways with Lara’s encouragement.

Lara talks to her dad about school issues, but when it comes to puberty talk, she turns to mum. The idea of having a boyfriend hasn’t popped into her head yet, but already Mr Tan has a way to test if a guy is good enough to be Lara’s boyfriend.

Both father and daughter are history buffs, so any potential boyfriends should brush up on that subject.

“It’s just to see whether the guy is cultured, and Lara approves of this test too,” says Mr Tan with a laugh. “But if the boy fails the test, Woei Woei and I will leave the decision to Lara.”

***

Cheng Liang Kheng, 49,
managing director of  Cheng Yew Heng Candy Factory

Like most first time fathers, Cheng Liang Kheng felt both excited and clueless when his first son, Darren, was born 21 years ago. “Thankfully, my elder siblings have kids and we picked up parenting skills from each other,” says Mr Cheng.

Together with his financial adviser wife, Sally Ong, the couple have another three sons - Bryan, 20, Aaron, 18, and Christen, 16. By the time Christen was born, Mr Cheng was no longer the clueless father.

Mr Cheng is the third generation owner of Cheng Yew Heng, which has been making rock sugar, red and black jaggery sugar since the 1950s. While in the past, kids were often expected to take over the family business, Mr Cheng doesn’t expect that of his sons, saying, “I won’t force them to do it.”

But at least one son is interested in the sugar trading business. Darren is currently interning at a sugar trading company in Switzerland, and has even persuaded Mr Cheng to consider expanding Cheng Yew Heng into Europe. Bryan has set his sights on accounting while the two younger boys may pursue careers in psychiatry.  

Mr Cheng believes in providing well and supporting his sons in their choice of education and also in their passions. Darren and Bryan are into swimming and water polo, and Mr Cheng will head to the pool to swim with them. Similarly, he will take time out to play badminton with Aaron and soccer with Christen, as each son pursues his interest.

On top of this, he makes time to take each son out to the neighbourhood pub for personal bonding sessions. “We talk about aspirations, boy-girl relationships and the birds and the bees. I’m open with them, and there are no secrets. The boys feel comfortable telling me things,” he says.

While he had to use the rod on the boys when they were under 10, that method no longer works. “You also can’t tell them what to do or ban them from certain activities,” he says. Instead, he lays out the pros and cons of their decisions, “such as telling them that smoking makes your fingers smell and it causes cancer, so they don’t smoke.”

Mr Cheng gives himself an eight over 10 on the fathering scale. “I’m around for them alot, and it does take effort,” he says. When he can, he picks the younger boys up from school or tuition, and “I have to attend four passing out parades,” he adds.

When Christen rates his father an eight, Mr Cheng asks why not a 10. “He often has to entertain and travel a lot,” says the secondary school student. “But I understand that it’s work. Dad gets an eight because he is very approachable, he will not judge you and I see him as a friend even though he’s my father.” He especially treasures the one-on-one time he gets with his dad over non-alcoholic cider.

Mr Cheng says his sons are all “very good boys with no bad habits, other than having to nag them at times to study and stop playing video games.” It is no wonder then that friends have come to him for parenting advice.

His advice is to “not impose your ways on the kids, listen to them, communicate often and not to be overly strict with them.”

While his time revolves around work and his kids, Mr Cheng is a firm believer in having time for himself too. He winds down by playing golf with his own friends.

“Self-care is very important only after the boys have completed National Service or I deem that they ready. The kids have their own time and I also have my own time. Of course we keep Mum happy too, so that the house will be happy,” he says.