In search of an education, away from S’pore


It sounds ironical to leave a country that boasts one of the best education systems in the world just to get an education. But that was what Winnie Chan and her husband, Keith*, did so that one of their two sons who is dyslexic could learn to read and write with confidence again. Unable to cope with the demands and pressures of the Singaporean system and with the child slowly losing his self-esteem, she had to do something fast and drastic. One August morning in 2007, Winnie boarded a plane for NZ alone. She left behind everything that was important to her, hoping to chance upon a solution, an injudicious gamble then, but one she never regrets.

Uprooting from a comfortable environment with familiar friends, a cushy job and financial stability into a foreign land without knowing what was ahead was not easy. Yet, with grit, the pleasant outcome awaited.

“I came here alone first because a childcare center owner was keen to interview me when he learned of the years of experience I have in early childhood.” When she was the principal of a PAP Community Foundation kindergarten, Winnie was known for her generosity and ability to cope with kids with special needs.

“I had no prior experience or training in handling children who needed special care. I just took in unwanted students.” She kept poor children in school but out of the register when she was instructed to boot them out for not paying fees in the country’s cheapest kindergarten. She welcomed children with learning disabilities and physical impairment when they were shunned by other centers.

“One after another, they came to her and then she became well-known. Such children flocked to her,” recalled Shane, freelance trainer, consultant and Winnie’s friend.

Winnie loved her job and under her care, many otherwise hopeless children were succored. Yet while she was able to provide education for such special children, she could not help her own son who was crumbling under the unrealistic expectations from the society.

As educators were measured by their students’ academic performance, they needed every child to ace in examinations. In particular, when her older son was twelve and due to sit the nation’s Primary Six Leaving Examination (PSLE), she found it impossible to meet the school’s demand to make him perform to the desired standard.

The pressure mounted from her in-laws as well; they failed to understand why an educator’s son’s result could be so lackluster. In Singapore, poor academic performance is often the reflection of poor parenting.

Under such tremendous pressure from all sides, and seeing how her son was losing interest in school, she believed they had to leave the country, for a second chance.

But life was not happy-ever-after for the family once they reached NZ. The health reports for Winnie and Keith indicated that they were both unfit for work and hence they could not get long term residency in the country.

To survive jobless in a foreign land was a feat. They had to dig into their savings for rent and medical check-ups and borrow more money for other expenses. Winter was harsh in NZ and the boys missed their friends. It was a journey fit only for someone with a mission.

Her mission was to search for an education for her son, and she knew they had made the right decision when her son reported that his new teachers looked at him and not at the white board when they spoke to him. They allowed him to learn at his own albeit slow pace. And without the national exams and the scrutiny of teachers and relatives, the pressure was off the whole family.

They found time to hunt and do outdoor activities. Their health status was eventually elevated by local practitioners, and Keith’s first job was at McDonald for $13.30 an hour. Winnie also found work in a childcare center where she works to this day.
Seven years on and their two sons have since completed their pre-College studies and left NZ to serve their two years’ mandatory National Service in Singapore. Their host country not only educated the boys but taught their older dyslexic son to pursue his passion with zest. Their mission is accomplished but they are not leaving. Keith and Winnie received their NZ citizenship just two weeks ago.

“We are going to buy a new home once we have renounced our Singapore citizenship!” The couple need not wait till 62-years-old to withdraw from their Central Provident Fund once they surrender their Singapore passport. With their new ‘windfall’, they will purchase a new house with fresh air and some of the best views in the world. Their medicine will cost $5 per prescription, and when they retire at age 65, they expect a super-annuation of at least $300 weekly.

To many, it is perhaps a knee jerk reaction when she left the country in desperation in search of a solution. But in doing so, she not only found new solutions for her son but a new life.

*I changed their real names to protect their identities.

*The above article was first published here, and is republished on this website with permission from the author.