Father’s Day will probably never enjoy celebrations in the scale of the corresponding occasion for female parents, but that’s not a bad thing. At least, not for me.
Being a father for just over 12 years now and despite being a part-time single parent (on the three or four days a week when the wife is away on account of our business interests in Kuala Lumpur or Jakarta), I am well aware that I will never be as important to my son Alexandros as his mother is.
Playing with him, seeing him smile and making him laugh are the things I enjoy the most, though I’m under no illusion that he would prefer to hang out with me than Cara, my wife.
Which is not at all the case for George Ie and his three children – Michelle, 18, Alex, 14 and Angel, 13. If you listen in to their banter without the benefit of an image, you would think they were four kids in conversation.
“It’s fun,” said the youthful-looking, 51-year-old owner of IT firm Mavericks Consulting. “You never know what to expect from them – what they are going to do, or say. It’s because they are growing up and have their own circle of friends, and so interesting things just pop up every day,” he added, when I met him and his teenaged brood at Thomson Plaza on a weekday evening.
George separated from his wife in 2008 and has custody of the children mainly because they prefer to be with him instead of their mother. Two days before our meeting, he had taken the three of them on a day trip to Johor Baru.
“We went to a karaoke,” said George. “And these two (he points to his daughters) hogged the microphone.”
“Michelle sang 100 per cent of the songs,” said Angel. “She knew all the songs and sang at least part of every song. I sang about 80 per cent of the songs. Alex barely sang at all,” she added.
Perhaps playing football is more his thing.
“I take them to play football on Mondays,” said George.
“But Michelle is always busy on Mondays,” exclaimed Angel. “She’s always on FaceTime with some guy.”
“I don’t even have that app on my phone,” protested Michelle. Turns out she has been on Skype with a guy friend she insisted is “as good as a girl”, whatever that meant.
“Dating, ah?” asked George.
“No!” screamed Michelle.
“It’s really difficult to find out what she is up to,” said Alex.
The bond between father and children started at a young age. And within a month of being separated, George took the three children – then aged nine, five and four – on a three-week holiday to Hong Kong and Japan.
“It was quite ambitious and challenging – just me with the three kids. And at that time, Alex and Angel were still using diapers, so half of our luggage was filled with those, and milk powder,” he explained. “Also, we had no winter clothes for the Japan trip, so we loaded up on those in Hong Kong.”
They also went shopping throughout the trip and at the end of each day, they decided what was not immediately needed – mainly toys – and shipped those home to Singapore.
“That trip was a memorable one,” said George.
As a single male parent, has he had any trouble raising the two girls?
“Nope,” he said firmly. “Physically, there is a difference. But all the information you need is available online,” explained the IT professional. “What clothes to buy, things like PMS, even buying a bra – it’s not at all difficult to get the information you require.”
But it is not all fun and games for George and kids. There are household chores, and these are shared among the children.
“For instance, Alex does the laundry, Michelle irons the clothes and Angel does the folding. For meals, Michelle would do the cooking, and Angel and Alex would do the dishes,” said George.
In the early days, money was a problem, said George.
“Childcare was about $1,000 for each child, and then there was rent to pay because we had moved out. I also had to hire a helper in the early days,” he explained. But things got better after he left the company he was working for in favour of a better paying job.
Through the years, his children have been trained to be independent, and although he makes it a point to have dinner with them every day, he does have a social life.
“I still go out,” declared George. “And Angel will impose a curfew, which I never observe,” he added with a chuckle.
Will he remarry? He nodded.
“But I’m not actively looking,” he added nonchalantly. “If it happens, it happens. Meanwhile, I’m just enjoying life with them.”
One father who had to be reminded to enjoy his time with his children is Collin Chee. The former Channel 8 actor, ex-national football team assistant manager and hitherto ambassador for Dads for Life – a national movement started in 2009 that seeks to “inspire, mobilise and involve fathers to become good influences in their children’s lives” – had been living in Indonesia for six years (2009 to 2015) as he helped manage his late father-in-law’s food business.
“One Saturday, one of my colleagues came and asked if he could call it a day at work. It was 5pm, but we weren’t done with work yet,” said Collin, 51. “I told him that he could leave when work was done, but he explained that he needed to go to his mother’s home, which was a three-and-a-half hour journey from Medan, where we were.”
That jolted Collin into thinking about his own family in Singapore.
“I asked myself, what about my own family? Why am I not spending time with them?”
He also saw how his colleagues, who made just $150 to $200 monthly, did their best to spend time with their families.
“They gave time to their families,” recalled Collin. “And money cannot buy time. I realised I had been giving so much of my attention to my other pursuits – football, entertainment, acting, and it made me think, ‘Collin, don’t you think your children deserve your passion’?”
He returned to Singapore in 2015, and in August that year, was called upon by a former footballer at Tampines Rovers to set up a football team for Dads for Life, which he now manages. Being involved in the movement has made him even more aware of how important fathers are.
“It is not just about going out and putting food on the table,” he said. “Society needs fathers. I found out that 70 per cent of juvenile delinquents are from broken homes, and most of the time it is the father who is the problem – violence, abuse, gambling,” he added, shaking his head deliberately.
Now, the dining table he set up upon his return is the most important place in their terrace house. There is a simple rule there: No mobile phones are allowed. It is the place where Collin shares his experiences, in Medan and elsewhere, with his four children – Cedrique, 20, Cepheaus, 18, Cassidy, 17 and Cally-anne, 15.
“We are very safe and protected in Singapore. What we experience of the world is mainly through the safety of a digital TV screen. It’s all theory. In Medan, I experienced riots in 2012, and that was really scary. There were also two earthquakes I went through, one of which made the four-storey building I was in sway,” said Collin.
He also saw how a man in a village put a meal together with two packets of noodles, a bowl of rice and some vegetables he picked from his garden.
“The noodles were the main dish that went with the rice. When I saw that, I cried. And here we are, in Singapore, wasting so much food,” he added solemnly.
Besides sharing such stories with his children, he is determined that they should get some life experience, like working part-time.
“My first three children worked in McDonalds when they were old enough. I wanted them to understand systems, and what it meant to work,” he said. Even now, he keeps encouraging his two sons to continue to take up part-time work.
For Collin, being an involved father has helped him grow as a person, and also as a son.
“My parents came to live with us recently for six months while they were moving house,” he said. “During that time, I began to know my father better. I found out, like me, he liked badminton. Like me also, he loved durians. And he was a bit of a playboy when he was younger, like me,” he exclaimed, bursting into laughter.
“Those six months when all eight of us – my parents, wife, children and myself – ate at the dining table was the happiest time of my life. I became a better son and a better father,” said Collin, on a more serious note.
“So much so that when they moved out, I cried,” he added. And I have no doubt he wasn’t acting.
And for all fathers reading this, he said: “Guide your children, help them grow their wings to fly. Try to understand them, and love them without commanding them. And spend time with them.”
Which is why I felt a tinge of sadness after I dropped my son at home today after his school holiday activities.
“Papa, I don’t want you to go back to work,” he said, his eyes pleading with me to stay.
“Papa has to go to the office to finish up some work. (I was actually writing this feature.) Papa will play with you this evening, OK?”
My young son smiled and waved goodbye as I drove off.
That smile will probably be the only present I’ll get this Father’s Day. But it is also the only present I’ll need.