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Having been in Singapore’s radio scene for 15 years, Charmaine Yee is known to many as a Kiss 92 deejay, media personality, TV presenter and host.
But behind her exuberant exterior is a sister who fiercely loves her older brother.
Charmaine and Raymond’s relationship is slightly different than most siblings though. Unlike most older brothers, Raymond, who is three years older than Charmaine, has mild autism, a developmental disability affecting communication and social interaction.
It is a Saturday afternoon and Charmaine is fresh-faced in a comfortable grey t-shirt and faded denim shorts. We sit on her porch as she eagerly shows me some photos of a recent photoshoot with Raymond – their first together.
“He took great effort to be in this shoot. He got a haircut. He shortlisted ten shirts for me to choose!” Charmaine says.
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At the same time, she admits that getting Raymond to smile in the photos was not as easy as it looked.
The photos clearly show the dynamic between the siblings and the appreciation they have for each other.
Charmaine says: “I can safely say that a big part of who I am is because of growing up with Raymond. There are so many values I learnt from him, such as honesty and punctuality. The thing about growing up with someone with autism is that it forces you to be less selfish, because you’ve got to look out for others.”
Growing up with a brother on the spectrum
“When I was younger, as a popular primary, secondary school kid, at one point, I wanted to hide my brother because I didn’t know how to explain (why he was different),” Charmaine says.
But her parents helped her get past that and Charmaine subsequently learnt to embrace her brother and his quirks.
“Now all my close friends know him; they grew up with him. And he knows all my friends by name,” she says.
Charmaine shares that navigating Raymond’s autism was a journey of ups and downs for the family.
Even though he was diagnosed with the condition as a child, they only truly explained it to him when he was in his early 30s.
“My mum and I spent nights thinking how do we tell him he is different? What is his reaction going to be? We had plan A to Z… And in the end it was a waste of time, because he took it so well. He told us that he already knew he was – and is – different,” Charmaine says.
Early intervention helped. After Raymond was diagnosed, their mother, then still working full time, took it on herself to tutor him at home to reinforce what he was taught in school.
Charmaine says that Raymond went through the Singapore mainstream school system for primary and secondary education as there were not many options for special-needs children in the 90s. After that, Raymond went to Perth to study.
When he came back to Singapore after graduating in 2011, Raymond kept job hopping because his ex-employers struggled to manage someone with autism.
But with the help of Autism Resource Centre’s E2C, which matches inclusive employers with adults with autism to help match their strengths and interests, Raymond found a job in an office and has been working there since.
“We always thought Raymond couldn’t keep a job,” Charmaine says, “but the thing about people with autism is that many of them love routine. So you’re going to get the most loyal, dedicated, punctual staff.”
“You (need to) play to their strengths. They are good at one thing, and they are very good at it.”
A 2016 BBC article reported that more employers are seeing the potential benefits of hiring individuals with autism, especially for jobs that require the ability to concentrate on repetitive tasks, retention of large amounts of information or strong mathematics and coding skills. One reason for this is that they tend to be loyal, diligent and are a lower turnover risk.
Charmaine says that Raymond securing a job gave her the reassurance that there are resources out there for adults with autism and it made her want to contribute.
Lessons on love and kindness
Care does not go in only one direction. Like any older brother, Raymond looks out for his sister in his own ways.
Charmaine says: “He cares, but he cares very differently. If I’m sick, he will knock on my door almost every hour to ask me if I had lunch, or if I have taken my medicine. If he sees someone visibly upset, he will always ask if everything is alright.”
She recounts an incident when their dad had an eye infection and Raymond went to the pharmacy on his own to buy eye drops for him.
“What I’ve noticed in Raymond is that when it comes to emotions, he processes them way more than others,” she says.
“If we’re disappointed during a holiday that a tour couldn’t happen, we just think ‘that sucks’… but he feels it way more. He takes that disappointment and he sits in it. On the opposite end, when there’s elation, he is through the roof.”
“There is beauty in that as well. He’s just an open book.”
Over the years, Raymond has taught Charmaine many lessons on love, kindness and forgiveness.
She says: “He loves without judgement, and I think that’s amazing… He doesn’t hold grudges. If someone says something insensitive to him or is thoughtless, it’s like water off a duck’s back to him.”
Through seeing life through his eyes, Charmaine has also learnt to appreciate small things.
She says: “I get touched by the little things in life and I like to do small things for people. You go the extra mile to make them happy. It’s doing that little bit more.”
How does one find the balance between protecting a loved one with special needs and encouraging them to fly on their own?
Although Charmaine is protective of Raymond, she wants him to be independent too, and believes that means him stepping outside his comfort zone.
She explains: “Many times, you want to make everything as comfortable as possible, to shelter him from the world… but life isn’t comfortable. He’s out there in the real world. People are going to be rude to you. You got to learn. You must be ready for that.”
Which is why Charmaine says that nothing makes her happier than when Raymond tells her that he is going out with his friends.
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She does worry about him, of course. “He’s so kind-natured, I would hope he doesn’t get bullied,” she says. “But I also want to give him that respect as an adult.”
“He’s got earning power. Who am I as a younger sister to control his life? But of course, (at the end of the day), I’m always here.”
Charmaine says that she has worked out her financials to be able to provide for Raymond. And their parents have worked hard to make sure that they don’t have to worry either.
At the same time, she recognises that other families may not be so fortunate.
She says that she has seen needy families with children on the other end of the autism spectrum and admits that it can be disheartening for parents not to know who would take care of them when they pass on.
And that has made her reconsider what she values most in life.
A turning point
“When I started my radio career in 2008, I set out with a goal to entertain,” Charmaine says.
“I’ve always wanted to make people happy, to put that smile on people’s faces. I’ve had my own show and the privilege of interviewing many Hollywood stars and that’s wonderful.”
“But in the last two years or so, I reached a point in my career where I was wondering what I was really doing.”
“And I’ve realised that what I really want to do is – with whatever influence I have, whatever voice that I’m given – to inspire and empower people to be more of who they really are.”
“If I can make one person feel better about themselves that day, then I think my job is done,” she says with a smile.
And she hopes that by being open about her life with her brother, people would be more empathetic towards people with special needs, and, if they have special-need people that they care for, feel less alone in their journey.
Charmaine says she has received countless messages from those struggling with mental health, as well as family members of those with autistic children.
She adds that many of us curate our social media to show the glamorous side of our lives. But the reality is that every family has its challenges.
Through thick and thin
At the end of the day, Charmaine and Raymond have a love-hate relationship just like any other sibling.
Charmaine says: “He gets on my nerves. I get on his nerves. When I play my music too loudly, he’ll tell me to turn it down. When he’s messy in the shower, it annoys me. He always pushes my towel to one side of the rack.”
Yet, she wonders about his future, whether he will marry and settle down. Or if he would even get to date someone who empathises and accepts him for who he is.
She admits that they haven’t had that conversation as Raymond is a very private person.
I ask Charmaine what is one thing she would like to say to The Pride’s readers and she pauses for a while before answering.
“I would say that family is everything.”
“All the successes in the world don’t matter if you don’t have family with you. Success in life and success at work is wonderful, but family is most important. So hold them close.”