Tuesdays at Cheongster Cafe: Life lessons at the kindergarten

Nov 29, 2016 11.01AM |

by Felix Cheong

IT WAS not that school principal Penny Lay did not like entertaining questions from expat parents. She did, however reluctantly. But, truth be told, she did not see why parents could not ask obvious questions that took no time to prepare and little effort to answer.

Take, for example, this young British couple, Mr and Mrs Roach, doing a tour of her childcare centre. For a start, they could at least get her name right.

“My name is not Ms ‘Cher,” she said crossly but with a big smile, although that was what the kids called her. “It is Penny Lay.”

“Oh, like that Beatles song!” Mr Roach said, laughing.

Penny winced. She was not xenophobic. After all, she grew up reading Enid Blyton. But foreign talents were so dense. She tolerated them only because they brought in the big money. Ten thousand dollars for a place in the waiting list and not an eyebrow raised. Three thousand dollars a month in fees and not a letter to the papers. It was easier than robbing the Standard Chartered bank at Holland Village.

“What are the children doing there?” Mrs Roach asked, pointing. Out in the garden where the afternoon sun shone its brightest, 10 children stood in a single file behind a toy kitchen.

“Life lesson number one,” Penny said, nodding.

“Life lesson?”

Penny opened up the file under her arm. It was full of newspaper clippings of Singaporeans queuing up for this, for that. From being first in line at the opening of Muji, to H & M sales, from the latest gadget release to the Hello Kitty café, it provided the composite picture of a nation that loved toeing the line.

“We equip our kids with survival skills,” Penny said. “You need to know the etiquette of queuing in Singapore.”

The Roaches could only nod in amazement.

At the far end of the garden, they saw another 10 children shouldering what looked like sandbags, up and down the garden. A few of them, no more than three years old, staggered under the weight.

“Another life lesson?” Mrs Roach asked, alarmed. In her mind, she had already packed up her bags for home. Despite its First World status, this country seemed altogether Third World.

“To prepare them for school,” Penny said. “Have you seen the load of books primary school kids have to carry to school?”

As they continued their tour of the childcare centre, they came to a room where 10 children laughed gaily playing musical chairs. There was some amount of pushing and shoving when the music stopped. A few kids who couldn’t get a seat had to step aside, dejected.

The Roaches’ hearts leaped. Here, at least, they looked like they were enjoying their childhood. They could be themselves.

“Ah, they’re having some fun at last!” Mr Roach said.

“No, this is a life lesson too,” Penny said.

“Life lesson, again?”

Penny smiled, almost painfully. “You should take our public transport some time.”



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Feature image by Sean Chong

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