This month’s That Mama is Sharanjit Leyl, Singaporean BBC World News Presenter who juggles news reporting with parenting and maintaining a great relationship with her 14-year old teen
You may recognize Sharanjit Leyl from watching the BBC World News (Starhub Channel 701). Sharanjit is a BBC World News Presenter and Producer who regularly anchors Asia Business Report and Newsday from the BBC’s Singapore studio. We are a little bit in awe of this stunning, statuesque lady who has managed to be top of her game in the reporting world while parenting her teen son, Jai Kernail, who is 14 years old. How does she manage it all? How does she always look so unflappable and fabulous (even when reporting from high-risk areas?). We catch up with Sharanjit to hear about her love of her career, the importance of scheduling in everything from grocery shopping to self-care, why she breastfed her child till he was nearly 3 years old, and how she has built a close relationship with her teen.
Can you tell us a little about yourself and your family?
My son and myself are Singaporean – we were born here – and my husband is British. I moved away from Singapore when I was a teenager after my father was posted to Washington, D.C. as a Singaporean diplomat in the 1980s. I spent intermittent spells here but only returned permanently after my father passed away tragically from a brain tumour at 57. Jai’s middle name (Kernail) is his. Jai is proud of his Singaporean roots. My grandfather came here in the 1930s from Amritsar in Punjab, so that would make Jai third-generation Singaporean. Incredibly, he is looking forward to serving national service in four years!
Can you talk us through your career pre- and post-having a child?
I’ve always been a journalist, I know no other career. I knew I wanted to be a journalist from about the age of five because the news was almost a religion in our household and as noisy kids we were hushed and told to be quiet when it was on. I thought it was a great way to finally be heard, so it’s something I knew I wanted to pursue. Before having Jai, I was based in Tokyo as an anchor with Bloomberg Television. I was young, in my mid-twenties, newly married and having a whale of a time discovering the city and focused on my career. I don’t think I would have left if it wasn’t for my father’s sudden passing. I came home to join the BBC and when my husband was able to follow me a few months later, we focused on having a child. It was nice to be surrounded by a support network like my mother and extended family, and to have the space – believe it or not, there’s more space here than in Tokyo, so I knew it was time. When I did have Jai, the BBC was an incredibly supportive employer and let me have a three-day work week because I asked. Im really glad that I requested this flexibility and was granted it. I did that for a number of years.
How did you get back into the swing of things after having your son? Did you feel any pressure to get back into the game quickly after having your son, so as to keep your spot on your career ladder?
The three day work week was great, it enabled to me to focus on my child and still have a job I enjoyed. Looking back, I was a bit masochistic in that I insisted on breastfeeding Jai for as long as I could. He was breastfed until he was nearly three and could start asking for it! That aspect was quite exhausting because I pumped at work. I had to go to a number of assignments overseas when he was just a few months old, and my milk supply would plunge…It was a struggle keeping it up but I loved breastfeeding and would not hesitate to recommend it to all new mothers. It’s why I think at 14, he is still likes being physically close and still gives me lots of hugs, though of course, not in front of his friends! 😉
What sacrifices if any have you had to make to get to your position in your career?
Amazingly none! Perhaps I did forego some of those overseas assignments when he was younger, mainly because my husband was also travelling a lot for work, but because I had a good family support base. It didn’t prevent me from going to incredible places like Pakistan, Vietnam and China to report. That has really helped me develop my career and I’m thankful to the BBC and my editors for having been supportive at that time.
Your job as a presenter for BBC World News often takes you to countries that are in the news for the worst reasons. Have you ever feared for your life or safety while working, and how do you balance the need to do your job in these situations with concerns about staying out of danger given your roles and responsibilities as a parent?
I have never feared for my life thankfully because there are high risk alert teams within the BBC who advise us on ways to stay safe. But those deployments are incredibly stressful in that they entail very long hours and are very tragic stories, where families have lost love ones in the most deplorable of ways. So undoubtedly it has an impact. Perhaps the worst was the recent Sri Lanka Easter Sunday bombings. We had just been there as a family literally days before it happened during the Easter week long break and had a wonderful time. It is such a beautiful country with such lovely people. But Jai was quite alarmed when he heard I had to fly back to cover it as soon as we got back because the places bombed were literally places we had visited days before. It felt like it hit quite close to home. I was even more upset the next day when I learnt that some children from his school, including a boy in his year, had lost their lives. It’s such an incredibly tragic thing and I think of that family and the others all the time. It could just as easily have been us.
Christchurch was also incredibly moving, mainly because of how that community came together. I was hugged by three women in between reporting live over the course of the days we were there, because they felt we had reported it with such empathy. As a journalist, you try to stay impartial and may come across removed from the topics you’re covering, but I think it’s important to have empathy and feel sad, we’re human like everyone else.
Who has been the most memorable person you’ve interviewed?
There have been many: Malaysia’s PM Mahathir, Anwar Ibrahim, Australia’s John Howard, Kevin Rudd etc., but perhaps my two most recent favourites have been New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern and Canada’s Justin Trudeau. Ardern because she is incredibly genuine and likeable. I interviewed them both during the recent ASEAN summit in Singapore late last year. I was posing hard questions and not necessarily being nice, but PM Ardern had an incredible way of deflecting the tension. That came out especially during the Christchurch shooting, which she handled with such grace, reaching out to the families so genuinely, unlike most politicians.
PM Trudeau was treated like a rock star everywhere he went during that trip to Singapore but seemed to take it all in his stride, and came across as very down to earth. I enjoyed the interview with him and the moderated discussion we had at the National University of Singapore where he took questions from the students in the audience. He makes an appearance, too, in my new BBC documentary ‘Secrets of Singapore’ which just aired over National Day weekend and will run again in October and December. He is probably one of Singapore’s most famous descendants (you’ll have to watch the documentary to find out how he’s connected to Singapore, if you don’t already know!).
Do you have any tips for working mamas in Singapore? How do you balance life, family and work?
A very important tip is to make time for yourself. As working women, we try to do it all, stay on top of our work as well as our homes, but taking time out for a hobby, or a fitness regime is ultimately the best thing you can do for yourself and your family. It doesn’t have to take too much time away from work or family, but you should schedule it in, it’s a good way of keeping things in perspective and not getting too overstressed. You’ll be happier and your family and colleagues will thank you for it.
Read more: How Self Care Makes Us Better Mamas
How do you save time? What are your organisational tricks and tips?
Unfortunately I am quite disorganised but my phone is crucial, especially the diary, to show what I have coming up so I don’t miss appointments. I’d be lost without it as I’m incredibly forgetful! I schedule in everything, including online grocery shopping, which is another time saving tip.
Your son is a teen now – what are the challenges of parenting a teen, and how do you try maintain a close relationship with him?
The challenge is to try to refrain from instructing them too much, because they call it nagging. I’m constantly having to remind Jai about what he needs to get done. I’m trying to get away from doing that now because as he gets older, he is getting more responsible and doesn’t need as much reminding. I try to talk to him and engage him in his interests as much as I can. We have a shared love of birdwatching (yes, I know it’s incredibly geeky!) and we try to identify as many birds as possible and even look at the Singapore birders social media pages to find out where the rare visiting bird is so we can camp out with the other photographers (or paparazzi as we call them) at Botanical Gardens or Bukit Timah to spot them and take photos. He’s an accomplished photographer and I’ve been encouraging him as much as possible to develop his passion.
How do you manage to look so fantastic all the time? Do you have a strict diet-fitness-skincare regimen or are you going to thank DNA?
Because I’m usually exhausted from the early starts at work as a result of broadcasting before the crack of dawn, I try to do things to keep up my stamina and stay healthy. This usually means yoga after work and some form of cardio over the weekend if I have time. As a family, we eat very healthily as home, low sugar, and lots of vegetables and organic chicken. Lots of fish, too as we’re trying to cut down red meat, not just for health reasons but for the environment.
I wish I had more time for…
Holidays! Family holidays are often squeezed into a short space of time because there’s always something happening at work, and so many deployments this year — Hanoi, Christchurch, Bangkok, Colombo and Hong Kong! Even when we go for Christmas to visit my in-laws and family in the UK, I try to work in the London office because it’s such a thrill to work from the Broadcasting House HQ of the BBC in London. It feels like you’re at the centre of a global organization and makes me thankful that I have a job I love. So yes, trying to drag me away for long holidays can be a struggle.
Favourite family-friendly holiday spot in Asia?
I’m boringly predictable and I like Bali for yoga in Ubud and Malaysia for nature. We focus on eco holidays where we can trek and bird watch. I’m planning the next one to Borneo.
I always feel saner after….
Yoga! I knocked it for years as not proper exercise when I was a runner, but now that I have damaged my knees and lower back, it’s been a lifeline, restoring a lot of the damage and enabling me to relax a bit.
What part of Singapore do you live in? What do you like about it?
I live in Mount Sinai, it’s a beautifully green neighbourhood which we fell in love with when we bought our house there some years ago. My house overlooks the Ulu Pandan park connector, which has a beautiful verdant jungle alongside it. My husband and son are now avid rowers and have been enjoying the Ulu Pandan Reservoir where Singapore’s national team rows. I’d hate to move away.
Do you have any tips for keeping the romance alive in your relationship?
Space is very important so you don’t end up doing everything together and drive each other up the wall! My husband is also into fitness but we learnt a long time ago to exercise separately 😉 He loves rowing and golf too, and is an amazing father. I think it’s important to develop your own interests so that you can come to the relationship with a fresh perspective. We’ve been together 20 years, so yes, there must be something we’re doing right!
Favourite date night restaurants?
Home! My helper Ida is an incredible cook, I usually have a supply of wine in our basement and we have lovely dinners overlooking our gorgeous jungle. No restaurant beats that!
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received as a parent?
Breastfeeding was really important to me and I still miss that physical contact with my Child, so I would always recommend that if possible for you and your child.
As a mama I wish I were better at…
I am no tiger mom and have never pushed my son to have stellar academic results…we don’t believe in extra tuition as I’d like him to develop holistically as a well-rounded individual who is not cramming all the time. But yes, I sometimes worry about those incredibly focused kids he’s going to compete with when he’s older. I’d like to think he’ll come out with flying colours for being different.
What’s your favourite family ritual?
Family hugs, it’s something I started when he was a child, we all get together in a group hug. Now that we have a dog, he tries to join too, which can be challenging!
I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about….
Whether my alarm will go off soon; most broadcasting days entail a 3:15am wake up call. I’ve rarely missed my alarm, you have to be at your desk by 4am. The news never stops, and it takes dedication. I’ve managed 20 years of this, so I must really love it!
My favourite moment of the day is…
Dinner, it’s so nice catching up with the family at the end of the day.
Thank you so much to Sharanjit and Jai for their time, and thank you as ever to the fabulously talented Irina Nilsson Photography for the gorgeous pics!