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‘I just want my child to enjoy learning.’ SG Mum & Ex-TV Presenter in Bangkok

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“After Esme turned 2, we decided to move back to South-East-Asia. We wanted to give her a more Asian-centric upbringing and be closer to home. The economic and social gravity of the world, we felt, had shifted to the East and it was important she was part of this.”

Singaporean ex-TV presenter Tiffany Steel has lived abroad for over 10 years – having married her Singapore-born-and-bred husband, Gordon, in Shanghai and then living in London and Bangkok with their 3-year-old daughter. Tiffany shares the reasons they decided to leave London, why they still see Shanghai as their second home, and how the family elite visa package that Thailand offered made it an easy decision to set up base in Bangkok. In our interview Tiffany discusses her daughter’s education that goes beyond academics in stark contrast to her memories of local school in Singapore “I was a slow learner, and I did terribly in my PSLE and was immediately made to feel inadequate at such a young age. I probably would not have made anything of myself if my parents had not decided to send me to university abroad after my N-levels.” Despite all this Tiffany thinks living overseas might make fellow Singaporeans appreciate how great things are back home! Read on for this month’s Overseas Mama series…

Click here to read about other Overseas Singaporean mamas!

Tiffany Steel

Tell us about yourself

Before life overseas, I worked in sports television and was a TV presenter, video games host and reviewer, and assistant producer to other sports productions for several years. I then worked in events organising and marketing for a PR, social and events agency most known for its fashion and lifestyle events in Singapore.

My last big milestone in my career was my home and living e-commerce brand I started and ran for several years with my partner, curating and styling everything interior for homes and businesses. That took a turn when COVID hit, and we had just settled in London at the time, so I made the very sad decision to end it. I now do a bit of copywriting and project-based work from home- it has been slightly challenging being a full-time mum with no help or family at my disposal, so I am currently adjusting to a new environment having just moved to Bangkok, Thailand and finding that work/mum/life/housewife balance.

Tiffany Steel

How long have you been living overseas? 

I went to University in Melbourne, Australia for a few years but nothing quite compares to setting up and living abroad as an independent adult and now as a new mum. I have lived in Shanghai, China, London, England and now we are currently based in Bangkok, Thailand. In total we have lived outside of Singapore for a little over 10 years.

My husband Gordon worked in a bank in Shanghai at the time, so I made my decision to live there with him and eventually it was where we got married, and the reason I started my interior brand after being exposed to China’s sprawling e-commerce world (this was in 2010 so back then e-commerce was still developing in Singapore, and the world).

After over 3 years in Shanghai, we were back in Singapore for a short period before we decided to relocate to London, England. My husband is British so it seemed like a natural decision to relocate to the UK and experience life in London. After less than a year and a half of settling in, including purchasing our first property together as a married couple, COVID hit and I also got pregnant with Esme during lockdown. This was indeed the start to something we were not quite prepared for, and in a foreign country with no “village” to ease us into the tumultuous world of first-time parents, and in a pandemic no less.

After Esme turned 2, we made the decision to move back to South-East-Asia. We wanted to give Esme a more Asian-centric upbringing and be closer to home. The economic and social gravity of the world, we felt, had shifted to the East and it was important she was part of this. My husband’s work allowed us to be based virtually anywhere and Thailand had a wonderful family elite visa package that made Bangkok an easy decision to set up base.

Wedding in Shanghai

What were the highs and lows of each of the countries you have lived in?

We absolutely loved living in Shanghai, and till this day still see it as our second home. The atmosphere and buzz are unparalleled, and it was and is, one of the cities we have never lost our fascination and curiosity with. The only issue we felt was the uncertainties of foreign visas, and if we had Esme then, international schools there are the most expensive in the world. Language was slightly challenging but we got through it and thankfully my husband’s Mandarin skills surpass my Singapore local Chinese education.

Tiffany Steel in London

In London, we lived in the beautiful royal borough of Kensington and Chelsea. It was elegant, charming, and picturesque- and probably not a good representation of life in London. It was a bubble and it made us less likely to venture out of the neighbourhood- which I found strange that it gradually made us quite restricted. People rarely travel out of their boroughs (or across the river) and we lived day to day within our area. The weather was also dreary for someone born in constant sunshine. It was hard to adapt and accustom my biological rhythm to long periods of darkness, the cold and indoor life. Social issues facing many major cities in the West, i.e. crime, anti-social behaviour had noticeably ramped up during our time there, but one of the deciding factors to leave was the access to public education in our area which was limited and would drive us to private schooling which would add up to the already tax heavy high cost of living.

Bangkok, Thailand

We have relocated to Bangkok, Thailand and it has been about 5 months so far. Since moving here, we immediately felt a drastic fall in the cost of the necessities of everyday life. Affordable international schools with world-class facilities, including the Asian cultural environment we wanted for our daughter. Another huge improvement in our life is Bangkok’s real estate market- we currently live in a 3,200 square foot apartment. My daughter’s room is like an apartment on its own and she is absolutely thriving here, enjoying condo life and its facilities including wonderful playdates with neighbours and being part of a community. Bangkok also has high quality medical care, the best food and flavours you will ever experience, and the convenience of the glorious mega shopping mall life. Thai culture and people are so lovely and warm, and we immediately felt welcomed, which made this relocation so easy and seamless. We are still getting used to the traffic, seasonal pollution and pushing a stroller on terribly small side-walks but living here has ticked enough boxes for us to really love it so far.

How did you meet your partner? 

My husband was born and raised in Singapore, and we were always in the same social circles as teenagers, so we had been friends before we started dating after graduating from university. 

Tiffany Steel

How do you think parenting (and schools) in the various countries you have lived in differ from in Singapore? What do you appreciate most about it?

My daughter goes to an international school kindergarten with a British Curriculum-Reggio Emilia approach. When she moves up to pre-school, I understand their whole ethos and philosophy towards children’s development and education goes far beyond exam results and academics, and you can see more enthusiasm and encouragement in the arts, nature, sports, and world cultural appreciation in its celebrations and festivities. I want my child to enjoy learning and never feel the pressure of school knowing she can always do her best and that would be enough.

My memory of local school in Singapore was academic and exam-driven. I was a slow learner, and I did terribly in my PSLE and was immediately made to feel inadequate at such a young age. It took a toll on my self-esteem and the results basically paved the rest of my secondary school life and identity. I probably would not have made anything of myself or have any kind of qualifications if my parents had not decided to send me to university abroad after my N-levels.

Left: Harborland | Right: Mall life

Top five places in or around Bangkok you would recommend to parents travelling with kids and why.

Sea Life Bangkok Ocean World is located conveniently in Siam Paragon Mall and is also big enough to spend a few hours in to explore, and then browse the rest of the mall for food or shopping.

Harborland (we usually go to the one at EmQuartier mall) is just the holy grail for us as parents because it gets Esme so excited and most importantly her energy out. It is a sprawling indoor playground for kids of all ages.

Benjasiri Park if you are in central Sukhumvit (it is right next to the PhromPhong BTS station). It has two amazing playgrounds, a lovely water laser show at night, and is also surrounded by 3 huge shopping malls that make up the Emdistrict for more shopping and amazing food options. They usually hold many events so there’s always a sense of excitement when we head over there. Convenience is kind of our main go-to because Esme is just so young and we want our outings to be as seamless as possible with her.

Children’s Discovery Museum at Chatuchuk Park. Just a place to spend the day at with so many things to do. Also Chatuchuk market is close by if you’re feeling confident your kids can manage spending the day there.

Safari World and Marine Park is one of those places we had been encouraged to check out but we have not actually been there yet. There is a drive-through and you can get quite up close and personal with animals. Definitely on the list!

Tiffany Steel

Is there something that you do to keep your children in touch with their Singaporean roots?

Since my daughter was born, we have always talked about home. We were in Singapore last summer for over three months and celebrated Esme’s second birthday at home. My mum and dad, in-laws and my siblings also do regular visits, so she is very aware of where we come from. My mum and dad last visited us in Bangkok during the Chinese New Year holiday and brought us loads of local snacks and treats, plus made Esme serve them tea like we do back home to make sure this tradition never gets forgotten.

Best souvenir one could bring back from Bangkok

for a child: Elephant pants for fun (they are also so comfortable for sleeping in)
for a mama friend: Mango sticky rice or spa and scented oils – currently loving the fresh jasmine scented oils for burning at home and coconut creams. 

What do you find is the hardest part of being a mother living in a foreign country?

Not having the freedom to just roam and take my time exploring off the beaten track spots, or eating in random restaurants (now we must make sure the food menu has things Esme would eat). Our early days as parents revolved around Esme’s naptimes because she would only have the most restful long sleeps in bed (which also meant rest time for us to decompress) so it made our day to day quite limited because she did not sleep on the go. But things are looking up now that she is older and we finally have more time for us as individuals when she spends half her day in school!

Also the obvious transition in a new place, adapting to the unforeseen, familiarising myself with the way of life and how things work, but most importantly making sure Esme is comfortable, thriving and happy, which includes establishing a routine for her day to day, setting up our sanctuary and home where she feels safe, little excursions, learning new languages and trying new foods and flavours the country has to offer and meeting new friends and parents to foster a community for us as a family. And most of all, juggling and doing all of the above, while trying to take care of myself, sanity even when I am completely flat-out exhausted most of the time!

On raising multilingual children …

This was a driving factor to move back to Asia to keep the Asian focus and cultural heritage intact or at least at close range so that it is never lost and within reach. Language, specifically Mandarin is also much more accessible here and something we want Esme exposed to. 

What do you always bring back from Singapore for yourself and for your children?

We make sure family bring lots of Chinese New Year treats and goodies when they visit during the festive period.

Tell us about your go-to recipe for your family.

We have such a Chinese Cantonese palette that we cannot go without soup with our dishes for longer than a week. Our go-to quick fix would normally be a pork bone soup with daikon, carrots and corn. Esme loves Chinese food even though she grew up eating a very British diet.

What is the first thing you do each time you come back to Singapore?

First thing we do is catch up with family and friends, and then head out to our favourite food stalls.

What do you dread most if you are moving back to Singapore?

The cost of living has run up significantly in the last 5 years so day-to-day expenses would be a big increase, and of course the international school fees being much higher than Thailand.

Thoughts on your children moving back and joining Singapore’s education system?

Esme will likely be in an international school if we ever move back, because my husband is an alumnus of Tanglin Trust and United World College in Singapore, both of which are excellent schools.

I am however dabbling with the idea of her also having the option to enrol in my primary school I went to as a child- Singapore Chinese Girls’ School (SCGS). She needs to be comfortable with speaking, reading and writing Mandarin so we have been actively exposing her to the language, and immersion classes will start for her next year in Bangkok.

How do you think Singaporeans can benefit from living overseas?

Living overseas gives perspective and Singaporeans will immediately learn to appreciate how great things are back home. I have developed another level of tolerance, patience, and self-reliance, and often find myself problem-solving a lot more than I would back in Singapore. A certain degree of ‘street smart’ mindedness naturally forms as well, because Singapore is such a safe and threat-free environment, you can become quite complacent and surprised at how much potential harm or risk there is out in the big bad world.

Thanks so much for sharing all about your life abroad Tiffany!

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All images courtesy of Tiffany Steel

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