Children’s book author Maureen Yeo talks about Singapore’s surprisingly rich biodiversity, her thoughts on the local education model and how she balances life as a mother of two young children
This Month’s That Mama is Maureen Yeo, a born and bred Singaporean, mother of two and children’s book author. Her books ‘The Great Singapore Poo Sale and Other Beastly Business’ and ‘Make Animals Great Again and Other Creature Campaigns’ make fun bedtime reading (parents will find them equally interesting too). Maureen has worn many hats in the past from screenwriter to night shift film censor. In her role as a teacher, she became aghast at her students not realising about their own country’s biodiversity so she set out to write ‘The Great Singapore Poo Sale and Other Beastly Business’ featuring 100% Singapore wildlife! Read on for Maureen’s thoughtful, interesting and humour flecked interview as we chat about work, life, Singapore’s education model and motherhood.
Can you tell us a little about yourself and your family?
I’m a full-time mum to two daughters: Emmanuelle who is turning 3 soon, and Edith who just turned 1. I carve out time for side projects that I find meaningful so that I’ll hopefully be able to smoothly transition back to a professional setting once this precious time of intensive childcare is over. I’m married to The Most Irritating Person In the World (Self-Proclaimed). He is very proud of his superpower and also of his recent efforts at making yoghurt from scratch.
Tell us something crazy/quirky about yourself?
I once drove solo down the length of Scotland, and booked no accommodation because the plan was to sleep in my tiny rented Nissan. I’ll never forget the majesty of Glen Coe and racing ospreys along one lane country roads – and the howling night winds that made me realise why the Scots have legends of terrifying banshees. What was really crazy was that on the last day, I drove 9 hours non-stop from Glasgow to London to catch my flight back to Singapore. This was in the days before GPS so I got lost a few times. I nearly missed my flight and was super stressed out. Never again.
Can you talk us through your career pre- and post-kids?
Before kids, I had several stints holding down multiple jobs at a time and keeping odd hours, so that was good prep for motherhood. Some of the more unusual things I’ve done: I was a security guard at my university library working the graveyard shift from midnight to 8am. I’ve worked as a night shift film censor, filling out forms where I had to count swear words and describe degrees of nudity. My day jobs then were lots of media-related gigs. I did screenwriting in Hong Kong, was a visual effects production coordinator in London, travelled a lot on a shoestring budget and wrote articles on my trips for TODAY.
In preparation for settling down, I made a career switch. I retrained in NIE and taught English and Literature in secondary schools. When Emmanuelle came along, it really surprised me how much I enjoyed being a mum because I had never had much experience with small children. We were blessed to be in a position where I didn’t have to go back to work full-time, so now I look after the kids and take on meaningful projects when opportunities arise. I have been writing for Otah and Friends and for Mandai Group’s (Singapore Zoo, River Wonders, Night Safari, Jurong Bird Park) new Ranger Buddies programme. Both these projects are worthwhile to me as they aim to impart important values to children through play.
I also just started a YouTube channel. I put a lot of effort into researching books and activities for my kids, so I figured why not use my (t)rusty filmmaking skills to share my findings with other parents? Everyone is busy so I hope my recommendations help parents save time and create good experiences with their kids.
Tell us about the two children’s books you’ve written ‘The Great Singapore Poo Sale and Other Beastly Business’ and ‘Make Animals Great Again and Other Creature Campaigns’?
“Poo Sale” was written in my first year of teaching. A group of my students wanted to do a project called “Save the tigers” and I asked them to consider advocating conservation for local species instead. They said to me, “But ma’am, there are no animals in Singapore!” I was aghast. Singapore is on the same equatorial belt as the Amazon rainforest and has amazing biodiversity. I had the idea then to write a story featuring 100% Singapore wildlife. “Poo Sale” is a love letter to nature and a simpler way of life. I cried while I wrote the final chapter. I hope it moves readers too.
An earlier (and better) title mooted for my first book was “Monkeys in the Istana”. This was rejected as it was thought there would be some political sensitivity. Local politics inspired the sequel, “Make Animals Great Again”. In the lead up to the 2015 General Election, I realised that my students knew very little about Singapore’s political system. Before the next GE, amid all the talk about 4G leadership, I decided to write a story that was a bit of an allegory, but also a general exploration of what makes a good leader.
Both books were written for adults to share with children. Grown ups can use the books to introduce children to some complex themes in a lighthearted way, but I hope they will also benefit from reconnecting with a sense of nostalgia and childlike wonder. There are also jokes in there that only grown ups will get!
Any other projects in the works?
Launching on Saturday, 5 Feb is a photo exhibition entitled “The Silver Lining: A Celebration of Nature in the Time of Pandemic” There will be lots of family-friendly activities all held at Gardens by the Bay, so do click on the link for details!
I also have a comic book slated to hit stores in the second half of this year: “Animals Get Schooled: The Mystery of the Missing Mammal”. It weaves trivia about Singapore mammals and key information from the MOE Science syllabus into a fun story. Anything to help kids revise for the PSLE less painfully! Anyone interested in ordering my books or preordering this upcoming book can contact me through my website, www.maureenyeo.wixsite.com/website or Instagram @maureenyeosuiyin.
Have you always had an interest in wildlife and conservation?
Yes, as a very serious-minded 12-year-old I had to decide between being a movie director or an ornithologist when I grew up. I’ve always loved reading about animals and watching wildlife documentaries. I would recommend anything by Gerald Durrell and David Attenborough. “Last Chance to See”, a book on some endangered species, is also very good. It’s by Douglas Adams, the writer of “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” so I guarantee you will laugh out loud.
When I became a Christian, I gained an even more profound appreciation for animals. To me, their designs and behaviours reveal something of the Creator. When I went to Antarctica on my honeymoon, watching the little penguins in that vast wilderness really made clear to me that I habitually have an egocentric worldview, but there is literally a whole universe that I am not in control of.
Share your top places for kids to learn about or interact with wildlife in Singapore?
The members of the Nature Photographic Society, Singapore who have contributed photos to “The Silver Lining” exhibition have helpfully captioned the locations where their photos were taken, from Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve to Pasir Ris Park. Many animals are creatures of habit, so you can take notes at the exhibition, then hop down to the places they have identified for fairly reliable wildlife sightings.
I personally find Singapore Quarry to be very tranquil. And our family enjoys cycling along the Ulu Pandan Park Connector, where you can see otters and monitor lizards swimming in the canal and there is one spot where Greyheaded Fish Eagles like to hunt. You will know it when you see a lot of uncles with telephoto lenses hanging out there!
But any neighbourhood park will yield treasures if you like creepy crawlies. I encourage my daughters to handle bugs and pay attention to their intricate features. At “The Silver Lining” exhibition, there are some stunning macro photographs of spiders and insects. Even among the geckos so common on our house walls, there is great beauty.
How do you balance life, kids and work? Any organisational tricks and tips?
I am blessed to have a lot of babysitting help from family members. I find buying groceries online saves time because it is faster to do price comparisons. But if I have to buy things in person, I stick with familiar places so I don’t have to waste time finding things and can just grab and go. Mustafa is the cheapest place I’ve found to buy organic milk. I’m proud to say I can get in and out with two crates (24 litres) in 10 minutes!
I don’t know if I’d enthusiastically recommend the following hacks, but I strip my kids down to diapers for meals to save on clean up! For the same reason, I sometimes do “toilet dinners” where they are fed while they are carousing in the bathtub. A bathtub or kiddie pool is good for contained messy play. Cheap things like shaving cream, flour, jelly, water with food colouring, or just plain water with different sized containers and scoops can engage my toddler for ages with minimal supervision if I have to focus on the baby or get some work done.
Do you manage to have any ‘me time’ and what do you do for this if so?
They say there are no ugly women, only lazy women. That’s me. Skincare regimen, shmegimen. So once in a while I have a facial or get my nails done, just so I don’t get too decrepit.
What’s your parenting philosophy?
I try to teach my daughters about the God of the Bible and be the kind of parent who reflects his just and loving nature. I am very far from perfect, but I hope my conduct will encourage them to come to know Jesus for themselves. The Bible speaks of God as our father, and only after becoming a parent did I begin to understand the pleasure God must feel from our obedience. When my children listen to me or I see them being kind to others, I feel this glow inside that is totally on a different level to any other human relationship I’ve ever had. Conversely, being a parent has also helped me understand how God can love us, but still be grieved and angry at our disobedience. The parent-child relationship helps me understand deeply why Jesus was willing to lay down his life to take the punishment for our wrongdoings. I would probably be willing to die to protect my girls, even if they had done wrong, because I love them to bits.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received as a parent?
When Emmanuelle was a baby, she had to be carried constantly on pain of death. I did a lot of reading about it and the advice I responded to most was to just carry her, because it’s a phase that will pass. Enjoy it while it lasts. I find “It will pass” helpful to remember. It is easy to get neurotic about what lasting impact your parenting choices will have, but ultimately I tell myself to just do my best, then let things go. When good things like developmental milestones happen, I treasure them more when I remember it’s all fleeting. Even tough times become precious memories. I’m such a softie I’m getting a bit emo just thinking about it.
PSLE is a long way off for your children but have you started thinking about prepping for this?
My husband and I were not hothoused by our parents. We both have driven personalities so we ended up setting and working towards our own academic goals, but we were also free to pursue other interests with our families’ love and support. We feel this is very important because grades are only a means to an end. You need more than just grades to set yourself apart in any college application or job interview anyway. In our experience, esoteric things like his fascination with Lego and my impoverished wanderings helped us more in those aspects than our PSLE scores, which, oddly enough, are identical.
As a teacher, I encountered many 13-year-olds who were burnt out. I’d ask them to write about a fun experience over the holidays or a prank they had played, and they’d tell me, “Ma’am, we had no childhood. We just had tuition.” I also encountered many students on the brink of tertiary education who had no idea of what they were genuinely interested to pursue, and not even much of a personality or sense of self. Our current model of education comes from the Industrial Revolution, and it works like an assembly line, so we should not be surprised if it is churning out robots.
Standardised testing has its uses, but they are limited and parents shouldn’t set too much store by the PSLE. It is up to us to change the culture and properly mentor our children to equip them with real skills and values they will need in future.
Favourite kid-friendly activity in Singapore?
Mandai Wildlife Parks, and not just because I do some work for them! My kids turned out to be interested in animals without any propaganda from me. We are there all the time. Fresh air, sunshine, educational shenanigans, animal feeding, a carousel, room to run amok (trivia: this word comes from a Malay word about rampaging elephants)… Guaranteed good outing, always. Emmanuelle is obsessed with the orange juice vending machines. It is really sweet and they don’t dispense straws at the wildlife parks, so I always bring a bottle half full of ice water to pour the juice into. We’ve splurged on behind-the-scenes tours for birthdays. Very engaging and memorable even for the littlest ones.
Favourite kid-friendly restaurants in Singapore?
Hubers and Putien. Service is great and my kids always eat well there. Kids eat free at Putien!
There is free storytelling at Gateway Kids Club on Saturdays and nearby is Fong Yong Tau Fu in Bukit Merah. The innovation here is that you can have yong tau fu… with spaghetti sauce. There is also tom yum soup apart from normal soup for the grown ups.
What’s your favourite family ritual?
To soften the blow when something unpleasant like getting a jab had to be done, I came up with “5 kisses”. I would plant 4 kisses each on a different part of Emmanuelle like her hands, arms, tummy, forehead, then rub noses before the final kiss on her cheek and then we quickly did whatever had to be done. It would make her giggle and she found it comforting. Now she requests “5 kisses” just for fun and gives mum and dad “5 kisses” too. I will teach this ritual to Edith soon.
As a mama I wish I were better at…
Getting the kids to sleep. I really haven’t figured this bit out.
I wish I had more time for…
I always feel saner after….
A good meal and chitchat with just the husband.
I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about….
Is that kid 1/ kid 2/ the dog/ all of the above I hear? Yes, it is.
My favourite moment of the day is…
Any time my daughters spontaneously kiss me.
Thank you for a lovely chat Maureen!