Daddy cool

One of Mr Richard Hoon's favourite watches shows the time for three countries.

As the 58-year-old chairman of the Centre for Fathering charity goes about his business here, he wants "to have a sense of the day unfolding" in Sweden and Australia, where two of his three daughters live.

About six years ago, his Diesel watch was set to "four time zones - New York, Melbourne, London and Singapore - when the girls were all studying overseas", adds the affable man with a smile that reaches his eyes. His colourcoordinated outfit, including yellow trousers and lime-green socks, suggests an appreciation of fun.

His firstborn Elizabeth, a 26-year-old business development executive, has lived, studied and worked in Melbourne, Australia, for the past 10 years.

Ethel, 25, who studied at Cornell University in New York, is a chef at Faviken Magasinet, a restaurant in rural northern Sweden where the staff hunt and forage for the food they serve.

Youngest daughter Eve, 22, studied in Britain and works at the National Gallery Singapore, a new museum slated to open in November.

Married to his childhood sweetheart, housewife Sim Ai Tee, 57, for 34 years, his day job is chief executive of the international headhunting firm he founded, I Search Worldwide.

Mr Hoon, who has bold plans for the Centre for Fathering, plunged enthusiastically into hands-on parenting when Elizabeth was born in 1988 in the United States.

An engineer by training, whose first job was in the oil and gas industry, he was taking a master's of business administration course then. It had come after six years with American Express in Singapore, where he marketed the card, its travel services and travellers' cheques. The two-year course at Florida State University was financed from the sale of his five-room Housing Board flat.

He recalls: "It was the best two years of my life. I became a father. I would come back from school for a quick dinner and nap.

I'd wake around 9pm and do two night feeds for Elizabeth, at 11pm and 1am, then go to bed at 4am, so my wife could get six or seven hours of sleep."

His decision to become his own boss in 1995, when he bought the franchise of Britain-based executive search firm Humana International, was partly influenced by his children. "I wanted to steer my own ship... Autonomy is priceless. I didn't want to sacrifice my children's future to a corporate boss or manager," says Mr Hoon, who left Humana to start I Search Worldwide in 2002.

However, that same year, he learnt he was not as "enlightened" a dad as he had thought during an introduction to the Centre for Fathering, which promotes the active involvement of fathers in their children's lives.

Mr Hoon and Eve, then 10, joined a father-child bonding camp organised by the centre for members of the Young Presidents' Organisation (YPO), an exclusive CEO group he was part of. He has since aged out into the World Presidents' Organisation, whose members are drawn from YPO after they turn 50.

During the two-night camp at the Outward Bound facility in Changi, which featured activities such as tent-pitching and quizzes, he found he did not know things such as Eve's favourite music or the name of her form teacher. "I thought I knew my daughter, but I had not observed her closely," he says.

A rock-climbing activity, in which they scaled a wall together joined by ropes, struck even closer to home. "I climbed three-quarters of the wall and said, 'Sweetheart, you go to the top. Daddy will go down.' But she held my hand, saying, 'I'm going to hold on to you.'"

Too tired to carry on, he took off his end of the harness and climbed down. It was a turning point in their relationship.

"I had always treated her as a young girl, demure, loving, agreeable. For the first time, I saw the woman in her, her strength and fighting spirit. From that day on, I treated her differently. I gave her more freedom and space to grow."

Eve feels that her parents were less strict with her than with her older sisters. She was free to choose an unusual degree at University College London, which many Singaporean parents might baulk at: archaeology and anthropology.

She says: "I wondered if I should do something more practical, such as psychology, but my dad told me to explore my options and said, 'Why don't you do something you really enjoy?'"

While Mr Hoon says his parental approach is more intellectual and his wife "speaks more emotionally", both of them adapt to their children's personalities.

They enjoy the attention Elizabeth lavishes on them when she visits Singapore and give Ethel the space to pursue her culinary craft during the gap year from work she has embarked on. She plans to intern at different restaurant kitchens around the world.

Although he had a positive experience at the camp with Eve, Mr Hoon did not keep in touch with the centre.

He "got a second bite of the apple" when its last chairman, businessman and personal friend Lim Soon Hock, invited him to join the board in 2007. Mr Hoon took over as chairman in June last year.

He initially felt trepidation at taking the chair of the almost 15-year-old organisation.

The centre was founded on Father's Day, 2000, by three young dads who believed an involved father is essential for a child's successful development. Its programmes include fathering workshops conducted in schools, prisons, religious organisations and companies.

It organises two nationwide events every year: Eat With Your Family Day and Back To School With Dad, when fathers take their children to school on the first day.

Mr Hoon has hopes of a large-scale expansion. "We have a bigger social mission that is eradicating fatherlessness, in the sense of encouraging fathers to be more involved with their children and having father figures step up to mentor children in the community with no fathers. Right now, we are a voice in the wilderness, but we hope to start a fathering movement that will go viral."

He warns of the potential social cost of absent dads that he hopes Singapore can avoid, citing past research from the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, including that 85 per cent of children who exhibit behavioural disorders come from fatherless homes. There are no comparable local statistics.

In June, the centre will launch a training centre in Upper Bukit Timah. Its programmes include workshops and talks on becoming new parents, navigating the teenage years and becoming more engaged with one's children.

Other projects this year include working with community groups, such as Sinda and Mendaki, to pair needy families with fathering mentors and doubling the number of fathers in jail who join the centre's bonding programmes with their children from 50 to 100.

He also aims to attract 10,000 volunteers and supporters to the centre within three years. The charity has 30 volunteers. Last year, more than 3,500 parents participated in its programmes, compared with about 2,800 in 2013.

Mr Hoon comes from a humble background. He says he learnt from his late father Hoon Cheong San, an electrical contractor and tireless grassroots volunteer, the value of "a heart to serve society and hard work". His father died of a heart attack at the age of 74 in 2003.

He gets his personality from his mum, who used to work as a chambermaid at Goodwood Park Hotel. Outgoing and expressive, Madam Chai Chew Wah, 82, "can chat with strangers and will drink tequila shots with the kids", he says.

He has an older half-brother Steven Hoon, 65, who works as a chauffeur, and two younger sisters - Ms Yun Yu-Ting, 55, a financial consultant in the insurance industry, and Ms Meei Hoon-Gigandet, 49, who works with him as a division director at I Search Worldwide.

Mr Chan Chong Hiok, a friend of Mr Hoon's for 40 years, first knew him in the hippie 1970s as a long-haired teen at Singapore Polytechnic who smoked.

The president of East Asia School of Theology and vice-chairman of Cru Asia, a Christian organisation, says he once guided Mr Hoon, long since short-haired and cigarette-free, in their shared Christian faith. "Now we're peers and I admire him for his leadership qualities. His EQ is excellent. He mixes well and knows what to say at the right time. He's a gentleman," says Mr Chan.

Former employee-turned-family friend, Ms Daphne Lau, director of an agricultural firm, says Mr Hoon was "a good boss who gave honest feedback and was a good listener".

"Once he has trust in you, he will leave you to do the job and gives credit for a job well done."

When Mr Hoon built his 6,000 sq ft house with two storeys, an attic and a basement about 12 years ago, she recalls: "I was surprised the daughters' rooms were small compared with the scale of the house. I asked him why and he said he didn't want their rooms to be too big as he didn't want them to spend too much time there, but to spend time together as a family in the large common areas."

Mr Hoon is a passionate art collector and there is art on every wall in his home in Braddell, including works by Surrealist masters, such as three Salvador Dalis and two Joan Miros. Even his maid's bedroom has a print by American contemporary artist Michael Heizer.

His collection of more than 300 pieces, whose value he demurs at revealing, spills over to his office in the Central Business District. He has never sold any of the art. For him, art is a profound form of expression.

"Fathers inspire their children and there are different forms of inspiration. Art is visual and stimulates creativity. It's a form of communication with my children. I want to inspire them," he says.

Eve says her dad has been "a huge, almost defining influence" in her decision to work in art education at the National Gallery Singapore, which will house the world's largest collection of South-east Asian art when it opens.

Surrounded by the accoutrements of high status and the good life, his art and wine collections, a liking for playing golf and a fistful of board memberships, Mr Hoon says he is "very blessed".

In 50 years, he relates how far his family has come. His grandfather, who came from China, used to live in a kampung in what is now Toa Payoh, "with a latrine in the ground, water drawn from a well and kerosene lamps".

"But the finer things in life without inner beauty are meaningless. We're Christian, all these things are perishable, what will live is our soul and our spirit," says Mr Hoon, a lay preacher at his Methodist church for the past 15 years.

He notes the "episodes of darkness" in his life, such as his wife Ai Tee suffering from breast cancer. "It has been a challenge for the last 31/2 years that we are getting through with faith, family and friends. We're fighting," he says.

My life so far

"I keep in touch with our daughters, two of whom are overseas now, via WhatsApp, Skype and Viber. We also keep in touch with them discreetly by seeing their Facebook and Instagram postings. My wife and I are honoured that our girls trust us enough to let us see their Web postings. We agree not to add any comments to respect their space. It is for us to see only and know what is going on in their lives."

- Mr Richard Hoon on how he keeps in touch with his three daughters

"I trained as an engineer, but thought, why does every engineer report to a manager who is not an engineer? I sold my HDB flat to finance my MBA. I worked on a break-even analysis. How would I recover the sum if I stayed as an employee instead of being my own boss? I calculated it would take about 15½ years to break even that way."

- On why he decided to become his own boss

"My inspiration is Leonardo da Vinci, the Renaissance man using the right and left brain. He's an artist as well as an engineer and scientist. I grasp numbers with my pragmatic side, in my execution, I can be creative. Both make who I am."

- On who inspires him

This article was first published on Feb 09 2015.
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