More than Normal

Playwright Faith Ng's parents remember her stressful secondary school days in the Normal (Academic) stream.

Her mother, tutor Stefanie Yeo, 55, says she accompanied Ng to Changi Airport for overnight study sessions when her daughter was in Secondary 4 and 5.

Ng, now 27, could not concentrate on her studies at home because of noisy construction work in the neighbourhood.

Madam Yeo, who recalls her daughter telling her she was "depressed" during that time, says: "I went through hardship. We would sometimes spend eight hours at the airport, till 3am. For two years, we would do this on weekends and during the school holidays."

When Ng was unwell, Madam fed her hot Milo drinks and applied medicated oil on her. When her energy flagged, mummy got her to run from one end of the airport terminal to the other.

Ng describes her father, logistics company manager Raymond Ng, 57, as her "chauffeur and motivational speaker", who gave her pep talks and shared jokes with her during the drive to school then.

Being in the Normal stream, where secondary school students take an extra year to complete the O-level syllabus, is "a stigma that doesn't really leave you", she says.

She recalls an excursion to Changi Prison that her school, which she declines to name, organised for the Normal-stream students, whereas the Express students went to other places such as Changi Museum.

Her experience has loosely inspired her new play, Normal, which focuses on two Normal-stream students dealing with the expectations of parents, teachers and society.

The Checkpoint Theatre production, which is sold out, ends its run today.

Ng says she was "very encouraged" by her parents' support and took the Art elective programme at Nanyang Junior College. "They spent so much attention on me that my twin sister in the Express stream felt a little bit left out," she adds.

Her twin, Debbie, is now a marketing manager in the cosmetics industry and their elder sister Cheryl, 29, is an account manager at a business research firm.

Ng, who has a master's degree in creative writing from the University of East Anglia, is a part-time lecturer at the National University of Singapore. She is married to NUS theatre academic Alvin Lim, 32.

Madam Yeo says: "I finally brought her out of those dark days. Like other Normal- stream kids, she is capable of doing very well."

Did you feel you had something to prove, after going through the Normal stream in secondary school?

Ng: Yes. I was an overachiever in junior college. I always wanted to be the best. I was president of the debating and journalism society and wanted to take my Special paper in Literature. I was very afraid of people around me finding out that I was from the Normal stream and was a year older than them.

It was so tiring. I spent very little time with my family and friends. In university, I stopped trying so hard.

Mr Ng: As parents, we had to give her support. I said to her, "Do your best. There are many paths in life."

What first got you interested in theatre?

Ng: When I was in Year One at NUS, where I majored in Literature and Theatre Studies, I was introduced to playwriting by Huzir Sulaiman (Checkpoint Theatre's joint artistic director). It married my love of writing and my love of visual imagery and art.

My parents are arty-farty. My dad was good at photography, my mum in writing.

Madam Yeo: It's more important to pursue what you love. Grades are not everything.

Mr Ng: I think it's good to let her do something that she loves, which I probably didn't have a chance to. I had to work to support my family.

What is your parenting style?

Mr Ng: I treat her sometimes like a friend.

Ng: Since I was young, he has treated me like I'm on a par with him, like an adult. Everything is up for discussion. We sometimes have heated arguments about politics. He never tells me what to think.

Madam Yeo: I was worried about my daughters' safety, for example, when Faith had to attend meetings that were held late.

What was your childhood like?

Madam Yeo: She used to keep a diary where she wrote bits of conversation. She didn't know about theatre then. She loved to write rather than play with toys or dolls. Her favourite pastime was to go to stationery shops to buy paints.

Mr Ng: She's very close to her twin sister.

Ng: My twin sister is my better half. She taught me how to write poetry.

How were you disciplined as a child?

Ng: I don't recall an instance when I was disciplined. If my parents felt that I was doing something wrong, they would talk to me about it.

Mr Ng: I rarely scolded her. She's quite obedient. It's more about nudging her on the right path.

Madam Yeo: She didn't need much disciplining. If there was anything that concerned us, we would talk to her. For example, she was offered a Ministry of Education teaching scholarship after JC, which she didn't take up. We didn't force her and let her pursue theatre and literature.

What are your views on caning?

Madam Yeo: Caning is out in our family. I was caned as a child for no rhyme or reason. It was very bad.

Mr Ng: I don't agree with it. Probably because of my managerial background, I feel that people need to be motivated, persuaded, patted on the back. Corporal punishment doesn't make people do better.

If the parent-child roles were reversed, what would you do differently?

Madam Yeo: I would tell my parent, I do not need to study to achieve certain grades, as long as I am happy.

Ng: I really don't think I would change anything. I think everything happens for a reason.

Mr Ng: I would not be so anxious about education. In the workplace, you need to be able to relate to people, which I think is more important than getting good grades.

This article was first published on Apr 19, 2015.
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