The good ol’ days were simpler, or were they? Father and son Michael Eranjan Diran Govindasamy and Shaun Andrew Michael grew up in different times and view education and success differently. They talk to Schoolbag about what has changed, and what remains the same.
Before retiring six years ago, Mr Michael Eranjan Diran Govindasamy had worked 45 years in the marine engineering industry. He started work right after completing his National Service, and retired as a senior foreman. Now 73, he recalls the long days and back-breaking hours he had put in to better the lives of his family.
Today, his son Shaun Andrew Michael is also a father of two – his elder daughter is four years and the younger daughter is under a year old. At 37, he is a Lieutenant-Colonel in the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), which he joined after securing an SAF undergraduate scholarship. His sister Nicolette works in strategic communications.
Their father, Mr Michael, is proud of how far the family has come from the days of worrying about bread and butter issues.
“I know how hard it is to grow up poor and with little education, so I just wanted my children to go as far as they could in their studies, for a better life,” says Mr Michael.
Mr Michael and Mr Shaun and his two daughters.
Schoolbag: What were your growing-up years like?
Mr Michael: I grew up the third eldest of seven children, in a neighbourhood in Sembawang. I left school after completing my O-levels to work in a shipyard, to put my four younger brothers through school.
I never intended to get married. I spent 10 years of my working life supporting my family. After I made sure my brothers had all finished school, I just wanted to take care of my ageing mother. But when I was 35, I was matchmade to my wife, Jacintha; we had Shaun soon after. Our daughter Nicolette was born four years later.
When Shaun was four years old, I decided to move to Hougang so that my family could have a better life. There were several reasons why I did that. There were a few schools in Hougang that my peers attended and they seemed to have received a solid education with great opportunities for work thereafter. I ended up sending Shaun to St Gabriel’s Primary School.
At that time, the neighbourhood that I lived in was also a hotspot for drugs. I decided then that I didn’t want Shaun to grow up there.
I was a bit strict with Shaun because I wanted him to be the best that he could be. We didn’t nag about his studies but focused on discipline and good behaviour. Fortunately, he was generally a good boy in school; I never received any complaints from his teachers or anything.
Mr Shaun: (laughing) A bit strict? You were very strict with me, Dad! Those were the days where you would lock the door if I didn’t get home by my curfew time. But looking back, I see why you were like that.
It was clear that my dad’s priority was for me to be a disciplined person who always does the right thing and does his best. When it came to my studies, he was more flexible with what I wanted to study but adhered to the same principle: Whenever I got my report card back, he would ask me if I felt that I tried my best and whether I could do better.
While primary school was quite smooth sailing, I remember the anxieties of my upper secondary days, especially when it came to my Maths and Science! It was because of this that I decided not to go to junior college after completing my O-Level even though I qualified for it. I felt that I would learn better with a more hands-on approach, so I enrolled at a polytechnic. I really enjoyed my poly days.
Schoolbag: How did you feel about taking the less trodden path?
Mr Shaun: At the time, among the children of my dad’s friends, I was the only one who went to polytechnic. There was the perception even among my friends that very few poly kids would do well in life. I thought that my dad would tell me to take the tried-and-tested path but he didn’t mind, especially after I explained why I wanted to go to poly.
Mr Michael: At that age, he was old enough to take responsibility for his own decisions. I wanted Shaun to own his choices and not blame us if anything were to go wrong [chuckles]. I was happy as long as he continued to study.
Mr Shaun: My dad and mum let me decide on the diploma course that I wanted to take – aeronautical engineering -- and even let me spend a lot of my time and energy rock-climbing as part of my CCA. Even if I missed classes due to climbing, they didn't say anything!
Mr Michael: The only thing we worried about when Shaun was climbing was his safety. As for his studies, we could see for ourselves that Shaun was really interested in studying while he was in polytechnic. He would study late into the night without any of us nagging at him, and his grades were excellent throughout.
Schoolbag: And he furthered his studies, which was what you had hoped.
Mr Michael: Yes, he did well enough to enter many universities of his choice both locally and overseas.
He ended up taking up a degree scholarship at Royal Military College, Duntroon in Australia with the SAF, to alleviate my financial burden and free up some resources for his younger sister to further her studies in a local university. Over and above what he has achieved, we are so proud of his thoughtfulness and consideration towards all of us at home. This is all beyond what we had hoped for.
Schoolbag: Mr Shaun, now that you’re a father too, do you have similar dreams for your daughters?
Mr Shaun: I do want them to at the very least go to university. It’s not so much about the wider career prospects and all but more about how the university experience is really like a training wheel for life, where they will learn to collaborate, persuade, manage tasks, and think critically at a higher level. They could be an artist or barista or run their own business after, it won’t matter.
I’m going to go out there and say that I don’t intend to be very particular about what they end up choosing to study, although I admit I have my preferences. After all, as adults with life experience, we understand the world around us and what areas of work might be more rewarding or seem more stable.
Like my dad, I’ll be flexible about the academic route they take. It doesn’t have to go from secondary school to JC then to university. There are so many more options now.
All said, academic achievements are a means to an end. For me, success is about doing my best, as a father or a soldier. At work, I want to feel like I have undertaken something meaningful and making a positive difference in a job that allows me to value-add to other people’s lives, rather than to focus on the bottom line and profits.
And when the time comes for us to choose a primary school for our girls, my wife and I will be picking a mission school nearby. We like the school’s emphasis on servant leadership and good character.
As my dad was brought up in a different era, it’s understandable that his idea of success would be different; it’s more about social mobility, where having qualifications will allow you to rise up in life.
Schoolbag: How will you communicate your dreams to your children?
Mr Shaun: That’s a really tough question to answer. As I said, what counts as success and victories should be something personal. My girls will eventually find their own paths and passions, but I do hope that there will be a parallel to what I believe in, that they will find meaning and fulfilment in what they do.
I guess we live in a time when we can afford to care about the softer things like values and finding meaning in our work and not be driven by bread-and-butter issues.
Schoolbag: Looks like talking about fatherhood has put us in a reflective mood.
Mr Michael: Being a father is a huge responsibility; you are taking stewardship of your children’s future. Shaun, I’m sure you will do well in fatherhood, as with everything else you’ve done. I just wish I had scolded you less and talked more, been a bit more communicative when you were younger.
Mr Shaun: Dad, I know I haven’t always been the easiest kid to manage. You’ve always been extremely supportive of me, giving me unconditional support in all I do to give me the space to succeed. I want to do the same for my girls and will try to communicate more (chuckles). I may be a military guy but I am a softie with them!
Mr Michael: I want you to know that we are all very proud of you, Shaun.
Mr Shaun: Thank you for everything, Dad.