We Want Our Kids To Learn Chinese

  • Billionaire American investment guru Jim Rogers with his wife Paige Parker and two daughters, Hilton Augusta and baby Beeland Anderson. (Photo courtesy: The Straits Times)

When in Singapore, do as Singaporeans do.

That's exactly what billionaire American investment guru Jim Rogers and his wife Paige Parker are doing.

Like many Singapore parents, they have become parent volunteers so that their five-year-old daughter can stand a better chance of getting into Nanyang Primary School.

Rogers, 65, gives talks to teachers on topics such as education and his views on world matters, while Parker, 39, helps its English department by conducting enrichment classes.

Their daughter, Hilton Augusta, nicknamed Happy, is attending Nanyang Kindergarten, which is not affiliated to the primary school.

They also have a three-month-old baby girl, Beeland Anderson.

The couple sold their New York mansion and moved to Singapore last December so that Happy can learn Chinese in a Mandarin-speaking environment.

Rogers, who co-founded the Quantum Fund with legendary investor George Soros in the 1970s, has repeatedly said he believes China will be the next great country in the world.

"This is exactly what we want for Happy."

"The best gift we can give our children is to let them learn Chinese and prepare them for the future," he tells The Straits Times, while carrying the baby in his arms.

Referred to as 'the Indiana Jones of finance' by Time Magazine, he retired at the age of 37 and rode a motorcycle around the world.

He has written four books, including Adventure Capitalist, which chronicles the journey he took with Parker in a custom-made Mercedes from 1999 to 2002 that took them to 116 countries. This is his third marriage.

Soon after Happy was born in 2003, they hired a mainland Chinese nanny in New York to teach her Mandarin. They also have a live-in nanny from Ningxia province here in Singapore.

This explains why the little girl is able to speak the language fluently, without the jarring accent that many non-native speakers have.

In fact, she is so confident in the language that she sang a Chinese song for this reporter and recited the national pledge in Mandarin, stumbling only towards the end as she forgot some parts of it.

"I like both Chinese and English lessons, but I like Chinese more," she says in Mandarin.

Her baby sister is also having an early start in learning the language--the nanny plays her Mandarin songs every day.

Parker says they agreed Nanyang Primary in Bukit Timah was the ideal school for Happy when they attended a talk given by its principal, Madam Heng Boey Hong, last year.

"She's such a dynamo. She talked about the discipline and the emphasis on Chinese and I said 'Jim, this is where we need to be. This is exactly what we want for Happy'," she recalls.

She adds that she was 'very impressed' when she heard the students speaking Mandarin to each other in the school corridors.

This was a huge relief for the couple, who realised after moving here that there are no Chinese schools in Singapore--Chinese schools were phased out in the early 1980s--even though the majority of its population are Chinese.

It was also after moving here that they found out that some Singaporeans speak 'bad English and bad Mandarin'.

Indeed, during the interview, Parker had to remind Happy to 'speak proper English please' when her daughter slipped into Singlish at one point.

While Singlish is frowned upon by the Rogers, who are all Singapore permanent residents, they have readily embraced other Singaporean traits, such as becoming parent volunteers.

A child whose parent has given at least 40 hours of voluntary service to a school is ahead of the queue during registration time.

But volunteering in school is not an alien concept to Parker, who used to be a head of marketing in the United States but is now a stay-at-home mother.

She had helped to raise funds to build a greenhouse for Happy's school in New York.

Instead, the biggest challenge for the Rogers has been finding a house within 1km of the school, as priority is given to children living within that distance of the school of choice.

She says most of the houses they have seen so far are 'priced too high', but they have until next June, when Happy is due for enrolment, to find their dream home.

Meanwhile, they are living in a serviced apartment at the exclusive Treetops in Orange Grove Road.

In fact, Rogers is so satisfied with life in Singapore that no one can change his mind--not even Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou.

Last week, he went to Taipei to give a speech and the newly minted Taiwanese leader tried to persuade him to move to Taiwan after learning about his passionate belief in the Chinese language.

"He said, 'Come, come to Taiwan, your daughters can learn Chinese here'," says Rogers.

"I told him, 'No, I'm happy in Singapore'. Even though things are different now in Taiwan with the new government, it's still not as ideal as Singapore as they use complex Chinese there."

China uses simplified Chinese characters while Taiwan uses the traditional form.

Rogers certainly knows what he is talking about, even if the only Mandarin words he can say are his daughters' Chinese names Lele (Happy) and Xiaomifeng (Little Bee), as well as ni hao (how are you), xiexie (thank you) and bing pijiu (cold beer).

Parker's grasp of the language is better, as she has been taking lessons here.

In the past few years, they have visited Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong many times to look for the perfect school for Happy, before deciding on Singapore.

"As much as we want to be in mainland China, the pollution there that you read about is real," says Parker.

"Singapore doesn't have that. It also has an extraordinary health-care system and great schools, and it's a wonderful place for a family."

Rogers says many people felt they were making a big mistake when they announced that they were uprooting to Asia.

"They thought we were crazy, because we were doing it voluntarily. Many people thought we moved to China. They don't know that Singapore is not China," he says.

"Some people told me I was smart to do it for my children, but they couldn't do it themselves."

Their plan is to "stay here forever, unless something else happens", he says, adding that he hopes to travel around China one day with his daughters as his interpreters.

When asked what his net worth is--believed to be billions of dollars--he replies: "I'm sorry, but I can't answer that."

After a pause, he adds, tenderly: "My net worth should not be measured in monetary terms, but it should be measured in how good a father I can be." (By MAK MUN SAN/ The Straits Times/ ANN)

MySinchew 2008.07.19