It Changed My Life

It Changed My Life: This licensed plumber holds a PhD in early childhood education

Licensed plumber Weelai Suwanarat holds a PhD in early childhood education

Dr Weelai Suwanarat can tell a pipe wrench from a basin wrench and is pretty dexterous with a pair of tongue-and-groove pliers.

She can fix a leaking pipe and also knows how to stop a faucet from dripping.

That's because she was once a plumber, one of the first women to be licensed by the then Public Utilities Board (PUB).

If not for a downturn in the 1980s, which robbed her of her job in the construction industry, the 58-year-old might still be leveraging her training in plumbing and sanitation to make a living.

But the early childhood education sector would not have gained a key player, one who rose from unqualified kindergarten teacher to industry expert spearheading training and development.

In more ways than one, the former director of professional and education development at PCF Sparkletots - the largest pre-school operator in Singapore - personifies the adage "still waters run deep".

Soft-spoken and unobtrusive, she was a wisp of a girl who aspired and, for a few years, lived her childhood dream to become a blue-collar worker; a self-assured young woman who ignored naysayers and married a former drug addict; and an untrained kindergarten teacher who beavered away resolutely over three decades for her qualifications in early childhood education.

Dr Suwanarat was born the second of six children to a mechanic father and a chambermaid mother. Both Singapore citizens, her late father was Thai and her mother, Thai-Scottish.

"They met at my maternal grandmother's funeral; my father was one of the pall-bearers," she says with a smile.

Dr Suwanarat's plumbing licence issued by the then Public Utilities Board in 1983. She and her husband Jix Sze started a training consultancy last year. PHOTO: WEELAI SUWANARAT

The family home was a three-room flat in Redhill; prior to that, they lived in a kampung in Grange Road and a one-room rental flat in Bukit Ho Swee.

"The flat in Bukit Ho Swee had a dark and dingy corridor. Every night, we would lay out eight mattresses on the floor," says Dr Suwanarat, who learnt to speak Malay and several Chinese dialects from her neighbours.

She had to take on responsibilities from a young age.

"Both my parents worked and my elder brother was at the SAF Boys School, so I took over the household, minding my siblings, cooking and cleaning," she says.

Unlike most girls, she harboured ambitions of being in the building and construction industry.

"My dad moonlighted on weekends installing zinc bathroom doors in HDB flats, which were then sprouting everywhere," says the former pupil of Redhill Primary. "I'd tag along with him, carrying his bucket of rivets. I was fascinated and really enjoyed it."

That was why she opted to continue her studies at Queenstown Technical Secondary where she took up woodwork.

"I did well for my O levels and wanted to go to a polytechnic but my parents could not afford it," she says, explaining the family's strained financial situation with "I have four younger siblings".

Dr Suwanarat's plumbing licence issued by the then Public Utilities Board in 1983. She and her husband Jix Sze started a training consultancy last year. PHOTO: WEELAI SUWANARAT

So in 1977, Dr Suwanarat went to the Vocational Institute (now the Institute of Technical Education) where she obtained her National Technical Certificate 3 in plumbing and sanitation.

"The first thing I said to the technical officer was: 'I don't want to get special treatment. I want to be treated like the boys'," she recalls, adding that she learnt, among other things, how to weld, install cisterns and construct inspection chambers. "There were two other girls in the class of 25 but I don't know how they fared."

She served a six-month internship with a foreign multinational, where she helped to draft the plumbing and sanitation plans for the Monetary Authority Of Singapore building in Shenton Way.

The company liked her enough to make her a full-time employee when she completed her course.

After three years, she moved to a local plumbing and sanitation contractor.

"The company's key project then was the Treasury Building," says Dr Suwanarat, whose job as a quantity surveyor required her to work with vendors and suppliers, and visit construction sites.

"In those days, the only females on construction sites were samsui women, so all eyes would be on me. The men would be wondering: 'What is she doing here?'," says the 1.67m-tall woman, adding that she then weighed just 38kg.

Samsui women, who flocked to Singapore from China in the mid-1930s, were labourers who helped construct buildings.

She took it in her stride, learning how to stand her ground with wily vendors and difficult contractors. And during this time, she also took the opportunity to get a plumbing licence from the PUB.

"The panel of examiners said women plumbers were rare. One of them said I could be one of the first," she says.

The economic recession of the 1980s, however, affected the construction industry badly and forced her employers to call it a day and Dr Suwanarat lost her job in 1985.

It took several months before she found work with a construction gondola supplier. But the construction downturn affected the company too and she was laid off after six months.

"Last in, first out," she recollects with a grimace.

By then, she was married to Mr Jix Sze, a recovering heroin addict.

The two met in 1980 at the House Of Hope, a halfway house where she was a volunteer.

"He was rehabilitating then and trying to root himself to a career," says Dr Suwanarat, who tied the knot with Mr Sze in 1983. "Maybe our faith brought us together, maybe we were meant to be."

"My parents were aware of his background. But they trusted me and my judgment."

Her husband, 61, more than made good. He went on to have a successful insurance career and obtain a master's in training and development from Griffith University in Australia before becoming a training consultant.

It was when Dr Suwanarat's bid to land another job in the construction industry failed in the mid-1980s that she decided on a career switch.

"I was then teaching Sunday school and I realised that I loved children," she says.

Joining Yamaha Kindergarten (now Kinderland) as a teacher, however, came with a painful pay cut.

"The salary was only $450 a month. I was drawing $1,700 in my last job," she relates.

She was unqualified when she started but determined to make it a career, so she upgraded herself.

At 32, she retook her A levels as a private candidate and earned a diploma from the Singapore Institute of Management and, later, a degree from the University Of Melbourne.

She stayed with Kinderland for 15 years, the last seven as principal.

With a laugh, she lets on that her plumbing skills were put to good use.

"I saved the centre a lot of money. I repaired leaky taps and shaky basins. I knew what to do when the lights went flickering."

Her next job was with Learning Vision where she worked for more than a decade from 2002.

While working on her master's from the Queensland University of Technology, she became head of the company's training arm.

Her duties included training teachers and planning curriculum.

 

In 2004, she received a Lifelong Learner Award from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

It did not stop there. In 2006, about two decades after she first stepped foot into a kindergarten, she enrolled for a PhD in education with the University of Leicester.

It was no walk in the park.

"There were times when I wanted to quit. If I couldn't make it after six years, they would just give a master's and I was not prepared to settle for that."

She remembers her long plane trip to Leicester in England six years ago to defend her thesis, a course requirement, on early childhood education.

"I couldn't imagine my 21-hour flight back to Singapore if I didn't make it. I told myself I had to fight and defend it well."

She did.

"I felt as though a huge boulder had been lifted from my shoulders. I played computer games all the way on my flight back," she says with a giggle.

Dr Suwanarat readily admits that she and her husband did not start a family because they were too focused on building their careers.

But it does not diminish her love for children, she says.

"I love seeing infants taking their first step or uttering their first word, and I love the sparkle in their eye when they understand a concept."

She adds proudly: "When I became principal, there were 800 children at Kinderland. I knew every child's name."

She remembers discussing a problem with the father of one of her charges when the man turned on her.

"He said: 'What do you know about children? You don't even have any of your own.' I told him: 'Yes but I have more than 700 parents in this school and what I'm telling you is what I've learnt from them.' He calmed down after that."

After getting her doctorate, she worked with two other establishments including PCF. By then, she was involved in spearheading new initiatives, including professional development programmes for teachers and principals of childcare centres.

She quit PCF on Valentine's Day last year to start training consultancy Jix Sze and Partners LLP with her husband.

It was time, she says, to start a business doing what she loves.

"We develop training programmes based on our clients' needs. In my case, I customise programmes for different childcare operators. I also provide consultancy and advisory work in early childhood development," says Dr Suwanarat, who is often invited to speak on the topic at conferences.

Childcare, she says, is a sunrise business. "And the sun will not set for this sector. Childcare plays a vital role in the economy; it allows parents to go to work," she says. "It's more than just minding someone's child or children; it's nurturing and realising someone's potential."