Some parents in Singapore would have been through this rite of passage: Registering a spot for their child – from as young as two months old – at a sought-after preschool to guarantee a chance for an official registration when the child comes of age.
In 2014, EtonHouse, appointed by the Ministry of Social and Family Development as the anchor operator of E-Bridge Preschool, a chain of affordable preschools that offer childcare services and an inquiry-based curriculum, saw hordes of parents jostling for a spot at E-Bridge’s Punggol branch.
Keen to enrol their children at the centre, which offers subsidised rates for Singapore families in the heartlands, they started queueing one day before registration began. It’s a powerful testament to the reputation that EtonHouse has built over the past 20 years for the quality of education that it provides, which emphasises the importance of learning through play and inquiry.
Ironically, the early years of setting up EtonHouse were fraught with challenges, as parents were more familiar with the rote-learning techniques taught at most Singapore schools in the ’90s, and did not believe in a play-based curriculum back when founder Ng Gim Choo and her older brother, Jimmy Oh, established Singapore’s first preschool offering an inquiry-based programme at Broadrick Road in 1995.
“It was very hard to convince parents to stay at EtonHouse initially. This is because we did not do worksheets. When the children went home, the parents asked them, ‘What did you learn?’ The children were obviously very happy and said, ‘We played.’ Parents do not want to pay $1,000 a month for children to play. There was pressure to change tack,” she recalls.
Gim Choo felt strongly against changing the curriculum to align with the rote learning style in mainstream schools here, a belief that was borne out of her own personal experience as a mother. At EtonHouse, a love of reading is instilled in children to nurture and mould them into lifelong learners. Growing emotional resilience and social awareness in developing minds is a key focus too.
“When I started EtonHouse, I approached it from the angle of parents. As a parent of three children, I believe I understood their needs. Of course, there are always challenges in managing parents’ expectations. All parents want to give the very best education to their children. Focusing on literacy numeracy and cognitive development to ensure excellent academic achievement is important.
“However, children need to build confidence to develop social and emotional skills. They also need to have strong and healthy bodies with physical education. Very often, parents place too much emphasis on academic achievement,” she says.
Doubling down on her philosophy, Gim Choo forged forward despite accumulating about $1 million in losses during the company’s first year.
“We have always placed children at the centre of all decision-making. Children come first, teachers second, and shareholder returns come last. If you invest in quality, returns will follow. Education, unlike other businesses, is the opposite of transactional, and one should always be willing to invest and focus on quality and sustainability. In the first year, we made losses, the second year, we broke even, and in the third year, we were profitable,” she says.
Today, EtonHouse International Education Group has 20,000 students and 120 schools in 11 countries such as China, Japan, Indonesia and Vietnam. This comprises more than 40 EtonHouse schools, including 22 E-Bridge preschool centres, in Singapore. The group’s global expansion has contributed to the doubling of its annual revenue to $200 million over the past five years. Domestically, EtonHouse will be opening new branches across Singapore in the coming year.
Shares Gim Choo: “Our new Middleton West Coast campus opened in February this year, and we are also expanding The Eton Academy enrichment centres in Sengkang and Woodleigh, and our E-Bridge schools towards the end of 2022.”
Grit, determination, and a desire to learn
Often dressed in elegant and vibrant cheongsams, Gim Choo cuts a vivacious and youthful figure. Friends, associates and colleagues describe the stylish 70-year-old as passionate, determined and full of energy. In her office, photographs taken with politicians and celebrities sit side by side with family portraits and pictures of her three children and grandchildren, offering a glimpse of how far this entrepreneur has come.
Over the years, Gim Choo has been a recipient of multiple awards: She was one of three Singapore women named in Forbes Asia’s 2021 Power Businesswomen List, as well as the first Singapore woman to be awarded the Freedom of the City of London in 2009, in recognition of her contributions to international education.
Looking back, Gim Choo says she never imagined that the decision to quit her job as an accountant to join her husband Ng Hark Seng in the UK would become the catalyst that would change her life.
In 1982, when her husband was offered a job in London, Gim Choo thought it was an exciting opportunity for the family to experience life overseas. But she faced objections from her parents and uncle – as she was the only woman in her family to have gone to university then, they thought it was unwise for her to have left her career.
“They said, ‘How could you give up your job to travel?’ I told them that if there is a need, I will travel. This set me down a path that I could never have imagined myself on,” she says.
The stay-at-home mum dedicated the next 12 years to her three children at home. In London, she signed up as a parent volunteer at her daughter’s school, Pembridge Hall. It was a move that opened her eyes to the idea that learning should be “a fun and joyful experience”.
In 1986, the family moved to Hong Kong and Gim Choo volunteered at Quarry Bay School, where her children studied. There, she observed how a school was being run effectively. It was first-hand knowledge that she brought back with her. Although she had the support of her husband as well as her brother, Jimmy, who encouraged her to start EtonHouse upon her return, the transition from being a housewife to an entrepreneur was a challenging one.
“It was very difficult initially as I had been a housewife for too long. I also went into business, which is not my field as I am a qualified accountant. As such, I had to learn new skills and knowledge. I studied early childhood courses. I enrolled for a master’s degree in education management to understand more about running an education business.”
Beyond that, Gim Choo sought to learn more about her educators by putting herself in their shoes – she underwent pre-school teacher training, and even taught in classes at EtonHouse.
“Our educators are very passionate people. They are motivated by something deeper and more intrinsic than just compensation. And to build up their confidence [in you], you have to always do the very best for the children. I spent a lot of time developing these relationships, spending time with parents, building friendships with the staff, and making them feel at home at EtonHouse,” she says.
All in the family
Blood, sweat and tears were what it took for Gim Choo to establish EtonHouse from scratch. However, despite the long hours and challenges, she made sure her family never took a back seat.
She shares: “I could not forget that I was a mother, and that my children needed me in their formative years. When I was with my children, I was fully present – reading them books every night, tucking them into bed, and being with them on all important occasions. When I was at work, I gave my 200 per cent.”
Today, her daughter Ng E-Ching, 44, is an educator and a laboratory phonologist who has a PhD in linguistics from Yale University. Her elder son, writer Ng Yi-Sheng, 42, graduated summa cum laude from Columbia University and has recently obtained a PhD in English from Singapore’s Nanyang Technology University.
Picking up the baton at EtonHouse is Ng Yi-Xian, her youngest son. The company’s group CEO joined the business seven years ago after working as a banker in the US for several years. It was a decision sparked by an incident in 2013: Gim Choo had swallowed a fish bone and was rushed to the hospital by Yi-Xian.
“Later, he told me that he saw me looking fragile for the first time in his life, and wanted to help me run EtonHouse. When Yi-Xian joined the business, it was special; at last, there was a possible successor. I had an agreement with him. I said, ‘Son, this business is very important. If, for any reason, you don’t enjoy doing it, you can go back to your comfort zone.’
“After six months, he wrote me a card that said: ‘Mum, I hope that you’re happy with my performance. But if you’re not, it’s okay. I can leave. And then I get a 100 per cent of you as my mum, because right now, I only get 30 per cent – you are my boss.’ So sweet. I still keep the card,” she reveals with pride.
In the time that the 37-year-old has been with EtonHouse, he has established a senior leadership team and steered the company through a digital transformation. Yi-Xian is also the brains behind Middleton International School, which provides a more affordable international education option for expats here, and the Eton Academy, that provides academic enrichment for English, Maths and Science from preschool to primary 6.
“He is a capable young man. When he was born, I had given up my job and was a full-time housewife. I spent a lot of time with him growing up, and we have a special bond. Our values and thinking are aligned. And I think we bring different strengths to the organisation,” says Gim Choo.
Leaving a legacy
These days, Gim Choo has another role to add to her repertoire: a grandmother to two-year-old twin boys and a newborn baby girl. According to her, spending time with her grandchildren inspires her to keep healthy. She practices yoga regularly, and picked up qigong a few months ago.
Most of all, Gim Choo enjoys planning activities with her grandchildren – from exploring the neighbourhood to checking out tractors at nearby construction works.
“Oh, I literally plan their activities using the EtonHouse philosophy – by observing their interests. This is also why their father [Yi-Xian] laughs at me. You can spend hours planning an activity, but after one or two minutes, they are not interested. Once I spent an hour planning a painting session, but after five minutes, the twins wanted to go out. They are obsessed with cranes and tractors, so we’ll usually walk around the neighbourhood together,” she says with a laugh.
And while Gim Choo is still involved in the company’s financial review sessions and advises the business development team on projects and strategic matters, she is gradually taking a step back from the day-to day operations of EtonHouse, which the go-getter admits is difficult, but necessary.
“EtonHouse is like my child. It’s undoubtedly very difficult for me to let go. The parents in our schools are the younger generation, a lot younger than me. I feel it is best left to our younger managers who can relate better to them,” she shares.
She now places a majority of her focus on charity work. Gim Choo leads all charity initiatives under the EtonHouse Community Fund (ECF), which she founded in 2015 to make education accessible to underserved children in Singapore.
Some of ECF’s initiatives include Joyful Learning, where volunteer teachers who are trained by EtonHouse conduct classes that develop literacy, numeracy and motor skills in children from three to six, and a partnership with government initiative Kidstart, which sponsors children from low-income families with educational materials and learning excursions.
Says Gim Choo: “Education and charity go hand in hand. If I can use my passion to influence more volunteers to join ECF to do something good for the community, it’ll be my passion to continue to do that.”
Having come full circle, Gim Choo hopes that with Yi-Xian at the reins now, EtonHouse could expand to the West with its expertise in high-quality bilingual education. She also dreams of the day when her grandchildren might join Yi-Xian in running the family business.
“We are grateful for the support of the EtonHouse parents. We stuck to our beliefs, continued with our philosophy, and regularly engaged with families to help them understand the significance of our approach. As such, it would be my hope that Yi-Xian can hand this legacy over to the next generation, so my grandchildren can manage the business and remember their grandmother, who worked hard to build the business. I will be happily smiling at them from beyond.”
PHOTOGRAPHY Veronica Tay
ART DIRECTION Ray Ticsay
STYLING Lauren Alexa
HAIR & MAKEUP Benedict Choo using Cle de Peau Beaute