Before Ng was in the education spotlight, she was an auditor, a housewife and a mother of three. And it was only after being inspired by her daughter’s experience at a pre-school in London during the 1980s that Ng decided to follow her heart and found a school.
“My daughter enjoyed her experience so much that on the weekends she would put on her uniform and wait for me to bring her to school! When I told her that school was closed on weekends, she used to be so disappointed! I was surprised that she wanted to go to school even on holidays.
“So, I went to school to be a parent volunteer. I saw a world where children learned through play. Where learning was such a joyful experience. I couldn't help but compare this to learning in Singapore more than 20 years ago when it was very stressful for children.
"When we came back to Singapore, my daughter didn’t want to go to school. During painting class, she was told to colour the flowers red, but she loves morning glory and coloured it purple. The teacher scolded her and, after that, she refused to go to school.
“This inspired me to set up EtonHouse. I wanted children to enjoy their learning in school and not be discouraged from being creative and from expressing their individuality. I wanted children to be respected and develop a life-long love for learning.”
And so, in 1995, Ng swapped a successful career as partner of an audit firm to go into the unknown and set up EtonHouse. What started out as one pre-school in Broadrick Road, Singapore has grown into a global family of 120 campuses with 6,000 students in Singapore and more than 12,000 across 12 countries.
While Ng describes the growth of EtonHouse as “a long and fulfilling journey”, her venture into education has not been the smoothest of rides. Ng was going against the grain by founding a school in Singapore with non-traditional teaching methods, and parents took a lot of convincing.
“Starting an inquiry-based school in the 1990s was a bold move as parents didn’t understand the concept. At that time, schools were very instructional and teacher focused. Our curriculum was focused on the child’s interests and needs, and not what the teacher wants.”
EtonHouse had what Ng admits was “a terrible start” and it made a loss of $1 million in its first year. But despite pressure from parents to change the curriculum and bring it in line with teaching at other local schools, Ng believed in her educational philosophy – and refused.
“I know that rote learning and memorisation will not help children in the long run to be competent and successful as these are not transferrable skills. So, on top of educating children, we had to educate parents on what is best for their children.
“Today, the landscape is very different. There is enough evidence and research to prove that an inquiry-based pedagogy is the best for children.”
Ng has grown a brand of education that takes children from 18 months through to 18 years. What started as a kindergarten diversified into primary and secondary education, because “once we were established in the pre-school space, parents urged us to start primary and secondary so that they could continue their children’s education with us”.
The EtonHouse brand has a presence across Singapore with campuses in the East Coast, Bukit Timah, Central and Sentosa. It has developed a strong dual language programme, including a fully immersive bilingual option in the primary years. And it has moved into the affordable schools sector with the opening of Middleton International School (Tampines), where fees are below $20,000; this is nearly 50% cheaper than many other international schools in Singapore.
Staying close to her Singaporean roots, Ng has rolled out a choice of international and Singapore pre-schools offering different academic calendars, and opened E-Bridge pre-schools under an affordable education scheme by the Ministry of Social and Family Development.
Ng is clearly an ambitious businesswoman who can adapt, chameleon-like, to the changing education sector in Singapore. That said, Ng insists that children are ranked above profits with a belief that if she focuses on the wellbeing of students, then profit will follow.
“Education, unlike other industries, is a social business. We do not focus on maximising profit. We believe in quality and passion, and once you have established your reputation, the operating surplus will follow.
"Education helps to shape the future of society. Being able to contribute to a worthy cause that is meaningful and sustainable is what drives us at EtonHouse. Our focus on quality and our passion for doing what’s right for children is what I believe contributed to our success.”
Ng seems to have inherited an entrepreneurial spirit from her grandmother, who founded a successful sesame oil company. When asked what drives her as an entrepreneur, Ng says that she believes in “4Ps” – Passion, Perseverance, People and Professional Development.
While these qualities undoubtedly provide a strong foundation for a successful enterprise, it is Ng’s hands-on approach that stands out. Instead of stepping in and running her schools with the methodical approach of an auditor, Ng has first-hand experience of working in a school. As well as completing her Advance Certificate for Pre-School Teacher Training, and Masters in Early Childhood, Ng said that she “had to understand what happens inside a classroom”.
“While doing my teacher training, I remember one day after a long day at work I was exhausted. My clothes were messy with all the classroom activities. I was wearing a red skirt and by the end of the day, all the buttons were gone. That’s when I decided to increase the annual leave for teachers to 35 days as compared to the industry practice of 21 days. I realised just how much work goes into caring for and educating young children.
“I also made it a point for all my children to intern in our schools for them to get a first-hand experience of what it means to be a teacher. I strongly believe in connecting with my people in order to lead them. I am privileged to learn from colleagues from all over the world who are passionate, talented and committed to quality education.”
EtonHouse certainly stands out as a brand with a social conscience. Ng is committed giving back to the community throughout her schools. For example, all schools hold a Box of Joy event every Christmas which sees students purchase a Christmas gift for a less privileged child.
In the wider community, she has founded professional development programmes for teachers at all schools, not just those run by EtonHouse, to address the “big challenge of attracting talent, to retain and to develop them to work in our organisation”. And, to mark the 20th anniversary of EtonHouse, Ng launched the EtonHouse Community Fund (ECF) for children and youths from underprivileged families.
"It is extremely meaningful to be able to give back to society, and I hope that more young entrepreneurs will be motivated and inspired to give back to the community,” Ng says.
Looking ahead, there are plans to continue with the group’s expansion in Singapore, China and in other parts of the world. Although the reins have now been handed over to her son Ng Yi Xian, Ng remains the managing director of EtonHouse and promises to stay “very much involved”.
She has words of wisdom for her son, who quit his job for a hedge fund in the US to join the family business in 2014.
“Always have an innovative mindset so as to remain relevant and meaningful to families and students. The world is changing so fast, so it is critical to keep up with the changes and continuously innovate and disrupt so as to stay relevant. We always have to look out for innovative ways to address the needs of families.
“Our children are going to live in a very different world when they grow up. They will be taking up jobs which do not even exist in the present! What we learn today may be obsolete and irrelevant tomorrow. Therefore it is important to offer an education that is meaningful and that prepares our children for the future. We need to prepare our children with the mindset that equips them to be successful when the future looks like nothing that we can ever imagine.
“I also emphasise that while it is important to learn new digital skills and to digitise our operations, nothing can replace the intangible touch human interactions can have. A robot cannot help to comfort a crying child. We cannot lose what it means to be human.”
As one very large chapter in Ng’s career comes to an end, she has been rewarded with the recognition of her peers as the EY Entrepreneur Of The Year 2019. So, does she feel she can be an inspiration to other female entrepreneurs in Singapore?
“I hope that my transformation over the years from an auditor to a housewife to a businesswoman can be an inspiration to other women. Young women can continue to evolve even after marriage and having children.
"It is never too late to pursue your dreams. Age should not be a deterrent. Nor should the hiatus from work to raise your children.”