May Schooling (pictured above with Joseph) takes some persuading to say yes to this interview.
“Joseph is the one you want,” protests the mother of Singapore’s first Olympic gold medallist. “I’m just his mother. What is there to write?” Or, she suggests, why don’t I interview her husband Colin instead?
No, I say, readers are interested in the woman behind the swimming champion.
After some to-ing and fro-ing on WhatsApp, she finally agrees and arranges to meet at Violet Oon Singapore in Bukit Timah.
Just hours before, Joseph, 21, smashes a record at a college swimming meet in the United States where he’s studying. It’s no wonder his mother is looking pleased when she walks into the bistro-styled Peranakan restaurant in a bright red blouse and black slacks.
She and Ms Oon, the owner and food writer, are friends who go back more than 20 years when Mrs Schooling’s publishing business did a book on Ms Oon’s recipes.
“When May told me ‘Joseph wants to win the Olympics’ many years ago, I said, ‘Oh, really?’,” Ms Oon recalls, arching an eyebrow.
Many Singaporeans were equally sceptical when the Rio Games rolled round in August last year. Would Joseph – touted as Singapore’s big Olympic hope – pull it off? He did, beating not just Michael Phelps to win the 100m butterfly, but also setting an Olympic record.
Since then, his parents Colin, 69, tall and dapper, and May, 62, motherly and gregarious, have become Singapore’s most famous parents.
They are recognised wherever they go. Because Joseph is not here, they have also been receiving awards on his behalf, including The Straits Times Athlete of the Year. The family also won The Straits Times Singaporean of the Year award last month.
Life must have changed for you, I say as we dig into our starters of kueh pie tee and tauhu goreng.
“It has changed in a good way,” she says. “I’m very happy that Singapore has embraced what Joseph has done and I’m so happy that he did Singapore proud.
“I have told the papers before – I have lost my identity. I don’t have a name any more. When people meet us on the streets, they recognise us and it’s always, ‘That’s Joseph’s mummy and Joseph’s daddy’.”
The attention hasn’t always been positive though. There have been nasty comments online, especially before his Olympic win.
Of these social media trolls, she says: “I’ve always told Joseph, ‘This is the one per cent who are just troublemakers. We don’t care’.”
But actually, she does care, because in the next breath she says she wishes she could fight these keyboard warriors and go online to take them down.
“I’m very protective,” she says. Then she adds with a shrug: “But it’s okay. We accept them as well. We hope to turn them around. That’s why I told Joseph, ‘As long as you keep doing well, they can say what they like’.”
Mrs Schooling has a reputation in swimming circles for speaking her mind. In person, her manner is friendly but also feisty and forthright. She has a don’t-mess-with-me (and my family) vibe and she doesn’t suffer fools gladly.
Growing up loving sports
She has always been outspoken, she says, as we move on to dishes including chap chye, a vegetable stew, which is her favourite and which she eats with relish.
She puts it down to growing up in Ipoh, Malaysia, where she was involved in plays and debates while studying at the Methodist Girls’ School there.
She was also a tomboy who loved sports and did well in them. She represented Perak in tennis, netball and athletics – the throwing events – and played softball at state and national levels.
Ironically, swimming was one sport she didn’t do. She learnt to swim only after Joseph was born and is an average swimmer.
“Ipoh is an inland town. We don’t have that many swimming pools. There is only one swimming club and the swimming club is for the rich. I was from a poor family, okay? We never thought of swimming.”
Her late father was a civil servant who became treasurer of Perak. But even then – and she likes to remind Joseph this – he was earning just RM1,300 when he retired.
“But we all survived and before that, his salary was even less.”
She was number two in a family of four girls and one boy. Although her father and family were entitled to live in government quarters, her mother insisted that they own their own home. Her father did extra jobs to pay for their house in Housing Trust, off Kampar Road.
Not a Tiger Mum
Her mother, who’ll be 89 this year and lives in Ipoh, did not have an education but made sure the children had dance and piano lessons, scrimping to make this happen. Two of Mrs Schooling’s sisters became piano teachers.
“People say I’m a Tiger Mum but no. It was instilled into us that education is important,” she says.
She, too, plays the piano and is qualified to teach it. But she has no patience for teaching and regards the piano more as a means to let off steam.
“Sometimes when frustrated, I’d go on the piano, bang on it and after that… you feel all calm.” She pounds her hands on an imaginary keyboard to illustrate.
What she was more keen on was sports. To pay for her sports gear, she gave tuition and played the piano at ballet classes. “You can earn a few hundred dollars a month and that was how I paid for my games.”
Meeting the love of her life
Sports was how she met her husband, Colin (pictured above right).
Their paths first crossed when she was 13 and he 20, at a Pesta Sukan softball tournament in Penang. She was part of the Perak team and he was playing for Singapore in the Pirates team.
Colin, she says, likes to say that was when he first saw her. But she was oblivious to him. “I was only 13, I had no time for boys. I mean, we admired Pirates the team because they were the top team, but when you are 13, you don’t think about these things.”
Their teams were thrown together again in the years that followed and she got to know him, his brothers and cousins, who also played softball.
Dates revolved around sports
After A levels at Anglo-Chinese School in Ipoh, she went to TAR College in Kuala Lumpur and got a diploma in accounting. In 1979, she came to Singapore and joined Goh Tan & Co where she did audit work, and also studied for her Association of Chartered Certified Accountants qualifications.
Still crazy about sports, she joined the Singapore Recreation Club to play softball. And there Colin popped up again.
A lot of their dates revolved around sports. “He didn’t propose. It was just like we did this, this, this, and then, want to get married or not?” she says.
“When he was young, he looked like a better version of Prince Charles,” she adds.
Overcoming cultural differences
Both sides of the family had to adjust when they got married in 1983. “All my friends were Chinese, he was Eurasian. Difficult. My mum at first said, ‘Gwailo, leh!’ (Cantonese slang for Westerners). My mother-in-law, of course, thought I shouldn’t be marrying him because I’m not Eurasian. So it was a very interesting marriage where we had to overcome cultural differences.”
Mr Schooling was then selling boilers for Guthrie. For a while, they lived in a rental flat in Hillview Avenue in Upper Bukit Timah. In 1990, they started their own company M’exim, which deals with manufacturing machinery. Four years later, Mrs Schooling set up a publishing business, Pen International.
She had three miscarriages before Joseph came along in 1995, 12 years into their marriage and when she was already 40 and Mr Schooling, 47. By then, they had bought an HUDC flat in Bedok Reservoir, and later moved to a Lagoon View condominium.
Mum, I must go
Joseph knew at a young age that he wanted to be an Olympic champion and his parents sent him to the US when he was 14 to pursue swimming. They took turns to go there to be with him.
Did the marriage suffer during those years? She says they were preoccupied with Joseph and in any case, “we were already quite senior, lah”.
She gets irritated when people say it was cruel for Joseph to have been sent away at such a young age. “I’m the one who said, ‘Don’t go, wait until at least Secondary 4’. But he said, ‘No, mum. I must go now’, because he was aiming for the Olympics – not me.”
She recalls how the mother of a swimmer once asked how her child could get the “scholarship” Joseph got. “We said, ‘What scholarship? This is a papa-mama scholarship’.”
$100,000 a year to fund a dream
It’s been said they spent $1 million on Joseph’s Olympic dream. I ask if the figure is accurate. She says his school and swimming fees, housing and airfare for the family travelling up and down would have been about US$100,000 (S$140,000) a year. It’s been eight years.
“I haven’t done the maths yet, okay? All I know is that I’m always looking for money somewhere or other. But Joseph was quite lucky in the sense that things fell into place. When we needed the money, the money came. That’s why I say God guided him along the way.”
There was a house in Perth, Australia, that they sold, and an endowment policy that matured. “Things just came along, not much, but enough… you struggle along.”
She says she has been asked why Joseph’s studies and training aren’t being fully funded by the Government. “I was told, ‘Why you so stupid? If Singapore wants your son to swim for them, they should pay.’ I said, ‘Tan ku ku’ (a Hokkien phrase for “it won’t happen”).
“That’s why I keep telling everybody, if you feel your son or daughter has it, it’s up to you whether you want to support them. If you’re going to wait for people, don’t do it, okay?”
Still, she is grateful for the support shown to Joseph and wants to do her part to “rally sports” here.
“We want to tell all the kids, no matter what sport you do, if you really train hard at it, you can get to whichever level you aim for. It might not be the Olympics but at least let’s try and get into the national teams.”
She surprises me when she says she believes talent and genes play a very small role in what makes an athlete good. “I think most people can be trained. Seriously. The only thing the kid has to have is ball sense… Talent is only like 10 per cent of the equation.”
Hard work, however, makes all the difference.
She says Joseph, who’s studying at the University of Texas in Austin, is “technically good for two more Olympics” and she believes that the number of golds he wins in future depends on “how many he wants”.
They speak twice a day, even if it’s just “a good morning and a goodnight and love”.
Does she have a view on girlfriends? “I encourage Joseph to have friends, whether girls or guys doesn’t matter to me,” she says. “He makes his own bed and if badly made, he will have to live with it.”
We’ve finished lunch but there’s quite a bit of food left. Mrs Schooling asks for it to be packed up. “Never throw food away,” she declares. “I go back I can still eat, no problem.”
In the days that follow, Joseph goes on to break two more records at the college meet. Here in Singapore, you can bet the woman who loves him the most was beaming with pride.
A version of this article first appeared in The Straits Times.
(Photos: ST and The New Paper)