After spending nine years in private banking managing a USD120 million portfolio, Leon Qiu decided to call it quits. He is now founder and CEO of Daung Capital, a microfinance company actively working to break the poverty cycle in Myanmar. 33-year-old Leon also recently authored and published a children’s book inspired by his four-year-old son. This ‘rebel with a cause’ takes us — and little Jude — on a wild ride through life, Yangon, and his unconventional parenting style.
‘Be More, Little Ice Cube!’
“The book is about an ice cube who leaves the comfort of a freezer to journey across the world. He struggles through sand and snow to find his idol — an iceberg. The awesome twist at the end sees the ice cube himself becoming an iceberg. I was inspired to write it because I got frustrated looking for books to read to Jude. There just aren’t enough children’s titles that deal with grit and motivation to fulfil your greatest potential.
The book has some philosophical moments, and a dab of mindfulness, which I believe children should be exposed to from an early age. Another goal was to show Jude that writing is just as important as reading. I think many of us adults seem to have lost the ability to articulate ourselves clearly, let alone with imagination. I want Jude to know that if I can do it, so can he.
It’s a surreal experience reading a book I had ‘given birth to’ to my son. And he likes it, which is nice. He likens himself to the Little Ice Cube. I swell with pride, especially when Jude remarks nonchalantly, “My daddy wrote this.” Pretty cool.
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Underachiever Turned Private Banker
My mum was an advertising account manager and my dad was a filmmaker — his first film was ‘Ring of Fury’, Singapore’s first-ever kungfu film. Growing up as an only child, I had everything I ever needed. My parents never pushed me hard to do well academically, and in year-end school appraisals, I was usually earmarked as “boisterous” and an “underachiever”.
My ambition was to make the greatest amount of money with the least amount of effort. I never wanted to be like my dad, an artist who stayed up all night churning out script after script, no idea when his next paycheck was coming, if at all. Instead, I winged my way through young adulthood, taking chances, making mistakes. Despite qualifying to be an air force pilot during NS, I failed the flight exams in Tamworth, Australia. Then although I qualified to study law in SMU and NUS, I flopped both entrance exams too. Always unprepared, undisciplined, generally underwhelming and unaware.
All these moments in life were well, life-changing, although I didn’t realise it then. In hindsight, I’m grateful for those failed moments, which led me to where I am now. After finally entering university and obtaining my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in three years when others took four, I got a job in Citibank doing corporate sales, before netting a lucky break in private banking.
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I first met my wife in junior college and wooed her ardently, only to be rejected. We only got together years later. It’s been exactly five years since we got married and Ruth conceived afterwards. I was very much career-driven then, on a constant gritty hunt for clients. Weekdays, weekends — I was pretty much completely absent throughout the pregnancy. She went for doctor’s appointments alone while I was busy meeting prospective clients.
Like most fathers, I just wanted to ensure a good life for the impending family unit. So I worked my a** off, clearly to the detriment of family time. You could say I was almost operating in the future, with clear goals of how much I wanted to earn. Yet I was also stuck in the past, reliving my father’s passing just five months before my son’s birth. I was never present, both metaphorically and literally. That year was really bittersweet, and most definitely non-stop discomfort.
I wasn’t a hands-on father. Diapers, bottles — nope. But sleepless nights — so many. As an only child, I was used to sleeping in complete silence. Having to first share a bed with my wife, then having an infant cry, it required constant adaptation. And clients and financial markets don’t care if you are a new dad. Lack of sleep compounded having to contend with ensuring I didn’t miss out a zero in trades with I was handling.
I put on weight, and had incredible anxiety. It was rough, not only juggling work and being a new father, but still coping with losing my own father. At the same time I had to be the pillar of the family. Public utilities, insurance policies, internet plans — I felt like I needed to have a grasp on everything at once. It was madness.
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The Turning Point
I was just so done with helping the affluent stay affluent. The income was great. But I knew at that level of comfort, I would no longer grow as an individual. No personal growth meant I could not become more to attract more, to impact more. I think that was the realisation that led me to Myanmar, where ironically I have moved from banking millionaires to serving the bottom millions of financially-excluded Burmese.
Daung Capital is still nascent. I have gone without a monthly wage for eight months. But financing 4,000 motorcycles, 8,300 individuals, 350 three-wheeler taxis, two logistic trucks and one rice mill to date is reward enough. I think Ruth is supportive. She has seen how the quest for personal growth and discomfort tends to lead to greater opportunities. Sure, no fancy new car or watches, but we get by very comfortably and continue to pay it forward.
I now have close to 40 people to oversee, investors, department heads vying for my attention. There are goals I want to achieve, people I want to help, with money I have yet to earn, and Jude still wants me to colour with him, fight toy dinosaurs, or join him in dancing to the opening song of The Greatest Show Man. I know he will not want to spend time with me in this manner forever, and so I always say yes.
I worked seven days a week as a private banker, and I still do now as CEO of my own firm. But I play seven days a week as well. I never dread Mondays that same way I never celebrate Fridays. Work is play and vice versa. And life is simply life. I hope Jude will grow to understand that as well.
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By Singaporean standards, I guess my parenting style is very unorthodox. Jude is encouraged to play in the rain, urged to dance on sofas. I let him climb on things he isn’t supposed to, lie on the floor when he is having a breakdown. I want him to be comfortable with risk and free to express himself.
I also create opportunities to hone his resourcefulness. Too often, people complain about not being able to achieve their goals because they don’t have this or that. They blame a lack of resources when what’s really lacking is resourcefulness. So I get Jude to convince stall owners (like ice cream vendors) to give him complimentary goodies, or for very little money. He learns to articulate his needs independently, and when successful, he gets this jolt of confidence money cannot buy. Because he’s so motivated to get those rainbow sprinkles, he works doubly hard to learn new words to express his wants.
His peers tease him about his long hair, his grandparents nag about him looking like a girl. I deliberately have him keep his hair long. That discomfort is important. I want him to feel comfortable with being the odd one out. And I also want to teach him that it doesn’t matter. Boys can have long hair; girls can play with cars. Even now he expresses gender-conforming notions that boys’ birthday cakes must be blue. So I remind him that those rules don’t exist, like how villains in movies can look warm and welcoming.
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Spare the Rod and Empower the Child
That element of critical thinking is something I want to instill. To enable him to navigate the grey hues of life, even at this tender age. To question assumptions, even those of his parents. The world we know today will not be the world Jude inherits. As parents, we have an obligation to accept that truth and prepare him for the incredible future that is to come.
We don’t ever hit him; we never have before. It’s something I never want him to do to others unless he needs to fend off a bully or protect a victim. Instead, we embrace the emotions, both positive and negative, and teach him to verbalise his anger and frustrations. We rationalise with him, calm down together with him, and negotiate terms to find common ground. This method has paid off – he rarely hits anyone in anger and is very open to reason after a tantrum.
My wife is a gem of a mother. She wholly supports my views, partially because she has seen success in me practising these same traits myself. However, what she does exceptionally is bring real excitement into Jude’s life daily, be it a craft session (Ruth is the co-founder of The Bloom Box Singapore), or visits to local attractions. She is integral in showing Jude just the joy of everyday living. Ruth is very authentically warm, a true people’s person, and I see that social awareness rubbing off on Jude.
And I think that’s how we parent as a team, although calling us a team may be a stretch, since I kind of blaze in and out — usually bearing gifts, while Ruth tends to be the constant pillar in Jude’s life.
(See also: Why You Need to Let Your Child Be Bored)
Eschewing Formal Education for Classroom Myanmar
We do a daddy-son trip twice a year. But given how often I’m there, I plan to take Jude six times next year. I think it’s okay to skip preschool. He learns more with me, among the Burmese and my employees than he will in the confines of a classroom. The sights, the smells, getting to see and touch animals he would only find in picture books, riding on motorcycles and journeys through rural villages…
Most importantly he gets to develop an understanding that people live differently from him. Not everyone sleeps on mattresses, has soft pillows, or walks with footwear. He sees poverty, he appreciates privilege. He may not understand, but he knows inequality exists. It’s key, even for a toddler, to experience a culture or a state of living he couldn’t otherwise imagine. I think it’s how you hone concern for your neighbour, or empathy for someone in distress.
Mark Twain said: “Don’t let your boy’s schooling interfere with his education.” I am very fearful our formal education will teach the creativity out of Jude. When you’re expected to sit still and speak only when spoken to. To keep in line, with one finger to your mouth. To answer questions in the expected manner. The current education system is ill-equipped to handle even the present, where technology is so pervasive and employment income can be derived in all sorts of ways.
If I want Jude to grow up to be a force of good, with enough self-awareness, grit to defy gravity and positively impact many, then I don’t think formal education is the answer. Learning must be tactile. Even Elon Musk homeschools his kids, getting them to explore and take things apart without guidance. I hope to do the same.
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In his book The 5am Club, Robin Sharma writes: “Adults are deteriorated children. When you were much younger, you understood how to live. Staring at stars filled you with delight. Running in a park made you feel alive. And chasing butterflies flooded you with joy. Then as you grew up, you forgot how to be human. You forgot how to be bold and enthusiastic and loving and wildly alive. Your precious reservoir of hope faded. Being ordinary became acceptable.”
I don’t want Jude to deteriorate into an adult. I don’t want him to accept things for what they are. Or lose his sense of wonder… and mischief. I want him to remain extraordinary.
The legacy I hope to leave Jude is the notion that my existence helped make the world a better place. Sure as hell beats leaving behind a watch to him.”
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‘Be More, Little Ice Cube!’ by Leon Qiu has been selected to be featured at this year’s Singapore Writers Festival, where it will be launched on 10 November. Furthermore, Leon is donating all proceeds from the sale of the book to Dignity Mama in honour of his father’s memory. To support his cause, do pick up a copy at SWF 2019 (details here) or at any Dignity Mama kiosk (Khoo Teck Puat Hospital, Ng Teng Fong Hospital, National University Hospital, Sengkang General Hospital).