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Preschool in the Wilderness: Traversing Joy, Grief, and Hope in Singapore’s Early Childhood Landscape


ISBN: 978-981-17078-7-2
Author: Dr Denise Lai Chua
Page: 216 pp
Size: 148mm x 210mm (paperback)
Genre: Autobiography



“But in 1997, I was completely naïve and oblivious to these tensions. I was instead overjoyed that I was now a business owner, albeit one who cared very deeply about the education of young children.”


But this is more than just a story about Denise’s time at the helm of one of Singapore’s premier early childhood centres. This evocative autoethnography weaves her memories and subjectivities as a woman, mother, teacher, and female leader with pedagogical and policy discussions about early childhood education in Singapore. Blending narrative, poetry, and aspects of her professional mind, it depicts Denise’s journey through the barrenness of early childhood provisions in Singapore throughout the mid-1990s and 2000s.

Written with a raw honesty and in a manner that instantly draws you into her world, Denise relates how she navigated through this wilderness and emerged a stronger, wiser person with a successful business. Experience her exhilaration and pain, her joys and frustrations, her challenges and achievements, her struggles and triumphs as she provides a snapshot of the early childhood education landscape of that time.

Praise for the book

“Denise will be known for her pioneering work in building a preschool that not only perfected the power of play but turned in the requisite achievements in both her gifted and special charges.

With detail and intensity, this book takes the reader through the preschool “wilderness” of the late 1990s to 2000s and the hit-and-miss changes by the government in this sector. It would really be fitting for parents, teachers, administrators, and policymakers to take heed—to regroup and recall that teaching is really about the heart and soul.”

Hwee Goh
Wee Care Mother of four, 2005–13; TV Journalist, Media Consultant, and Author


“Whether you are an educator, parent, entrepreneur, policymaker, Singaporean or otherwise, you will find Denise’s autoethnography to be a gloriously beautiful yet painfully familiar—or perhaps cathartic—read. You may not agree with her convictions or decisions, but you will no doubt be challenged and inspired by her unparalleled intelligence, vulnerable eloquence, visionary leadership, and above all, her deep and abiding faith and passion.”

Dr Lydia L. S. Chan
Member, Board of Governors and Chairperson, Council, Yew Chung College of Early Childhood Education


“More than just the trials and tribulations of starting a business, Preschool in the Wilderness offers a warm, sincere, and insightful take on Denise’s journey on setting up and finally letting go of Wee Care. She takes us in depth into the realm of special needs education and

preschool education, as she navigates and charts her own path whilst wearing different hats, sharing her joys, challenges, and frustrations. An intriguing and provocative read for all parents.”

Isabella Loke
Wee Care Mother, 2011–14


“Denise tells the story of her 21-year journey in what she calls the early childhood wilderness in Singapore. She tells of her experiences in the multiple roles she played … as a teacher, business owner, leader, curriculum designer, mother. She shares the joys and struggles,

relationships and conflicts, insights and tensions in her daily life as an early childhood educator and as the wilderness is slowly transformed by the changes taking place over time. Whether we read to listen to the voice of an early childhood educator in Singapore, or to ponder on the changes and issues that are part of our nation’s journey in early childhood, there is something to prompt us to reflect on who we are in this early childhood community and our place in this wilderness.”

Dr Hanin Hussain
Senior Lecturer/Assistant Head (Early Childhood),
Psychology and Child & Human Development Academic Group, National Institute of Education-Nanyang Technological University


“It has been quite a while since I have read a book till the early hours of the morning. As I was drawn deeper and deeper into the author’s journey, I had to complete it. Throughout the book, her account of the dilemma between her idealism and realism, struggles between what is good for each child and the balance sheet, fulfilling regulatory requirements and a host of other professional predicaments, is personal yet objective. Her decisions are ably supported by citations of facts and well-conducted research findings. She has rightly described her narration as an autoethnography.

Though this book is written with parents, academicians, and policymakers in mind, many operators and principals, especially those who value quality early childhood education, will be able to identify with Denise. All early childhood educators, whether they are principals or practitioners, as well as parents, will benefit from this book as it provides so many insights into the operation of early childhood organisations, which include parents’ aspirations and

demands, staff well-being, and regulatory requirements. It should be on the recommended reading list for early childhood trainees. The only let-down is the end of the journey; while I understand Denise’s reason for walking away after spending more than 20 years of her life to build the renowned Wee Care in Singapore, I would have preferred a happier ending.”

Datuk Dr Chiam Heng Keng
Founding President, Early Childhood Care & Education Council, Malaysia


“This book is a must-read for at least three groups of people: devoted professionals, policymakers, and parents of young children. It demonstrates the workability of a business model for running a “new” kind of preschool. Denise documents her innovative and enduring

endeavours, with strong personal reflections, to operate Wee Care in a way that was financially self-sustainable, creative, honest, and most of all, committed to prioritising children’s and parents’ needs. When developing public policies, policymakers should be able to learn from this book to remove unnecessary hindrances and facilitate devoted professionals to deliver high-quality services. Parents can also reflect on what it means to choose the “right” kind of nursery or kindergarten for their child.”

Professor Ly-Yun Chang
Institute of Sociology, Academia Sinica, Taiwan

“I am privileged to count Dr Denise Lai as one of my old friends from Junior College. Like her, I started out at a Methodist kindergarten because it was walking distance from my three-room flat. And reading this memoir of Denise’s years running Wee Care, I almost feel glad that she did not read “A” Level Economics, as I did, since that may have held her back from her labour of love to establish an innovative company that made an important contribution to Singapore’s preschool landscape. Denise’s memoirs document the challenges that many entrepreneurs face: dealing with high rents, intense competition, sometimes unreasonable customer expectations, challenges with hiring and retaining good team members; and having to navigate regulations that often seem as onerous as they are insufficiently catered to ground realities. But Denise also describes—in down-to-earth, crisp prose—how passion and idealistic conviction can make all the difference in one’s journey as a preschool educator and also as an entrepreneur. That passion was lovingly woven into Wee Care’s practices, processes, and ethos; and can be found on every page of this book. Denise’s memoirs are also a cautionary tale for policymakers, about the need to cultivate diversity, innovation, and

experimentation in our educational landscape, so as to nurture in our citizens the confidence, initiative, and character that today’s world— and, dare I say it, economy—demands.”

Leon Perera
Member of Parliament, Aljunied GRC Singapore


“An honest and heartfelt account of a trailblazing journey in the “preschool wilderness”, replete with all the bumps, bruises, and triumphs along the way. A wonderful reminder that as parents, we want our children to be taught and led by educators who, above all else, have a heart to serve and a desire to care for them. A unique and multifaceted book that will resonate not only with parents and educators, but also with working mothers, entrepreneurs, and anyone who is on a life journey led by a calling.”

L. K. Tong
Wee Care Mother, 2011–17


“This book offers a captivating first-person account of an early childhood professional, giving voice to a teacher, one whose role is critical in the life of almost every person, yet whose voice is not given the hearing it deserves (and needs). It is also the voice of a woman,

a mother, a female leader, and employer—with each role adding another layer to create a rich, nuanced, eventful, and reflective representation of the multiple dimensions that add up to a preschool.

The value of the narrative lies in that it not only presents the author’s intense and varied experience but it also embeds and highlights the underlying theoretical framework, pedagogical practices, significance of play, and relationships with children and parents that informed her work.

This book comes as a warm and timely guide—as well as a cautionary tale—to those involved in the emerging pre-school system in any country.”

Dr Priti Joshi
Associate Professor, Department of Human Development & Childhood Studies, Lady Irwin College, University of Delhi, India