Do not swim against the tide.
My dad was an integral part of my childhood. He was a Malay language teacher and started producing storybooks and Malay assessment books when I was a child due to a lack of Malay educational materials for kids at that time. I was exposed to bookmaking at a very young age, and saw the hard work involved in producing such things. All that translated to my interest in language and literature. I was introduced to children television at 2 years old when the TV was still in black and white! This was in the 70s and pre-dated Mat Yoyo. I was trained to read scripts, memorize and take instructions. The studio became my classroom. So when I finally entered school, it was a breeze!
Mini Monsters Limited started because there was a need to fill the gap to produce Malay storybooks. It was a problem in the past it is still a problem now. There has to be more locally produced Malay books with Singaporean content. This became more apparent when I became a mother and found myself in my father’s shoes – looking for good locally produced Malay books. I dreamt for my Malay storybooks to be carried by a mainstream bookstore like Kinokuniya, MPH, Times instead of the usual standalone bookstores. Then in 2009, it happened. Siri Aksi Adil (Adil’s Adventures) published earlier in 2008 using a grant from MDA was launched in MPH Raffles City! It received its own window display. The first time a locally written Malay children’s book was featured in more than 30 years. It was a momentous moment. It was a dream come true for me.
I chose to divorce at 28 years old, when my son Nadim was a baby, barely 10 months and I was struggling to start my own educational company having left a corporate job. I decided to pull the strings when my son was very young so that he will be spared the pain of divorce, he will not have any recollection of the marriage and can be nurtured to grow up understanding that his family structure is unique. There was really no way out, I really had to do it. I knew I had to pull through to make my life better. The questions and challenges I had to go through were, “How do I overcome this new environment that I’m in?” I was just out of confinement and still very much at the stage where I have to be dependent on spousal support, family support. My stamina was down, I was physically tired and I suddenly had to care for a child. My body was going through a lot of changes and I was trying to nurse my heart at the same time. Fifteen years ago, my public persona was different. I wasn’t as prominent although I was already known, having been on TV for a long time. So to many people I was simply just another celebrity. I had to break away from the stereotype that I was a celebrity mom who got divorced. It was a new millennium in 2002 and that stereotype is just so wrong. I am a graduate mom and I have a good university education from NUS! I may be a young divorcee, but I’m no bimbo – it was a hard fight.
I also had to get Nadim into a stable family environment despite the divorce. How can I do that? How do I do it? Fortunately, I had excellent support from my immediate family members - my parents, my brother and my amazing maid. I had the luxury of having 5 adults care for 1 child. Lucky for me, my parents acted as good role models and provided Nadim with 24-7 supervision so that I could go out to work and build the company. Second challenge, how do I co-exist with my parents and my own style of parenting? We needed a common synergy and that synergy is my father. He is the focal point of my strength, my guidance and my voice of reason. I am forever indebted to him for holding the fortress with me throughout these years since I never remarried.
My son is 15 now. The best feeling was when Nadim did so well in PSLE. He is now in St Joseph’s Institution in the IB programme. Lastly, another challenge is that coming from my area of work, there are the usual distractions and common Malay community talk. “How come don't want to get married?” Or “She is too classy and choosy!” The community love to pressure divorcees to remarry and become dependent instead of applauding those who are successful independently.
There are many women who stand up on their own and succeed. Sometimes, the community fail to see that being single is not a failure and staying married may not necessarily mean things are going fine. If your quality of life drops after teaming up with a man, then you’re better off without one! In this day and age, a woman’s ability should not become her liability. I feel that gender equality is a twisted western concept. How does a woman survive in a man’s role? Men and women are prescribed for different roles and functions.
Divorcing when the child is a baby, that means he doesn't see and cannot remember the quarrels, and is spared that emotional baggage. He grows up seeing a dominant anchor figure in my father. Non-conventional but it worked. He has no recollections of seeing his parents coexisting so that was helpful because today, Nadim is very open to me marrying again.
I would like to thank my father who has set the foundation and is always full of good advice for me to become the successful person that I am today. When the divorce happened, I knew I had to fight for the kind of justice I wanted, the kind of justice that other divorcees would have wanted. He told me to tell myself. “You make the change, you can become the voice.”
The journey that I went through, the challenges, my dad was the first one who planted the strength in me. He also brought out the creative side of me and also nurtured the human side of me. He is the backbone to all that I am.
Best advice he gave to me was, “Jangan berenang menentang arus” (Do not swim against the tide). You don’t have to conform but you don’t have to rebel either. Always find a solution that will allow you to be at peace with yourself. This advice follows me through to who I am today. In many ways I am a non-conformist. But I don’t create enemies. I invite people to share their work and their vision with me. I hope to cut the rope of the generation of silent observers and turn them into a generation of vocal speakers because things don't get solved if you don’t talk about them and sweep them under the carpet.
I wanted Rudy and Rilla to be groundbreaking, to change people’s mindset of certain things that we’ve thought of wrongly all our lives. I wanted to educate my viewers, in a serious but fun manner. Give them a lawyer (my co-host) who can “cure” them of their daily problems by giving them real-time advice, live on TV. It is very much a personality-driven show but I never expected it to hit six seasons and become the highest-rated talkshow on MediaCorp. Now when I go out, people on the street approach me to ask me to solve their problems too!
I think I have evolved into something more than just a staple TV face. I represent the vocal, progressive, modern and independent MALAY woman of today who can exist in a multi-faceted role and is good at it! I am an entrepreneur, a children’s book author and a senior media personality, that’s what I am, no shorter way of describing it!
This has all been a truly amazing journey. Most importantly it showed me very clearly my purpose in life. We are all meant to be where we are meant to be. God gave me a talk show and Mini Monsters. In short, He has given me both – a strong platform for my voice and a good platform for my books. He made me win the Best Presenter award three times and He gave me the Entrepreneur Honoree Award in 2016. Surely, He wants me to use them well. They couldn’t have come at a better time nor match perfectly. Some things in life are just divinely sanctioned for which I feel truly blessed.
I am at the happiest point in my life. This is the best of me.
Rilla Melati Bahri