With his company, Mindchamps Holdings, the 44-year-old has developed a household brand many Singapore families are familiar with. The group has 31 preschools and reading and writing centres. It touts itself as Singapore’s top preschool brand in the premium range (where monthly fees are above $1,500), with plans to expand into Malaysia and Australia. It also has divisions in publishing and e-books, among others.
Which is why it is hard to imagine that Chiem was once an impoverished refugee, who fled from Vietnam during the Vietnam War with his family when he was just nine years old. The family lost everything, and had to begin their new lives in Australia.
At his office at the HDB Hub in Toa Payoh, Chiem, who is married with two sons, says: “It was like a rebirth. My dad said that for every one of us who made it, someone else died.
“ONE HUNDRED PER CENT RESPECT
AND ZERO FEAR.”
FOUNDER, CHAIRMAN AND GROUP CEO, MINDCHAMPS HOLDINGS
“We escaped from a place where, overnight, they took everything. But they couldn’t take our minds. After that, he told me that the only gift he can give me and that no one else can take away is education.”
It was tough living in a new country. When he started primary school in Sydney, he didn’t know a word of English. His classmates called him stupid.
Through sheer hard work and ample determination, he proved those doubters wrong and topped his class that year.
“It was not because I was smarter, but it was a mindset that education was a gift. In a way, years later, it synthesised into the creation of Mindchamps.”
Eschewing the typical immigrant path of becoming a doctor or lawyer, he went to theatre school and later earned a master’s
in filmmaking from the Australian Film, Television and Radio School. It was at film school that something clicked.
Chiem, who enjoys watching movies in his spare time, recalls: “If arts is the mirror to society, arts alone is not enough.
“The question is, how do I change myself from within? This is why I believe… education should be used as a tool to help people build their future. We should teach kids the craft of learning how to learn, not just what to learn.”
So he began from scratch once more. With no early-childhood education experience, the outsider had to convince others that there was something to be said about using neuroscience in early-childhood education.
“The challenge is to get people to believe in you when you have nothing.”
It was an uphill battle, but he took it on. He moved to Singapore in 2002 with plansto grow the business from here into Asia
and the rest of the world. When Sars hit barely a year later, the company came “very close to shutting down”. He had to borrow from friends and relatives; no one knew how long the crisis would last.
By 2005, the company started to turn around. In August, Singapore Press Holdings paid $12 million for a 22 per cent stake
in Mindchamps Preschool.
Chiem wants to reach even higher. He has plans for an initial public offering for the preschool division in the next few years. His ultimate goal? To be like Harvard, and become the world’s top provider of early-childhood education.
“Entrepreneurship is a craft. Respect the craft. You have to stay ahead of the curve, but not ahead of yourself.”