Ethel Neo on growing up as 'Jack Neo’s daughter' & how ‘I love you’ was important to her


Lee Wei Lin | Hayley Foong | March 17, 2023, 04:14 PM

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If you’re not familiar with the entrepreneurial scene in Singapore, the name Ethel Neo may not ring a bell.

Even if you don't know her, you might know this one: Jack Neo.

In case you're wondering -- yes, they're related. Ethel is Jack’s daughter.

Speaking to Mothership, Ethel gave a rare glimpse into her childhood and how she was brought up, as well as how it has influenced how she parents her two young sons.

"Jack Neo's daughter"

For most people, being referred to as "[your parent's name]'s child" might seem foreign.

But for Ethel, this was nothing unfamiliar. In fact, she got used to it because she "never knew otherwise".

Growing up with this label meant that she found herself having to deal with weird looks and questions whenever her schoolmates and teachers found out who her dad was.

“The first day or the first week of school usually wasn't that bad,  because people wouldn't really know who I am," Ethel explained.

"But in the second week of school, I'd get bombarded with questions, and people would start giving me weird looks."

Traditional parenting

Apart from having to go through this, Ethel says she grew up like many Singaporeans.

This included having to live up to expectations to perform academically well in school.

Ethel's mum, in particular, took on the role of being the "stricter parent" in this aspect.

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A post shared by Ethel Neo (@ethneo)

One incident etched into Ethel's memory was when she had to forgo a family trip to Australia as she did not fare well in her Primary 2 end-of-year examinations.

Ethel recounted:

"My parents were preparing for a family trip to Australia then, and my teacher just called my mum and said, 'Your daughter didn't do too well for her end-of-year [exams]. I don't think you should bring her for your family trip.'

So my mom cancelled my tickets and I just stayed at home with my grandma.

I think that was like a very defining moment in my life. Even though I was only in Primary 2, it was very [traumatising].

Back then, I had problems dealing with the [concept] of unconditional love, [because] to me it was very conditional, only when I do well that I get rewarded."

The Neos' approach to bringing up their kids extends beyond their childhood years. According to Ethel, her dad believes that his children should be financially independent once they reach adulthood.

Addressing her entrepreneurial journey in an Instagram Story, Ethel clarified that she did not use her parents' money to fund any of her businesses.

She wrote, "As for my dad, he doesn't believe in helping his kids financially either. We get zero pocket money the moment we graduate. My dad believes trying and failing is the fastest way to learn."

This form of "tough love" proved to work for Ethel as she learnt to "make calculated risks" and "be financially responsible for different aspects of her life".

Bringing up her children

As a mother of two young boys, Ethel told us that she wants to do things differently for her kids.

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A post shared by Ethel Neo (@ethneo)

Being a "late bloomer" herself, she prefers to emphasise the importance of the process instead of the end result.

She elaborated:

"I just want my son to just grow up in a wholesome family, I don't want him to [only] think about grades. I really see the effort, more than anything, like the mindset.

We always [tell him that] he must work hard. Even at such a young age, [we want to tell him] that working hard is important. It's not about end result, it was really the process."

One way she and her husband, Peter Lau, are doing so is by making learning fun for their sons.

For example, their oldest son, Flynn, is an expressive and creative child who loves acting and doing show-and-tell, and his parents are supportive of him doing more of what he likes.

Besides placing less focus on results, Ethel also openly expresses her love for her sons by sharing words of affirmation like "I love you" every day.

This was an important expression of love that she grew up with, though mostly from her father.

"I think without that growing up, it probably might have affected my childhood so I'm very thankful for him to be able to show me this [affection]," she shared.

While Ethel prefers not to be as strict as her mother was with herself, there still comes a time to use the cane -- something she calls an "essential" in every Asian household.

"The cane actually works. It helps to correct certain bad behaviour because if there are no consequences [to their behaviour], they will just keep doing it. So we started to discipline them [with the cane]," Lau explained.

While he is supportive of the idea of disciplining their children in this way, he leaves it to his wife to mete out the punishment.

The reason for this is due to Ethel's closer bond to their boys, which allows them to "recover" from the feeling of being scolded and caned quicker than if they were caned by their dad.

He continued, "Her love and [strictness are] very balanced, I think she does that very well."

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Top photos from Jack Neo's Instagram