The Straits Times
18 May 2016
More than a year after quitting Mediacorp to spend more time with his family, Gurmit Singh is back on the small and big screens as well as on stage.
He is hosting a memory game show, Don't Forget To Remember, which airs on Channel 5 on Monday nights. In a new Singapore movie, Young & Fabulous, which opens on May 26, he plays a teacher.
On July 9 and 10, he is in Laugh Die You - The Karaoke, a stand-up comedy show with Singapore's Kumar and Malaysia's Joanne Kam.
But this is no full-fledged comeback - his loved ones remain his top priority. "The reason I come back is personal. And I still have to buy bread for the family so I have to do odd jobs here and there to put some food on the table," he tells The Straits Times.
He took on Don't Forget To Remember for friendship's sake - its production team was behind another variety show he did, Our Makan Places: Lost & Found.
Young & Fabulous was filmed before his contract as a full-time artist with Mediacorp expired at the end of 2014. And Laugh Die You is a "one-off production".
Recalling his hectic days as a full-time entertainer, Singh, 51, says: "As far as priority was concerned, my family was at the bottom of the list. That was the way the system worked.
"But now, it's the opposite. My family is at the top of the list and we make long- and short-term plans."
The bright lights of show business? "I don't miss it. In the past 20 years, I had so much of it. I once told reporters I had enough to last me four lifetimes."
He and his wife Melissa Wong, 46, director of show production company Indahouz, have three children - daughter Gabrielle, 18; son Elliot, 14; and daughter Mikaela, three. He declined to share personal photographs of his family for this story.
The actor remains best known for his turn as the titular Ah Beng contractor in the comedy Phua Chu Kang Pte Ltd (1997-2007), for which he won the Asian Television Award for best comedy actor five times.
Singh points to a recent interview in which his elder daughter was asked what it was like to have a famous father.
"Her answer was, 'To me, when I was growing up, my father was a mythical creature, didn't know when he would be in or out.' I read that with a heavy heart and it confirms that my decision to leave was right. It's never too late to do something good again, to rectify things."
While he does not play a parent in Young & Fabulous, his teacher character is a nurturing one and that is how Singh sees his parenting role in real life.
When it comes to his children's interests and career choices, he says: "I told them that as long as it's legal and it's something they have an interest in, that's fine. When it comes to life choices, it's their call."
He deadpans: "But as a parent, I have to be here to advise them, 'No, drug-smuggling is not appropriate'."
And if they choose to go into entertainment, well, they already know first-hand how demanding the industry is.
"Unless you want to be a performer nobody really knows, where you go for events and nobody turns up, then that's fine. You will have a lot of time with your family.
"But I've told them that if you want to do something, you must give it your all, so you know how far you can go and you don't waste anybody else's time.
"Give it all you can because that's your responsibility."
Ultimately, he just wants his children to be happy. "If they have the passion, they can do whatever they want. As parents, we want to see our kids going to work happy and not dragging themselves out and cursing the world. Then we didn't do our job right, we didn't guide them."
In some ways, he is "not your average father".
He introduced his children to the multiplayer online game Defense Of The Ancients and they would happily play it together.
When it comes to social media platforms, he says: "I follow them, they follow me, so we're all on the same page. If you want to be in touch with your little ones, you have to be on their feed as well."
It sounds great to have a friend for a parent, but there are boundaries. "They know I'm the parent and, if something is wrong, penalties will be meted out," says Singh, who takes turns with his wife to be the disciplinarian.
The important thing is that lines of communication are always open within the family. "Our elder daughter is at the age where she may or may not date - we don't want to force it.
"We've asked her to please let us meet the boy if it happens, talk to us if there's any boy she's interested in and we can share what mum and dad have gone through."
Gabrielle graduated from the School of the Arts last year.
Singh's son is in Secondary 3 and "interested only in studies and media and robotics".
With a comedian's instinct for a quip, he adds: "The youngest is three years old. She wants to get married soon, but we said no."
Along the way, Singh's idea of being a good parent has changed. "I always thought I was being a good dad by providing for the material stuff. Money was never an issue - I made sure of that. I didn't realise there was more important stuff. I kind of knew it, but I was in denial."
The birth of his third child in 2013 was a wake-up call.
When he decided to make a break with entertainment as a full-time job, he told his children: "If papa does this, no more business-class air tickets. Income won't be fixed every month, so we have to do some adjustments in terms of lifestyle."
He sold his Lamborghini and downgraded the family from a bungalow to a three-bedroom condominium, which is fully paid for "so I don't have to look behind my shoulder every month wondering if the bankers are coming after me".
They have since gone on family vacations together, including a memorable one to Finland at the end of 2014.
For many years, he hosted the local television station's countdown show on Dec 31 - "I was the only one apparently who could count backwards".
But in 2014, he was with his family on an airplane flying back to Singapore.
"At the stroke of midnight, for the first time in 20 years, my family and I got together, hugged one another and said happy new year."
He muses: "My family is very blase about my career and what I do for a living. They would rather have their dad back. My two older ones pointed out that the littlest one will grow up not knowing how famous her father was."
And that is perfectly fine with him.
See more photos related to the article in the gallery below.
•Young & Fabulous opens in cinemas on May 26.
•Don't Forget To Remember airs on Channel 5 every Monday at 7.30pm.