Simone Heng: A Tale Of Shoulda Woulda Coulda With Destiny

One can speculate the paths that she might have taken, but can we assume that what she has now is the best of all possible worlds?

BY Wayne Cheong | Apr 25, 2017 | Women We Love

Photographs by Nicky Loh, Styling by Lim Siu Fang

Elsewhere, Elsewhen 
Imagine as will, Simone Heng in an alternate universe, far from the one we live in now. For simplicity’s sake, we will refer to her as S2. This is the reality S2 inhabited, where it looks like she has it all: a fast-tracked career as a lawyer, two houses (one in Perth and another on the Gold Coast) and she is a familiar face in the St Georges Terrace area where she lives. 

Here, S2 frequents a restaurant (owned by her friend and celebrity chef, Neil Perry). Unsurprisingly, she’ll sit by the large window—her favourite spot to people watch while having tea—and dig into a late lunch of seared mackerel that’s lightly seasoned with paprika and sea salt. 

Once, during an interview with a career magazine, she was asked whether she had any regrets. She had to chew on the answer for a bit before meekly replying that she had none. According to the article, S2 said, “This is the best of all possible worlds.”

Right here, Right now 
In our world, it is Valentine’s Day morning, Simone Heng and I meet over breakfast… well, I play a more observatory role, while Heng digs into her breakfast burrito with aplomb. She’s doing this as she speaks to me, her knife and fork rending the meal apart like wolves descending upon a fawn. 

“I hope you don’t mind,” Heng says. “I haven’t had breakfast.” 

I don’t mind and, besides, it’s interesting to see her eat—her plate is a mess, a culinary murder scene, but each fork stab is purposeful. Each action, no matter how minute, is not wasted, as the speared morsel is carried over to a waiting maw— small bites, quick chews, replies to a question, a lull in the conversation, repeat. 

Today’s conversation takes place at the Starbucks in Liat Towers. The venue is of her choosing because she has to return outfits loaned from a Zara store nearby. They were for her Instagram page (@simoneheng). Something to sate her 10,000odd followers. 

“In 2011 or 2012, I was at the peak of my career and Instagram wasn’t big yet,” Heng adds. “During that period, it was all about Facebook, but the one thing that I remember is that it’s always about the quality of your followers and the market niche.” 

In short, it is about packaging and marketing. It’s all spin. Heng’s time as a DJ in Dubai taught her that talent is only 30 percent and the rest is just marketing and how hard you’re willing to work. Your stage is your social media platform and your audience is your followers who toss their bouquets of likes your way. She’d only gotten serious about her online presence in May 2016. Initially, she was just finding her footing, mapping out the lay of the land. Now she thinks she has it figured out. By that same token, she’s trying to keep her Instagram profile uniquely hers.

“So, what you see there is me. I’d never put up a photo that [just consists of hashtags]. It’ll always be captioned. I refuse to put vacuous comments in there. I refuse. It’s not me at all.”

Continually feeding the beast that is Instagram, building the numbers, it’s easy to get caught up in all that, but Heng doesn’t feel that recognition is a marker of how good a person she is. 

In fact, it took her mother succumbing to illness to snap Heng out of that.

Elsewhere, Elsewhen 
In another world, S2 and her mum are not on speaking terms. 

Despite her sterling career, they had a falling out when S2 turned down a partnership in the law firm. It was the discomfort of trying to live up to her mother’s expectations. S2 assumed that becoming a lawyer would be enough, but it never was. When you try to live for another, it only hollows you out from the inside. 

A year ago, on the Ides of March, S2 and her mother met for tea. Out of the blue, her mother texted her, asking if she was free. In the late afternoon, over a pot of Darjeeling and chocolate-mousse éclairs, the two women’s conversation started cordially enough: inquiries about a new case that S2 was working on, which led to the state of the weather, then detoured to kvetching about the wait staff of the café that they were in. Somehow, the discourse careened off-road, and soon, her mother was reminiscing about their time in Singapore. S2 asked why they hadn’t stayed on and her mother simply stated that she wouldn’t have liked it. “Who knows how you’d have turned out had we stayed in Singapore,” she said. 

S2 didn’t reply, only nodded. But her agreement was only for her mother’s benefit.

Right here, Right now 
Heng was born here before moving to Australia at the age of three. She does not remember much of Singapore at the time. Throughout her childhood, she and her parents would visit Singapore regularly. At 18, she travelled to Switzerland to further her studies. She speaks fluent German to this day. Then, she returned to Australia for two years before her father passed on, and then journeyed to Singapore, during which it started to shape her. 

“I have a lot of memories here from 2005 to 2009 that nurtured me as a young adult,” Heng says. “If I ever played a coming-of-age movie of my life in my mind, it was Singapore when I was at 21, 22. I learned a lot of things that Perth would never teach you.” 

She scored a gig as an entertainment TV host for HBO Asia in Singapore. Then, in late 2008, Virgin Radio International offered her an attractive deal to move to Dubai to work as an announcer for Virgin Radio Dubai. During her five years in the city, Heng padded her CV with numerous career milestones that included hosting high-profile events; being nominated four years in a row as Personality of the Year at the Best in Dubai Awards; and representing Chanel for their Little Black Jacket exhibition. 

Then, in 2013, her mother took ill, which brought Heng back to Australia. She worked with the Southern Cross Austereo network, an extremely competitive station for the next one-and-a-half years. Still, she felt the pull of travel. The Australia where she once lived became incongruous. “My sister and I,” Heng says, “took care of my mother and, when everything was settled, I asked a friend in Singapore if anyone was hiring.” 

Eight weeks later, Heng returned to Singapore to take up her current role as the voice for the afternoon show on Class 95FM. 

“I only moved to Singapore a year-and-a-half ago, but I feel like I’ve been here forever,” Heng says. “I got off a plane, started work immediately and haven’t really stopped since. So, it feels like a lot longer.” 

Sometimes, the past can catch up to the present. Heng bumped into someone who grew up in Dubai and said she was the soundtrack to his high school years. “It’s crazy to me,” she says, her large eyes widening even further, “that I could be in Singapore and someone from the other side of the world knows who I am.”

Elsewhere, Elsewhen 
In another world, sometimes, while driving to her law firm, S2’s eyes get a little misty whenever she listens to the radio. She knows it’s not the music. She can’t help but wonder what she would sound like on air.

Right here, Right now 

Can you imagine a life apart from the radio industry? 

At a party, a TV host once asked her that. You’ve been doing radio most of your life, shouldn’t you be doing more? She replies, incredulity seeping into her words, “What do you mean? Do you look down on me because I’m in radio?” Yeah. Kinda. “I’m so grateful to radio. It’s bought me a house. It’s allowed me to live in amazing cities. It’s allowed me to be financially independent. 

“And I love it.”

She once interviewed the late Omar Sharif in 2009. “Why did you want to become an actor?” she asked because there were no other Arab actors at the time who’d crossed over to the mainstream. His brows still held to his youth, dark and thick as they rose to show eyes that were attentive. Hands animated, he answered: “In those days in Egypt, when you told someone that you wanted to be an actor, it’s like saying you wanted to become a prostitute.” Acting was so despised that no one wanted to risk being a pariah, but even being told that he couldn’t do it, consumed him. Now, after half-a-century of acting, if anyone asked Sharif for career advice, his reply was: don’t do it

“If they still want it,” Sharif added, “if they cannot breathe or sleep without it… then it’s meant for them.” 

“When he said that… God, that’s how I feel about [the entertainment industry],” Heng says. No one in her family had a background in that field, her mother disapproved, and nobody supported Heng in her endeavours. Years later, her achievements would dawn on her when her Singaporean godmother remarked that everything Heng had built was by her own hand. 

“I did it all on my own,” Heng says slowly, like she’s savouring the statement. “I own it. It’s mine.” 

Which is a little odd when she also reveals that she’s a believer in astrology. 

“It happened by accident,” she says, which reads like she’s ashamed and is now justifying her beliefs, but Heng is unabashedly into the language of the stars. At this moment, I’m acutely aware of my eyes (no eye rolls), making sure that the inflection in my sentences does not verve towards incredulity. 

“A couple of years ago in Australia, I was bored on radio so I went through the birth dates of my closest friends and realised that they were all Capricorns and Virgos.Then, I looked at the birth dates of my exes and discovered that they shared the same star signs including Taurus. I read up on how some star signs are supposed to be compatible with others and I thought… wow, that is just freaky. Maybe there’s something to it.”

Then, after a brief mastication of a piece of breakfast burrito, “but I know it’s also something that single women above a certain age would read.”

Elsewhere, Elsewhen 
In another world, S2 meets her husband at a party. A friend of a friend. One of those hapless instances of getting to know other people under the guise of networking. Yezed Ahmed is a plastic surgeon, who used to work with burn victims before opening his own cosmetic surgery practice. His skin is the colour of teak and, although he’s been an avid cyclist most of his life, he’s starting to sport a slight paunch. 

Their romance is a whirlwind, the fastest for S2, but she’s sure that he is The One. Within a year, they are hitched. They can be seen running with their dogs on Scarborough Beach, kicking up sand as laughter and barks trail after them. Although their relationship is a talking point, much of Ahmed is left to speculation. 

Years later, she and Ahmed would be vacationing in Barbados and, under the gibbous moon, with Ahmed’s snores now a lullaby, S2 looks up at the stars, tracing each celestial dot until it resembles a crooked path. Where does it lead, she muses.

Right here, Right now 
“All the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.” 

As far as quotes go, this one is oftspouted by many Coelho fans, but this mantra is something that Heng lives by. 

“It’s weird, uncanny,” Heng says. “I feel that everything—even the sad parts—has moved me in a certain direction.” 

She’s doing so much for someone who is 33. Partly due to her own sense of mortality, partly due to whether radio will remain relevant in the future. “I think it’s about integrating digitally,” Heng muses. “That’s why I’m pushing myself on my Instagram, website, that sort of thing. I’m out on the weekends working on my Instagram shoots. I’m shooting at restaurants from 11am to 1pm before going on air. I work.” 

On this fine morning, after the interview, she’ll return her loaned outfits to Zara, sub in for Yasmin Cheng’s radio programme and, after her own show, record a segment for the reality series, Eat List Star, on Mediacorp Channel 5 before ending the evening with viewings for a new home.

Each day is similar to today’s—a filled schedule—but Heng feels so motivated for the day ahead because she knows that she’s building up to, what she terms as, the “best version of herself”. “I haven’t lived like that for a while,” she says beaming. “And it feels good to have that desire back.” 

When it comes to Heng’s career, her mum was her biggest detractor. Both of her parents are Singaporeans—her mum is Eurasian, her dad, Chinese. As an exteacher from Raffles Girls’ School, Heng’s mother held sway over the children’s upbringing. “We were not allowed to buy makeup, we were not allowed to go shopping. My mother wanted doctors, lawyers, that’s her thing.” This rearing was in stark contrast with the other Westernised parents who were the opposite of her mother. “It was painful for me as a kid.” So, imagine her disappointment when Heng ventured into the entertainment field instead. “She didn’t talk to me for six months,” Heng says. “My sister made partner at a law firm at 32 [and I was in radio]. It took a while before my mum started taking what I do seriously, which was when I went to Dubai and bought my first property with the money that I’d made. 

“My mum—bless her heart—I love her to death and we’re very close now, but it’s about levels of achievements for a very Singaporean woman. That’s when she started being supportive... and asking for money,” Heng cackles. 

“The universe brought me here because of what has happened to my mum.” 

Heng doesn’t delve into the specifics of her mother’s illness but, according to her, she is “fully paralysed”, which requires round-the-clock care by a team of two helpers. That’s why Heng needs to be in an area where she’s close to her mum. The jaunt between Singapore and Australia allows her to visit her mother four times a year (“And so far, I’ve been bang on”). She couldn’t have kept to this regimented visitation routine had she remained in the Middle East. A week or two later, Heng will fly off to visit her mum for her 70th birthday. 

“In a year or two,” she says, “I want to pay for her and her caregivers to come to Singapore for the weekend.” 

So now, the relationship between mother and daughter has mended, perhaps even stronger than ever. Heng got to know her mother as a friend and her condition has led to a reversal of roles, making her more of a child and Heng, an adult. 

“Maybe if she hadn’t got sick, we wouldn’t be as tight as we are now.” 

A clairvoyant consulted the cards, overturning each pasteboard to tease out a forecast. “He’s like, babe, I hate to tell you this, but there’s going to be another job offer and it’s going to be somewhere cold,” Heng says, with a slight pout. “I want to establish roots here. I’m going to get my PR. I’m going to stay here.” 

You can look to the stars or just look at them as balls of gases that expired years ago, but the future remains stubbornly nebulous: Heng might go or she might stay. She might take up the guitar or write a book; she might find love, she might do something else. She might suffer loss or make a right at the crossroads. 

But she speaks of her past not with nostalgia but resolution. Does she have regrets? Would she have done anything differently that would have led her to be a different best version of herself? 

In our world, she wouldn’t change it all for anything.

This article was first published in the print edition of Esquire Singapore, April 2017.