Famous enough to have her own page on Wikipedia, television anchor, reporter and producer Sharanjit Leyl invites Verne Maree to her Holland Grove View home for coffee, a chat – and the best homemade samosas in town.
If you watch BBC World News (Starhub Channel 701), you’ll know Sharanjit from Asia Business Report, Newsday, World Business Report and The Strand. I know her better as the friendly, glamorous woman I’m sure to bump into at social events around town.
What took you to the US in the 80s as a 14-year-old schoolgirl? And why did you come back ten years ago? Do you feel Singaporean? Is this home?
My diplomat father was posted to Washington DC, so we moved there lock, stock and barrel. After completing my journalism degree in the US, I did my Masters in English Lit. in Vancouver, and later made a career move to Tokyo.
I didn’t plan to come back to Singapore; neither did my brothers, except to do their National Service, and they are still in the States. In 2003, however, when I found out that my dad was sick, I applied to the BBC for a job here.
Yes, this is home – and it’s nice to be back. Singapore has changed a lot, and for the better. It has become an exciting place, an international city. It’s amazing how much has been achieved in a generation. In fact, I think my brothers are missing out – and they’re starting to agree with me.
Orchard Road was not a pleasant place in the 1970s. It was noisy, dirty and dusty; CK Tang’s air-conditioning was the only reason to go there. As a child, I would refuse to go to Boat Quay with my parents, because it stank to high heaven; but when I returned in 2003, the Quays became part of my sunset jogging route. (Nothing beats that virtuous feeling you get running past all those people smoking and drinking at the bars and restaurants.)
You don’t sound in the least Singaporean, nor North American, for that matter. Where does that BBC accent come from?
I had a slight English accent before we arrived in Washington DC, and on my first day there my new neighbour said, “Oh wow! You sound so smart!”. So I thought: Really? I think I’ll continue to sound that way. Any sort of British or international accent immediately added 50 IQ points.
What’s more, I was never keen on the US culture and didn’t want to be assimilated into it. I never fitted in: I was a geek and a nerd, studying all the time. In fact, I never even went on a date until I moved to Vancouver to do my post-graduate degree.
Tell us about your husband and family.
Jason is English and I met him in 1999. I’m glad to be able to say that he followed me twice. The first time was from Korea to Tokyo; then back to Singapore ten years ago, after my father died at the young age of 57.
Our son Jai (now 8) was born at the end of 2004. For the first seven years of his life, we lived in the Leonie Hill condo that we still own.
I recently pulled Jai out of the international school system, because I felt he wasn’t learning anything. Now he goes to Henry Park; it’s a good local school that’s very hard to get into. Best of all, he’s happy there.
I do love spending time with my son. I’ve only got the one, and he’s such a sweetheart, still young enough to want cuddles. He’s getting a bit old for our outings to the park, though; now it’s rugby, tennis and swimming, and his dad generally takes him.
How did you become a TV broadcaster? In this media-driven, celebrity-obsessed world, many would give their eyeteeth for your job. (Missing teeth might quite possibly disqualify them, however.)
I knew I wanted to be a journalist, but thought I’d be writing news editorial for newspapers and magazines. Not being an outgoing sort of person, I didn’t see myself on television. Anyway, the US presenters in those days were all glamorous blondes with blue eyes. Plus, no one in Washington DC could say my name.
Vancouver had a completely different multicultural and bohemian buzz. Refreshingly, people insisted on using my full name – Sharanjit rather than Sharon, as the Americans tended to call me.
Encouraged by seeing so many Asians on TV, I approached the news channels and was offered a freelancing or “stringing” job with CBC. My first big story was the student protest against the APEC summit that was held at my university campus that year.
Then came the 1997 Asian financial crisis. At my producer’s suggestion, I moved to Singapore and started filing stories for CBC from here. That petered out for various reasons, and my parents insisted I should get a proper job – no more freelancing.
Bridge News hired me to file currency and foreign exchange reports to CNA, and then, about a year later, Bloomberg offered me a role in Tokyo. I’d just met Mr Right in the form of Jason; but he was being transferred to Seoul, so I thought things might work out anyway. They did, fortunately, as he eventually joined me there.
How did you find Tokyo?
I adored my job. At the young age of 26, I was working with a wonderful group of Brits, Canadians and Americans, and doing a lot of TV, including anchoring. The studio was so glamorous, so 21st century – the floor of the makeup room lit up like in the Billie Jean video.
Living in Tokyo was a fabulous experience, and again I loved the offbeat vibe that I’d first found in Vancouver. Aspects of the culture are truly bizarre, however.
Our apartment was broken into one day, but all the thief took was my entire collection of underwear – most of it sensible, white M&S basics, it must be said. Then, most peculiarly, the police wanted a detailed description of each item, and seemed quite excited as I listed what I’d lost – particularly when it came to mentioning the odd leopard print item or something trimmed with red lace. Next morning, with not a stitch of lingerie to my name, I had to do the news commando.
Even more weirdly, not one but two of my Japanese colleagues at Bloomberg told me that the very same thing had happened to them some years earlier.
Describe a typical Sharanjit Leyl working day, if there’s any such thing.
If I have an early start – and that’s about 30 percent of my days – I need to be up at 4.30am to be at our Shaw Towers offices in Beach Road soon after 5am. Either I’m the anchor, or I produce the early programmes. At the moment we have eight live programmes in the morning – three for Newsday and five for Asia Business Report.
Otherwise, I go in around 11am to plan the shows, get people to come in and so on; or I’m reporting on a particular story, such as the Chinese leadership transition. I did that from the point of view of a Chinese businessman who lives here but does most of his business in China: what does he think of Xi Jinping’s remarks that China could learn from the Singapore model? It took a lot of my time and effort to find that Chinese businessman and persuade him to participate!
I like having a balance between presenting, reporting and producing. Though it’s nice to be on telly, too much of it can be exhausting. You have to concentrate very closely, sound interesting and keep the viewers engaged, so it’s always something of a performance. Also, I enjoy the production side of things because it gives you a say over the content of what goes out.
Another element of my job is moderating at conference events in the region. Most recently, I went to Ho Chi Minh City for a World Bank conference, and to Hong Kong for a big cable and satellite broadcasting conference that the BBC was part of.
Is live broadcasting as stressful as I think it must be? Is there a built-in delay for correcting any errors?
I found it very stressful when I first started. But as you become seasoned, that’s less of an issue.
Newsday is co-anchored with London, so my prompts come from the producer there, and yes – there is a built in delay in the broadcasting. Not so with Asia Business Report, where it’s just the presenter and the local producer.
What do you think of the TV series The Newsroom?
All those intra-office relationships are completely unrealistic. That said, with only eight full-time (and mostly happily married) staff our BBC team is relatively tiny.
Also, the US news system is different: it’s geared towards the anchor being the star. At the BBC, it’s all about the content and the correspondent; the presenter plays a smaller though still important role.
Who does your hair and makeup and chooses your clothes?
I do my own at home, before going in. We have a walk-in-closet with plenty of bright lights for makeup, so my early starts don’t disturb Jason too much.
My colleague Rico Hizon, being a bloke, only needs to pat on a bit of powder. But it is lovely working in the London studio, where they do your hair and makeup for you and touch it up every two hours.
My clothes are all my own. I like Blum for business suits, and Zara has good stuff too. I’ve been going more casual and less corporate for Newsday in recent months, following the lead of my co-presenters in London.
You look unfailingly fabulous when I see you at evening events, despite having been up since sparrow’s. How do you do it – and why?
Well, networking is so important in my job, and it’s only by going out that you meet people. After a decade of being back, I can safely say that I know everyone. Whatever topic we’re covering, I know who to call.
Attending evening events was easier when we lived in River Valley, though. Also, Jai is now on the afternoon school shift, which means he gets home around 6.30pm, and he likes me to be there at bedtime.
How do stay so beautifully in shape?
I’m a runner, as you know. I’ve just run the Great Eastern Women’s Half-marathon, which was a superbly organised race over a great course.
I also use the Tanglin Club gym, but less regularly since we moved to the Holland area. Problem is, I don’t drive – not this car, anyway. Jason’s very outdoorsy and needs a big SUV for bikes and such, but I can’t park the thing. It’s a monster.
How long have you been in this house? It’s a lovely place in an excellent location.
We bought it mid-2011 and did extensive renovations before moving in a year ago. The noise in River Valley had started to get to us; Ferraris racing past at 3am didn’t help, especially when I have to be up so early.
And yes, it’s a nice, quiet neighbourhood, but we had an attempted burglary not so long ago. They didn’t manage to get in; our neighbours two doors down weren’t so lucky.
Nevertheless, it’s a good investment and will remain so while Singapore continues to be a place that people want to come to.
What are you looking forward to?
First of all, we’re going to be in the US for three weeks over Christmas. It’s going to be great to have the entire family – us, my mother, both of my brothers and their kids – together for the first time since my father died.
And I’m turning 40 in a couple of months’ time. That’s something to celebrate!
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