His guy friends ask 'seriously?' and his female friends say he is 'cute', when Mr Muhammad Syafiq Azman tell them his profession.

Mr Muhammad Syafiq, 23, who teaches at PAP Community Foundation (PCF) Kampong Chai Chee Sparkletots Infant and Childcare Centre, is the only man among the chain's 900 childcare teachers.

For Mr Nick Ng Ban Teck, 42, who switched from the finance industry to study to be a childcare teacher, the questions are even more blunt.

Mr Ng, who is married without children, says: 'People ask why I chose a course for women.'

He is taking a full-time diploma course in early childhood care and education, teaching at the National Trade Union Congress' Seed Institute, which runs early childhood education diploma and degree courses.

Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports figures show that as of December last year, there were just 40 men among a total of about 6,800 childcare teachers.

And no wonder.

Outsiders see their work as 'soft': Male childcare educators fly a kite with their young charges while their peers in suits clinch deals.

Add to that pay that tends to stagnate.

Childcare teachers are paid between $1,950 and $2,350 a month at PCF, the largest preschool chain, which runs about 330 kindergartens and childcare centres here.

A diploma holder in engineering may start at the same base but earn about $4,000 in five years or so if he does well, says Mr Puhalenthi Murugesan, principal of Sheffield Kidsworld, himself a former engineer, in his 40s.

However, what they lack in numbers, the male teachers make up for in conviction, with some taking hefty pay cuts to enter the sector.

Mr Benny Lim, 47, who spent 20 years in the hospitality industry, took a 70 per cent hit three years ago when he quit his job as assistant director of sales and marketing at Amara Sanctuary Resort on Sentosa.

His new job: teaching English at Jurong West's My First Skool, the childcare arm of NTUC First Campus.

His wife Stephenie Tai, a project manager in consulting firm Accenture who is in her 30s, was worried about the income cut as they had just bought an apartment in a condominium in western Singapore.

It took a couple of months of thinking through and working out the sums before he got her 'understanding'.

'I had to take the plunge for personal fulfilment as I didn't want to merely work to live,' says Mr Lim, who is now on a scholarship from the ministry to do an early childhood education degree course part-time.

Then there are the entrepreneurs with a vision. When Mr Puhalenthi started Sheffield Kidsworld in Choa Chu Kang about 10 years ago, he was the general worker, kindergarten teacher and business owner rolled into one.

'I had no salary when I started that centre. It was operating at an average loss of more than $5,000 a month. It took almost two years to break even,' recalls Mr Puhalenthi, adding that his new school had just 30 students, half the number needed to break even.

He dipped into savings, spending $200,000 over the two years to keep the centre afloat.

Why the move? The engineer, who spent 18 years in printed circuit board and hard disk drive sectors, earning close to $5,000 a month, feels that preschool should be a happy place.

That was not the case with his elder child Sanjay, now 21. The boy, then three years old, refused to go to school, even after trying three preschools.

In the end, his wife, Ms N. Arunselvi, now in her 40s, quit work so Sanjay could attend half-day sessions. The couple also have a daughter, Santhia, 17.

Armed with that conviction alone, Mr Puhalenthi grew his business 'purely by word of mouth'.

Today, there are two other Sheffield centres - one in Woodlands, one in Sengkang - with a fourth to open, also in Sengkang, by November.

Ms Fiona Walker, principal director of Julia Gabriel Centre and Chiltern House, says: 'Having strong male role models is important for all children, but especially for little boys who may not be able to spend much time with their own fathers because of their fathers' work or travel commitments.'

Mr Abu Bakar Osman, 31, one of the eight male educators with the Chiltern House chain of five preschools, felt he had to 'prove I was as good, if not better' than his female peers.

But applying his interests in art, music and drama to his classes boosted the confidence of the mechanical engineer by training, who teaches at Chiltern House East Coast.

Of his eight-year childcare career, he says: 'I am doing the exact same thing every single day that I come to work. But there is never a dull moment when I am with my children.'