WHEN Mrs Louise Lee feared for her son's safety, she did what a growing number of Singapore parents are doing: Hire a bodyguard.
Enter the bodyguard-babysitter, whose task is to protect children from bullies or shield them from bad company.
Private investigators say they have been getting inquiries from clients keen to hire personal escorts for their children.
And these requests do not come only from the super-rich.
Mrs Lee, a housewife in her early forties, who lives in a five-room flat in the eastern part of Singapore, sought a bodyguard's help because she was determined to stop her son from hanging around malls with a group of schoolmates.
She had been receiving disturbing feedback from her son's form teacher that her son was skipping after-school remedial classes.
The private investigator's surveillance found that the student would visit malls and fast food outlets with a particular clique from the school.
Mrs Lee told The New Paper on Sunday: 'I did some serious mother-son talking with my son and he promised to attend his classes.
'But, to be sure, I asked the PI if his staff could escort him home, just in case his schoolmates turned nasty.'
The PI got his security staff to tell the clique to stop bothering the boy each time they approached him.
Early this year, private investigation firm Kokusai introduced a bodyguard service after getting more requests from parents like Mrs Lee.
Kokusai's boss, Mr S M Jegan, told The New Paper on Sunday that the clients are mostly working parents who find it difficult supervising their children.
He declined to reveal the number of parents who took up the service.
Typically, his clients would be parents who are both working and who are living in four-room flats.
But why would parents need bodyguards when maids can fetch the children from school?
Mr Jegan said: 'Maids may not be suitable to protect the children as they may not be tough enough to handle bullies.'
He charges $100 a day and if the clients are not that well-off, he would even do it for free.
Mr Jegan said he deploys staff who are either in their late teens or early adult years.
He explained: 'Even if it's overt protection, these staff are like elder brothers and sisters to my clients' children.'
The escorts are trained in martial arts and are able to handle bullies.
Mr Jegan said: 'It's up to clients if they want overt or covert protection. Both have their pros and cons.
'If my staff are openly escorting the child, it will deter bullies and gangsters.
'With covert protection, the child doesn't know that he or she is being followed. But when trouble starts, my staff will spring into action.'
Kokusai is not the only security agency to offer such an escort service.
Mainguard Security Services has been offering security escorts for families since 2005.
Mainguard's chief P Kalastree said demand is regular because nowadays, parents are more protective of their children.
He said: 'In short, more children are pampered. With parents having fewer children nowadays, they're more worried for the young ones' safety.'
So to be on the safe side, some parents get security companies to protect the child.
He recalled the case of a Chinese man who hired his firm to protect his family for six months in 2006.
He said: 'The father had a business deal involving millions of dollars and there were problems with a business rival.
'He began fearing for his safety after receiving threatening phone calls and a clock from an anonymous person.'
(The Chinese believe that it is bad luck to receive clocks as gifts as the Mandarin word for giving a clock sounds like sending one to his death.)
The family lives in a prime neighbourhood and the man's son and daughter attended prestigious primary schools.
For six months, Mr Kalastree's staff escorted the wife whenever she went shopping, and her son and daughter from their schools and home.
The protection was covert to some extent.
Mr Kalastree said: 'They knew they were being escorted but we didn't do so openly. In case of any problems, my guys would go to the rescue.
'If you do so openly, you're allowing would-be assailants to do planning. If we have two men openly escorting the family, the assailants could get four attackers to outnumber us.
'So it's better to let the would-be assailants think the family is not protected.'
No one tried to harm the family but the father took the threats seriously, said Mr Kalastree.
Mainguard charged the father $500 a day for the children and $200 an hour for the wife.
Mr Kalastree explained: 'We only escorted the children when they went to school and back to their home. When they had classes, we didn't watch over them as they were safe in school.'
The protection ended after the father settled his business matters.
Another agency, Dragnet, has offered bodyguard services since it started business in 1993.
Dragnet's boss, Mr T Mogan, said: 'Most of my escort services are for entertainers and VIPs. But once in a while, parents engage us to escort their children home to prevent them from playing truant or to ensure their safety.'
Last year, one of Mr Mogan's clients took his son to his office and said he would be hiring the PI to escort him to school. The PI would call the father if there were any problems.
The assignment required Mr Mogan to stay outside the school to ensure the boy did not sneak out.
But Mr Mogan does not accept every request to escort a child. He assesses each assignment to see if an escort service is feasible.
He said: 'I still believe a PI's primary role is to gather evidence and advise the clients on the next step. Otherwise, we'd be doubling up as bodyguards most of the time.'
Some private investigators, like Mr Lionel de Souza, a former policeman, are sceptical of the need for such services.
Mr de Souza, who runs LJ Investigation & Consultancy, said: 'Maids are good enough if you need someone to fetch your children from school. I don't think there's a need for PIs to look out for bullies or teen gangs because you can easily call the police.'
This article was first published in The New Paper.