The boy who knew too much: a child prodigy

This is the true story of scientific child prodigy, and former baby genius, Ainan Celeste Cawley, written by his father. It is the true story, too, of his gifted brothers and of all the Cawley family. I write also of child prodigy and genius in general: what it is, and how it is so often neglected in the modern world. As a society, we so often fail those we should most hope to see succeed: our gifted children and the gifted adults they become. Site Copyright: Valentine Cawley, 2006 +

Friday, November 10, 2006

Singapore City: Fire and Rain

Singapore is an unusual place: it looks like a western city, in parts, and in others like nothing I have ever seen.

I am not a Singaporean. I was born in London of Irish parents - and grew up between Ireland and England. Singapore, therefore, is an odd place for me to be living in. Its essential character is very unwestern, though it apes the western economic model.

There are two events that speak of what it is like here. The first happened yesterday, as my wife and I were shopping in Bukit Batok West Mall, a shopping centre - one of many that fill Singapore with consumer choices. This is a local mall and relatively compact: five floors of shops about a central courtyard.

As we tried to enter the lift in the mall yesterday, we were surprised to see the lift doors open, the lift shaft empty, and filled with smoke. Somewhere there was a fire. We left the lift shaft and entered the shopping centre proper. All about us we could here fire alarms. The shopping centre was crowded with late afternoon shoppers...surely there would be a panic as people tried to leave. I looked all about me. It was as if all were deaf and none had a sense of smell - for the bite of smoke was clear in the air. Everyone continued to shop as if nothing was happening. People were crowding to go UP the escalators, into the body of the building. The alarms rang on, their cries unheeded. My wife is Singaporean - and she too, in a way, seemed unconcerned. She urged me upstairs to "drop off the library books". In reply, I asked: "Do you want them to burn?"

She shook her head at that but urged me upward all the same. I couldn't see where the fire was...and there seemed no imminence of conflagration, so up I went, amazed at the silliness of it all. We dropped off the library books. As we did so, the intercom announced: "We have an emergency in the building, please leave the building."

I looked about. No-one made a move to leave. Everyone continued to shop as if caught in a spell of consumerism. My wife, too, was unbothered: she went to look at mobile phones. By now the air was hazy with a light grey smoke. Yet, no-one made any effort to escape the building. It was surreal. My wife entered a mobile phone shop, deaf to my appeal to leave. As I was about to drag her out, the intercom announced: "The emergency is under control, the emergency is under control: there was a fire in a fourth storey restaurant. There is no need to leave now." In other words, whatever you do, SHOP.

We left the building. Throughout the entire experience, not one person around us had expressed any emotional reaction or response of any kind to the situation. Yet the building had been on fire. Truly surreal. That was the day of fire.

Today was the day of rain. People who live in the West imagine that they have to endure a lot of rain. The patter of droplets from the sky is enough for them to reach for their umbrellas with a sigh, imagining that they are put upon. However, you have never seen rain until you have been caught in a monsoon deluge, as I was today. Rain in Singapore is a sudden affair. It ambushes you from skies instantly darkened, with an elemental force. Today I left the house to grey skies, but soon found myself buried in a watery onslaught, that filled the streets with inches of rain. Before long the storm drains - which are about four foot deep - and three foot wide, on the sides of the road, were filled to overflowing. I wish I had had a camera, to catch the image of water raging over the side of a storm drain and flooding a bus stop where a hapless Singaporean stood waiting for a bus in several inches of water flowing past her ankles, with more on its way. Bizarre.

Within ten minutes it was over. The rain stopped. The drain cleared. The inches of water in the roads drained away and it was gone. Again, I felt the surreality of life in this tightly controlled and ordered nation.

Truly it is a city of fire and rain.

(For posts on my scientific child prodigy son, Ainan Celeste Cawley, six, and his gifted brothers go to: Thanks.)

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 10:53 PM 


Anonymous Anonymous said...

That is a pretty strange reaction to a fire alarm... Maybe its all the fire drills that make us desensitized to things like that? Maybe its such a quiet place that people figure "nothing bad ever happens". Maybe everyone is under the impression that "I am special. Nothing bad will ever happen to ME". Or maybe there is SUCH a focus on safety that people tend to assume that a warnings are just precautionary, as if the people who issue the warnings are overly-careful. Maybe theyre so overprotected that safety loses its value.

You know, that reminds me of something strange that happened where I live... I live in the USA, in an area that has tornados.

One day, I was in a park with some friends, and the tornado siren went off. That thing raises my anxiety level every time I hear it, even though I hear it once a month during the tests. I always get a little freaked out before remembering to check the time and day (They always do it at the same time, same day of the month, and thats now I know its just the test).

Anyway, the tornado siren went off, and I was terrified. I couldnt think of any place with a basement because I wasnt in my own town. I headed towards a coffee shop - I figured it was better to be inside than just standing there...

And my friends just stayed put and acted like I was over-reacting...

They dont sound those sirens for nothing... Tornados can move at at up to 60MPH and throw objects at up to 200MPH. Even if one doesnt see it, that doesnt mean it wont be on top of them rather quickly... I could see it a mile away, and then be dead a minute later before I even make it inside.

And the one time that blackness spontaneously encompassed the sky and poured buckets instead of raindrops, I was even MORE terrified. I was convinced I was going to die, and I drove to get into a basement as fast as I could.

Hmmm. Maybe people just dont know these things... Maybe they just dont KNOW that fire can engulf a whole house in three minutes, and that tornados can throw a small rock strait through you like a bullet... Or they could just throw a car. I know that these facts are available to them. Maybe they just dont remember them?

- Kathy

4:51 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

I think in Singapore there is an element of long-term conditioning at work. The population have been told in many ways, and so often, for so long, that the Government is looking after them, that they feel in no danger, no matter what the situation. I thought it most peculiar myself, especially since I could see and smell smoke...but they just carried on shopping. Odd.

As for tornado warnings...I have never really understood why people would choose to live in a city that is exposed to them in the first place...unless born there, and therefore not having had a choice in the matter.

I think the Singaporeans are very unprepared for a disaster of any kind because of this nannied state of mind. I rather hope one doesn't befall them, because they won't cope well at all.

Watch those winds!

5:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was born here. And yeah, I have thought about moving somewhere else. But Im not sure how to determine what area would be a place with no tornados, no flood risk, no earthquakes or volcanoes, no dangerous animals (like bears or crocodiles). Now pollution is a major factor, too. And then there is the crime factor and economic feasability factor. Ideally, I wouldnt be able to live anywhere too remote without really feeling the loss of intelligent conversation partners, but I hate cities, so Id need to restrict the location to someplace in between. With all these things taken into consideration... Im not sure if such a perfect place exists. I suppose I could call an insurance company and find out about most of those things.

Its very very interesting that they feel so protected and nannied by the government. Thats not how I feel here at all. That could just be me... As always, its very interesting to compare Singapore and America. :)

- Kathy

10:30 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Yes, I would take all of those factors into account for a settled place to live. It can be done.

One of the big factors is interpersonal violence...I would avoid anywhere with a high degree of this.

Singapore fits the bill on most counts, though it has its issues too...but mainly to do with the way society is here. In most respects it is one of the safest places on Earth - if you are not a criminal, in which case it is probably the riskiest.

It might be worth looking around before you settle down, for somewhere good for a family.

Good luck

9:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Actually I dont plan to have children. I want to devote myself to writing and making a difference. Ive thought about moving to Switzerland, (That country really seems to have it together) but I dont have a 4 year degree - and without that, I dont know of any countries that would accept me. Maybe one day I will move to where there are no tornados. That does cross my mind... especially when I get to thinking about climate change...

But now is not a good time for me to move.

- Kathy

11:43 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

I have been to Switzerland: a most beautiful and stable country. I don't think you could ask for a better backdrop to a life well lived.

As for your never know when your plans might change.

Why not get a degree then? Or find some other means of becoming an attractive resident? Perhaps you could qualify in something that doesn't require a four year degree, like TEFL (teaching English as a foreign month to one year, depending on whether it is the Certificate or Diploma?) You could then travel and become established in your new locale.

You've got the "smarts" why not? (Do a degree or the other option...). Just a thought.

11:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

pretty strange...
are u sure that not single person reacted?surely there must be someone out of all the people there.i just cant belive it...

7:40 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

The ONLY person who appeared to react to the situation was me...but I was left surrounded by a whole mall full of seemingly hypnotized souls who paid no heed at all to the smoke in their nostrils or the alarm bells. Odd, to say the least. They must really believe that someone is looking after them.

Best wishes

10:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have been in an apartment in Singapore with a fire above and i would have never known had not one of my friends called me and told me and my family to get out.

Was in a mall the other day and smoke was billowing out and I was the only person who was moving toward an exit.

9:02 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you for confirming my own observation. It seems that locals are so lulled into a sense of security that even imminent personal danger is invisible to them. A building on fire? That's nothing! (they think) and carry on moving around within it. Bizarre.

10:27 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To "Kathy" I live in southern Ontario, Toronto actually. And for the most part we dont have natural disasiters. No tornados, earthquakes or volcanos. It is possible for a big hurricane to effect our weather but it never hits hard. The most severe weather that we get here is the snow and the cold and thats nowhere nere as bad as in some other parts of the country. Come live in southern Ontario!

12:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was born in Singapore, and am now living in England. My decision to move was mainly because of a sense of a certain hollow spirituality that comes with Singapore's obsession with shopping. Obviously there were other factors, but I could not, for the life of me, imagine living as a perfect consumer for the rest of my life. The reaction of everyone to the fire is something that I understand but cannot express. It is a certain blase attitude towards mortality; maybe even a little NIMBY, as though certain things cannot happen to certain people. It may even be a complete sense of faith in the way the system works in Singapore, I'm not sure. Big scale disasters just do not happen to Singapore. And frighteningly, the citizens seem so brainwashed to be the perfect consumer that even the event of a fire do not seem to put them off track. I now live in a semi rural area, spinning my own wool for textile crafts and have my own organic garden. I am trying to be as self sufficient as possible so I never have to set foot into a supermarket unless I really really have to! Congratulations on having such wonderfully gifted children, although my concern (if they were mine)would be their sense of self -identity and how they might view themselves.

2:30 AM  
Blogger Valentine said...

You are right that Singaporeans seem to think that nothing bad can happen to them. One day, they might be wrong...and that would be something very hard for them to deal with.

As for me kids - thank you for your congratulations. I think their identity is just fine, presently...and I think they have a healthy view of themselves and of others (just as important, I think). They are good at making friends and have lots of people in their lives. So all is balanced.

Best wishes to you on what sounds like an idyllic life you are establishing.

Kind regards

8:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You might want to check out Laurence Gonzales, one of my favorite thinkers. He's a writer who studies survival psychology. (I also think he's an INTP). One of his books, "Deep Survival", characterizes survivors as independent thinkers. They pay attention to warning signs and act accordingly. He also disturbingly mentions that when disaster strikes, most people are not good survivors. They instead wander around in a haze of oblivion and denial.

11:33 AM  

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