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 +

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Artfriend and customer service in Singapore

On Friday, 21st September, we went to Artfriend, the Singaporean art supplies shop.

We went there to buy art materials, subsequent to our meeting with Mr. Loh, a Singaporean artist, who was having an art show and Claude, an Art manager, (and Mr. Loh's manager through a firm known as Art Management) at The Coffee Connoiseur, known as "The Gallery" in the Raffles Place area. Mr. Loh had wanted to see some of Syahidah's works (Claude Verly's idea, who represents Mr. Loh). More of that meeting in another post, perhaps.

Now, Singapore is famous for its shops. This fame is not unfair, in terms of the infrastructure: there are a lot of very highly presented, polished and beautiful shopping malls. So, the architectural element is there. Where Singapore fails, however, is in the human element. Customer service is not a tradition here - indeed, the populace seem to think of themselves as being above service. This attitude creates a situation in which poor service is a daily occurrence - in every aspect of human interaction, here.

The trip to Artfriend was a typical example. We went there with two particular items in mind. We had chosen Artfriend simply because it is the biggest art supplier in Singapore, with the greatest number of shops and the best locations. One would have thought, then, that it would be good at what it does. This is not, however, necessarily so. Artfriend it may be called, but a friend to Art it may not be - as we shall see.

I approached a sales assistant who appeared to be busy with daydreaming: "Excuse me, do you have Unipin pens?" At least, that is the name of the pen I thought I had been given.

He led me to a rack of pens that looked nothing at all like the one I had seen. He assured me that these were it. Large, thick pens stared up at me. "Do you have smaller ones?" For the one I had seen was much slimmer.

"No, these are the only sizes we have left."

I marvelled, then, at their capacity for stock control. Surely, someone in that shop (and there were perhaps a dozen or more staff), should have noted the declining stock of pens, such that the smaller sizes - in all colours - were now missing.

Nevertheless I took two of the pens in question: one black, one white.

The next question seemed to stump them.

"Do you have marker paper in higher gsm, than 70?"

The first staff member I asked said: "Wait." and went off to get someone else.

That someone else appeared after a minute or so.

I repeated my question.

He went, "I don't know..." and went off.

He returned with a third person.

I repeated my question.

He replied with a puzzled silence and kind of wandered off, while I wasn't looking.

No-one else came to help.

I decided to look around the shop for myself - but could find nothing that matched my need.

So, I braved the remarkably uninformed staff again.

"Do you have coated art card?"

"I will get someone." came the unknowing reply.

Someone came.

I asked my question again.

"Coated art card?" He repeated, as if hearing an alien tongue for the first time.

He wandered off.

No-one came.

Finally I collared a sixth member of staff and asked my question again.

"We don't have it for art", he said, at least knowing what I meant, "It is just for printing." Then he turned to leave, before I could reply.

"Wait," I requested, he paused, mid-step, reluctantly, repressing an urge to speed away, "show me."

He turned slowly around and came back to where I was. Then he passed me and showed me a wrack of papers alongside one wall. "There."

I noted that they were glossy. "Do you have matt?"

He sort of shrugged - combining not knowing and not caring in one gesture.

I tried one more question - a central one to all artists, who care about the longevity of their work.

"Is it acid-free?" I asked, clutching one piece of the art card, between the fingers of my left-hand.

"No.", his head shook, that was something he was sure about, "We don't stock acid-free card."

I was flabbergasted at that. Singapore's leading art supplies shop was selling materials that would guarantee that anything created on them, would crumble away in a few short decades. Like I said "Artfriend" they may be called, but a friend to Art they may not be. It is irresponsible - and unfair - to sell art materials to artists, that will not endure. It seems such a waste of all the effort put into creating something.

He turned to leave but then, in an afterthought that constitutes the first piece of real service since I had entered the shop, he said: "Try Straits Commercial on North Bridge Road." I had never heard of Straits Commercial - and he had to spell it for me - but one day, soon, we will have to go there. Perhaps they sell materials worth making art upon.

Oddly, just as we were about to leave the shop, we met Claude, the art manager, buying some materials of his own. He didn't seem in a mood to speak, so the conversation was a brief one.

"Singapore is so small..." I began.

"Especially for the enlightened." he agreed.

I left with one thought in my mind: a shop, in my childhood, manned by an elderly Polish couple, who had survived the most terrible of events in the World War II. It was a stationery shop. What was notable about them was that they had offered everything that Artfriend had not. They knew everything about everything in their shop. Whatever you asked, they would know instantly where it was and what it could do. They were friendly, too, talking widely about life. Even as a child, I had appreciated the way they were - and chose them over the stationery chainstore that was their nearby competitor.

There is a difference between the shops of my London childhood, and the ones of Singapore. The ones of London did not glisten like the Singaporean ones - but they shone in another way. The staff really knew their jobs - and cared about their customers. Here, in Singapore, the staff know nothing about their jobs, and couldn't care less about their customers.

I don't know the cause of this situation. Is the pay so low that staff turnover is so high, that no-one works long enough to learn anything about their jobs? Or do they just not care? Whichever it is, the result is the same. It took the asking of six people - perhaps half the staff in the rather large shop - to find one who could provide me an answer - and that answer was in the negative.

Shopping shouldn't be like that. Nor should any other area of customer service. Singapore has the gloss - but now it needs to work on something else: a smile for the customer that means something - and competence on the job. Right now, few, very, very few shops in Singapore, can boast of either.

As for Artfriend: why not ensure that all your stock is acid-free, in future? That will help make sure that Singaporean art has a future.

When we got home, we tried the pens. Neither worked - or at least could not be made to work, seemingly lacking ink. Nor were they of the brand name sought. Ah well...

(If you would like to learn more of Ainan Celeste Cawley, a scientific child prodigy, aged seven years and nine months, or his gifted brothers, Fintan, four years and two months, and Tiarnan, nineteen months, please go to: I also write of gifted education, IQ, intelligence, College, University, Chemistry, Science, genetics, left-handedness, precocity, child prodigy, child genius, baby genius, adult genius, savant, gifted adults and gifted children in general. Thanks.)

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 3:33 PM 


Anonymous Anonymous said...

strait art is better and check out fancy paper if u need paper. it's right beside strait art.

2:29 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you for the recommendation. This is the first time I have heard of fancy paper. We will check both out.

Much appreciated.

7:39 PM  
Blogger freitag-madchen! said...

Oh, I went to Artfriend today to help my sister to get some art materials. Like you, I had a poor experience there.

First, there were no staff members around to offer help. But when I approached a lady for help, she showed me this irritated look and mumbled something to her colleague. Then I asked my question and she said, "ask the people at the counter for help" , even when the cashiers at the counter were really busy with long queues and all.

The thing is, she was just sitting around chatting with her colleagues in the staffroom.

I went to their website, hoping there was some form of feedback page or something like that, but to my utter surprise, none. All the pages had "Under construction".

7:24 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you for your mail. It is hilarious - but sad, too, that such bad service could be the norm, there. I am mystified as to their attitude to customer service. Perhaps it would be a better shop if there were no staff at all.

Thank you for sharing your experience - and confirming my own.

Best wishes

7:45 PM  
Blogger Autumn said...

I am soo sorry you had such a bad experience...what can I say? I had one too? lol
But the truth is that Singapore does lack the gems of great customer service which at one time seemed to be embodied in the icon of the Singapore GIRL, SQ,. I concur that indeed, while many shops locally may glisten on the surface, there isnt that human touch nor warmth...

Unfortunate but true...the next generation is at stake...
Btw, I am true-blue Singaporean and even then , I am embarrassed in this aspect too:)

You can also try the shop at Takashimaya, i cannot remember the name but its opposite the ART FRIEND store there ...they should sell acid free paper as they deal with scrapbooking and stuff..

Alll teh best:)

1:15 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you Autumn, for the suggestion.

By the way, I am not surprised that you had a poor experience of customer service at is like that everytime, in one way or another.

Is the Singapore Girl no longer flying? Are they no longer good at service? Can you expand on your comment re. SQ?


4:19 PM  
Blogger Csquare said...

I'm a Singaporean but I too felt totally disgusted with the service standard we have in the country. Not to sound like an excuse for my fellow countrymen but 80% of the ppl you see in retail here are likely to be non-Singaporean. Be it Singaporean or non-Singaporean service staff, any retail business worth its salt would have given them proper customer service training. I found your blog coz I was googling for "Artfriend poor service"...haha...Yap! That was what I've gotten on XMas eve from their Taka brunch. Daydreaming, chatting away during work and poor product knowledge seem to be their trademarks! I have actually come to accept all these since I'm a Singaporean not expecting any service from day 1?? haha... However, the incident on Xmas eve was the final straw, Artfriend (maybe they should drop the “friend” word) probably had seen my last dollar spent there. I was there with my wife and our little boy looking for handy craft materials. I went wondering around the shop while my wife look thru the limited variety of leather strips they had in stock. We picked up some art supplies before asking for a staff to cut a meter worth of the leather strip my wife needed. This male service staff by the name of Felix came over (if I can even use the word service on him at all! We did frequent the shop a lot in the past, past encounters with him were never any good, poor attitude, poor product knowledge etc...). He walked over and told us not to be too loud (was totally surprised by that?? What was that for? We were not even making any noise!? My boy was sleeping in my wife's arm for goodness!) next he went on to question in a rude manner on where my wife had kept a piece of the leather strip he thought he had seen her torn of the roll! A petite woman carrying a sleeping boy in arm would steal a piece of leather strip and come back again to ask to buy another meter of it??! How ridiculous?! Couldn't stand the assault on our integrity and raised our our voice which attracted on-lookers. Now we came to understand why he had initially requested us not to be too loud! Anyway, the incident ended with the supervisor profusely apologising for his staff's mistake and behavior. I do hope dear Felix starts spending more time leaning about his products and how to provide good services rather than trying to play detective! Thank you for the space to vent some frustration. Do have a great year ahead!

10:03 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you for your anecdote, Csquare. It is amazing, in a way, that Artfriend have learnt nothing about customer service since I wrote my online account of my own encounter with them. It seems they will not learn until the very day they close down, due to customers avoiding them.

I wish you a great New Year ahead. Perhaps you should find another art shop...try Straits Art, recommended by Anonymous above.

10:22 PM  

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