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 +

Thursday, January 31, 2008

The price of silence.

Singapore is quieter than it should be, at this time. There is a silence where there should be voices, singing.

I should explain. The Complaints Choir, which formed in Finland in 2005, is what you might term a performance art group. They gather together common complaints local to each country, from the natives of that country, select those that sound most interesting, join them together, set them to music - and sing them. Hence, their name: The Complaints Choir.

They recruit local singers in each country that they go to and work with them to create a performance that should resonate with the people of the country in question, because it gives a sung voice to their deepest concerns.

They have performed in several cities around the world, including Helsinki, Birmingham (in the UK), Hamburg (in Germany) and St. Petersburg in Russia.

They were set to perform in Singapore, in the first Asian performance of the Complaints Choir, but a Singaporean Government body stepped in at the last minute (after another government body, the MDA (Media Development Authority) had given permission), and made an unreasonable demand. The government stated that the performances could go ahead with one condition: that no foreigners could perform, for no foreigner was allowed to comment on Singaporean affairs. This was an unacceptable condition for this Finnish choir, for several obvious reasons: the conductor is Malaysian (so they can't have a conductor!), and a few singers are professional Finnish singers, whose voices would, of course, be sorely missed. The Complaints Choir cancelled all public performances, being unable to meet the demands.

The performances were to take place in very public places with a lot of passersby: Vivo City (a large shopping mall), The Esplanade (the leading theatrical centre), a Housing Development Board public housing estate in Eunos, the City Plaza complex and Speaker's Corner. Interestingly, no foreigner is ever allowed to speak at Speaker's Corner (and all locals have to register their names and intentions before doing so).

Two private performances were arranged instead, at which all who came had to register: one at the Arts House, the other at the Old Parliament House debating chamber.

Now, I have introduced this situation in detail, for a reason. I want you to understand the background to what I am going to say next. Singapore is a nation without a culture. That is a bold statement, but it is essentially true. Little that is artistic originates here and most that does is highly imitative. There is no creative, original, expressive spark. Knowing this, the Singaporean government says that it wishes to ignite such a spark. It builds cultural infrastructure: such as The Esplanade, with its theatres and concert halls and speaks of encouraging creative people to create. Yet, they do not. Little is created. Few are artistic. The culture does not grow and flourish. Why is this so? Well, because to be able to grow, the artistic community must feel free to speak out. They must not fear reprisal. They must not worry about their futures if they freely say what they wish to in their work, through their creative efforts. If an artist feels that they are being monitored, that their work is being scrutinized and that any untoward content will be in some way punished, censured or censored, they will not create. Thoughts will die unrecorded, works will go unwritten, art undrawn. There is nothing surer to kill the artistic spirit than the feeling that ones works will be greeted with any kind of punishment.

Look at what has happened here with The Complaints Choir. A group of Singaporeans, and permanently resident foreigners (PRs), answered the call from the Finnish group to convene to form a choir. They then sat down together and began to write their thoughts about life in Singapore. They worked together to express what it was that is bothersome about life here. They then selected and honed the complaints to form the lyrics to a song. They set it to music together. They rehearsed the singing of it until all sounded well. They applied for the relevant performance licenses. All was set to go ahead. Then, at the last minute, they were told that no-one who had not been born in Singapore could perform. That included all the Permanent Residents, who had taken residency here and made Singapore their homes. All their hard work in creating this piece of performance art was for nothing: they would not be allowed to perform in public.

So, what do we have here? We have a group of Singaporeans and fellow human beings from elsewhere in the world, but resident here, who, together had created a piece of performance art. They had done what the government stated it wanted people to do: be creative, express yourself. Yet, when they had done so, they were told that they could not do so. This particular art could only be performed by locals.

Let us extend their argument a little. If this song can only be sung by locals, then surely we must ban all American and European films on the television and in the cinemas - for is that not performed by non-locals? All books that have not been penned by Singaporean authors (a very small group of people) must be taken from the libraries, because they were written by non-locals. All music on the radio must be stopped at once, for apart from the tracks of Hady Mirza and the like, none of it is local. The radio stations will have to be silent. I could go on - but you get the idea. If their argument is taken into analogous realms then Singapore would have no exposure to culture or art at all. It would be a completely isolated, ignorant nation.

You may question my extension of the situation into other artistic realms by pointing out that the stated reason that foreigners could not perform was that no foreigner was allowed to comment on Singaporean affairs. Yet, all art, of any kind, is a comment on the societies to which the artist has been exposed. So, anything written or painted, or sung, or otherwise created by anyone who had ever become acquainted with Singapore would, in some way or small degree, be a comment on Singapore: knowledge of it would be part of the background of the artist. Is all creative product from people who know Singapore to be banned too?

This could be extended into other areas too. Surely it would mean that no foreign diplomat or journalist, or financial analyst would be allowed to comment on their work here, to anyone else? For would that not be commenting on Singaporean affairs?

You should be able to see by now, that the underlying premise is really rather silly. When extrapolated into adjoining areas it creates truly absurd circumstances. This is, I think, a policy enacted without a great deal of thought as to the implications. It is a "knee-jerk" reaction, that has seemingly been taken without deep consideration.

The Singaporean Government says that it wants a flourishing arts scene. It reasons that having one would make it a more attractive place for foreign talent (true) and residents alike (it would be true if they had learnt to appreciate the arts on growing up: schools here, however, don't teach them anything about them - so they can't appreciate the arts at all). The Singaporean Government has come to understand that part of the secret of London, New York and Paris, is their thriving culture: it is what makes such cities live and it is what draws people from all over the world to live and work in them, lending them their great vigour.

However, there is a problem. The Singaporean Government wants the Arts, but it also wants control. It wants to monitor, and contain what is expressed and created, within ill-defined limits. It wants to license only certain forms of expression. True freedom of expression is not allowed, for then artists might create works it does not appreciate.

This is their dilemma, then: they want the benefits to the nation of a thriving arts scene, but they cannot, philosophically and temperamentally, allow true freedom of artistic expression. What they fail to understand, however, is that without true artistic freedom, art just cannot be. Artists cannot speak when you are holding their tongues. Writers cannot write when you won't give them a pen. Without artistic freedom, the only culture Singapore will ever have - and I mean EVER have - is that which it imports. Local artists will never begin to create, if they don't feel free to do so.

The Complaints Choir is silent. Few will hear their song, written and created by Singaporeans though it was. The Singaporean Government has got its wish - as always: their unwelcome words will not be heard. Yet, there is a price to this silence. The price will be in future artistic works lost, never written, never painted, never sung. The message has gone out, from the Government, with the utmost clarity, to the nascent artistic community of Singapore: you still can't say what you wish, despite what we have declared publicly.

This is not, therefore, just the silencing of one piece of performance art - it is the silencing of a culture.

If the Singaporean Government really, truly wants to have an arts scene, that would benefit the nation and make it truly a first class city, then they have to do one thing: let go. They have to give up trying to control what people say. They must just let people be.

What will happen if they let go? Well, more art would be made. Writers would begin to write. Thinkers would begin to think. Artists would begin to paint. There would be the feeling that it was truly permitted to do so - encouraged even. An arts scene would begin to thrive - and a culture would finally be born.

It is up to the Government. They cannot have a cultured city, without letting the culture live.

I hope to see it happen one day. I would like to see this become a cultured city. If it is ever to happen, the artists must first be free to say whatever they wish. Without that freedom, nothing good will ever come to be. Singapore will remain a city without a culture.

(If you would like to learn more of Ainan Celeste Cawley, a scientific child prodigy, aged eight years and one month, or his gifted brothers, Fintan, four years and seven months, and Tiarnan, two years exactly, please go to: I also write of gifted education, IQ, intelligence, the Irish, the Malays, Singapore, 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 @ 12:25 AM 


Anonymous Anonymous said...

May I ask? Why do you choose to stay? Yes, I know your wife is Singaporean, but you have posted on more than one occasion about the oppressive, vacant nature of the society. Your effort to find appropriate education for your child is being thwarted. Why not emigrate?

3:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is one of your best pieces! I think you should submit it to a newspaper opinion page (unless newspapers don't have opinion pages in Singapore!)

4:44 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you for your kind words. I am glad you appreciate my work.

There are opinion pages in Singapore but most letters appear to have been carefully selected. Online some writers of such letters have complained that their letters had been re-written/edited to no longer mean what they I am not sure what would happen were I to submit. However, you are right. I would like to get my work published in a newspaper since I think it deserves a wider audience. It is not so easy, though, since newspapers, in my experience, tend to be deluged with people wishing to be published. In such a situation, it is easy for a writer who truly has something to say (and the facility to say it with cogency) is overlooked. In some countries such writers are valued, in others they are actually not welcomed. It would be a good world, if all true writers were given a platform from which to speak. That is not so, however. Luckily, in the modern world, the internet provides a platform to allow a voice to be heard at least by some of the world's citizens.

Thank you so much for the positive feedback: it is warming to realize that my writing is thought well of.

Kind regards

8:33 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You have spoken the truth and nothing but the truth.

Please enlighten our talented leaders whenever you have to wake them up. They have been dreaming for too long!

12:12 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Indeed I do speak the truth. It is a necessary thing in a world in which the truth and its telling are so often side-stepped. However, the telling of the truth is not enough, alone: people have to listen, as well. (That is the difficult part.)

Best wishes to you

12:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You said "It would be a completely isolated, ignorant nation."

This episode proves that it already is.

1:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I really don't believe even if you submit it, they (the establishment) will run it. Look at the way the MSM remained silent about the whole NLB effort to document blogs. Did they register the concerns of those who said, why wasn't I included?

I don't believe they did. In Singapore it pays to keep quiet, play dumb and hope that the noise will just die down.

It takes integrity, honesty and a sincere heart to work towards a better tomorrow by saying, OK, I may have been wrong, let me see what I can do to make it right.

Here the general attitude is if I don't see it, it will hopefully go away.

Not to worry, you will soon get used to it.

1:47 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thanks for the perspective on newspaper publishing, here. It doesn't seem too hopeful.

In a way, I hope I don't get used to it - because if I do, then in some way I would have stopped seeing it.

Best wishes to you

2:05 PM  
Anonymous teddy bear said...

Mr Cawley,

Look closely. The really good ones have already left and they are going off slowly, so as to not to cause a sudden exodus. it's happening lines in alumni's are cut off, servers switched off, threads running their course. You noteice, they, the intellectuals are not even opting to negotiate, you know why, don't you?

The end is coming.

4:18 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Hmm...I will let your words speak for themselves.

Thanks for your insight.

5:51 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Hmm...I will let your words speak for themselves.

Thanks for your insight.

5:51 PM  
Anonymous theGuate said...

"Singapore It is a peaceful and relaxing place, though, despite the draconian government and its desire to make sure everyone is safe and happy – by decree

The result is a wonderfully clean, fresh and clinical city, populated by people who are treated like children."

12:35 AM  
Blogger Miao said...

This is ridiculous. No wonder Warwick University refused to set up a campus in Singapore on the grounds that their freedom of expression is greatly fettered by local legislations.

9:42 PM  

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