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, February 20, 2008

Why does no-one speak out?

Today, I went to the post office and learnt something more of the nature of the Singaporean people.

The post office is just like Singaporean banks: prone to long queues and slow service. Today, however, the post office staff excelled themselves. They seemed to be competing with each other to do as little as possible to while away the hours - and get paid for their time. I only wish they were actually paid for what they do.

When I arrived at Killiney post office this afternoon at 4.40 pm, there were five post office staff present. That seems a reasonable number. Oddly, however, only one of them seemed to be attending to customers. The others had adopted various postures of idleness. There were two people sat behind the counter - one serving, the other hiding behind a sign that said their position was closed.

The queue wasn't a long one but it was a very, very slow one. There were only about four people ahead of me in the queue - but it was a full twenty to twenty five minutes before I got to the front of the queue. That is far too slow, for so few people waiting.

As I waited, gradually more stations were opened. First two, then finally three. (That still left two staff doing apparently nothing, of course).

However, this did not seem to speed matters up particularly. I waited at the front of the queue for a good five minutes before something both bizarre and unwelcome occurred.

A very large woman (larger than me) wearing bright yellow, one or two places from the back of the queue, gestured to one of the post office staff with two objects in her hands. He was the man at the "Speedpost" counter. (I know it is a funny name for such a slow postal service!) He had been serving general customers as well as "Speedpost" customers. He looked at what was in her hands and gestured that she should come over to him.

I was shocked. I had been waiting in the queue for far too long - and so had everyone else - yet this woman from the back of the queue was being gestured to come forward to be served immediately.

He attended to the objects she held. Then she presented him with a huge pile of bills that I had not previously seen. (Bills can be paid at Singaporean post offices). She proceeded to pay each bill, one at a time.

I looked at this scene in amazement. Others too had seen her jump the queue and get served without having to wait like everyone else. However, I was particularly irked since she had taken what should have been my place.

What I was more amazed by was everyone else's reaction. Though what this large, yellow lady had done was unjust to all who had waited for perhaps 20 to 30 minutes in the queue, no-one, absolutely no-one said anything. They all accepted this injustice in silence.

I saw in their silence a more general tendency not to speak out. A nation of people who won't speak out on the little things, won't speak out on the big things, either. Here was a nation of people that anyone, absolutely anyone, with a bit of nerve, could treat unjustly - and no-one would say a word. They would accept the unjust circumstance, rather like they accept the rain - as if it is something about which they can do nothing.

As I watched their communal silence, and their evident communal awareness that someone wasn't playing fair, I grew ever more perturbed. There was something unnatural in the way they accepted her selfish action, without comment. The natural response of most people would be to complain to the woman or the staff member who had served her. Such a response would be prompted by emotions innate to all humans, everywhere. Yet, those emotional responses were either absent from, or not expressed by, these Singaporeans. I wondered, then, what had been done to these people to make them so suppress their natural response to injustice. It seemed as if they had deeply imbibed the lesson that silence must be maintained in the face of all that is wrong with the world. It was most odd.

Finally a counter became free and I was served. It took no more than 45 seconds to attend to my simple task - though I had waited at least half an hour to be attended to.

As I was leaving, I approached the staff member who was still busily serving the queue jumper.

"Why did you let her jump the queue?" I asked him, in a voice loud enough to be heard by all in the room, but not so loud as to be unrestrained.

He stared up at me in silence.

"Don't you know it is bad manners?", I continued.

His silence remained unbroken.

"It shouldn't be allowed. It is unfair on everyone else."

His grey hair framed his uncommunicative face, but he refrained from speech.

Interestingly, the woman who had queue jumped said nothing either. Surely, she knew that what she had done was wrong.

Somewhat depressingly, the whole queue of customers looked on, in silence. Not one person took the chance to join in, in support. Not one person joined me in voicing a complaint. What is the point of standing up for a people who will not stand up for themselves? It is a thankless task. These people didn't even speak up for themselves when someone else had stepped forward to do so (providing them an example) - not even that could prompt them to speak.

The funny thing is, from the way they maintained their silence when I spoke out, it was almost as if I, too, was breaking a social rule when I complained - the one that said: "Don't speak out, no matter what!"

I left Killiney post office with a much lower opinion of its staff - and a better understanding of the Singaporean people.

It is clear that something in the culture here denies the natural responses of all humans to react to injustice - on both an emotional and intellectual level. The natural emotional expressiveness common to all humans, is stifled here.

In the western countries I have lived in, I would have expected the customers in the queue to berate the woman for jumping the queue, at the very least. It is likely that an arguement would have ensued. In some countries, it is even possible that that arguement may have become physical. I would also have thought that the staff member would have scolded her and sent her back to the queue. This would have been a typical outcome for her attempt to jump a half hour queue, at the expense of everyone else. However, nothing happened apart from a sullen silence from all who were present.

I would welcome comments from Singaporeans themselves as to what urges them to silence in situations when people from virtually everywhere else in the world, would speak out. I am sure a lot of people would be interested to know.

(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 @ 12:00 AM 


Anonymous Anonymous said...

We have been neutered, scared stiff and succumbed to meekness and subservance.

12:40 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

This is a pity - a people need to have spirit. I hope that the situation is reversible, somehow...

Best wishes

12:54 PM  
Anonymous bystander said...

Confining to this case, Singaporeans are afriad of troubles and disturbances. Assuming the responses to the queue jumper turned ugly and resulted in injuries, the police will not do anything for you.

The police will say that this is a civil case between the victim and the attacker. If you want the police to investigate, you need to get some paperwork from a court judge BEFORE the police will open a case file for you. That is how much faith we put in our police in such situations (not all).

Low crime means no crime recorded.

Of course, I am being a little extreme here. But, this is how things work here. There are choices, it is just not many of them for you to choose.

Sorry, I do not mean to rant here.

3:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am a foreigner in Singapore. I noticed this too! It is so weird! It actually makes me frightened a bit -- like if someone were to attack me on the street and start beating me up, I don't think anyone would actually help me! So I feel a bit uneasy. I would have said something. But in the past, when I do it, I think Singaporeans sometimes give me dirty looks. I'm a white foreigner so what right do I have to complain? If I am not happy in Singapore, I should go back to where I came from, no?

4:07 PM  
Anonymous onlooker said...

But, But you see.....
Like the time when the Singaporean guy was punch by the American sailor during the R&R.Who got blamed the sailor Nooooo....... it's the Singaporean's fault.
How about the "The Spoon incident" when the 25yr old Guy was stabbed a FT? Noooo..... it's his fault too for not providing a conducive working environment for the FT.
Price for speaking out = branded an anti establishment mentality person.
Mr Brown "Singaporean fed, Up with progress" = retaliation by Bavahna
Fong coming out = MOE Warning.
Wee blog on Dilemma of the average Joes = Wee "brutal truth"(which she is shield from by millionaire dad)
And the list goes on
plus if you chose based on own choice you will have no housing upgrade.

4:16 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

The underlying reasons for inaction are even more complex than I had thought...indeed the fact that the justice system won't lend you any support is troubling indeed.

Thank you Bystander for your comment. I think it gives people a better understanding of the social circumstances at work here.

As for crime not being recorded, that is our experience too. We reported the theft of a bag with wallet, once - and it was immediately reclassified as something less serious (in a way that seemed to place the blame on us!). We never bothered to report any crime again (though we have been subject to it on two other occasions).

Take care

4:21 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you Anonymous Foreigner for confirming my experience as not unique. It is worrying to see a people so voiceless. If this is the common reaction to injustice against them, from small to great, then any kind of disadvantage may accrue to them, as individuals and as a nation.

You are right, too, in saying that many Singaporeans would not want you to complain and would wish you to return home, if you did so. What they fail to understand is that those who complain are standing up for everyone who is ever put upon. It is when no-one complains that injustices grow more frequent (until they reach an intolerable level).

Carry on standing up for yourself (and everyone else)!

4:26 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Furthermore Anonymous Foreigner, I am fairly sure that if you were attacked in the street that it is very unlikely that anyone would intervene to help. At least, that is the prediction one could make from lesser situations in which no-one intervenes.

4:28 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you Onlooker for your insight into the situation.

It seems that a powerful reason for not speaking out is that doing so is actively punished here. To speak out is to court a punitive response - and so people learn to be silent and accept actions that they should not.

This situation is more intractable than it looked, at first.

4:33 PM  
Blogger Kaffein said...

I live in Australia now. Whenever a person jumps queue, or a shopper with many items lines up the Express line, people in the queue tell the shopper off.

And the cashier will ignore that shopper and proceed to serve the other customers.

I've raise my voice at someone who jumped queue in Singapore. what did I get? Stares and fearful look from the cashier.

I have absolutely no idea why.


5:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

me thinks that without knowing the weights and sizes of the two items the yellow lady was holding, it is difficult to put total blame on her or the staff.

If her items were heavy and or bulky or pasted with 'Speed Post' label(s), the staff could have meant to be helpful to attend to her over others. You did mention that he was stationed at the Speed Post Counter.

The said staff may not be awared that the yellow lady had bills to pay as well. And since he was serving her, I guess he chose to complete the whole transaction.

Having said the above, I like to say that people in Singapore are unlikely to stand up for justice or injustice, for more often than not, one ends up as a loser. Posts above are self-explanatory. However, be comforted that there are samaritans and helpful people around too, though lamentably only a very small minority.

5:51 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you Kaffein for confirming the type of reaction I had come to think of as more normal elsewhere. The Australian way is virtually the same in all other developed countries.

Singapore is different however...and your response in Singapore to the same assertive approach is sadly in tune with my own.

The problem with this Singaporean response is that it encourages anti-social behaviour (because they get away with it and no-one says anything) - but it also punishes the correct social attitude of actually speaking out against anti-social behaviour - and so reduces the likelihood of people speaking out. Thus Singaporeans lose both ways - the correct behaviour is punished, the wrong behaviour is rewarded and encouraged.

6:15 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

The items were small - about the size of the palm of a hand and appeared to be some kind of thin-leaved notebook.

Irrespective of whether he thought she was an appropriate Speedpost customer two things apply: he did not check to see if there were any other Speedpost customers ahead of her in the ten or so people in front of her; nor did he send her back to the queue at once, when she presented a huge and inappropriate pile of bills. It was clear that she was just using the notebooks as a ruse to get served out of line - for the bills were NOT visible until later (she kept them out of sight). She combined therefore rudeness, anti-social behaviour, selfishness and a significant degree of cunning. Such behaviour should not be encouraged, should it? Such people should be publicly censured everytime they try it on - then they would not act in an anti-social way (in this manner and in others). Letting them do it, only encourages the behaviour and degrades the quality of life for everyone in Singapore.

6:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

if you take the example of an organisation and its corporate culture, you will find that the boss or CEO normally sets the culture for the firm. If the CEO has the habit of silencing his employees for speaking up, or fires the employees for dis-agreeing with him, you pretty much know what are the survival skills needed to survive in such a company. I believe, many of us (especially in Asia) have worked in companies such as these before. You now extend this at a country level, it is not difficult to understand the mentality of Singaporeans.

6:23 PM  
Anonymous JL said...

Ah well. I used to be spontaneous and loud. But that is very frowned upon in Singapore for some reason. They seem to think that excitable and loud people are some sort of uncontrollable maniacs that should be wrapped in a straitjacket and pushed from a HDB flat. The looks I got when I got vehement about some issue I felt strongly about. "Relax, take it easy." This 'relax' always got me very frustrated.

8:46 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

JL a country that doesn't allow self-expression soon won't have any selves to express...

That which is not used dies away. The same applies to the soul.

Thank you for speaking out by writing your comment.

9:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Being a Singaporean,it's a pity to admit that this is true. Coincidentally, I had just read an article about an ignorant driver who witnessed a car accident but didn't even bother to dial 999. Help in the form of a kinder soul came about 15 minutes later and 2 out of the 3 victims were already dead by then.

10:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


We all see it bfr, the chatterer in the cinema, the guy who doles out ring tone torture in the MRT, my feel, Valentine Cawley for the con't resignation or apathy is simply this, it has alot to do with human conditioning. I know my POV is primal and base even, but if I really had to tag it, Pablov's dog tale goes a long way to supply an explanation - it just doesn't pay to insist on the small stuff when all the big stuff can be so easily either taken or negotiated away.

It's best to keep one eye on the light bulb Mr C. Yes there is much cause to venerate light bulbs when one lives the dog life.


11:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The slowness is TYPICAL... super slow and the government thinks that they can compete with HK as a financial centre. Basically you are not the only one who has this experience. My experience is similar and I have basically asked them if they were on holiday. The line is as you say only 5-6 people and they take over an hour to clear this. People in t he Post Offices like you have precisely described, excelled themselves to performing as little and as slowly as you can possibly get. They cannot be better than the countries around us which the old man call third world. Even China is now much better in this respect. Talking about Singaporean efficiency in the public service!

After so many decades of neutering, and continued intimidation from the people in power, you can only feel sorry for Singaporeans who have not much choice but to stay back in Singapore. The ones who can do better have and are probably more outspoken have mostly left Singapore for greener pastures where they don't get treated in such a shoddy manner. Talk only when you are allowed to!

I would have given the fat lady in yellow a piece of my mind if I was behind you... but what the heck.. like you have said as well as the other commenters, the rest of the people in the queue will be looking at you as if you were the one in the wrong, and tell you to "relax" when this is obviously rudeness and impoliteness.

Now with the prevalence of the internet, you can hear so many voices of dissent …... Singapore although being one of the smallest countries has the highest percentage of bloggers. The reason is obvious. There is no freedom of expression. The main stream media only produce materials that the old man wants the people to read. Only one person can talk, that is, the old man and only him, and at the expense of tax payers for millions of dollars!

7:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The explanation is simple : Singapore people have surrendered their minds and souls to the government.

3:30 PM  
Blogger tstar said...

It's just weird to speak out here. How do I put it... There's a sort of unspoken social rule to not poke your nose into other's business. If that person cuts the queue, well, he's just one person. It's not that frequent, really, here in Singapore that somebody cuts the queue. At least I haven't personally encountered a lot of it, just couple of times which I don't think is the norm.

That's a wrong thinking, of course, because when others see one person doing it and know that nobody will openly object to it, they might start doing it occasionally elsewhere and it just gets passed on that way. However it's just simply weird to speak up.

Oh, I'd like to say too that I don't think the rest of the singaporeans in the queue were against what you are doing. they are probably quite happy that somebody is saying that out, but at the same time, the thought that all this is trouble, and troublesome comes to mind. And this is what keeps us quiet too I guess - to keep out of trouble and to keep everything as less troublesome as possible.

I feel there might be a certain distinction between the older generation and younger generation's reason for keeping quiet though. the older generation's might be because of the relatively conservative Asian mindset they possess, so they don't really want to be "seen" or "heard" in public because it's embarrassing.

For the younger ones, we're slightly less conservative, so it's more of a want to keep out of trouble as much as possible. 'Course for some it's also embarrassing to speak out. Actually this embarrassment factor is quite strong I think. I see it in university classes too and I admit I'm guilty of it.

Hmm, now that I think of it, the embarrassment factor probably overrides everything.

These are my opinions. Fellow Singaporeans do feel free to correct me if I'm wrong.

11:30 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I too have experienced such distasteful behavior from fellow commuters on the train.

I felt like the village idiot when I voiced out to an obviously able bodied man to give up his seat for a pregnant lady. Not only was he grumbling underneath his breath, but was staring daggers at me alongside others on the train. The best part of all, the pregnant lady didn't even say thank you - I do not want a badge of honor - but even a nod of her head would have been sufficient.

But I tell myself this, "Raise above these people."

And, btw, I am a Singaporean, but I attribute it to my liberal upbringing and life experiences to voice out when I feel the need to.

4:56 PM  
Blogger Miao said...

My mum and I often discussed Singaporean politics; and once I asked, "What's the point of complaining? No one demands any accountability from our government. In the USA, when Clinton had an affair, the Americans were outraged and wanted an explanation. In Singapore, when Goh Chok Tong's wife was embroiled in the NKF scandal, no Singaporean had the guts to interrogate her, even though we have every right to do so, since we've been making donations with our hard-earned money." Goh Chok Tong's wife even had the audacity to claim that Durai's salary was just "peanuts". She totally had no idea that many Singaporeans are suffering in semi-poverty (and the situation is worsened even further by the rapidly rising living costs). I asked my mother, Well, what's the point of grumbling when we don't take any action to champion positive change?

My mum said that we've been intimidated into silence after decades of authoritarian rule. Criticize or question the government and you bear the risk of being sued for libel or slander over the smallest and most harmless comment. Those with the courage to speak out were heavily punished. The legal system favours the powerful and the rich. There is very little justice in Singapore. I guess it is understandable that people want to be safe rather than sorry. If the person who cut your queue was a well-built gangster with tattoos all over his body, I suppose that you would also rather tolerate his bullying than to earn yourself a beating by voicing your dissatisfaction. The Singaporean government is the well-built gangster who cuts our queue.

I have made a conscious effort reminding myself not to become another submissive Singaporean. When I suffer an injustice I speak out (and I'm rather hot-tempered). And I am glad that one of friends shares the same mentality, and sometimes watching her standing up for herself motivates me to do the same. There was once when somebody cut our queue, and she said very loudly, "I came here first, in case you didn't know."

There are reasons why I wish to migrate to a foreign country when I grow up. Probably to Europe, Canada, Australia or the USA. One important reason is the fact that I can't stand the Singaporean government any much longer.

9:34 PM  

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