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 +

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Double standards in Singaporean Education.

Singapore has many surprises for an attentive observer: one area that is rich in such surprises is Singaporean education.

Singapore is a country that prides itself on its uniformity and conformity. Thus one would expect that all within its borders would be treated in the same way, with regards to educational opportunity. In an ideal world, everyone would have access to the opportunities they need. Yet, this is not so.

There is an educational scholarship scheme which many people may not be aware of. Its express purpose is to recruit scientifically and mathematically competent students from other Asian countries and bring them to Singapore. The ones that I have taught are about 95% PRC (People's Republic of China) mainland Chinese students and the rest have happened to be Vietnamese. I haven't met one from anywhere else.

These almost entirely mainland Chinese students are given free education in Singapore. They are given free accommodation. They are even given a monthly stipend on which to live. One particular group even had a paid holiday in Malaysia (probably to show them what a wonderful place Singapore was by giving them the contrast of poverty - since it was a poor area they went to), recently. They basically have a free ride of it, for their time in Singapore. They are even given a choice of where they might like to get a degree out of a selection of overseas countries. Singapore pays for it all.

I can see why they do this. It is so as to recruit scientific talent for Singapore's tech and science industries. The idea is that many of these students will come to settle in Singapore and work here. So, in that sense it is a smart move for Singapore. Yet, I am not particularly happy at this particular programme. Why? Well, because Singaporeans are not treated so well.

We have sought special provision for Ainan's scientific educational needs for over a year and a half, now. Long term readers will know that we have encountered a less than generous attitude in this area. At various times, we have been told: "It is resource intensive to give him practical chemistry classes" and "There is no funding available" and "Why don't you go to a private school and pay for it yourself?" (This last was said by a member of the Gifted Education Programme...a very unhelpful organization, in truth.)

In that entire time, we have managed to secure six practical sessions for Ainan out of the education system (at Raffles Insitution and Raffles College). We were also offered one hour a week at NUS High School of Maths and Science, last year, which we ultimately rejected, because it was of material (at early A level) which he had already covered - and they refused to let him take practical classes. It simply wasn't worth going there, since nothing new would be learnt. All in all, it is not much of a response to Ainan's particular needs.

Now, Ainan was born in Singapore. His mother is a Malay Singaporean - so Ainan has Singaporean nationality. Yet, the contrast between the way PRC science students are welcomed to Singapore and enticed by large bundles of money and educational freebies, and the way we have met obstacles and refusals of support, in Ainan's scientific education, could not be more marked.

I find myself puzzled. Ainan is Singaporean. These PRC imports are not. Ainan gets little support. The PRCs get everything. Surely, this is strong evidence of double standards in Singaporean education? To get what you need, here, you have to be a foreign student on a scholarship. If you are a locally born Singaporean, you need not apply, seems to be the message.

Perhaps they take Ainan for granted. They think that, because he is local, that he is theirs already. The PRCs, however, have to be won over to Singapore's side. The funny thing about this is that Ainan is much brighter than any of the PRC imports I have met and taught over the years. He has much MORE to offer Singapore in terms of scientific talent, than any of these PRCs (or Vietnamese) students. Yet, except for a few token exceptions, Ainan's needs have not yet been met by the Singaporean education system.

Double standards are never fair - nor are they wise. In pursuing this course of action, Singapore will recruit some scientifically talented PRC students - yes. However, they will also alienate LOCALLY DERIVED scientific talent - unless they SUPPORT THEM EQUALLY WELL. The fact is, however, they don't. If you are locally born talent, you can expect no special support of your gifts - or very little indeed, certainly not enough to optimize your intellectual growth. If, however, you were born in Beijing - expect every cheque book to be open. That is the clear message of this programme.

Ainan's education proceeds at home, with us. Were it not for our support, he would be receiving NO scientific education, at this time, from the Singaporean education system. Is that the way to nurture future scientists?

I am sure the story would be very different if Ainan was a PRC child showing the same gift. He would be flown in, with his mother (probably), given a house, a scholarship at a good school, and money every month to pay his way. Unfortunately, for Ainan he is locally born. What he gets instead, is a lot of bureaucratic delays and time-wasting from the educational establishment. Far from receiving a scholarship, we are repeatedly told that "there are no funds available" and no resources, either.

So, the lesson is this. If you have a special child and they were born in Singapore, you should emigrate to China, at once. There you should revoke your Singaporean citizenship and become Chinese - and then apply for the Singaporean scholarship programme. You will be welcomed with open arms and suddenly everything you need for your special education would be made available. For true authenticity, you should speak English exceptionally badly for the first couple of years back in Singapore, just to make sure that you don't look out of place (just like all the other PRC recruits).

We have had to make our own arrangements for Ainan, since the educational system has proven unwilling to do so. Every other special child we have heard of, has run into difficulties too. They share one thing in common: they were born in Singapore.

It would be good to see a Singaporean education system that allowed all children to flourish - and aided all along the way, to reach their potential. It is not enough to focus on grooming PRC children to become Singaporean: they need to give equally good opportunities and support to locally born talent too.

Otherwise a strange thing will begin to happen: just as the PRC "talent" arrives, the local talent will leave. That is precisely what has happened to some of the Singaporean gifted children that we are aware of. They haven't received what they needed in Singapore - so they left for America etc.

Now, is that a smart education policy?

If Singapore did more to nurture its locally born talent, they wouldn't have to recruit PRC students to make up for the shortfall in talent. They would have created it in their own backyard, instead.

The next step for Ainan has been arranged, and will be announced at an appropriate time - but you know what: we arranged it ourselves. Those in the education system whose responsibility is to attend to these matters did nothing to help us, at all. Were we less persistent, nothing would have happened.

The others that we are aware of did not battle on, to secure what they needed here: they just emigrated.

The priority should be: first look after locally born talent, then look to recruit overseas talent. They should not begin to do the latter until the former has been addressed. Otherwise, the result will be that one's own people leave, never more to return. The foreigners who replace them, have no real ties to Singapore. There seems little wisdom in that.

(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.)

Labels: , , , , , , , ,

AddThis Social Bookmark Button
posted by Valentine Cawley @ 7:56 PM 


Anonymous shoestring said...

It would be good to share this article with the editors at TOC. I came from SD.

Singaporeans should know more about the plight of their own talents. It is not that we do not have talents, but that they have been slighted.

The government has no grounds to lament the lack of local talents, and use it as an excuse to bring in foreign ones, if the MOE does nothing about it.

You are right, citizens should be given the priority.

12:32 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you Shoestring. I quite agree. The problem is if local talents are not supported, they will, in time, become non-local talents - ie. they will emigrate.

Best wishes to you.

1:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi there, I am disturbed to hear that they are almost all from the PRC. Is the government specifically discriminating for PRC students in its recruitment? Is it not allowing students from other countries to apply or is it just not advertising about its program in other countries? Given Singapore's multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society, hearing that so many "scholars" are coming from a single source sounds very suspicious.

5:28 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Hi Anonymous,

I don't know how they promote their programme: I haven't been told. All that I am able to do is to observe the results of that promotion. The only ones I have ever met are from the PRC and Vietnam. The Vietnamese are outnumbered by the Chinese about 30 to 1. I haven't met any (or heard of any) from Malaysia or Indonesia, or the Philippines, or anywhere else for that matter. That is not to say that they don't exist: it is just that neither my wife (who teaches) nor I (who used to teach) has ever met any. Presumably, our sample is a fair draw your own conclusions.

I am sure that statistics on these "scholars" will prove difficult to find. I have given you mine though. PRC: roughly 97%. Vietnam, 3%. The rest of the world: 0%.

If I ever meet any scholars from other countries, I will let you know.

Thanks for your comment.

7:41 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

By the way, I am drawing on the experiences of quite a few teachers, that I know, when I speak of the scholar situation. All of them share the same experience: they are almost entirely PRC students. So it is the collated experiences of quite a few teachers.

I hope that puts it in perspective.

8:05 PM  
Anonymous Tim said...

Thank you for the information about the scholarship.

I have another take on this but I could be wrong. It may appear that the two foreign student types may be selected on purpose.

They are not actually to fill the local talent pool. They are to be educated here and gain experience here after staying around for some years.

Using Chinese "scholars" as a base. In their drive to modernise China in double time, they require well educated and experienced professionals for their own industries. Singapore is deemed suitable for educating many of these professionals that China needs in the future. These "scholars" may be specially selected by the Chinese government to make the preparatory studies first and move them to high level education in the US/UK. US/UK universities will not see them from China direct but hail from Singapore. This will be advantageous when applying for entry to elite US/UK universities.

It is like holding our Singapore red passports when you pass through immigration.

It could be that China is actually paying for all this. The scholarship program is just a way to make the "scholar" education more legitimate.

The next question is of course, based your observations, what is the level of "intelligence" of these Chinese "scholars"? Can they make it to the US/UK universities?

8:45 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Hi Tim,

That is a very clever idea you have had. It is an interesting interpretation on the situation. It may be that China is trying to mask the origin of its students. Yes, that is possible. However, all the teachers involved with teaching these PRCs are under the impression that it is a Singaporean recruitment exercise and that Singapore is paying for it.

As for their intelligence...I have taught many, many PRC students since 1999: however, not one of them struck me as stellar. They come across as above average in intelligence and generally rather hard working...but they don't appear to be geniuses, that is for sure. If one thought of them as film stars, none of them would be A list. The peak would be B list. Many would actually be C list...(if you look at all the PRCs I have taught and the others I know who teach them). They are a diligent bunch - but not necessarily a super intelligent bunch: at least, the ones I have encountered were not so.

I would think that few of them would get to US or UK universities simply because their English is not good enough. I think that many of them would not be sufficiently capable academically either, though some might.

I do believe that they are not intended for Western universities. I half-recall a list of countries from which they could choose a University. Thailand was on the list, but I am not sure if the UK or US was. I think they are meant to return to Singapore and not to be enticed elsewhere to somewhere better.

It was a good idea though...and very cunning indeed, if that is, in fact, what is happening here.

Best wishes to you...and thanks for the contribution.

9:50 PM  
Blogger K2 said...

I agree that more should be done to nurture local-born talents. But we need a voice, from someone credible, who is in close contact of one, who is a parent of one! That'll be you Mr Cawley.

As a parent of two little girls, I really hope that more attention could be given to the community of gifted children and that all who have the potential will be given the opportunity to excel in their areas of talent, not wait till they are 13 years old to do so.

11:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I believe you are a localized "expatriate" married to a local. You probably are ignorant of the system here. For years, the educational system in Singapore is discrimatory ie. geared to giving foreign talents as the govt calls them, scholarship benefits in return for 6 yrs of bonded service. You see, it is a form of bonded servitude which a Westerner would not understand. For most local Singaporeans, the natural path is to be educated overseas eg. USA, Canada, Australia, NZ or even UK. Even if you had a child prodigy, you wouldn't let him or her be educated in Singapore for too long otherwise they would be "conformed" to the system. Bilingualism would be the 1st obstacle the child prodigy will face unless he is a linguistic prodigy. The 2nd language may diluted the prodigy's chances of advancing. 2ndly, the restricted schooling environment like Primary 3 streaming, secondary express or normal would apply immense pressures on your child. Most local Sporeans who know better have migrated with their children to developed countries to utilize their more advanced and flexible educational systems. There are those parents who send their children to International Baccalaureate schools in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. You pay less than the Singapore International Baccalaureate schools while getting an education which is about equal. If you are concerned about getting your kid the best education you can give, consider this alternative! Stop hitting your head against the wall cos no one (in MOE) will listen! The education system in Singapore is geared towards mass achievements, not individual ones. It operates on school ranking, streaming quotas & privileges ie. how are you connected or how good is your networking. The sooner you understand that, the better it is for your kid!

12:04 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you Anonymous for your perspective on Singaporean education.

I fear you are most probably right: no-one in MOE has listened to our requests regarding Ainan - and I doubt that anyone ever will.

As for the six year bond...oh my God! What a terrible system. To us that looks a lot like a kind of slavery...which went out of fashion a LONG time ago in the West.

Your insight is really very much appreciated - and your suggestions will be looked into.

Kind regards

12:17 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you K2 for your kind comments.

I am trying to open the system up. I am trying to get them to listen to a set of special needs that have been ignored. It is difficult however. Yet, if I succeed for one, I kind of succeed for all: it will be easier thereafter for others.

I cannot express, though, how difficult it has been so far. The narrow minds we have met seem to find it impossible to accommodate a new way of doing things. Exceptions seem impossible for them. It is very draining.

I wish you luck with your two children. Yes, it is time the gifted community really got the opportunity to shine. If not, they tend to take the opportunity to shine elsewhere...

Kind regards

12:20 AM  
Anonymous shoestring said...

Hmmm...didn't someone say we needed peaks? Each higher than the other and not plateaux?

We won't get them from mass achievement or by ignoring our extremely gifted.

Perhaps the MOE has no idea how to do it. It could help to give them a list of needs to be fulfilled and, at worse, a step-by-step guide on how to fulfill them.

2:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sad, really sad. Our efficiency does not cater for contigency such as this - no budget eh?

Unfortunate that this gifted child does not have an accepted surname such as Lee, Lim, Tan or Poo.

Wartime one dies of fragmentation bombs, Peacetime one dies of pigmentation bombs

9:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am trying to understand if the comparison here is like for like. These PRC students with all those opportunities, are they the same age as Ainan? Are the PRC students getting assistance beyond their Singaporean peers of similar age and abilities?

9:24 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

It depends what you mean by like for like. Ainan is a science student, so are they. Ainan however is half their age or less. He is also more advanced than they are in their scientific interests, at least in Chemistry.

The difference is in the amount of funds committed to support them. In Ainan's case, for the last year and a half there has been very, very little support or response. In their case, everything they need is paid for by the Singaporean government. They even get free holidays out of it (educational ones). The contrast in attitude could not be more marked.

I hope that allows you to understand the situation better.

The argument to support Ainan's education would seem, to an outsider, to be stronger than to support theirs...but the actual response does not reflect that.

Thanks for your concern.

9:57 PM  
Blogger numbernine said...

I would say that the immigration policies are a little geared towards maintaining the racial ratio. There are a lot of Malaysians who come to Singapore but funnily enough they are all Chinese. Bruneians too. It's almost as though they knew that Malays always have more kids and if you don't do anything the Malays would one day (although not so soon) be the majority in Singapore.

Think about Israel.

9:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was the one who brought up the matter of like for like.

Now if you had compared China students of school going age with same age, similar anility Singaporeans - you would have found that there is no difference in the support to either group.

And if you had compared the provisions given to Singaporean Ainan and a China kid of similar age and ability, you would again have found no diiference in provisions (albeit both would get little support as I hav learnt from your blogs).

So bringing in the comparison of the support given to China students studying here as if there wre "double standards" just obfuscates the issue doesn't it?

8:01 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Dear Anonymous re. Like for Like,

It is a puzzle to me why are you unable to see the essential and rather obvious double standard at work here. PRC students from China receive FULL FUNDING for their education; everything is paid for including holidays. Ainan, however, gets nothing in the way of financial support of his education at all. We are told to find a private school and pay for it ourselves (which can cost up to 600 dollars an hour...outside almost anyone's budget).

The double standard is blindingly obvious. If you are a science student from the PRC, you will recieve full financial support and the education you require. If you a Singaporean (if Ainan's example is taken as typical) you will receive a lot of excuses and delays and nothing else. You will have to find a way to do it yourself.

If there were such a child as Ainan in China, I do not doubt for one second that Singapore would love to recruit them and bring them here, on full scholarship plus free living. The Chinese child would receive full support - and Ainan would continue to receive virtually nothing. The double standard exists - and sadly so for Singapore's future.

9:12 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Further to the comment above. We are told that "there are no funds available" to support Ainan's practical chemistry skills. PRC children on the other hand have everything free and paid for by the State of Singapore. Quite a difference.

9:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

No funds available..

I get it now. You judge sameness by ability levels and I am judging sameness as age. Hence where you see the teenage china kid as the equivalent to your prodigy pre-schooler, I see the age difference. Unfortunately the system wears similar lenses to me.

11:55 PM  
Anonymous wang said...


As the child is also of malay descent, you can request the MOE Director to consider due to the distinct cultural/racial background via MOE/MENDAKI or MOE/Eurasian

May I also suggest that since he has all the attributes, please obtain the necessary MENSA certs as such or invitations from famous schools.

Work the system whilst at it via appealing to the Minister of Education.

Hope this of assistance.


7:44 PM  
Blogger Saint Sinner said...

Dear Sir,

I believe you are making more claims, and making them much stronger, than what is in fact true.

I am among the ones you have implied as receiving more than their fair share of educational privileges simply because of nationalities, and just-above-average talents.

I have actually benefited even more than that, thanks to what you consider Singapore's double standards. For seven years, I have been paid to attend prestigious schools, and given much more stipends than the average PRC and Vietnamese students of yours. I have travelled to many shores far beyond the little red dot. many thanks to Singapore!

And so when I, and especially I, do not entirely agree with you, I do think I am in a better position than you are to understand if what you have written fervently about is indeed true.

I agree that Singapore could better use the resources allocated to attracting talented students from overseas. There are still thousands of local pupils who need the Straits Times' Pocket Money Funds for their meals.

However, what might not have met your eyes as you observe all the bright children from China and Vietnam lavishing on the financial incentives and opportunity privileges is what they, or rather we, have put in, have exchanged for, and have sacrificed.

Sir, you may have over-emphasised the monetary awards of it. the other side of the coin is the home-away years, many many years, the teenage angst that often meets with silence from the four walls that house us, and above all, the immense pressure to perform.

Yes Sir, we are showered with golden opportunities. But we have, as I have come to realise, in turn sacrificed more than what we can be aware of, especially as the years go by, and we gradually mature from the Singapore system. I have, and I have accepted the fact that I am not a Singapore citizen, and therefore whatever that I get will ultimately, and always, be less than what Singaporeans are entitled to!

After all, I would like to defend the status quo, that meritocracy still prevails in Singapore! One gets what one deserves! And failures shall not be tolerated.

Thank you Sir!

12:15 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you for your perspective on the situation.

My view is supported by your statement, not undermined by it: the privilege you have experienced is clear. However, it is true that you are away from home, in return. The effect that has on a student will depend, to a great degree on their personality and personal circumstances - for some it will be a terrible sacrifice - for others it will be no more than what they need to do to get ahead. For you, it is the former it seems.

Best wishes in your future.

By the way, you will not be treated as less than a Singaporean - of that I am sure.

6:17 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home

Page copy protected against web site content infringement by Copyscape