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, March 12, 2008

The generosity of Singaporean Education

Singapore boasts of its education system. It prides itself on having a "Number 1" education system. Yet, is this true? From close up one sees something rather different.

Here education is standardized to an absurd degree, such that it is impossible to get the right education for any particular person: what you get is the "standard response".

So far, Ainan has not got what he needs from the education system - what he needs comes from his parents, at home, with a pile of books. The "system" has been most reluctant to offer up its resources to him, as yet (with occasional exceptions that don't alter the general tone of the situation). For instance, rather stingily, a nation filled with chemistry labs, hasn't made one available to Ainan on a regular basis. They would rather the labs sat empty, unused, than have one scientifically passionate child at work in them. The ones that are available, are only so, if we are prepared to, and able to, pay exorbitant fees. Where is Singapore's "great wealth" when it is needed? They can't even afford the expense of one unusual student.

Today, I found evidence that our situation, with respect to Ainan, is not an isolated case. There are other children out there, striving to get the special education they need. One other example is a twelve year child with an interest in Physics, beyond his (or her...we don't know) years. The student in question needed lab space to acquire the skills necessary to take an exam (an exact parallel of our own situation with Ainan, at six, but in a different subject, at a different age.) The education system was making no accommodation for this particular gifted student: no-one and nowhere was prepared to offer them the resources needed. So, what did the parents do? They found a private school that was willing to take their child on and teach them practical physics skills appropriate to the exam - at a price.

Now, I would like you to guess what that price was, per hour, for a nation where many people earn about two or three thousand Singapore dollars per month. Have a long think about what a school, in all good conscience, could, would and should charge a young student in such a situation, for the opportunity to further their passion for physics?

This school charged the desperate parents of this twelve year old, who had nowhere else to go, since nowhere in Singapore was willing to offer them the necessary facilities, a sum that I had to check three times, with the person who told it to me (an administrator at the school concerned), so disbelieving was I, of my ears.

This Singaporean school and bastion of generosity charged the parents of this gifted physics student, SIX HUNDRED DOLLARS an HOUR!

Now, that is the size of the barrier that the parents of unusually gifted students face, here, in Singapore. Only the very, very rich, can afford to give their children a differentiated education. The rest must do with the rubber stamp process offered to everyone else.

I was really appalled. The percentage of parents of gifted children who could actually afford six hundred dollars an hour to give their child the education they need, is vanishingly small. Clearly, this particular gifted child had wealthy parents: most such children do not. Such children, instead, face endless frustration, as the "system" says "no!" to their every special request.

I will write more of the other examples of frustrated gifted children that we have encountered, in Singapore, in due course. In each case, the national education system has failed to accommodate them, in the way which was self-evidently appropriate.

Singapore has a lot to learn, if it is to be the supreme nation it intends to be. Perhaps one of the first lessons should be how to accommodate the exceptional, rather than deny them. The problem with that, of course, is that Singapore just doesn't like to make exceptions. What they don't understand, though, is that making exceptions would make them exceptional, in time to come. Singapore has, it seems, chosen another path: the one that leads to conformity, uniformity and second-rateness.

That is not the choice we are going to make: whatever the "system" says. Unfortunately, we don't have six hundred dollars an hour to buy our way out of the situation...but then, who does?

(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 @ 6:52 PM 


Anonymous shoestring said...

I think to them, 'special needs' means only those who are intellectually less able, not superior. If they can have a Northlight school for difficult cases, Arts, Sports and whatever else , why not one for exceptionally bright ones? No, not for the 'gifted' bookworms who could not go beyond regurgitating facts, but the really intelligent ones. Why didn't they think of that?

So parents of exceptionally gifted kids will have to make sure they know. If writing to MOE officially, and to ST forum doesn't help, they could form an interest group and/or campaign for help from the public.

Remember Ike See? The Mindef made an exception.

3:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A friend of mine, a microbiologist at the Broad Institute at MIT, just informed me that the Genomics Institute of Singapore has spent almost USD2 million on the first Helicos Sequencer. This is kind of a big deal in the microbiology research world. But guess what, even MIT doesn't have such a machine in their lab. And Singapore has been getting a lot of attention lately because of this recent purchase.

Where I'm getting at is this - private institutions, particularly those in this country, spend extravagant amount of money just to put themselves on the map. The Broad Institute did not spend that much amount of money to gain recognition, so why is the Genomics Institute of Singapore doing something that almost seems like a "kiasu" attitude at making research progress? Does purchasing an expensive equipment equals to research success? Or will it just give us that extra push in a desired direction but not towards any form of dramatic progress?

Back to the issue on the couple who were able to afford the $600/hour rate for their child to use a chemistry lab. I am very appalled at the capitalistic nature of acquiring knowledge. The sense of what I am getting here is that the issue runs deeper than just the ability to acquire knowledge, but there also seem to be some kind of a class-war going on.

My hope is that gifted children like Ainan will have the opportunity to use the Helicos Sequencers of the world without having to fork out that 2 million bucks. Don't give up Mr. Cawley!

5:19 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thanks Anonymous, for your comment.

You raise interesting points. The one about a class war is particularly telling. Yes, there does seem to be an element of this at work in Singapore: access to certain things is denied to most, by expense alone. Even access to educational opportunities are denied in this way. There is something not ethical about that.

Education should not be an exercise in capitalism - but it is, here, if you want anything special done.

As for the Helicos Sequencer - there is money to spend on infrastructure here, but they have kind of forgotten about nurturing people in the right way. Instead, they import talent...well what about the locals they could have developed if they had tried?

We will not give up - but it is not easy trying to do something a bit different. The system likes to oppose that which is not the same as everything else.

Thanks for your encouragement.

8:12 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Yes, Shoestring, a special school as you describe, would be a wonderful thing. However, it is not fashionable to think of the intellectually superior needing any special care, here. Sadly, they need as much as the intellectually impaired, only in a different way.

We have had a lot of contact with MOE - as have the parents of other gifted children - but none of us have ever had much luck in getting a helpful response. No-one that we have spoken to has been satisfied with the kind of responses they received.

I am not familiar with the Ike See case...I will have to do some googling.

Thanks for your helpful post.

8:15 PM  
Anonymous shoestring said...

Mindef made an exception after the folks at started an online petition for him.

Singaporeans can be counted on to lend a hand for a worthy cause, especially when it is good for Singapore's future.

Dr Huang's post is good too.

11:31 PM  
Anonymous Bee Yong said...

Hi Valentine,

Can I check with you, how do you manage to register Ainan for the GCE 'A' level Chemistry exam?

I am trying to register my 12-year old boy for GCE 'O' level Maths but the SEAB (Singapore Examinations and Assessment Board) has this minimum age requirement - 15 years old for 'O' level, and 17 years old for 'A' level.

My son is studying in NUS High Year 1. NUS High allows him to attend Year 3 and 4 Maths modules while he takes Year 1 modules for other subjects. So I think the system there is accommodative to exceptional students.

With warmest regards.
Bee Yong

9:20 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Hi Bee Yong,

First of all I am sorry to have to tell you that, as far as I know, Singapore never makes an exception on the age rules for examination entry. If you want your son to take an exam, you have to do so through an overseas board.

You may wish to approach private schools and institutions such as The British Council. The latter organization allows entry to British exam boards, but at sometimes extraordinarily expensive fees. For instance, an A level entry with practical exams is about 1,500 dollars. O levels are cheaper - at around 300 dollars or thereabouts (unless they have a practical). I don't know if there are other places which would be cheaper.

Forget about taking Singaporean exams early - they won't allow it. So try overseas exams.

As for NUS High - we didn't find them as accommodative as you did. They offered Ainan one hour a week of chemistry at a level (early A level equivalent) that he had already covered. They wouldn't allow him access to practicals and actually lied in giving a reason for doing so (we checked their reason: that there are no more than 25 students in a class against what the students said - that there were often more than 25 in a class. So the VP lied in providing a reason for not helping Ainan.) We found them very unhelpful. Perhaps it was because Ainan is so much younger than the students they are used to. I don't know...but don't think they are accommodative because they allow your child to take a class a couple of years ahead...because they aren't when the request is more extreme. They accommodate small deviations from the norm, but not bigger ones. At least, our experience suggests that.

Best of luck with your son's exam preparations.

Kind regards


2:07 PM  
Anonymous Bee Yong said...

Hi Valentine,

Thank you for the information. The fee is rather hefty. If we register for both elementary maths and additional maths, it is going to cost us $600! So I think we would not want to register with an overseas board.

Sometimes I do wonder why the system is so rigid (e.g. the minimum age requirement for pri/sec education such that one cannot skip grades, min age for 'O' or 'A' level exams) maybe the preference is for everyone to follow the norm so that it is easier to manage.

I do enjoy most of your posts. Usually I can learn about many things (and not just on gifted education).

Best regards.

10:14 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Hi Bee Yong,

I get the feeling that, here in Singapore, a premium is placed on conformity and uniformity. They really, really, really don't want anyone to stand out or be different in any significant way. Thus, they put great barriers in the way of anyone who does.

For instance, we have not been given permission to homeschool Ainan - despite asking repeatedly for a year and a half. They usually don't even have the civility to reply. Furthermore, they have not provided Ainan with lab facilities or done anything to further his scientific education on a consistent basis - and have actually opposed our efforts to do so, on the occasions when they found out the arrangements we had made (seemingly urging a school to withdraw their offer!!!)

It has all left us totally unimpressed with the Singaporean "education" system. I don't believe that they want children to step outside of the norm, at all. Maybe that is why Singapore has no internationally recognized scientists, or thinkers, in any category, at all, as yet: they are all squashed out of existence along the way.

Best wishes in the education of your child, Bee.

Thanks for your kind remarks regarding my blog - I am glad you enjoy it.

10:27 AM  

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