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, April 03, 2008

The Singaporean obsession with A grades

The Singaporean educational obsession with A grades even extends to the political class, here. Indeed, the political class seems to have a particularly bad case of it.

Recently, the leadership of Singapore were quoted in the newspapers as saying that they were in search of the next Prime Minister to take over after Lee Hsien Loong becomes too old for the job, some 15 years hence. I write this knowing that Western readers will find this assumption, that one party will still be in power in 15 years time, rather strange. In Singapore, however, the political structure is as unchanging as the weather (here everyday is the same, give or take).

More strange than the assumption of eternal power, though, was another assumption made: that the best candidate would be found among an elite 600 or so, who, secured perfect A grades in their A levels every year (I believe 4 A grades were spoken of). I find this hilarious in what it reveals about the State's understanding of human nature. The assumption is that the best leader will have the best grades. This is just not so. Grades at A level tell us very little about leadership quality - and tell us almost as little about true intelligence. The biggest variable in how well someone does at A level is how hard they are prepared to work. It is just as likely that selecting someone for their A grades will end up choosing the hardest worker in the group, rather than the brightest. Too often, the brightest students don't find A levels interesting enough to work hard for them. If you are really bright, all of education will seem a bit pointless.

There is more, however. By focussing on the select group of 600 or so, every year, with perfect grades, they exclude almost everyone in Singapore from being considered. It is mathematically far more probable that the true best candidate is OUTSIDE that select group, than that they are inside it. Why is this so? Well, because leadership has very little to do with intelligence (just as A level grades themselves don't say as much about it as people believe). Even if intelligence were correlated with leadership, not as much of it would be needed as people believe. Studies show that a leader should NOT be brighter than 30 IQ points above the average of those led - otherwise effective communication becomes problematic and virtually impossible for the brightest of the bright.

Thus in Singapore, a leader would need to have an IQ of 130 odd, at the outside. Thus, they would need to be no more than moderately gifted, at best. About one person in 44 would meet this criterion. So much for there being no-one good enough to take over. It would be unnecessary and unwise were the leader much brighter than this because a leader who can't communicate to his or her people is a leader who can't lead.

If you truly have selected the brightest possible leader, he or she would be too bright to lead Singapore effectively, anyway.

However, I am happy that this would not be so, given the selection criteria. I went to Cambridge University and I have met many people in my life with perfect grades. They didn't, however, have perfect minds. Some people with lesser grades had much more interesting minds. They just weren't bothered about A levels as a worthwhile pursuit. They did, however, turn out to be much more interesting and able people than those who outshone them, in A levels.

There is another factor to consider: how were the perfect A grades achieved? If, as is most common in Singapore, they are achieved by the total exclusion of the rest of life and an absolute focus on studies, then that person would be among the WORST possible candidates for political office. Why is this so? Well, because life skills and social understanding are much more important for political life than A grades at A level. Academic knowledge is of almost no value at all, if it resides in a socially inept, dull individual of no character or life experience. The latter description would suit many who have perfect A grades at A level. It is much less likely to describe those who have led a more rounded existence and grown other characteristics than a monomaniacal tendency to study.

That being said, there is the possibility that the best candidate might reside among the 600. This would be a different case though. This would be the candidate so bright that he or she could excel at A level in all subjects, with relatively little work, while having a complete social life and developing a full range of life skills and experiences. Such a person would make a good candidate. That is not to say, however, that another candidate of lesser grades might not be even better, because of their personal qualities - and perhaps unexpressed intellectual ones.

The Government expressed regret that so many of the 600 leave Singapore every year to work elsewhere. It seems to me that they would not leave, had they suitable opportunities here, for personal growth and career development. Provide those opportunities and many of them would stay.

It is time to drop this excessive regard for perfect grades in Singapore. The ones with perfect grades do not necessarily have the best minds. In fact, I would say that they are more likely to be less interesting people than others who have more diverse interests, and lesser grades as a result.

"Good" people may be found in many more places than the Singaporean government seems aware. There is a reason for this, of course. They are all, themselves, drawn from the ranks of the perfect graders. So they believe in it. They feel validated by it. The pity of it is, of course, is that it is utter nonsense. Having perfect grades does not make you a genius. Having perfect grades does not make you politically adept. Having perfect grades does not make you creative. In fact, having perfect grades does nothing but give you perfect grades.

It is time people realized that, here, and looked at people more broadly. Then, eyes would open and interesting people would be found in abundance. Until then, of course, "good" people, will seem so scarce as to be almost absent.

What is wrong here is not the number of "good" people - but the way in which they are identified. An error has been made in thinking that A levels are the best measure. They aren't. They measure something else than that which they are being used for. There is not, at this time, an A level in Prime Ministership. It is time the Prime Minister himself realized this and started looking more widely for his own successor. He would find the task a lot easier if he paid heed to this observation.

(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 @ 7:28 PM 


Anonymous Daniel said...

I agree with your views that perfect grades aren't an infallible indicator of whether a person has leadership potential. But I do think that excellent A level grades is a high predictor of success in life, not just because it shows that you are hardworking and analytical (the A levels require a high amount of both), but also because it affords you greater opportunities to further improve yourself (e.g. a scholarship, an Ivy League education). I'm fairly sure many of our current leaders had straight As in their A levels as well.

I am also puzzled by your constant fixation on whether a person is "interesting" or not. I don't think an interesting personality is a prerequisite for leadership. Many of our current ministers are as dry as sawdust, and as interesting as toenail clippings. That doesn't prevent them from performing their duties capably.

In fact, "interesting" people would probably not be suitable for government or the civil service. The government prefers conservative, focused people, who also tend to be staid and uninteresting. Those with diverse interests and vibrant personalities, or who refuse to put effort into things that don't hold their interest (e.g. the "bright" but underachieving A level students you've cited) should probably go into the private sector or become an artiste, where they can pursue their passions freely.

11:59 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Hi Daniel

My interest in interesting people is for one simple reason, primarily: creative people tend not to be dull and interesting people tend to be creative. I have never met a dull creative person - nor an interesting one who didn't have something of their own to offer.

In my view, creative people are necessary in a real government. By real government I mean one which actually performs the role of shaping, guiding and nurturing a nation rather than just controlling it. Singapore is not famed for its creativity - in fact it is famous, overseas, for a lack of creativity. One reason for this would be the local emphasis on promoting "staid, focussed uninteresting people" to positions of power. Such people don't understand or appreciate creative people and would tend to oppose them, whether consciously or not. So, perhaps Singapore is not creative partly because the people in positions of power are not creative.

I have met so many very dull students with good A levels in Singapore (remember I have taught extensively here), that I wonder why these people are selected for, so strongly by the system. It seems that HR people are looking at the pieces of paper they get, rather than the people themselves. Were I in a position to employ them, many of them would NOT get hired - on the basis of how little is actually going on in them.

How did they get good grades? By working ridiculously hard. Perhaps, in some jobs, that tendency to work hard is all that is needed. In others however, substantial intelligence and even creativity may be required: they may not have as much of those, as one might hope.

I, personally, would like to see some more evidence of creativity and personality in the system and in politics. It would make for a more enlivening society. It would also ultimately be a better one in every way - for ideas lead to industries, and cultural revenue streams, lead to a richer society. So, Singapore would get what it is fixated on: wealth - but also become much more interesting.

Perhaps more of that at another time.

12:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Perhaps our PM is looking for a person with good A level and a YES MAN who don't rock the boat.

1:55 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

YES, indeed...but in a world of YES MEN big mistakes are made, because no one speaks out when wrong decisions are being made. It is a dangerous way to go...

2:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

the destiny of this country( or vision) has already been determined by our forefathers. it is therefore unlikely they will( or allow anyone) change the course of this nation. if so, the tried and tested selecting criteria will also apply to the next generation of leadership.

that said, the executive leadership is not worried about 'no men'. already, such leadership has been inducted. but at the end of the day, every leader is expected to close ranks with executive decision in order to stay on board.

in other words, the current model of leadership subject the entire nation and the lives of its people to a few 'good men'.

so it is either you have issue with that or you don't.

now if you don't have an issue with that, then nothing much changes here.

but if you do, then you need to come up with a better model than the above.


10:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Daniel, to say that "..having excellent A level grades is a high predictor of success in life.." is nonsensical.

Bill Gates is a college drop-out.

Sim Boon Hoo is a poly-grad, I don't he have excellent A Level.

Whether a person is success in Life is not dependent on his/her academic education.

10:31 PM  
Blogger numbernine said...

I think this puts an unfair spin on Bill Gate's academic record. He went to Harvard. He excelled at high school to get in, probably getting the equivalent of 4As at A levels. Mentioning that he was a college drop out is also misleading because it implies he wasn't doing well enough at school to graduate. I'll leave you to find out for yourself the reason for his dropping out.

The PMs in Britain usually come from Oxford or Cambridge, and most of them have done well enough in their "A"s to get in. You can have a Gordon Brown who's from a more "humble" background because he only went to Edinburgh. A lot of cabinet ministers are pulled from the ranks of those who got 1st or 2nd class honours in their unis.

There is also the Chinese imperial scholar system where you would study hard, have your balls chopped off, and become a senior bureaucrat in the palace.

It is then useful to know that this is not "uniquely Singapore" but inherited from 2 very different cultures. And I haven't even mentioned the Brahmins or Plato's philosopher kings yet.

We could have US presidents that were not that intellectual, but knew how to relate to people, like Warren G Harding or George W Bush. The consensus seems to be they were bad mistakes. George W Bush went to Yale but I don't think his academic record was anything to shout about and I don't think he would have got in without connections.

First I think that if you want to select your leaders you might as well do it based on some objective measure: either by appointment after looking at the CV (like how we appoint PMs), or by popularity contests (direct elections, US presidents) or by dynastic lineage. Political appointments are sensitive things and to do so based on some ill defined concept of "being interesting" is either dangerous or politically impossible.

Secondly in a place like Singapore everybody would know that getting good grades in school is one of the prerequisites for political leadership. Which means that everybody who has aspirations at that age will put a lot of effort into their studies, which means that even if you try to catch only 4As people a lot of politically ambitious people will be caught in that net.

The last issue is that being a PM is a boring job best suited either to boring people or at least to people with the ability to grasp great amounts of information. I think that crazy visionaries should not be given the premiership but should be given their pet projects to nurture, and their way should not be impeded if their projects are any good. But keep your boring safe hands for your leaders. One reason why the state of Israel is still existing today is that Albert Einstein who was offered the presidency refused it.

12:27 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Steve Jobs of Apple was also a college drop-out.

6:38 AM  
Blogger EbTech said...

While academic examination scores are certainly not the best measure of one's leadership potential, I find it fascinating that such a meritocracy actually exists elsewhere in the world (please forgive my ignorance!) Given the kind of leaders that some democracies have elected, I wonder if the system in Singapore functions better... what are your thoughts on this?

1:08 AM  
Blogger Syahidah and Valentine said...

Hi EbTech,

The Singaporean system leads to "leaders" who are diligent but have little personal charisma or personality in any way at all. They are a very DULL bunch, in most ways. Yes, a certain academic competence is guaranteed, but they are by no means the greatest of thinkers, necessarily. They are good at school tasks, but not necessarily good at thinking things anew.

I would say that the system is not perfect and does tend to bring people into political life who aren't really political beings. Perhaps the mean level of general intellectual competence is OK...but it is not ideal, either. It could be said that they lack imagination, and tend to be "yes men". Not a good combination.

1:34 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home

Page copy protected against web site content infringement by Copyscape