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 +

Saturday, May 03, 2008

The lack of entrepreneurs in Singapore

Today, I saw stark evidence for the lack of entrepreneurialism in Singapore. It may not seem much, but the message of what I witnessed is quite clear.

My wife and I had heard about the "flea market" at the Singapore Art Museum on Saturdays. We had mutual memories of Camden Market in London to inspire us with visions of innumerable idiosyncratic little stalls selling the oddest of things - things that would be a good quirky addition to any home. So, with this preconceived idea of what we might see, we went to the Singapore Art Museum.

What we saw, when we entered the central, open space in the Museum where the flea market was being held, quite astonished us. There was nothing there at all - approximately speaking. Not one of the eight stalls I counted amounted to the word stall. They were thoughtless, haphazard and uninteresting in content and presentation. The staff were listless, already bored with the lack of custom. It was both shocking and pathetic. The typical stall consisted of a few pieces of junk thrown onto a table. It was ludicrous.

We felt embarrassed for Singapore - and for ourselves for being there.

It was instantly clear that something was wrong. I have never seen a country so unable to muster such a simple thing as a flea market. Every other country I have visited (about 20), has a thriving subculture of people willing to set up any shop, anywhere. It is from these corner street acts of entrepreneurship, that great entrepreneurial stories begin. Not so, however, in Singapore. A country of 4.6 million people cannot muster more than 8 sad efforts at stalls, when an event calls upon it to do so. That, to me, means that entrepreneurs are rare in Singapore. The attitude of entrepreneurship is not widespread enough even to support a little bit of free market salesmanship at a flea market.

This is sad for what it says of Singapore's future. Every entrepreneur's biography or life history that I have read tells tales of small ventures begun often in childhood - tiny efforts at entrepreneurialism, such as a market stall, from which great empires spring. It is in these small efforts that people learn the skills and mindset of the entrepreneur. Without such experiences and little trials, few have the experience and courage to try anything on a bigger scale. This first step is missing in Singapore. People, generally speaking, just don't even try the first rungs of entrepreneurship, without which they are not mentally equipped for the higher rungs.

The absence of a lively flea market, today, at Singapore Art Museum is thus symptomatic of a serious problem facing Singapore. Without the young entrepreneurs of today, there are no great companies of tomorrow. Today, I witnessed a dearth of just such young entrepreneurs. Tomorrow, this promises a dearth of great new companies.

What is most telling about this is that I have never witnessed such a lack of entrepreneurial spirit anywhere else. I have travelled fairly widely - but never seen such a lack of the basic drive to build a venture, however small. Perhaps Singaporeans think a market stall is not good enough for them. Perhaps they think that only something grander will do for a start. This shows a failing of understanding of what even a market stall can teach a young person. All the basic skills of salesmanship and marketing are involved. All the basic skills of sourcing a product, pricing them, finding a niche. In fact, all the basic skills that make up the backbone of much larger ventures. Starting a market stall could very well be the beginning of a career that ends up with a Mustapha Centre sized outlet.

Perhaps what I saw today was a national pride against starting small. Yet, most great enterprises started that way. Not starting small, usually means never starting at all.

(If you would like to learn more of Ainan Celeste Cawley, a scientific child prodigy, aged eight years and five months, or his gifted brothers, Fintan, four years and ten months, and Tiarnan, twenty-seven months, 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, wunderkind, wonderkind, genio, гений ребенок prodigy, genie, μεγαλοφυία θαύμα παιδιών, bambino, kind, niño, gênio criança, gifted adults and gifted children in general. Thanks.)

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 7:58 PM 


Blogger K2 said...

The only reason for the phenomenon described above is because all the entrepreneurs have been flocking to the regular flea markets at Tanglin Mall, Clarke Quay and several others around town. I would say that what you saw was a sad attempt by the people at the Museum, not of the general Singaporean population.

1:18 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

I rather hope that you are right. However, after I wrote my article I did a search on "lack of entrepreneurs" and came up with an article by Lee Kuan Yew himself, complaining of the same thing: that Singaporeans don't make entrepreneurs. He blamed it on the local reverence for scholars over everything else. That is, people would rather be a scholar than an entrepreneur (in fact, he listed that as their last choice).

Best wishes

10:48 AM  
Anonymous shoestring said...

k2 might be right.

There are regular flea markets in Tampines that attract quite a number of entrepreneur wannables and shoppers, young and old alike. Items on sale are varied. So, the one at the museum probably suffered from bad planning or publicity. Or it might have been too restrictive, focusing only on art related stuff.

There are also many push cart stalls in the shopping centers and virtual stores in Singapore. So, I don't think the problem is Singaporeans, but the museum.

3:37 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Hi Shoestring,

Again, I hope you are right. However, the flea market at the Art Museum was not art themed, so that can't be the reason. Perhaps they just aren't good at organizing.

No-one has yet answered Lee Kuan Yew's own view that Singapore doesn't have enough entrepreneurs - and his explanation that it is to do with the high status of scholars and low status of "merchants" in Chinese tradition. Any thoughts would be welcome.


6:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dont worry. There will be more regulation coming our way. Didn't you hear our internet is going to get a Spanish Inquisition of its own that goes around whacking people like kiddies.

I mean no wonder there is no such thing as creative quotient in whatever we do.

The nail that sticks up will be hammered down nice and proper!

8:02 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

If the internet does, indeed, get a Spanish inquisition of its own, then Singapore is finished. The internet is, as far as I can see, the ONLY creative outlet that Singaporeans have. If you take that away from them, then Singapore is a country without any worthwhile future. The birth of creative expression on the internet is very promising for Singapore: to quash it, would be the height of stupidity. Surely, the "scholars" in charge here can't be that stupid can they? Or does scholar mean something else around here? (Like "unable to think for themselves"?) I wonder.

I hope this rumoured crack down on the internet is just that. Otherwise it will be very, very bad for Singapore. The damage to the creative potential of this country will be incalculable. Who, after all will they be cracking down on but the few creative people among the Singaporean population? A fantastically stupid idea.

10:09 PM  

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