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 +

Monday, July 28, 2008

The best student writer I have seen.

I have written much about the quality - or lack thereof - of writing amongst the students I have taught, over the years. Rarely, have I seen competency in the most basic of all skills: literacy. However, one student comes to mind as coming closest to what I would consider to be a good writer.

I would like you to think about what kind of person you think this student is. Is this student a scholar? Is this student a girl or a boy? Is this student Chinese, Malay or Indian? In fact, is this student local, at all? Picture the student in your mind. Consider whom you think is most likely to be the best writer I have seen since 1999, while working in Singapore.

The writer in question, is an Indonesian boy.

Were you surprised? Did it upset your preconceived views of who is likely to be the best at a literary task?

When I saw this boy's writing, I was surprised by the vision he showed. He seemed to have a very clear idea of what he wished to say. His writing shone with understanding. Each word was well-chosen and added to the picture he wished to portray. There was also great detail in his writing, detail of observation, thought and feeling. Here, I thought, is someone who knows how to write.

There were occasional blemishes in his work: some words were misspelt, for instance - but overall, he showed great ability in expressing himself with words.

He was a foreign student studying in Singapore, in a normal secondary school. He was not a scholar and was not on any special programme for the "best and brightest" - yet his writing was better than any I had seen since my arrival in Singapore. This made me very curious.

I asked him: "Who taught you to write like that?"

"I taught myself.", he said, quietly, without pride and perhaps without awareness of how good he was.

He had taught himself. That warmed me - and surprised me - in equal measure. I have often observed that the best people at any given task, are often self-taught. The genius of a person can only live when the instructor is oneself.

"It's very good.", I observed, with an encouraging smile. He looked down at his work and up at me in a way that made me understand that few, if any, others had said as much. That is a pity, for his work has much promise.

Since I have come to Singapore, I have observed that quite a few Singaporeans look down on their South-East Asian neighbours as somehow "less" than they are. I have always thought this somewhat unwise. Yes, it is true that Singapore is more developed than the neighbouring countries - that it has organized its economy more efficiently and the infrastructure is good - but and this is a BIG but - that doesn't make the people, themselves, any better than those of their neighbours. Singaporeans risk making serious errors of judgement if they think that they are innately superior to their less developed neighbours.

Consider Indonesia, for instance. Many Singaporeans have an Indonesian maid - and quite a few look down on them - and on all other Indonesians, by association. Yet, this is not a very reasoned approach to the situation. Indonesia is a vast country with 235 million people. That means that Indonesia will have more gifted people in its population than Singapore's entire population put together. What that means is that for every ordinary Singaporean of average intelligence, Indonesia would, by force of sheer numbers alone, be able to counter with a gifted person of high intelligence. To a lesser degree, the same argument applies to the other countries in South-East Asia, some of which are also very populous.

Thus, it makes no sense for Singaporeans ever to look down on any other nation - for those nations can outmatch the whole of Singapore, with relative ease, should they wish to try. What impedes them, of course, are infrastructural, political and economic failings. Were these failings ever rectified, it would not be long before Singapore was drowned out by the much larger voices of its larger neighbours.

Yes, some Indonesians are maids. However, one should not forget that others will be as my former student was: the best student writer I had ever met in Singapore. There is a lesson in that, that wise Singaporeans should learn from. The "superiority" of Singapore is a fragile thing and not really founded on a large body of talented people. It could easily decline. Other nations in South-East Asia have many more gifted people to offer than reside in Singapore. In time, they may be afforded a chance to shine in their own countries. When that time comes, Singapore won't seem as bright as it now appears to be.

(If you would like to learn more of Ainan Celeste Cawley, a scientific child prodigy, aged eight years and seven months, or his gifted brothers, Fintan, five years exactly, and Tiarnan, twenty-eight 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.

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 6:32 PM 


Anonymous Anonymous said...

When you said to 'look down upon SEA neighbours' - what exactly did you witness? Curious.

Lighter skinned Asians generally harbour a racist attitude towards brown skinned peoples and blacks. And with the advent of the economic successes of the Asian tigers, the general feeling is that this racist attitude is justified. Lee Kuan Yew's rantings about genetic determinism back in the day have not helped matters as well.

1:54 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

The "Asian tiger" phenomenon is a recent may also be a short-term one: it is difficult to say at this stage. Certainly, however, countries which are now successful - like Singapore - may not always be so. Neighbouring countries are much larger and have much more potential than Singapore does. In thirty years time - or fifty - the geopolitical landscape in South-East Asia could look very different, and Singapore could be a very minor player in that field. Imagine if the neighbouring countries all became fully developed nations...Singapore would seem very inconsequential in such a landscape. Where then would there be the room for attitudes of superiority?

The sense that many Singaporeans look down on their SEA neighbours comes from their conversations, attitudes, remarks and behaviour: they are projecting the belief that they are inherently superior. It is funny is almost a colonial attitude (which couldn't be more ironic), in the sense of "we are better, that is why we rule/are more successful".

Best wishes,

11:49 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Now I am wondering if you are even living in SG or ever read the local newspapers.

Of course Singapore is "superior" despite our lack of resource\small pop\etc.

Unless you are saying that whiter-than-white ... men-in-white are LYING?
(Before you answer that, consider the fact that the MIW have a 100% win record in defamation suits)

If it makes you feel any better, we also pick on stupid locals. Progress, yes?


1:27 PM  
Blogger Shannon said...

Agreed. Genius has no boundary. It can occur in all countries and cultures.

It speaks from within.

Your post raises an interesting question though. Is genius governed by fate or probability? If the answer is fate, one could be a genius in any location at any time. Place of origin would be irrelevant. If the answer is probability, I think it's possible for some nations to cultivate intelligence more than others. The odds of genius, even though extremely small in any country, will be favorable in places that emphasize education, free thought, and creativity.

It's entirely possible, of course, that neither idea is true. Perhaps fate and probability have nothing to do with genius. My father-in-law's story suggests that this is so. My father-in-law grew up in a very remote village in Bangladesh (about 20 miles from Chittagong.) He suffered extreme poverty, sickness, war, and hunger. Then, in his twenties and thirties, he managed to teach himself how to read and write English by studying newspapers. He later created an internationally successful business, designed and built beautiful schools, and constructed a mosque that looks like the Taj Mahal. He taught me that when there is a will, the will can invent the means to do great things.

Although he is not considered a genius to the world, or even throughout SEA or SA, he is considered a genius in his local village. He managed to create something out of nothing and place value in the world where it wasn't there before. When I go to visit the mosque and school, I am reminded that I live in a world where people determine much of their own intellectual value. Circumstance and probability determine nothing, making anything possible for anyone.

Before this begins to sound like a motivational speech, I better stop writing. Very nice post though!!!

3:25 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Hi No Name,

My observations come from real life experience. I have taught students from all significant Asian countries...and never did the thought come to me that Singaporeans were inherently superior. That is not the impression one gets. Of course, I understand that the local view is that Singapore stands above all others, but real life experience doesn't support this view.

Singapore has an efficient system at work. That does not mean, however, that the people of other countries are inherently inferior. Let them sort out their own national problems and Singapore will come to realize this, one day.

Best wishes.

6:19 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you, Shannon, for the inspiring tale of your father-in-law.

People of gift may appear anywhere. Circumstances may assist those gifts in developing, or hamper them...but that doesn't change the fact that gifted people may turn up anywhere, at any time (given the presence of well-chosen parents...)

Some countries nurture their best, others repress them: therein lies a certain random-ness.

Some countries in this part of the world are not famous for encouraging free thought...

6:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Valentine, unfortunately the irony of the superior colonial attitude is lost on the average Chinese which begs the question of whether they are really quite the 'smart' people they purport to be.

This cultural arrogance has blinded them them to the facts of inequality and poverty and economic imperialism. Its banking secrecy laws are something to be kept hush hush as Andy Xie learnt to his misfortune.

3:39 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Top Indonesian and Malaysian students have been doing extremely well in your colleges (Oxbridge, Imperial, etc) for years. Often (effortlessly) outperforming local white boys *sorry cant resist*

Were you surprised that an Indonesian boy can write?

If you read the local newspaper, you are constantly bombarded with news of corruption\incompetence of our beloved neighbours. Of course the masses will have a certain preconceived image. Myself ... I kissed Indonesian arses for a couple years. :-p

Actually I found the Indonesian system cheaper and just as efficient and more personalised than singapore. Dun think bribes. Think payment for services rendered.


10:58 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Yes, No Name, there is a strong tendency of local media to do down Singapore's neighbours, in an effort to raise Singapore up, in the eyes of its own people.

I am not surprised that it was cheaper in Indonesia. You could have a good life there.

As for Indonesians and Malaysian surpassing white boys...I think it depends on which Indonesian/Malaysian and which white boy. There are quite a few bright white boys too, you least, there were, when I was growing up.

Best wishes,

5:03 PM  

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