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, July 17, 2008

Lee Kuan Yew's view on Singaporean Education.

Recently, the front page of the Today newspaper carried a story about Lee Kuan Yew's latest public utterances. They quoted him as saying words to the effect (since I don't have the article anymore to hand): "We have educated Singaporeans in English to the highest of world class standards."

My first thought on reading this was that the Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew hasn't actually worked, as a teacher, in the Singaporean system and so doesn't have first hand knowledge of that which he speaks. I have taught in Singaporean schools and seen them from the inside over many years. What I have seen differs from how Lee Kuan Yew views matters.

There are two possible meanings to the statement he made: one is that the English of Singaporeans is "of the highest world class standard". The other is that the medium of instruction is English but that the content of instruction is of the "highest world class standard". From wide experience, I don't believe that either of these views is true. Singaporean education is not at the pinnacle of global education, as Minster Mentor Lee Kuan Yew seems to be stating - neither in the English imparted, nor in the content taught.

Singaporean education is typified by a regimented, rigid, inflexible, unaccommodating approach to students, in which they are, largely speaking, encouraged to be passive recipients in the educative process. Actual thinking is strongly discouraged by this approach. Interestingly, I have taught in Singaporean schools in which the students - local, native-born Singaporeans - show little evidence of the ability to think independently or to originate material. Apparently, this means that they have received a "highest world class standard" education.

As for the quality of English in Singapore - an honest Singaporean, who has had exposure to the English of native Englishmen, Americans, Australians or Canadians, would question Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew's view that the English education they have received is of the highest standard. In some cases, the English education received is of an abysmal standard. For instance, when my son Ainan was in his first year in school, I noted that his correct standard English use of tenses was being "corrected" TO SINGLISH, by his teacher. A teacher whose first language is Singlish cannot ever impart "highest world class standard" English to her students - she can only perpetuate her own level of ignorance as to what standard English is supposed to be.

My experience of young Singaporeans is that few have a high level command of English. The average Singaporean today, studying in local government schools, has, by international standards, a very poor grasp of English - probably just as poor as the teachers who teach them.

With effort, throughout the education system - and the employment of English teachers whose English is actually good, rather than terrible - Singaporeans could, in a generation's time, have "highest world class standard" English. However, they do not have this at present. In only the most fevered of imaginations, could the typical English standard of a typical Singaporean be termed "highest world class standard".

The first step towards solving a problem is recognizing that it exists. A few years ago, there seemed to be the recognition of the problem - with an anti-Singlish programme, nationwide. That initiative appears to have been halted. Now we have a "we are great, wonderful, excellent, the most brilliant in the world" programme that calls for no change at all. I rather think that the first initiative should have been continued until it succeeded - it would have done a lot of good for the ability of Singaporeans to do business on the international stage. As I have remarked in other posts, I have sometimes been completely unable to understand the English of Singaporean business people's "highest world class standard" English. By this I mean, there was NO shared understanding at all. I utterly failed to comprehend them. Yet, they were, supposedly, speaking English.

Singapore has come far, in many areas - but there is one area in which it has declined, terribly, since the British left: the standard of English now spoken is insufficient to optimize Singapore's chances on the global stage. That is the truth of the matter. Saying something is of the "highest world class standard" doesn't make it so. Taking initiatives to instil higher standards of spoken and written English across the nation, would, however, do so. Yet, that would mean admitting that the nation was not already "No.1"...there would be the pain of effort and change involved. In the end, however, the prize would be worthwhile, for the ease of international communication would have been enhanced greatly, to the benefit of the Singaporean people.

As for the other possible interpretation of Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew's statement that Singaporeans have been educated in English to the highest of world class standards - that the educational content is of the highest standard, that, too is easily disproven. It is a simple matter: if the local education was, in fact, the "highest world class standard", it would be the best in the world. If it was the best in the world, why do the brightest students, every year, go overseas to the USA or Europe to study? Clearly, these students are going far and wide to receive an education of a lesser standard, if the statement made was actually true.

The true standard of education is shown by how the people respond to it. Those who are able, respond to it by sending their children overseas to study. They wouldn't do this, at all, EVER, if the local standard was of the "highest world class standard".

I would like to see a Singapore in which both interpretations of Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew's statement were, in fact, true. I would like Singaporeans to have the "highest world class standard" of written and spoken English - for then they would be best prepared for the international stage. I would also like them to have received the "highest world class standard", education, in terms of content and skills obtained, for then they would be best able to operate in their various fields in that world. I look forward to such a future - however, that future is not yet here and will not be unless the deficiencies of the present system are recognized and put right either by the present generation of leaders, or those who shall come after them.

(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 @ 7:06 PM 


Anonymous Saint Splattergut said...

I had a teacher in Secondary School who had no idea what 'intricate' meant.

3:18 AM  
Blogger Miao said...

You are right that most Singaporeans do not have a good command of the English language. In fact, most Chinese Singaporeans cannot speak or write the Chinese language very well either. Last year, I was a Chinese relief teacher at a secondary school, and my students' standard was shockingly abysmal. They basically had no understanding of syntax, had great trouble expressing themselves coherently in writing and in speech, and they couldn't even write very simple words. They would scribble the hanyu pinyin of the words they did not know how to write, and, depressingly, they even got the hanyu pinyin wrong. It is extremely sad to see that many Chinese Singaporeans are unable to communicate fluently in English or Mandarin. I don't know how successful the bilingual policy is among the Indians and the Malays, but among the Chinese, it is not unfair to say that it is an utter failure.

In junior college, many of my classmates did not have a good command of English as well. Once, a classmate was telling me online about a very sweet surprise that her boyfriend had given her, and she wrote, "I am touch." She was diligent though - she kept a notebook in which she took down the meanings of all the words which she found difficult, and she studied these words regularly. I browsed through her notebook once, and was surprised to see rather simple words like 'embrace', 'parameter', etc. But at least she was making an effort to improve herself.

I think the saddening thing is that many Chinese Singaporeans seem to think very highly of their own English standard. They hate learning Chinese, probably because they think it is boring, difficult, and 'uncool'. When reminded that China is a rising superpower, and that having a good grasp of Mandarin will surely come in handy in future, they simply shrug their shoulders and say that they don't necessarily have to pursue their careers in China - they can always go to Western countries instead. They don't seem to realise that their command of English is not impressive either, and probably cannot get them very far in Western countries.

As for the calibre of teachers, well... I personally know a few junior college students who are not accepted by NUS, NTU or SMU due to poor A Level results, and who cannot afford to go overseas or enrol in a private institution due to financial constraints. They are signing up for NIE (National Institute of Education) training as a last resort. If I am not wrong, NIE also accepts applications made with submissions of O Level results. (I think one of my acquaintances in junior college got into NIE by applying with her O Level scores.) A secondary school graduate can therefore head straight to NIE, and emerge as a full-fledged teacher in a year or two. I don't know how accurate my information is, so it would be great if someone could verify this.

There are people out there who are becoming teachers because they have no other choice - they have to choose between getting no diploma/degree at all, and being stuck with an A Level certificate, which is not worth very much. I think this probably explains the calibre of some teachers in our education system.

12:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mr Lee typically interacts with creme. The top 1% (Singaporeans)speaks excellent English. The top 10% probably still have a better grasp of the English language than many Yankees. Your Angus Ross prize often goes to a singaporean. blah blah.

The bottom 90% ... does not matter in his scheme of things.

(I'm dyslexic btw)


12:51 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you No Name for giving us Mr. Lee's probable perspective. It seems his elite social circle is giving him a distorted impression of what Singaporeans are actually like and actually able to do. One can't get a proper perspective on a country by interacting with the most elite handful. That would give totally the wrong picture - and perhaps that is where he is coming from, as you suggest.

Thanks for the enlightenment.

3:13 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Yes, Miao, I have heard it said by my PRC students, in the past, that Singaporeans have a terrible grasp of Chinese - they laughed at it actually. So, it could be said that many Singaporeans are stuck between two languages with a good grasp of NEITHER. That is such a shame. It is not a truly bilingual nation.

Kind regards

3:15 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Great name, Saint Splattergut!

Yes, there is an enduring problem of ignorance being not uncommon among teachers...which, of course, is perpetuated amongst their students. The damage just goes on. It could be a vicious circle, of course...getting worse at every generation (especially if few of the best become teachers owing to working conditions and salary considerations...).

Thanks for your comment.

3:19 PM  
Anonymous xylophone said...

I do quite agree with your remarks regarding the -majority- of students' linguistic abilities. But do not tar them all with the same sweeping brush; are students wholly at fault for what they can (or cannot) speak?

There are many I know who can speak Chinese beautifully, but because the system is engineered in English (for reasons we all know full well) they might as well be unable to speak Chinese and it would not seem any different. Once discouraged in one language like that, how many garner the pluck to work hard on English?

There is no dearth of good English to be heard here, only a dearth of exposure to those not in that said 'top X%'. We may not be world-class standard but we are not that atrociously horrible either.

I am not an international-school student, but just a Singaporean student.

3:50 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you Xylophone for your comment.

My analysis above looks at the case for the average Singaporean - it does not disallow the possibility that some will be competent in English (or Chinese for that matter). However, the average Singaporean is not competent in either English or Chinese. Those who are below the Singaporean average can, in fact, be "atrocious", to use your word. A very small minority will be literate and well-spoken by international standards. In fact, such a small minority are they that I do not tend to encounter any of them in my teaching.

Like every country, Singaporeans show a range of linguistic competence. Unfortunately, that range has a lower centre than desirable, I think. It is partly the fault of an education system that does not ensure the highest of standards in English teachers. I have met some English teachers with very dodgy use of language.

Best wishes.

9:06 PM  
Anonymous Doublechin said...

ACTUALLY (sometime I also pronounce Actuayee) to ACTUALLY say our English is ACTAULLY not good is ACTUALLY true. BY RIGHT, with all the western value and exposure to English of the highest standard when we watch "Sex and the City" "Lost" "Prison Break" "Incredible Hulk" "Six Million Dollar Man" "Wonder Woman" etc, it is forever a mystery to me why we choose to speak the way we do. IRREGARDLESS of which English name we choose (sometime by our parents) even before we were even born doesn't help either. I know someone who decided to name himself “Maverick” (Inspired from the movie "Top Gun") and print it on his business card when “Alan” doesn’t sound that cool anymore. English of “highest world class standard could probably be achieved one day when no one will look with utmost extreme disbelieve when I tell Steven, Lawrence, John or Johhny that “BY RIGHT” is ACTUAYEE not an English word.

9:24 PM  
Anonymous Vale said...

I cannot agree more with all the comments posted here. As an "average" Singaporean, I'd never thought about the standard of English and Chinese languages that I've been using my whole life, until I realised something must be wrong when I couldn't fully understand my favourite American drama (yeah I know, it's ironic). Then I started to make foreign friends and I just couldn't believe my 10 years (6 in Primary school and 4 in Secondary school) of English language study has given me an excellent command of Singlish but never English. I wasn't a brilliant student, but I did my homework and got good grades on exams. This goes to show that the Singapore education system has undoubtedly failed its recipients. On the other hand, I don't think any education system in the world is perfect. The government's denial strategy will always be there, but to say it outright is like giving itself a slap in the face.

9:47 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

You are right, Doublechin...all the local exposure to American and other English speaking TV shows should have given Singaporeans a good grasp of English...but they haven't. The reason is simple: if you are drowning in Singlish every living day, television is not going to be powerful enough to overcome its influence.

Thanks for your post.

10:15 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Yes, Vale, as long as the government persists in the delusion that all is well with the standard of English, nothing will be done to improve it (or the standard of Chinese for that matter).

It is only when locals try to communicate overseas that they come to realize that something is wrong with their language education.

Best wishes

10:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I find the comments rather interesting but inaccurate to some serious extent. I have travelled to England, most of Europe, south-east Asia and my experience mixing with English speaking peoples in these countries tells me that our command of the English Language is well above the average. My English counterparts marvelled at the way my friends and myself expressed ourselves, which they said were better than many of the true blue Englanders themselves. Recently I read of some Singapore Bashing from our counterparts in the Taiwanese TV media, and having met and exchanged views in the English language with their community, I feel we are several notches above. But I do not degrade them because we can express ourselves more fluently in speech and writing. We have the edge probably because of the legacy left behind when we were an English colony. As for Mandarin, they are likely to be ahead of us as they speak and write this lingo far more than we do. But as with everything, there may be instances of exceptions. Some people in our midst may shine better than their scholars and it is really very difficult and inaccurate to make comparisions in this regard. But I would certainly not go on national tv to despise other people. Its certainly not acceptable in all parts of our hemisphere.
Kacy liao

11:48 AM  
Blogger Syahidah and Valentine said...

Kacy, thank you for your post.

Your experience of Singaporean English does not accord with mine. I have met people here of a huge variety of ability in English...but the average is definitely much lower than those from other developed English speaking countries. Some people here cannot be understood by anyone outside of Singapore. Indeed, some Singaporeans are difficult for Singaporeans to understand (as others have posted on my blog, sometimes...)

That being said, there will be some people who speak well (I don't seem to meet very many, though).

When in England, I didn't meet the kind of English people who couldn't speak their own language!

Best wishes

12:25 AM  

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