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 +

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

On learning to be grateful.

The discourse in Singapore concerning foreign workers is not kind. Often, it is clear, that the writer or speaker thinks ill of the foreigner. In the case of foreign workers who are doing menial jobs like construction or domestic work, it is usually the case that the Singaporean is looking down on the workers, as if on a lower form of life. They are spoken of as "something" to be avoided and shunned, "something" not to be allowed to congregate in public places, "something" to be wary of. There is a depersonalization of these foreign workers by many Singaporeans: they are, it seems, seen as less than fully human. At least, that is the impression the discourse gives.

In the past week or so, I have had cause to evaluate the contributions of these foreign workers to Singapore's success and prosperity, up close. Recently, foreign workers have been busy doing a job I challenge any Singaporean to try: standing on the roof of my apartment block, cleaning the tiles with a high pressure water hose.

Think about what that job means. You are high above the comforting land far below. If you make a mistake, it could cost you your life. The water you are using to clean the roof actually makes it slippery and dangerous, increasing the risk. On top of that, the job pays a pittance, slave wages being the tradition in the construction industry for foreign workers. Would you do that job?

The answer, I would guess, is no. Yet, these foreign workers are making an invaluable contribution to Singapore by putting their lives on the line doing jobs which Singaporeans would never do - yet, without which, Singapore would not be what it is today. These foreign workers, far from being people who should be looked down upon, are an essential part of the success of Singapore. Without them, Singapore could not continue to develop in the way that it has.

So, as I looked at the foreign workers standing on the roof to my apartment block, this past week, I felt a certain gratitude that they were prepared to do jobs that no-one else would do. These jobs are necessary to the maintenance of the quality of the environment in which we live - and yet jobs which have unacceptable risks. Quite a few foreign workers die on construction sites here, in Singapore, every year. They lose their lives trying to build a better Singapore. Is it right, therefore, to look down on them? I think, in some ways, they should be looked UP to. They should be looked UP to for having the courage and resilience to take on such unenviable jobs, no doubt to help support their relatives back home. They live hard lives, so that we might live better ones. That deserves a certain respect, I think.

I did note something about the workers. I only ever saw a safety harness once, on any of the workers. On all other occasions, no such harness was visible to me - yet I am on the top floor of the apartment block, able to see out onto the roof on which they stand. I saw one worker, who appeared to be unharnessed, as far as I could see, standing on the edge of the roof, blasting water onto it. Looking at his precarious position, I rather thought I wouldn't want to be doing what he was doing. Yet, he calmly proceeded with his work, as if he stood on the ground, and not at the top of a fall which would kill him, were he to lose his footing. Now, that deserves respect.

So, far from looking down on the foreign workers in Singapore, I value their presence and contribution and respect the courage they show in their daily work. Perhaps their working lives would be a little less hard if such a welcoming attitude were universal among Singaporeans, too.

(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 @ 11:11 AM 


Anonymous Anonymous said...

You are assuming too much. Even though they are working in dangerous environment, they don't work here because they want to contribute to Singapore or to make your life more comfortable, those are just convenient side effects.

Courage in daily work? they could be not wearing one because it is uncomfortable, they also could be not wearing one because their employer did not provide.

Courage is when an alternative happens, and people choose the harder path.

They are practical people just like us. We use them because no one wants pay good salary for those work, they came here because it's better than what is being paid in their country.


7:18 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Your choice of words, Rob, is interesting: "We use them...". Yes, they are being used in a way that people should not be. They are not being paid what their type of work pays in other developed economies (they would get some kind of danger money to reflect the risk).

I did not propose that their motive was to contribute to Singapore: that is a mis-reading of what I wrote - but what they DOES contribute to Singapore. Most buildings here were erected by the likes of them. Basically, foreign workers have built Singapore.

Yes, it does require courage to do their work. They could be farmers instead, or something similar: but they have chosen a riskier path, even if more lucrative than work back home.

I feel that you haven't come to appreciate their contributions, yourself. Perhaps you should reflect on what is like to live their lives - and imagine what it would be like if you live a life like theirs.

Best wishes

10:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Its an unfortunate attitude among more successful Asian countries not one that is specific to Spore. Successful being a relative term because a third world country like Malaysia has a problem with Indonesian migrants. Skin colour has something to do with it as well. I won't dispute that light skinned Asians especially among the old generation have a racist attitude.

And to Rob, your remarks are callous. Many foreign workers simply suck it up because they have no choice. Their home countries' economies are devastated by globalisation just like the Latin American illegal migrants in US. They are not elite migrants with professional qualifications like Valentine but unskilled labourers who are exploited.

11:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I treat them as I would treat anyone, Singaporeans or not. I do not elevate them to greatness neither do I belittle them.

They are not the only one that contribute to Singapore by your definition.

Of those I admire, are those who make personal sacrifices to benefit others knowingly.


12:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I feel alot of the prejudices and speakng ill of foreign workers stems from the propoganda machine of the government is extolling that we need Foreign Talent. Coupled with the anxs of these FT's in taking away jobs from locals (perceived or real), it is no wonder that when they see a Foreigner, they expect to see 'Talent'. Unfortunately, workers who work in less glamorous/'important'/'senior' positions are compared with the 'Talent' label.
As far as the foreign labour you write about, I agree with many of Rob's arguments. Some of these workers may have flouted safety rules. Another issue is that there is no minimum wage here to protect the interests of the workers. These foreign workers are wiling to risk their lives for a Price.... it's relative - between a local having to upkeep a family here vs a foreign worker supporting a family living in another developing country. Anyway, how did your apartment management cope to clean the roof before the influx of foreign workers? Or how did the whole Singpaore got its roof cleaned before then?
Their nobility is the sacrifice they are willing to make to come here to work in a field they are qualified to in order to accord their families a better future back home without the comforts of an expat life-style.

8:48 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Hi Rob,

I do not elevate them to greatness...I merely propose that their efforts should be understood and appreciated.

I am sure that they know that what they do benefits Singapore: anyone can see that.

Yes, many others benefit Singapore, too - but usually without personal danger attached.

Thanks for your comment.

11:55 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

I agree with the statement above that is sacrifice that makes someone noble...

Best wishes

11:56 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Another point to think on: they have left their families behind to work here (as do maids) that is another kind of sacrifice and worth appreciating.

11:57 AM  
Anonymous Ed said...

Just out of curiosity, will you take up the job too? :)

12:48 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said... Ed. That is the kind of job I would never think of doing. That is why those who do DO it, demand a certain respect. It is not an easy - or a safe - job. Such jobs tend to be among the most dangerous in the world. (The most dangerous job in the US is mobile telephone tower maintenance worker: they keep falling to their deaths.)

Best wishes

1:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Singapore had its fair share of foreign labour for decades. This is not new here.

Generally, people respect and appreciate these foreign workers. In fact, more than we like the expatriates.

The problem came about when the government decided to extol their virtues over and above the local singaporeans so much that they perceived themselves to be second class in their own birth country. In some cases, their perception is justified.

If you are not born and bred here, you wouldn't understand the issue. True, it is not these workers to be blamed but man is seldom rational to a T.

Perhaps, foreigners should refrain from discussing this topic or if at best, communicate to the government (who is all ears where foreign talent is concerned) that their welcome if overdone is actually harmful to their assimilation to our society.

Yes, foreigners are expected to assimilate to their host society. I have no appologies for my feeling so. I see it in every city that I have lived in.

When foreigners try to go beyond this, they cause trouble and disharmony.

6:54 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

The idea that foreigners should not comment on Singaporean affairs is not an uncommon one, in Singapore. It is however very rare in the rest of the world (pertaining to other countries). The reason for this is both simple and powerful: a foreigner is equipped with other perspectives and is BETTER able to see the nature of a society than a local who has never gained an external perspective on his or her own land. Thus, the views of foreigners should be particularly listened to, not ignored, if you wish a nation to be healthy and successful.

You should think about that.

11:22 PM  

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