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 +

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

"No resources" for Singaporeans; abundance for PRCs

I find the recent fuss over a Chinese PRC (People's Republic of China) student who took up a bond-free scholarship (that is one with no obligation to work for a set number of years in Singapore), but then fled, without notice, to a destination unknown (though suspected to be a US university), of great interest. You see, I find the contrast of the Singaporean educational authorities' response to PRC students marked indeed to what we experienced when we were working with the Gifted Education Programme.

I have written before of the differential treatment given to foreigners (particularly PRC students) and locals, but it bears writing of again, given the topicality of the issue - and the fact that I have personal experience to bring to the matter.

When we were seeking help, for Ainan, from the Gifted Education Programme, we were repeatedly told, in regards to our need for a Chemistry lab for him, that there were "No resources". The Gifted Branch Officer, Yogini, even said: "Why don't you find a private school and pay for it yourself?" Well, we checked out private schools. One, for instance, quoted a price of 600 dollars a lesson. That is a huge amount of money. Clearly, given the mercenary attitude of private schools in Singapore, it simply wasn't an option to hire a lab for ourselves. We found the GEP's response puzzling. Ainan had shown himself to be unusually gifted (he is, after all, the youngest child ever to pass an O level) - yet the GEP couldn't find the resources to help him. This seems strange given the hundreds of school laboratories across the face of Singapore: surely one had a teacher with the time and inclination to help? We were told that this was "too resource intensive" and that the GEP refused to arrange it.

Thus, we wasted a year and a half looking for a school or college for Ainan that would help. We found one, ourselves, in the Singapore Polytechnic (to whom we are most grateful). The GEP did not help, however, in any real way.

Now, contrast this experience of a gifted Singaporean child, with the experience of an imported PRC student on a government scholarship. Their education is free. They are given accommodation and a monthly stipend to meet their expenses. They have access to the best schools and facilities - and, in the case above, they are under no obligation to Singapore. There is no talk, for PRC students of "no resources".

Apparently, a gifted, even prodigious, Singaporean child is of less value to Singapore, than an imported PRC. A gifted, even prodigious, Singaporean child is of less concern to the system - it is OK not to support them, to let them be unstimulated, to deny them access to the resources they need to grow - because, heh, after all, they are not the all important PRCs of China.

We have heard of other gifted children in Singapore not getting the resources they need, or finding the response of the GEP frustrating. I doubt that PRC students have to experience the same thing.

So, my point is that if resources are available, in plenty, to lure foreign students - particularly PRCs - to Singapore, the resources should be available, in plenty, to ensure that no gifted Singaporean child (or indeed any Singaporean child of any level of intellect), goes without the resources they need to best optimize their talents.

A system which does not recognize the importance of native born Singaporeans (as my son is) and preferentially supports PRC imports, is one that has lost sight of who is more likely to make a contribution to Singapore. You see, as the flight of the PRC in question shows, the loyalty of an imported "talent" is always going to be less than that of a homegrown Singaporean (assuming, of course, that Singaporeans are well looked after and not treated poorly by the system, since that will lead to a decline of loyalty and national affection).

I understand why resources are made available for PRCs and the like: it is to seduce them into staying in Singapore, it is to increase our pool of talent. That is all very well and probably has a certain wisdom to it - but - and this is a big but - it should not be a discriminatory practice: Singaporeans, particularly ones of gift, should have just as much access to special resources as the imports. Otherwise, something strange will happen: just as the PRCs arrive, the Singaporeans will leave. Is that a desirable outcome?

(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.

We are the founders of Genghis Can, a copywriting, editing and proofreading agency, that handles all kinds of work, including technical and scientific material. If you need such services, or know someone who does, please go to: Thanks.)

Labels: , , , , , , , ,

AddThis Social Bookmark Button
posted by Valentine Cawley @ 8:05 PM 


Blogger Miao said...

I understand that you are staying in Singapore because your wife is a local, but you might still want to consider migrating overseas with your family in the near future. And make sure that your sons give up their Singaporean citizenship as well. Otherwise they will have to spend 2 years in National Service, serving a utilitarian country which takes them for granted, which fails to appreciate them, and which sees them as inferior to foreign imports. Staying in Singapore is detrimental for Ainan. He needs an intellectually stimulating environment; he needs to be surrounded by people who recognise his gift and who are willing and able to groom him. He needs to be appreciated. A country that does not cherish its own citizens, does not deserve their loyalty.

I sincerely wish Ainan and his brothers all the best. I really hope they'll realise their full potential and not be hindered by heartless bureaucracy. I hope they'll find a place where there is REAL meritocracy. There is where we should belong.

1:06 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you, Miao, for your views on the situation. It is good to hear from you after such a while. I hope you have been well.

Like you, I too want Ainan and his brothers to be appreciated and fulfilled...we will see what happens here. Cheers.

7:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You have a Malay(or at least non-chinese) wife and you do not know why the gahmen bend over backwards to attract PRCs (and Ang Mohs)?

5:39 PM  
Blogger Miao said...

I've been busy with studies. I will come back more often after my exams. Keep writing!

8:57 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

I shall try Miao. Good luck with your studies.

Kind regards

9:11 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Dear Anonymous at 5.39 pm,

I have quite a few ideas about why the government of Singapore may wish to attract PRCs (I am not so sure about the Ang Mohs (whites)). However, I don't think it is politic to discuss those understandings online. I am sure you understand the wisdom of this.

Best wishes.

5:22 PM  
Anonymous exsingie said...

Hi Valentine,

Just wanted to let you know that Ainan & you were on cable TV the other day here (i live in LA & we have satellite cable) on the Science channel, a program called Superhuman - savants, genius, child prodigy. It was very interesting learning about all these very gifted people.

I agreed with Miao that Ainan & your other kids would most likely not get the type of intellectual environment in Singapore. Singapore is just too conforming, too small, & too restrictive to be able to nurture that kind of talent with extremely gifted kids like Ainan.

Wishing you & your family all the best.


2:17 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you, exsingie, for letting us know about the show. We shot it with a UK documentary it is interesting to hear it popping up elsewhere (such a prestigious channel, too). How are Americans receiving the programme (are many watching it?)

I agree that Singapore is a narrow environment - so far we have been trying our best to get what we need here. It hasn't been easy, however...many barriers are put in our way for nothing more than bureaucratic reasons. It is a pity, in many ways, that we have had these difficulties, because Ainan promises to offer so much to any country that supports his intellectual growth (it only takes one signficant mind to open up a new branch of science or start an industry, for instance: one never knows what the impact will be of one talented person - given that, it seems wise to nurture them, rather than oppose them, doesn't it?)

Your well wishes are warmly received. What were your own reasons for leaving Singapore - and are you happier in LA? I would be interested to learn of how you adjusted and what benefits you have found (as, no doubt, other Singaporeans would, too).


11:17 PM  
Blogger Colin said...

Hi Mr. Cawley, I'm intersted to know your views on intelligent people who have no desire to pursue academics. Specifically, what do you think can be done to capture their interest and passion?

I believe that if we can solve this problem, we'd have plenty of academics, as there are more smart people out there than casual observation would suggest.

5:13 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Hi Colin,

If there were less regimentation in the world's schools, there might be an upsurge of interest in academic work. As it is, schools are often very restrictive and dull places: therein lies the problem.

As for numbers of intelligent doubt there are under-achievers everywhere, but I am not sure that there is a hidden surfeit of great minds waiting to be found. Great minds are in ever shorter supply as the quality of the human gene pool declines generation on generation (as it has since the 19th century, according to research...see Richard Lynn's book on the topic).

It would help, however, if schools were more inspiring places. My own school was afflicted by maths teachers who either knew nothing about maths, or nothing about teaching - and it was supposedly a "good" school. It was a terrible shame. I also had an art teacher (Jeremy Bournon) who never turned up for his own lessons - thus he was only my A level Art teacher in theory, because in practice he never taught a single lesson to me. The head teacher of the school rewarded this astonishing laziness by giving him a good enough recommendation to secure the position of Head Of Art at another school.

Change the schools, and the problem you speak of will go away pretty quickly. I would like, for a start, a school where teachers turned up for their own lessons. (I had a maths teacher who pulled a similar trick when I was in primary school: he would turn up, set some maths problems and then disappear never to be seen that day, again). I think I should write full posts on these despicable behaviours, in due course. (His name was Mr. Sinclair.)

Thanks for your question. The short answer is that people are not interested in academics because the academics who teach them are not interesting. Change the teachers, change the schools and the problem will be resolved.


10:14 PM  
Blogger Colin said...

You see, while I believe that schools in Singapore are stifling, I also believe that regimentation has a big role to play in the formative years of students, and shouldn't be one away with lightly. I think the biggest problem might be the academics who aren't interesting, as you put it.

Personally speaking, I believe that NUS Engineering Faculty is actually rather good, if you take a look at the international awards that our professors win. But my big gripe is that the system that undergrads are subjected to is so off-putting that by the time we graduate, only the most driven ones are looking forward to acareer in engineering. Compound that with terrible teachers who are most often from countries other than Singapore, and we have a problem(it's true! the most inspirational profs I've had were Singaporean). Others like me, want to be other things, such as social workers, bankers and airline pilots.

If we can find a good balance between regimentation and letting our young minds roam free, not to forget finding good people to fill our education service, then we have the solution. But 'people skills' are very hard to develop aren't they? And our dear government will never admit fault if they can help it, so this kind of change will not be likely.

On the other hand, our educators of whom I know a few, complain that the system is to blame, and bureacracy just kills everything.

Sorry for hijacking your blog often to air my views!

10:47 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Hi Colin,

Could you share some details of how the engineering programme is killing people's interest in pursuing a career? What is wrong with the system?

It is needless to say that an ideal system should inspire, not put-off, its students.

I would be interested in hearing more.


9:26 PM  
Blogger Colin said...

Well for one thing, NUS in general takes a very 'Singaporean' or 'Chinese' approach to learning. Lots of mugging, staring at charts and formulae, etc.

I have a friend who went to Oxford for undergrad studies. He did his Master's degree in NUS, and he was not used to the heavy workload. So I would say that heavy workloads are simply the norm in Singapore.

I am not against heavy workloads in engineering degree programmes, as I think such workloads are somewhat characteristic of these disciplines. But at the end of the day, I look at myself and I think, 'What have I learnt? Do I feel like I'm an engineer?' I'm pretty sure I've learnt much, but the whole point of what I've learnt isn't made clear to me; the lecturer somehow neglected to join everything together to form the big picture.

This might be because I tend to be slow at catching on and neither am I very hardworking (very 'un-Chinese', you might say). However in mitigation, when I take social science courses (it's required to take a requisite number of course outside your major) I tend to be much more motivated and I score waaaay better in these courses than in engineering courses.

I think the reason for the difference in motivation levels is because what I learn in Social Sciences can be readiy applied to what I see out there. Also, the lectureres are better, and engage the students more. Contrarily, Reinforced Concrete or Structural Analysis are much more complex and abstract, and cannot be applied as readily.

Just my 2 cents.

2:30 AM  
Blogger Agagooga said...

It's very obvious why PRCs are treated better than Singaporeans.

I refer to Aesop's fable of the goats

3:45 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you Agagooga, for your comparison. For those who are not familiar with the fable I have posted it, below.

You are right. It does seem to be the kind of thinking going on here...but what they don't realize is that locally born people will see this behaviour, be offended and leave for elsewhere. It isn't the right thing to do.


Aesop's Fables

Translated by George Fyler Townsend

The Goatherd and the Wild Goats

A GOATHERD, driving his flock from their pasture at eventide, found some Wild Goats mingled among them, and shut them up together with his own for the night. The next day it snowed very hard, so that he could not take the herd to their usual feeding places, but was obliged to keep them in the fold. He gave his own goats just sufficient food to keep them alive, but fed the strangers more abundantly in the hope of enticing them to stay with him and of making them his own. When the thaw set in, he led them all out to feed, and the Wild Goats scampered away as fast as they could to the mountains. The Goatherd scolded them for their ingratitude in leaving him, when during the storm he

had taken more care of them than of his own herd. One of them, turning about, said to him: "That is the very reason why we are so cautious; for if you yesterday treated us better than the Goats you have had so long, it is plain also that if others came after us, you would in the same manner prefer them to ourselves."

Old friends cannot with impunity be sacrificed for new ones.

4:13 PM  
Blogger Agagooga said...

Actually people *are* realising it.

Thats why we have the highest/one of the highest emigration rates in the world.

If you can find a table with worldwide emigration rates (so far I've only seen net migration - which is misleading since we import so many PRCs to replace the locals) do share it with us, thanks.

4:21 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Hi Agagooga,

I once had a conversation with someone who used to work for the government in Singapore. They said that true emigration was running (a few years ago) at about 40,000 people per year - or about 1% of the population of native born Singaporeans leaving per year. That is huge. It implies that a majority of Singaporeans would leave in the course of their lifetimes. This is a country that faces a future without a core of natives. (That is the figure I remember her telling me...she was speaking of a time when the populatio was lower than now (fewer imports yet) so that 1% is about right.)

If her comment is remotely near the truth then Singapore has a very real problem with keeping its people.


5:55 PM  
Blogger Agagooga said...

Actually this year we only have 3.16 million citizens (I don't know how many were native-born)

9:56 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Then, Agagooga, over 1.3 % of Singaporeans were leaving per year, in the time referred to by my acquaintance. That is a pretty strong indication of displeasure with the way things are.

Thanks for the figures.

Kind regards

11:50 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home

Page copy protected against web site content infringement by Copyscape