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, December 22, 2008

A Christmas Shopping Experience, Singaporean style.

Singapore is a land of great shops...but is it a land of great shopping experiences?

Not necessarily.

Last week, I wanted to buy a book. This should be a simple matter since bookshops exist for that purpose. However, in Singapore, bookshops don't seem to know what they exist for.

I found the book on the very helpful Kinokuniya website and called them to reserve a copy. This didn't go as planned. The girl who answered the phone asked me to hold on while she tried to put me through to the right person...and so I held and held and held. Finally, she came back to me and said that the person was engaged...could she get them to call back?

"No. It is OK. No-one will ever call back anyway." I declined, quite rightly, since in Singapore I have never managed to get a call back from any shop I have dealt with. They don't provide that level of service or courtesy. They do, however, sometimes take your phone number, then let you wait for the call which never comes.

Instead, I went to the shop the following day, to get the book which I knew they had in stock.

My luck was not in. The only copy had sold that very morning. A quiet word with the information desk informed me that there was not another copy in any Kinokuniya store - but that they could order one for me in "six to eight weeks".

I did think it strange that an important book by a well known American thinker should only have one copy in stock in all Kinokuniya's bookstores.

She suggested I tried Borders.

I did. They didn't have it either but could get it in "four to six weeks".

I called Times Bookshop - but none of their stores stocked it, either. They didn't offer to order it.

I tried to call Popular bookstore's flagship shop in Bras Brasah - and here is where it gets interesting. The phone was engaged for about half-an-hour, before I could get it to ring. When it did ring, it was answered after a very long time, and immediately put on hold. No-one spoke to me. Then after about thirty seconds, they picked the phone up and immediately put the phone down, disconnecting the call.

I called again. They answered again, put me on hold, picked the phone up and disconnected me again.

Just for a laugh, I tried again, twice more in the next hour. The same thing was done to me on both occasions.

I tried calling the following day. No-one answered at all.

This is what I call "The Singapore Standard of Customer Service" is a Standard, because it is very common here. Many people in service jobs don't know that their job is to help people. They see it more as a means to a social life and pose around their shops and have vacuous conversations with each other (while keeping the customers waiting). When asked a direct question by a customer most customer service staff in Singapore will not know the answer. Many of them will not even speak any English. It is just ludicrous, at times, how difficult it is to get basic service, here.

The only reason I think that Singaporeans tolerate this, is that they are used to it. They cannot see that it is unusual because they do not have enough experience of the customer service standards in many other countries, to know that service is usually much better elsewhere.

So far, in my book hunt, I have learnt that there was only ONE copy of the book in the whole of Singapore, when my quest began. I missed that one copy by an hour or two. I have been unable to locate another copy. The only possibility is Popular bookstore, which, for all I know might have a hundred copies...but no-one there wants to let me know, because I have been unable to speak to any of their staff on the phone, despite repeated calls.

Eventually, I had to give up on buying the book, just now.

I am left with the feeling that a lot of recorded knowledge (that is, in the form of books) is not so readily available in Singapore. The bookshops here, are not very well stocked (too few copies of too few books, except for a few heavily promoted "leaders") - and there is no Amazon alternative (I have never been allowed, by Amazon, to ship to Singapore). I wonder, therefore, at how much Singaporeans never get to know, because they don't get the chance to read about it.

Of course, there is a natural limitation on the size and number of bookshops that Singapore can support. It is a small city, which probably precludes the presence of truly comprehensive bookstores (have you seen how small Borders is, for instance?). If Singaporeans don't buy books in sufficient numbers, it means that bookstores can't grow big enough to stock the widest range (in more than one copy, so there aren't two month ordering waits for one). So, I suppose, in a sense, the book situation is self-inflicted: there can't be enough people buying enough books, to support a truly comprehensive range of bookstores.

That being said, Kinokuniya comes closest to stocking a wide range of books. I just wish they had more than one copy of many of them.

On the book front, Singapore has one saving grace, of course: the library system (which is much better than the bookstore situation...perhaps one has ruined the other.)

Back to the main point of my post. Shopping should not be a difficult experience. Customer service staff, should, actually, provide good customer service. The answering of phones politely, promptly and helpfully is part of offering that service. No-one should have to make dozens of calls with no result. That one person has experienced this, indicates that most are likely to (for my calls were at random times). If that is so, then Singapore's retailers have a problem that they really must make an effort to solve. Customer service as bad as what I experienced with Popular is a public relations disaster: it breeds ill-feeling in customers and leads to a reduction in turnover. When it is as difficult to get information, as it was with Popular, customers will simply go elsewhere...perhaps permanently. After all, should retailers really be putting the phone down on customers, without speaking? Perhaps, unlike most industries, there is no recession for the book market and they don't need another sale...from the way they behave, one would think their business was to hoard books, not sell them. What a bizarre country this can be, at times.

(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.

This blog is copyright Valentine Cawley. Unauthorized duplication prohibited. Use Only with Permission. Thank you.)

Labels: , ,

AddThis Social Bookmark Button
posted by Valentine Cawley @ 10:45 PM 


Blogger beAr said...

hi mr cawley,

by your statement, "I have never been allowed, by Amazon, to ship to Singapore", do you mean that amazon does not ship to singapore? because they do, at least for books, dvds and magazines.

they don't ship items that are not sold by them directly to singapore (think electronic equipment, beauty products etc), but you can make use of singpost's vpostUSA shipment service to do so.

i don't usually buy books in singapore bookstores as amazon provides a good discount. however, you do usually need to buy 3 books or more to have any substantial savings once you factor in the shipping costs. you may also want to do some price comparison on the amazon uk site; with the weak pound, it may be cheaper to buy from the amazon uk site than the usa site =)

10:36 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thanks BeAr for your comment.

You have set me a mystery, unknowingly. You see, I have tried to order books from Amazon TWICE and both times it would not ship to me saying that they wouldn't ship to that destination. Two others that I know have had the same problem re. shipping to Singapore.

So, it seems that if Amazon do provide a service to Singapore it is not a universal one. When have you succeeded in shipping to Singapore? Is it a recent development? Have you tried recently? Were you able to ship here a long time ago?

My social circle is not alone in failing to get books shipped by Amazon...I have about five to ten searchers per week arriving on my blog with search terms related to failure to ship to it seems that many people have the problem.

Your tip is a very valuable one should it in fact be so that orders from Amazon are possible. Perhaps some books are not allowed, but others are (that would explain people's problem). Or perhaps they only ship to certain types of address. It is a puzzle.

Thanks for your information.

Kind regards

11:01 AM  
Blogger beAr said...

hi mr cawley,

i've been able to ship books to singapore since i first discovered the joys of amazon three-four years ago. in fact, i just ordered a ton of books from them a week ago!

the only reason i can come up with if they won't ship to singapore is if your shipment order includes an item that they cannot ship to singapore, such as electronics.

i don't think they have a policy where they don't ship books that are deemed "objectionable" by other countries... as an experiment, i just tried to order the satanic verses from them, and was successful (i completed all the steps, short of payment).


11:27 AM  
Anonymous ks said...

This year Popular decided to 'make things easy for the customer' by allowing them to purchase school textbooks online. I bought around 20 books from them, but was

1. never phoned to set a delivery time (though the website said they would)

2. couldn't be guaranteed a delivery day, even after waiting 15 days from the time of order

Interestingly, they delivered my books after I had to demand service.... and repeated the same exact delivery the day after. So, I ended up with two boxes of the same books and haven't been able to get them to collect their own second set of books in the last 5 weeks!

Every time I ring the Popular online number, they say, "we'll tell the deliveryman". (and no staff member will ever give me their name when I ask for it :0)

Lastly, if I were to try to hand over the second set of books to a Popular store, then I would be told that 'we have nothing to do with online'.

So... yes, very interesting service here.

11:50 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...


I have only ever tried to order books - and failed to do so each time. The same applies to my friends who tried to order: they failed too...I don't know what is going on, here...but a lot of people have this problem, from Singapore according to my search results.

To resolve what is happening, I would have to know more about the circumstances of each person who failed to order - like what are they ordering and where they lived.

In the meantime, it is clear that ordering from Amazon is not a simple matter for many people, here, in Singapore.

Thanks, though, for your own account of being successful. Do you live in a landed property, a condo or an HDB? Maybe they are only shipping to certain types of address for practical reasons of deliverability (just one thought).


12:19 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you, KS, for your corroborating experience regarding "Popular"'s standard of service.

Can you imagine a shop staying in business that behaved as Popular is doing, in, say, London or New York...they would close down in months. I am puzzled as to how they can survive at all, here, but like I said, it is probably because locals don't realize that things should not be this way.

Thanks for your telling comment.

Kind regards

12:24 PM  
Anonymous chidzuyo said...

Your post made me laugh.

But anyway, I do think Kinokuniya takes their customer service seriously, so there's a high possibility that they would have return your call.

What book are you looking for? Have you tried MPH?

There was once I was looking for a set of books that was out of print because the publisher has collapsed. What I did was I took out Yellowpages and basically called up every bookstore in Singapore to check if anyone still had them. And yap, I managed to find the books from a shop and they even delivered them to my house FOC cause the entire set was quite heavy.

1:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello Mr Cawley,

I too have bought a book from Amazon successfully earlier this year. Like what beAr said, they do not ship items not sold by them.

Maybe you need to check if the books you want to order is direct from Amazon or from their database of other shops

1:25 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you Chidzuyo for your tale of book buying. You were fortunate, I think, to find what you were looking for.

No. I haven't tried MPH - I had thought they had gone out of business (since an MPH shop I once knew seems to have closed/vanished).

I shall give them a call.


2:20 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Ah...maybe that is the solution to what is happening in Singapore (to so many web searchers who arrive on my blog re. Amazon). Perhaps the books are not from Amazon's own stock. That could be an explanation.


2:22 PM  
Blogger beAr said...

hi mr cawley,

i stay in a hdb flat.

yes; they do not have international delivery for books not sold by them. normally i will ship such items to vpost's p.o. box in the states, and have vpost deliver them to singapore. it's slightly more expensive compared to the amazon international delivery service, but still cheaper than if you were to buy the books directly in singapore, if you even manage to find the books here.

i don't usually buy books at popular... to me popular is only good for assessment books and stationery. heh.

2:38 PM  
Anonymous Andrew said...

Hey Valentine
What was the book?
My thoughts are the lack of customer service is linked to a lack of response-ability.
To truly serve the customer requires risk, going beyond S.O.P and having to actually think and take action.
The fundamental attitude for this is, "why lah? I don't get paid enough and what if I get it wrong, boss scold me!"

6:36 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

I think you have hit upon one problem here: no-one is thinking, on the job...they are just day dreaming of their "real lives", boyfriends, girlfriends, etc. No-one is actually paying attention to their jobs.

The other day, in a 7-11, I asked the assistant, "Do you have water?"

"Huh?" was the reply. She didn't even understand enough English to know what water was. Now, tell me, who on Earth gave a service job, in a supposedly English speaking country to someone like that? This place is crazy.

The book was: Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950 by Charles Murray. It seems, given the unavailability of this book, in all the main bookshops, apart from one copy that I missed by a brief time, that people, here, are not much interested in the History of Genius. That, of course, tells its own story.

Best wishes to you.

10:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, I thought the news on the Singapore Flyer incident was relevant to this post on customer service.,4136,187827,00.html?

It's a shame that one cannot even experience good service from staff on an iconic tourist attraction. And worse that it happened during an emergency.

9:16 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thanks for the comparison, I will read and comment on it later.


10:45 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

You are right. The Flyer incident does tell much about Singapore's customer service. The 173 victims were left waiting without food or water, for up to 7 hours. Yet, they had been promised refreshments...from what I read, only a few were delivered these, after several hours of waiting. They had no toilet facilities - so at least one had to relieve herself in the cabin (into a nappy). They were given NO information about their safety. There was NO plan on how to get them out. They were "counted impersonally as if they were animals". In short, their treatment was inhuman. Basically, no-one at Singapore Flyer CARED enough to be humane to their 173 guests. (It was a very slow response as well, it being three and a half hours before the Flyer people got the SCDF to attend to begin rescue attempts. Why not get them there in five minutes? They strike me as stupid - as usual - and uncaring.)

Contrast this with what happened with the London Eye when it stalled. Firstly, instead of being trapped for seven hours, the problem was resolved in one hour before all were rescued (efficient response). Furthermore, the London Eye management had planned ahead. All capsules had built in "commodes" (toilet) so no passenger had the discomfort of being unable to relieve themselves. All capsules had a food and water supply, too. Basically, for the London Eye passengers it was a brief, comfortable experience. Furthermore, in the London Eye situation good communication was maintained with the passengers to let them know what was happening. In Singapore, the passengers were given no reassurance and no concrete information.

Singapore is not No.1 in anything, except perhaps disregard for basic service. In many ways, Singapore is still a very primitive country, although its infrastructure is first world. It is primitive because no-one here cares about anyone else - yet I have never known a country to succeed long based on such a premise.

Thank you for your example.

10:59 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don't blame the crew. Unlike our ministers, they are not paid millions to do what is right for customers. Maybe we should start paying these rescue crews millions to get them moral authority and better service.

By the way, it is no secret that Singapore is built on image and hardware but not on substance and software. Only when crisis and incident happens, you begin to see that there is very little substances in Singapore. We see it in MiniBomb, Mas Selamat, Transport fare hike, GST hike... well...

11:32 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Anonymous at 11.32 pm,

Thanks for your insights.

That Singapore is this way indicates that it is all just an illusion, in truth, there is nothing here at all. It is a ghost of a city, with a ghost of competency.

You are right, whenever there is a crisis, Singapore FAILS to meet the need. There are so many examples.

It is a bit scarey actually.

Kind regards

6:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I must say I do enjoy your lucid commentary on Singapore and other interesting topics.

As for people sleeping (day dreaming) on the job, I find that people here are generally on automatic pilot: when walking they will change direction (as if on purpose) to go on collisoon course with another person approaching from the opposite direction; when driving they will transgress some traffic rule and then continue on as if that was accepted behaviour, etc ...

12:52 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Yes. Perhaps only a nation asleep could ever become this way. It takes a certain sleepiness on the part of people for certain things here, to prevail. I will leave what those certain things are to your own imagination (though it explains a lot about life here!)

Thanks for your comment.

1:48 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Anonymous at 12.52 pm...thank you, by the way, for your kind words regarding my writing. It is always rewarding to hear that someone enjoys it and finds value in it. It is appreciated.

Happy New Year (soon, anyway).

2:01 PM  
Anonymous JohnnyKid said...

Retail staff in Singapore are paid $1000 a month and work 6 days a week. With this kind of pay, and lack of career progression, it can only attract people who couldn't do other jobs, and people who treat it as a temp job. Both groups of people don't sound like they can or bother to provide any service. Even if they get sacked for treating a customer badly, they can easily find another retail job. Demand for personnel exceeds supply because of the low pay and poor working conditions.

It is not that Singaporeans aren't aware of basic customer service. 99% of stores in Singapore provide bad service. You boycott this store and go to another, you will still get the same poor service.

10:37 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home

Page copy protected against web site content infringement by Copyscape