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 +

Saturday, December 13, 2008

In search of freedom.

A couple of days ago, I learnt that someone I knew was leaving Singapore, quite suddenly.

Now, I had thought him well-established here. He is an American and his wife is from South America. He is a teacher. She is a singer/musician. They both had jobs. Between them, their income was very good, surprisingly good, in fact. You see his singer wife is in demand and is very well paid for the corporate gigs that she has been doing. In addition she has been singing for "good money", 3 hours a night in clubs in Singapore. So, financially speaking, they were content here. Yet, something was not right, here. In Singapore, they did not feel free to be themselves.

My American friend's wife was the one most unhappy with it all. The problem was that, in Singapore, she felt that she was living in a kind of straitjacket. She is a creative person, but here she was not allowed to create. Every night she sang and some days, too...but whenever she did, she was never allowed to do her own material, never allowed to improvise, explore or create. All that she was ever allowed to do was "cover versions" of other people's songs. She found the musicians she worked with highly skilled in a technical sense - but none of them showed any creativity - or did not, at least, show any evidence of it, in her presence. They were consumed with the desire to replicate the work of others as faithfully as possible. She found this tiresome. Where she came from, true musicians were always experimenting, exploring and growing. Here, she was not allowed to grow or become or create - she was enforced to imitate.

Now, it is not her fellow musicians, alone, that are the problem. The other problem is that the audience actually seem to crave well-performed cover versions. They enjoy hearing replication at work. They also seem to dislike anything new or experimental. So, even if a musician is creative here, they might find their creativity unwelcome.

They felt the straitjacket in other aspects of life, here, too. There is not much creativity in is a place that excels in conformity. This fact made them uncomfortable. They felt that they couldn't truly be free to be themselves in a place that so expected a uniformity of behaviour from everyone. At least, that is the way it seems to them. They felt, in short, oppressed by the essence of the place. They felt that here, they would never be allowed to be themselves.

So, one day, they both decided to jack in their jobs and leave. They have already bought tickets and have a destination in mind - and even jobs lined up.

The question is: how many creative people is Singapore losing - or never gaining in the first place - because creative people might feel too restricted here? Does this loss of creative individuals not harm Singapore? Does it not reduce the likelihood that anything new or special will come out of this small city state?

I am left to wonder how pervasive the need to conform is, here, when even music is not allowed to live - when even something as inoffensive as the sound that comes to one's ears, must conform, absolutely, to expectation, with no surprises. Surely, creativity should be welcomed...and not pushed away, as they have been?

The funny thing is, this decision of theirs to leave was prompted by a holiday in Bali. To them, the place felt so much more alive and authentic and that is where they are going, now. So who has it right: the self-adoring No.1 nation in the world...or its poorer, but apparently freer, neighbour? Bali may be poor - but a creative couple felt more welcome there.

I think there is a lesson in this tale for ambitious Singapore. It can still learn from its "poorer" neighbours.

(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 @ 1:40 AM 


Blogger Miao said...

I have a Taiwanese friend who is a really gifted writer. His parents sent him to Singapore to study, but his passion lies in reading and exploring his own literature. He has now chosen to go back to Taiwan because he thinks that there is very little creative freedom in Singapore. The literary environment in Taiwan is much more conducive for his growth. Speaking of which, I find that local Chinese writers are all of rather poor calibre. On the other hand, quite a number of Malaysian Chinese writers exhibit rather impressive writing styles, and their themes are generally richer and more varied. Perhaps this difference once again boils down to our environments. Our culture determines the kinds of writers (and creative talents) we would be able to nurture. In this aspect, as you have pointed out, we would do well to learn from our 'less capable' neighbour.

This entry is highly relevant to your previous post. Both posts highlight a failure of our country to welcome and appreciate talent. Your friend's wife is no doubt earning a comfortable income, but people are not truly appreciating her music - in exchange for her income she has to conform unhappily to expectations imposed upon her. It is a good decision to move on to greener pastures elsewhere - in this case freedom is something money cannot buy.

2:48 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Is Singapore, I wonder, too arrogant (and convinced of its own greatness) to learn the lesson here, that it has to change to allow more creative freedom in its citizens and other residents?

Since I came here in 1999, I have seen little improvement.

Thanks for your comment Miao.

3:52 PM  
Anonymous te said...

I totally agree that Singapore is no place to develop such talents. It's a real shame that talents are being wasted.

Yes, i do believe the gov is partially responsible for this state- although the other half lies with the majority of the population.

The culture here is all about the money, job, and more money. It would appear that the gov has been excellent in creating a society that places much value on financial gain rather than helping to develop a more intangible side of Singapore.

I feel that the education system is the one place to start the change. The education system here is a terrible pressure cooker. It rewards (mostly) those who do well academically, while neglecting the rest (although i must say recognition for sportsmen and women has improve drastically).

Even now in NUS, where i'm studying engineering, i always feel this constant pressure to do better than my peers.

Pressure comes from locals and foreigners- not only those from China and India, but including western students who can be seen mugging in the study rooms at 8am on a Saturday morning

Even someone without talent like me cannot take much time off to enjoy playing music or engaging in photography. But of course, there are the exceptions who can do everything.

What the gov needs to do is to shift away from emphasizing too much on money, and more to all rounded development. This must start at the school level, by devoting more time to the arts and sports, although the sciences and math should not be compromised either.

More money should also be pumped into scholarships for gifted musicians...etc.

To get the public's interest in the arts, i believe this will take time- But nevertheless, the gov can speed up the pace by promoting and supporting more arts events- perhaps free admission, to get the society in general to enjoy the arts.

If the society can be changed, then the talented musicians and others will definitely find a place here.

9:59 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

I agree, Te, in that the culture itself needs to shift away from money and towards a more rounded life. At present, Singapore is a very ONE dimensional society...not even two and certainly not three. The focus of almost everyone is on one thing alone and the whole of the rest of life is ignored. I think a lot of people here are unhappy without knowing know it is because they don't actually know what a fulfilling life is really like.

Thanks for your comment.

11:58 PM  
Anonymous ks said...

Even I find that holidays away make one realise that there is a world outside of the bubble here. Unfortunately, this is the only city in which I've lived that I reluctantly make the return leg of my journey back.

I wonder if the 'covers' theme is to be found in many areas here. If you watch local television programmes, you find copycat shows that are many times poorly done.

On another note, I'd like to ask you about a couple of grammar points. Here many people use contractions in a way which I find unusual. For example, they say "I've a car in the garage." Is this acceptable? When I was a child, I learned to always use contractions with helping verbs (I've got ten dollars in my pocket).

The second question is about the use of "quite". Is it really correct for someone to say, "I'm quite excited." or "I'm quite ecstatic"? Should we use diminutive words with other, such enormous words?

Lastly, have you noticed words that are overused here? Case in point "passion or passionate". For the last few years I've heard this phrase every single day. Though it is commonly used, are Singaporeans really and truly passionate people?

5:00 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Hi KS,

No. Singaporeans are not really a passionate people...more of a passionless people in many ways. However, those words are used, as you say...perhaps they feel more passionate by talking about it.

Both grammar uses are possible options. "Got" can be left is OK, though not American usage, I expect. "quite" is being used to qualify how excited they are. Interestingly, the use of "quite" seems to go against their use of passionate...maybe "quite", is more honest!

I hope that helps.

Yes. You are right re. cover versions...most local shows are derivative of foreign shows, in some way. There is little that is truly Singaporean in origin in the media or arts. Few local artists have found their own voice yet...or perhaps (just as likely) their voices are not allowed to be heard.

Best wishes on your stay here.

7:45 PM  

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