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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, March 09, 2009

The cause of NTU's suicide habit.

Every effect has a cause - and NTU's recent suicides are no exception. The question is: what could motivate two young men: David Hartanto Widjaja, 21 and, now Zhou Zheng, 24, to throw their lives away? It seems clear that both men thought their lives not worth living, anymore. What could have driven them to such a conclusion? Well, recent news reporting has inadvertently provided me with a clue.

In the Channel News Asia report of the hanging of Zhou Zheng, a recently appointed Project Officer, in THE SAME LABORATORY AS THE OTHER SUICIDE, they mentioned something in passing, which I think to be of great importance. They said that reporters from the radio station 938 Live had interviewed other residents in Block 101 C Nanyang Heights (a residence on campus for staff and graduate students). They weren't very successful in their interviews. They learnt that residents kept largely to themselves and interacted little with each other. Without realizing it, those reporters had, I feel, stumbled on a big clue as to what is happening at NTU. If people do not interact with each other, they feel alone, isolated, set apart. Without sufficient human interaction, they may begin to question their own worth, or value, they may begin to think little of themselves. A person who is isolated, though living in a block surrounded by many others, who basically ignore them, can very easily succumb to depression, or be led to dark thoughts.

That passing remark by 938 Live reporters makes me wonder what sort of culture now prevails at NTU. Is it one of relatively little interaction, at all levels? Or is it just among the graduate students and staff? If it is at all levels, that would provide some insight into David Hartanto Widjaja's and Zhou Zheng's death. We must not ignore that both were from the same lab. That means that both were exposed to the same social forces, the same environment, and many of the same issues, stresses and problems. What amazes me is that Zhou Zheng had only been at work for, I think, five days, before he decided to kill himself. Is working at NTU really such an unpleasant experience that he would end his life, so soon? Or is the problem restricted solely to the EEE lab (Electrical and Electronic Engineering) where he worked - and where David Hartanto Widjaja had studied?

This situation should not be dismissed as just a dark, unfortunate coincidence. That two young men should die, allegedly by their own hands, from the same laboratory at the same University, in the same week, is far too unlikely to be just coincidence. There is something afoot in the EEE lab of NTU, though what, it is difficult to say. It could be as simple as "the residents kept largely to themselves and interacted little with each other." A little social isolation can go a long way to undermining many people's belief in their own worth and that of life itself.

I would say that Universities, here, in Singapore, should pay less heed to academic demands and more heed to creating a convivial, warm, human and HUMANE atmosphere that makes staff and students alike feel welcomed and valued. I cannot believe that either Zhou Zheng, or David Hartanto Widjaja felt welcomed and valued. Had they done so, I cannot believe that either would have taken their own life, at the very beginning of what could have been. They both seem to have thrown everything away, just when it was beginning. No-one does that, without a very good reason. The question is: what was the reason? Why did David Hartanto Widjaja and Zhou Zheng, both of the EEE lab, both decide to kill themselves (allegedly) in the same week?

The answer may be as simple as social deprivation - or it could be a whole lot more involved. However, the social issue is one that should be looked at, after all, David Hartanto Widjaja, was described as someone who spent a lot of time to himself, in several reports. Maybe he wasn't too happy with that, in his own way.

I am watching this situation with interest, for I feel it deserves a full investigation and not one that proceeds by assumption or the need to preserve the good image of the institution concerned. What is needed is a good dose of truth seeking, no matter what truth might be found. People just don't kill themselves without a strong proximate cause. Now is the time to look for that cause - before others join Zhou Zheng and David Hartanto Widjaja, in death. To cover this up, might be to kill others, too. Let us not allow that to happen.

(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: http://scientific-child-prodigy.blogspot.com/2006/10/scientific-child-prodigy-guide.html 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 @ 9:03 PM 

25 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree. A proper and thorough investigation needs to be conducted.
If not for the public, then at least for the families.

6:52 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi,

There's something I don't really understand in your argument. Why must it be up to the school to take "more heed to creating a convivial, warm, human and HUMANE atmosphere"?

There are many clubs and various activities that you can join in, http://www.ntu.edu.sg/campus/clubs/Pages/Clubssocieties.aspx
in NTU, or even within the Hall of Residences. Also, I understand that foreign students usually form a club or society together. The last I heard, they even had a Cyber Games Society there http://www.ntucybergames.com/

If you are a student, but not pro-active enough to join such activities, does it mean that the school has to force you to join?

I had a great time in NTU, making and meeting new friends, as well as joining activities that I liked and enjoyed, instead of following the Secondary School/Junior College's style of forced enrolment in CCAs.

It is up to the student on how to manage his own time and enjoy/work through his school life. It depends on what the student is seeking in his tertiary education, and what he/she wish to experience out of it.

However, I do notice that some clubs are "exclusive" and it is not easy to join some of them.

But, I agree that a thorough investigation must be made, and the authorities concerned must get into the bottom of this, as the cause(s) of their deaths may concern others involved (directly or indirectly).

1:20 PM  
Anonymous Molly said...

Students are more like pawns in the universities' quest to attain world-class status and high positions in international rankings. Being humane, I think, isn't one of the criteria that affects rankings. But things like having foreign students are. It's symptomatic of the general problem with the country. Sacrifice students for the institution, sacrifice the people for the nation. And it's almost an obligation to willingly be sacrificed.

They call it corporatisation. We can call it dehumanization.

1:57 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Indeed. There is something else that you don't understand: whether or not a place is warm has nothing to do with clubs or being forced to join them. It is to do with the way people generally conduct themselves towards each other. Personally, I think there is something wrong with a hall of residence where there is "little interaction with each other" - that signals something far from a warm atmosphere.

Thanks for your comment.

4:35 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you Molly...and just look at the effects of this "corporatization".

4:36 PM  
Blogger sandy said...

I am not sure you have an appreciation of life in an university campus. From personal experience in Singapore (undegraduate) and Australia (post-grad), I can tell you the majority are there for a purpose - to study, do well, and earn a good degree. The various student activities are for relaxation - for those who need it. Of course, there are those who don't give a hoot for their studies, the rich brats who are there for the ride. For the majority others, it's a ticket to improve their lives, and only hard work will help them achieve their goal. The administration's role is to provide the support infrastructure - they are not social workers, law enforcers, or moral beacons. And should not attempt to be.

5:47 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

I find your post funny in its presumption Sandy.

Of course I know what University is like...I was at Cambridge and I worked at an American University. Cambridge was not a good place in some ways...the human side failed (just as NTU's appears to have done). The American University, which is highly ranked, seemed a much happier place.

You are wrong to think that happy circumstances and study are incompatible: I don't know why you presume them to be separate issues.

I have not said anything about law enforcement, moral beacons or social workers: you have. I have, however, suggested that a pleasant environment would be beneficial for all.

Personally, I have my doubts about the value of University, anyway, from my own experience of it. However, this post is not about that.

6:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here's my view.

Most students are indeed there to study and get a degree. Social life is second. The hard earned money spent on education is for studying and not for fun at the expense of studies.

Secondly, it is definitely not NTU's job to promote or force students to interact. To each his own.

If students do not want to interact, then so be it. NTU is there to provide the possibilities for interaction- i.e. the facilities, the clubs...etc. It is not their responsibility to dictate what to do and what to join.

If a person does not want to interact with anyone else, is there anything wrong? As a fellow person, I respect that decision of yours not to interact.

Even in NUS, where im studying now, the locals who stay at PGP also keep to themselves (mostly). Does that make them any different? Is there anything wrong with them? Absolutely not. It is a matter of choice and preference.

6:48 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

All this talk of "forcing students to interact" sounds all very Singaporean. I am not talking about force, I am talking about culture and opportunity. There are students who might wish to interact, but do not get the opportunity because their fellow students are just so darned unfriendly. These people might suffer under the conditions you refer to at PGP, for instance.

A warm culture will tend to have much happier, productive people, than a cold one. I gather that Singapore is a cold one, from what you and the other posters argue.

Thanks for your comment.

7:43 PM  
Anonymous Elaine said...

what makes you think that he committed suicide due to the atmosphere he experienced while working at NTU's lab. Afterall, it was just 5 days. I have made friends with some of the foreigners while at school, but generally speaking, I feel that they (the foreigners) do not make an effort to get to know the culture/habits of Singaporeans. They do not try to blend in with us, but are instead sticking out like "sore thumbs". Their cleanliness factor definitely has to improve and they really have to make an effort to communicate in English and brush up on it. Perhaps when we can feel their effort to blend in will we be able to mix around with them more easily. Some social habits just cannot be accepted by most of us, thus the alienation of them that sometimes happen.

2:15 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, the people who stay at PGP are NOT unfriendly as what you say, because they have a life, just not in PGP.

Sometimes, too much social interaction can be a bit too much for some people, that is why they CHOSE to stay at PGP. PGP offers a quiet and peaceful place to retreat to.

AND it's not as if they DO NOT talk to anyone. They still do talk and eat with each other, it's just not as much as those living in halls.

I think what i'm trying to say here is that those living in PGP want a quieter life, so there aren't "students who might wish to interact"- those people live in halls.

SO now, it's the FAULT of those 'so-called- unfriendly people? Come on... to each his own. PGP people aren't the only souls in NUS to interact with...

"suffer"? Actually no. Because those who cannot take such a life move out immediately. In contrast there ARE people who are living in halls that want to transfer OUT of hall to PGP because hall offers too much social interactions, while PGP offers a somewhat more peaceful and quiet life, a place to go to to unwind in your own room without anyone disturbing you.

5:34 AM  
Anonymous ks said...

It is an eye opener to read the comments in this section. I would never have separated having fun with one category, while studies are pushed to another.

Some points to ponder: 1. If children are forced to study without fun all of their life, wouldn't they eventually 'crack', knowing that studies are rigid and 'unfun' even through university?

2. Students here know each other from pre-school times. By the time they reach university, they might just be tired of the same old faces from within the island.

3. When looking at the anonymous comments about socialisation (i.e. studies are extremely separated from social interaction which is separated from fun) one begins to wonder why there is any opposition to home education in Singapore.

7:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think this lack of interaction is a problem with universities. It is a problem with Singapore (the culture). Go to any condo or HDB block and you'll find that most neighbors don't know each other, rarely say hello. They don't bother to pipe up when their fellow human being is having a problem either. No one says anything if someone cuts in line, for example, except maybe the person that got cut off. No one else would bother to help say anything against mean behavior, so the result is that the selfish people rule this place and make everyone else selfish too.

11:42 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

I agree, KS. The tale told by the commenters separation of any enjoyment, from studies, tells us that, in many ways, Singapore IS NOT A PLACE TO STUDY IN. Now that I have digested the message of all these comments, I have no intention of allowing my children to study in Singapore. It would, I feel, be a harmful experience to be exposed to such a soul-less educational environment. University should be a time for being alive, not a time for being extremely isolated all for the sake of the books (which you should be writing, not reading, anyway.)

The opposition to home education exists because the state's social control of the individual mind is impaired in that situation. That would appear to be the only real reason for the difficulties people face in being allowed to educate their children at home. The state calls their concern: "ensuring suitable "national education"".

Thanks for your comment KS.

7:12 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Anon at 11.42 am. Thanks for your comment.

It would seem, therefore, that not just the Universities need to change...but the whole nation needs to change. Unless people are bonded together, by genuine care, affection and friendly interaction, this little nation is unlikely to hold together in the long term. The almighty DOLLAR is not enough to hold Singapore together in the future. There needs to be genuine social interaction throughout the nation, at all levels.

7:15 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Re. 5.34 am anon.

Firstly, you should learn that by using CAPS all the time, you are, in effect shouting. I have long since learnt that people who shout don't listen to others. You haven't been listening...nor have you learnt the lesson of the recent suicides.

The very fact that two separate people, both from the EEE lab, chose to kill themselves is proof that they were suffering. For you to express the opinion (for it is no more than an opinion and has no support in your statement), that people are not suffering at PGP, when there is proof that people are suffering in similarly quiet circumstances at NTU is somewhat surprising. The evidence of real action (ie. suicides) is against you, in this regard.

Now, I accept that you are not suffering at PGP and that many others are not suffering at PGP or similar places, but there is no doubt that there will be some people who are. The suicides at NTU prove that some people are suffering terrible pain - otherwise they would not kill themselves. No-one kill themselves without suffering terribly first.

I think you are defending your turf, without having thought through what the evidence of the recent events establishes about peoples' pain at University here, in Singapore.

The dead deserve to be understood...so it is our reponsibility to accept the reality of their pain and not argue that it cannot be because "i am happy so everyone else must be too". Not so...unfortunately, some people are very unhappy in their situation here.

7:22 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Elaine, rather ironically, in trying to deny that the "atmosphere at NTU" could have contributed to their suicides, you go on to demonstrate quite powerfully why they might have wished to die. You paint a picture of the locals rejecting the foreigners quite sharply...almost in a racist manner...It is clear how bad a person would feel if all around them thought about them as you do. No doubt suicide, in such social circumstances, wouldn't be far from some people's minds.

Interestingly, you blame the foreigners for their rejection because they are unclean and don't know how to speak English well and don't "fit in". Blaming the victim, is quite a common Singaporean thing to do, I have noted. It is not, however, healthy and never leads to a fruitful understanding of a situation.

If the foreigners were warmly welcomed and treated, they would not kill themselves. It is that simple.

Thanks for your informative comment.

7:32 PM  
Anonymous mack said...

If we, can be more humane and kind in our dealings with our fellow men, this world would be a much better place.

11:18 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

I quite agree Mack. Thanks for your comment.

12:12 PM  
Blogger Lai Shuyi Jolene said...

Interesting comments. Durkheim's Theory of Suicide came to mind while reading this piece of news.

As a Singaporean undergrad myself, I think it's a tad too harsh to say that people are not "bonded together, by genuine care, affection and friendly interaction". Maybe that's your personal experience and I wouldn't discount that. Our individual biographies contribute to our opinions and mindscapes, so I can't help it when you think we have a "soul-less" educational environment.

I'm having great fun in NUS now. With regards to the two suicide cases, we cannot undermine the stresses of school/ work leading up to the personal decision of suicide. However, I feel that it is the identity of being a foreigner and being driven by different, and perhaps more, motivations. (Since they came all the way here to study) They really need to keep their GPA/ CAP up to keep their scholarships (if they do) at the expense of failing to take up (readily available) opportunities to socialise in a healthy environment.

Ciao.

1:17 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thanks Jolene for your comment. Perhaps Singaporeans are not as welcoming to foreign students in their midst: have you considered this possibility? Maybe the friendliness and welcome of which you speak is not universally applied. Then again, the need to work hard that you identify surely applies too. That is a systemic problem...there should not be a requirement for particular grades to keep their scholarships (at least in my view)...once in, they should be allowed some leeway.

Have a good time at NUS.

12:53 PM  
Blogger anonymous1 said...

Thank you for this discussion. As an international student in Singapore I firstly want to state that I believe this is a great place to study, there is tremendous focus and discipline which - as an Australian - makes me feel much more driven and motivated to aim high. I find the education system for my subject very strong and the study support from NUS brilliant. However, I do understand this feeling of isolation culturally in Singapore - as some have previously mentioned.
I notice a huge emphasis on the 'hard work' ethic here. People (both Singaporean and international) tend to sacrifice living and experiencing life in an effort to achieve high grades, to live up to families expectation of genius and to compete continually with their peers. This tends to create an atmosphere of tension and stress. I speak with many students - particularly from China and Singapore - who come from families that place a great deal of pressure on them from a young age to achieve ultimate success and wealth. Many students also tend to have a lower maturity level as they have been sheltered and looked after literally until they enter university. Independence is not encouraged and when one suddenly loses the security blanket of the protective family and has to fend for themselves....its an incredible shock to the system.
The culture in Singapore is incredibly ordered and utilitarian. When one is lead to believe that all you need in life is career succcess, money and higher social status...no wonder some feel the desire to kill themselves. Is this all there is to be excited for in life? Say you achieve everything previously stated...this high will only be short lived and then eventually one questions the point of existing. Even love-relationships are seemingly work oriented with an emphasis primarily on procreation rather than passionate love and emotion.

People need to have more discussions like this forum...I feel even a little nervous to write this post as there are many restrictions on freedom of speech here.
I value the education here though, and I believe also if one is wealthy then Singapore can be a great place to reside...however...most of us students are not able to enjoy this comfortable way of life.

1:13 AM  
Blogger anonymous1 said...

Thank you for this discussion. As an international student in Singapore I firstly want to state that I believe this is a great place to study, there is tremendous focus and discipline which - as an Australian - makes me feel much more driven and motivated to aim high. I find the education system for my subject very strong and the study support from NUS brilliant. However, I do understand this feeling of isolation culturally in Singapore - as some have previously mentioned.
I notice a huge emphasis on the 'hard work' ethic here. People (both Singaporean and international) tend to sacrifice living and experiencing life in an effort to achieve high grades, to live up to families expectation of genius and to compete continually with their peers. This tends to create an atmosphere of tension and stress. I speak with many students - particularly from China and Singapore - who come from families that place a great deal of pressure on them from a young age to achieve ultimate success and wealth. Many students also tend to have a lower maturity level as they have been sheltered and looked after literally until they enter university. Independence is not encouraged and when one suddenly loses the security blanket of the protective family and has to fend for themselves....its an incredible shock to the system.
The culture in Singapore is incredibly ordered and utilitarian. When one is lead to believe that all you need in life is career succcess, money and higher social status...no wonder some feel the desire to kill themselves. Is this all there is to be excited for in life? Say you achieve everything previously stated...this high will only be short lived and then eventually one questions the point of existing. Even love-relationships are seemingly work oriented with an emphasis primarily on procreation rather than passionate love and emotion.

People need to have more discussions like this forum...I feel even a little nervous to write this post as there are many restrictions on freedom of speech here.
I value the education here though, and I believe also if one is wealthy then Singapore can be a great place to reside...however...most of us students are not able to enjoy this comfortable way of life.

1:17 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you Anonymous1 for your courage in posting. I understand the hesitancy in doing so, if based in Singapore at the time of posting.

I think many Singaporeans and Chinese miss the deeper points of life. They have focussed, as a society, on material success as the be all and end all. This will, of course, make them well off (often) in the end, but along the way, they tend to have discarded or not noticed, more important things that could have made them more fulfilled. Many of them seem to me to be just "half people"...there is always a sense of something missing, something not quite right.

On the other hand, the competitive spirit there might spur you to higher achievement which could help you achieve your own goals in life, wherever you decide to settle. Good luck.

7:36 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Anonymous1,

I think Singapore has missed the point of what makes a truly satisfying life. They have much to learn and perhaps a lot more to forget.

3:17 PM  

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