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 16, 2009

End the practise of bonding.

Singapore has very strange employment practises. One of them is called "bonding". This is slavery that comes in two flavours: a scholarship with a "bond" and a job with a bond.

Now, I am aware that I shall have to explain the concept of bonding for those who reside in countries that abolished slavery a century or two ago. Singapore has yet to understand the value of a free people.

In Singapore, many people find themselves tied down to jobs or situations that they don't want to be in. Yet, they have no choice but to continue for periods which really can be quite long. If they try to escape these "bonds", they will find themselves financially ruined - thus they labour on, unhappily, in what amounts to bonded servitude, without any freedom to leave their position.

In Singapore, youngsters, who are really too young to understand what they are getting into, are often offered "bonded" scholarships. These are scholarships with a big sting in the tale. For the privilege of receiving tuition fees and the like paid (which in many countries would be free anyway), they have to serve a number of years with an organization, thereafter. They have no choice, in this job, once they accept the scholarship: they must do it, or else.

In Singapore, people in the job market often encounter a job contract with a "bond" attached. This means that once you sign, you cannot leave that company for a certain period. You have no choice but to continue, unless you wish to pay ruinous financial penalties. So, if you stay you might be very unhappy, with your work circumstances, if you leave, you will be very unhappy with the "fine" you have to pay.

I must say it is really all quite evil.

Now, I have brought up the matter of bonding in Singapore for a reason. There has been yet another high profile suicide among Singapore's academic elite. Dr. Allan Ooi, killed himself, to escape his bond with the Singapore Armed Forces. That is right: his bond was such an onerous burden upon him that he would rather be DEAD than complete the term of his servitude.

Singapore has really got a lot to learn about treating humans like, well, humans.

Dr. Allan Ooi committed suicide, according to his suicide email, sent 24 hours after his death, largely because of his awful job at the SAF. "My job was terrible, no joy, no satisfaction" he wrote. That was bad enough. However, what sent him over the edge, it seems, from his own words, was that his TWELVE YEAR BOND was extended to FIFTEEN OR SIXTEEN YEARS, then "UNBREAKABLE". It seems clear that his employer, the Singaporean government in the shape of the Armed Forces, was treating him as a possession and not as a human being. Well, this particular "possession" didn't want to be possessed - and so killed himself to escape being possessed.

The worst part of this case was the way the media tried to lie about it. They painted him in various ways and none of them remotely reflected the truth of his suicide letter. They even portrayed him, in some quarters, as broken hearted! Other suggestions included excessive online wargaming and addiction to gambling - none of which is true. It is really more than a little disturbing that the local media should rush in to smear a dead man's name, just to protect the image of a "terrible" employer - the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF).

Bonding treats human beings as possessions to be used and abused. It is nothing but slavery renamed. It should be stopped. No civilized country practices this procedure, nor especially would they condone the way it is used in Singapore: to remove choice from human beings. In Singapore, people are often placed in terrible employment situations from which there is no escape, because they are bonded to their jobs. I, too, have been offered bonds but have always declined jobs that come with such conditions.

I think it is no coincidence that Singapore has had this rash of recent suicides among the brighter of its people. Quite simply, many people are suffering, in their own, individual ways, in this state, largely because there is too little regard for people, in Singapore's institutions. Employers and Universities alike have, the evidence suggests, created circumstances that have not considered the frailties and vulnerabilities that many people have. In Singapore, human beings are outlawed: only robots are required. If you are not robotic enough, you will just have to suffer in silence, until one day, you crack as, recently, David Hartanto Widjaja, Zhou Zheng and, now, Dr. Allan Ooi did.

None of these deaths were necessary. All of them would have been prevented if the institutions in question had been a little more humane. In one case, if a scholarship had not been withdrawn, one scholar would probably be alive. In another, if a bond had not been extended, a young Doctor would still be alive (he was only 27). I have no information on Zhou Zheng and so cannot say why he died. These are not inevitable causes of death. A little more kindness would have prevented these suicides.

The justification for bonding is all one-sided: the organization that paid the scholarship wants to ensure that it is "reimbursed" by enforcing a certain number of years labour from the scholar. Yet, if the experience of working for them is unbearable, the scholar has no escape. In the case of Dr. Allan Ooi, his only escape from the terrible existence he faced was death itself.

Good organizations don't need to bond their scholars. If an organization is good to work for, scholars will voluntarily stay with the organization. It is only BAD organizations that need to use this kind of force. Clearly one can come to some sort of conclusion about an organization that needs to extend a 12 year bond to 15 or 16. Perhaps no-one wants to be a doctor with the SAF voluntarily. They could remedy that, by becoming a pleasant place to work. It really is quite simple.

I rather hope that Dr. Allan Ooi's death will lead to a reassessment of the practise of bonding. It is time Singapore caught up the developed world and accepted the general concept of VOLUNTARY labour. Slave labour should play no role in the employment landscape of Singapore: that it does, is a matter of great national shame.

(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 @ 8:56 PM 


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, thanks for writing on this issue.

I'm equally appalled as everyone else on something as absurd as an "unbreakable" bond.

I used to work in the civil service where I had scholars who were my colleagues, business partners, clients and friends. Most of them are wonderful people with brilliant minds but unfortunately a number of them are unhappy with their jobs. So unless they can afford to break their bonds, they really have no choice but to slave for at least 4 years. However these scholars tend to possess the tenacity and perseverance to survive and still do well in their work. So I supposed their situation is still manageable and not as extreme as in the case of SAF.

I'm not sure about SAF scholarships but I can say for PSC scholarships, it's definitely breakable that is if you can afford to pay.

9:43 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

If Dr. Allan Ooi had known of any other way out of his bond, I am sure he would not have chosen death. We can only conclude that, for him, there WAS no other way out. It is unimaginably barbaric that he should have faced such a choice. Will Singapore ever wake up to what it should be, on a humane level?

10:21 PM  
Blogger Indiana said...

Many companies in many countries offer "bonds" in exchange for scholarships. So this is not a uniquely Singaporean thing.

Though the terms of repayment are a little steeper in Singapore, in Australia, most companies (inc. Govt) that offers these scholarships work on the "training +1" system, where you payback the time spent in training you and one year.

Most have an option to get out, that is simply repaying the amount spent in your education...though it is repaying it "in whole and upon termination of agreement", you can get out of it.

I agree 15 years is slavery, even 12 years is a little excessive for a scholarship.

6:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I like to add that Singaporeans alike, practise this sort of evil, perhaps on a daily basis. Just look at the offices and workplaces? Singaporeans have an extremely bad work practice and it's the practice of shoving or pushing work to others, by very political means within themselves. Imagine destroying someone's plate by such means? That's beyond slavery, perhaps.

I have encountered before, a Malay chap in his late thirties who was working in the midst of majority Chinese Singaporeans and foreigners. This poor and only Malay chap in the office was 'bullied' to the point that work becomes undoable. Then he was asked to leave on the basis of poor performance. When he started to tell the truth to the boss (another chinese fellow), the boss wittingly remarked, "But why is everyone else not having such problems, except you?" He was even told that the line of work he was in was not suitable for him and that he needs to do soul-searching before he can even come out to work.

This Malay guy was my acquaintance and a very bright student. But today, he is a taxi driver, and happy. Somehow, he remarked something that I never forget. Revenge and retribution is not his task. It is that of God.

When the Merlion is accurately struck by lightning recently, I began to feel it all coming.

11:37 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

read from a comment elsewhere that he had gone AWOL for more than 3 mths in Melbourne, by which time he would have been an over-stayer in Australia (3 months' visitor pass). I can imagine that he would have reached a situation where he saw no light at the end of the tunnel. If he returned to Singapore , he would have had to go to detention baracks, and perhaps been struck off from practising medicine. I feel sad for his family....and I hope that someone somewhere will review the need for bonded service and conscription. My son who left SG at 9 yrs of age has to go back for National Service. I'm glad it's only for 2 yrs. All the same, he is annoyed that he has to be 2 yrs behind his friends who would have moved on to university etc. What to do ? Don't want him to be a refugee in the land of his birth...and have persuaded him to treat it as 2 gap years to toughen up, try military life etc.

12:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

look at it the other way, given this negative publicity, why do people, and parents still allow their sons to be bonded?
Why? A possible better, elitist life?

1:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Please, if you do not wish to be bonded, don't take the scholarship.

If you can afford to pay for your studies via parental support by means of goodwill or loan, take this route. Suffer for a while and enjoy later.

If you take the scholarship, you get to enjoy now, but may suffer later for longer periods, like the late Dr A Ooi.

If you are good and your grades are fantastic, any employer, including the govt., will take you bond free.

So, which is better for you?

1:38 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Re. bonding and conscription...when a country has to use FORCE to make people do something, there is something wrong with that country. If they made it a good prospect for people, no force would have to be involved. It is a very telling comment about the nature of the armed services in Singapore.

Thanks for sharing your experience. Good luck to your son.

3:34 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

They allow their children to be bonded, because they are sold on the idea that the scholarship is an "honour". What they don't realize is that the bond which follows may be a time of suffering for their child and altogether an unsuitable experience. They don't, however, look that far ahead.

3:35 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Re. the Malay employee...there is a LOT of racism in the Singaporean work place and not just towards Malays. It is towards anyone who is not Chinese, largely speaking. This shouldn't be allowed, but nothing will be done about it because those who do it, don't see it as a problem because they are the majority and it is never directed towards them.

There is even anti-white racism in some sectors ie. Mediacorp which has a specific policy against whites on tv for long periods. No other developed country that I have heard of discriminates against any particular race, ever.

Welcome to "Unique" Singapore.

3:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Regarding race:
I've lived and studied in Australia for over 2 years 12 years ago. I'm a Chinese Singaporean. I remembered for the first time in my life, I knew how it feels being a minority. Then on, I began to respect the minorities in Singapore.

I think the majority race rules everywhere. Period. You can never change that. Some are verbal, some are ignorant, some are indifferent.

The Malays in Malaysia are given better deals than their Chinese counterparts. It runs in the system. It is racism.

As for that Malay who was abused, he could have worked in a bad company. Given to anyone, he/she would have resigned. He just needs to press on and find a better employer.

And yes, justice belongs to God.

5:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"No other developed country that I have heard of discriminates against any particular race, ever."

This I must strongly object to. You may not feel it having been of Caucasian origin but it's the first thing I distinctly felt while in America. Please talk to more people of colour in Caucasian-majority countries - racism is not fixed by sheer tokenism.

On the same note, however, I'm willing to say racism is universal. It boils right down to the ingrained insider/outsider mentality that comes with practically any society.
Not to glorify this depressing place, but if you thought Singapore was bad for an advanced Asian country, try Japan...

I'm trying to get out of here myself - the courses I want to do are not offered locally and I'm going to crack if I stay any longer - but of course I get opposition on the grounds that it is far cheaper to study here. I'd like to think my response could be directed at young students deliberating on scholarship offers: you can pay back the tangible, largely fixed amount of money you owe the bank in school fees with hard work and a good job (which you're likely to get as a student of scholarship candidate-quality).

Emotional debts however will kill you much faster.

5:47 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Re. Racism not in other systems:

I should explain. No developed country apart from Singapore actually has racism as part of its system. There might be racism from individuals (there will always be that)...but no other developed country with which I am familiar has racism built into the structure of the system. That is what I meant. Singapore has racism as part of its structure. I was explicitly told that about whites being restricted by POLICY by a Mediacorp employee: that is racism from the state itself. That does not happen in the West: any race is allowed to do any job.

I hope that clarifies matters.

I would be interested to hear of what you know of Japan's situation.

6:03 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

What you have to understand is that all other developed nations that I am aware of, have banned racism at the level of the state - and made it illegal for companies to practise racism. Singapore hasn't done that. The state here is actually responsible for some instances of racism: it is written into their "policies". That makes for a very different situation.

Racism is universal in the sense that there are always some racist individuals - but it is NOT universal in law, or society's structure. It is however present in Singapore in the structure itself. It shouldn't be.

Societies which have banned racism at the level of the state are better off than Singapore in that regard. That is what I am trying to highlight.

6:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What about Australia? I sent you the BBC link re this issue on one of your previous post... although you didnt reply to it...

7:37 PM  
Anonymous Wang said...


Strongly beg to differ. there is instituitionalised racism in the West as well if you claim the same here in Singapore.

The only governmental policy issues are security related and
even those are being relaxed.

Individuals do discriminate but why are you so surprised, frankly, the basic problem, is that most people idolise Mammon here.


8:22 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Wang. I strongly beg to differ too. In the Western countries with which I am familiar, there are proactive stances to HELP minorities. In fact, in certain countries, such as America, people from ethnic minorities find it much easier to get a good job, than white people do. So, in that case, it would be a kind of reverse racism against the majority. This has not happened in Singapore.

Thanks for your comment.

10:01 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Re. Australia. I know very little about the Australian situation, and I presently don't have time to research it. I know this, however: they have had anti-racism legislation for a long time. If I remember rightly, the link you sent referred to a temporary suspension of one of those laws. I am sorry but I didn't have time to study the matter. People raise a lot of issues with me. The ones I know about I answer immediately...the ones I would have to research sometimes get pushed to one side by all the other things I have to do. I hope you can understand. Thank you.

10:04 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

re. Institutional racism.

In all Western countries, a person of any colour can rise to prominence on TV. In Singapore, a white person cannot do so. Mediacorp policy specifically states that the presence of whites should be restricted. That is institutionalized racism. Western countries of similar development to Singapore are completely open on race for employment.

So it is not just a matter of national security. Singapore has employment racism for other (unknown) reasons too.

10:06 PM  
Blogger Indiana said...

What needs to happen is a move away from the idea that the only way you are successful is if you are a doctor. lawyer or engineer...that way the poor child will not be pressured by parents "that he must study this to be success"...

...instead of a change in the bond law, maybe what there needs to be is a cultural change whereby children are encouraged to study and do what they desire instead of what will make the family look good and make the parents life easy when they retire.

The problem is not the law, the bond exists if you do not like it, do not sign it. The problem is the pressure and its origin that made him chose to sign it.

6:27 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

I agree that the definition of "success" here, is rather narrow and that it constrains youngsters to a restricted range of options. However, I do still think that bonding should be discarded: twelve years of bondage in exchange for tuition fees for a degree (as with Dr. Allan Ooi) that can, in fact, be extended at will by the Singaporean government, as was done (fatally) in this case, strikes me as far too onerous a demand.

In many countries those tuition fees would be free (try most of Europe). In comparison, the attitude of the Singporean state is really rather mean spirited in this regard.

Thanks for your comment.

7:27 AM  
Blogger Fox said...

Erm, if you sign up to be a medical officer in the US Army, you also get bonded since they pay for your medical school tuition.

Great, now you tell me that the US is also barbaric.

7:48 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Erm seem to be rather biased in your analysis.

This link...

shows that the "bond" you refer to is an obligation of one year of active service for each year of the medical scholarship. They say this equates to TWO years 
for a medical scholarship.

Now, I don't know about you, but two years sounds a lot lighter than sixteen years which Dr. Allan Ooi was facing.

It is clear that the US system is not too burdensome. The Singaporean system is barbaric by comparison.

1:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bonds in Singapore are typically limited to up to 6 years for the elite scholarships. The rest are typically 4 years and below.

This case of 16 years is an exception and not the norm. So perhaps you should use the more relevant and normal scenarios rather than using an exception to make a point.

2:57 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Anon at 2.57 pm.

You have misunderstood the situation. I was comparing like with like. It is the exception in the US for funding sources to have a bond attached. The US army situation is way outside the norm.

In fact, my comparison was a direct one to one comparison of the US army and the Singaporean army practise. The Singaporean army is eight times more draconian in this regard than the US.

However, if you want to compare the norm to the norm, the ratio is even worse for Singapore. The norm in the US is no bond at all for funding sources/scholarships. If the norm in Sing. is 4 to 6 years, the ratio of that to zero is INFINITE. Thus the Singaporean norm is INFINITELY worse than the US situation. Is that any better for you?

The situation in Singapore needs to change. Whichever way you look at it, it is way outside international normal practice and is an offence to human beings.

3:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My point was NOT to make Singapore look better. I just want to state that 16 years/ 6 years is way out of proportion.
In fact, i believe there are no other cases of bond lasting more than 6 years here.

On a separate note, i would like to mention something which, perhaps, a westerner like you may not yet understand.

In Asia:

1. Scholarships are considered prestigious. To attain one is to be successful- which in competitive Asia, is considered good. It is also a 'fast track'- i.e. promoted much faster within a company and given more exposure then others.

This is something which is prevalent, but nonetheless unhealthy. I do hope this attitude can change.

2. My parents and my (or at least the majority) generation feel that bonds are useful, because the companies also have their side of the bargain- which is to hire you.

In these times of instability, many (including myself), look for an organization that offers a bond, because it guarantees a job.
Among my parent's generation, this feeling is even stronger.

To further add on, I would like to add that i am neither in favour or against bonds. I believe it is up to the company, and up to the person who is signing the contract. As stated by many others, if you cannot handle the bond, do not sign up. There are many other scholarships which are bond free. And the reason why they chose a bonded scholarship over a bond free one is simply prestige.

On a related note, the current age for a person to sign up for a scholarship here is usually right after the A's. So for the guys, they will be serving their NS and the girls will be waiting for university to start.

At that tender age of 18/19, they are FAR too young, in my opinion, to sign any contract. Without any exposure to the workings of the company, many simply dive head in, overlooking the possibility of them not liking the environment once inside.
But of course, there are those who simply fit right into the company and stay on for years.

I believe that those who take on a scholarship while studying are actually better prepared, for at least they would have experienced some form of internship by then and have an understanding of the environment of the company.

It is fortunate then that i rejected a scholarship(and were rejected by others) when i first applied 3 years ago. At least now, i have an opportunity to open my eyes before i choose.

Regarding SAF scholarships:
Typically, those applying for SAFOS/SMS have already started experiencing life as a cadet and hence are better able to judge if this work is suitable. Furthermore, in OCS, some of the instructors are SAF scholars themselves and hence can give advice to those thinking of signing up.

For the rest, some apply for a scholarship after they commission, and experience working in a unit. These people who sign up for a scholarship are then absolutely certain about their career.

In summary, the problem here is not the bond, but rather the people signing up for a scholarship and not thinking it through. I emphasis again that there are bond-free scholarships offered by NUS, NTU, SMU to name a few. The only difference is that they are not as prestigious as those offered by the Civil Service and the private sector.
I say again- Do not sign up for a scholarship because it looks good. Sign up only if you like the company and the work it does.

I could carry on talking about the attitude of bond breakers and the opportunity cost... but i think this post is sufficient for now.

6:11 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you for expanding on the bond situation in Singapore. It seems, however, that some people pay a high price for the prestige of their bonds. As you and others have noted (myself included) they are usually too young to make such a lasting decision.

8:49 PM  

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