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 +

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Where sympathy is a crime.

In Singapore, sympathy is a crime. At least, it seems so, from the way posters respond to me whenever I express sympathy for the plight of anyone, at all. I find this both revealing and perturbing. It reveals the Singaporean psyche - such as it is - and perturbs all who understand what is laid bare.

Recently, I have written with sympathy of David Hartanto Widjaja, Zhou Zheng and Dr. Allan Ooi: they all share one common bond - the manner of their deaths. Their suicides have brought them together in a way that life did not, for I doubt that they knew each other. Yet, in death, they are one: the Singapore suicides.

Now, my posts on the pressures that led to their deaths attracted a response that I should have expected, but didn't. Many of the respondents were quite harsh. They blamed the victims. They called them (in some places on the net): "losers", for killing themselves. They were looked down upon for their "weakness". In all, the general thrust of the comments was most unforgiving, not at all sympathetic and altogether rather cold. The impression was left that Singaporeans are a heartless lot, without feeling for their fellow humans - indeed, without any care for them at all. To me, this observation is a greater tragedy than the deaths of the three young men. It is tragic that Singaporeans should care so little for each other that the manner of these deaths should not inspire any sympathy. One begins to understand why, living in this heartless, cold, uncaring society, that three young men would decide to kill themselves. Surely, life, in some quarters in this city, cannot be very pleasant, when one is surrounded by such heartless, unfeeling people.

Another thing that surprised me about the comments I received and read on other sites on the web, is that some of the commenters are noted for their intelligence. They are relatively well-known writers on the net and have, in the past, seemed intelligent on quite a few topics. Yet, on the subject of these recent suicides they are blunt, dismissive, unmoved, unfeeling and uncaring. Quite simply, they react as if at the passing of three cockroaches, rather than three intelligent young people. I found this rather perturbing, for it indicates that in the Singaporean "elite" there is a lack of feeling for one's fellow man. In its place there is cold reason.

This observation of mine is not one based on one instance. It is based on the fact that EVERYTIME I am sympathetic towards someone or something, on the net, I get coldhearted, uncaring and even nasty comments. It happened when Nordin bin Mondong climbed into the tiger enclosure, too. I find this really rather concerning. It indicates that Singaporeans have never really learnt the value of the lives of others. They have never really learnt to appreciate the general concept that life itself is valuable and that each of us is uniquely precious. They have, in its place, a detachment from each other - and a disregard for the fate of their fellows. In particular, they don't care for those who "couldn't cope", those who were overwhelmed by the stresses of this society. There is the general opinion that they were "weak" and therefore deserving of their fates. There is no sympathy, here, for those more sensitive than ourselves. Indeed, sensitivity, as a characteristic, is seemingly despised.

As an outsider, I see a society that has lost sight of what matters. People matter. Lives matter. Money doesn't. Yet, in Singapore it is the latter that matters, and the former which are undervalued.

There is also a general lack of insight from the respondents concerning the causes of the suicides. They never look at themselves and their society to see if it could be to blame, they always blame the victims, instead. In Singapore, the victim is always at fault - for Singapore is a thing of blameless perfection and flawless wonder that could not possibly have played a part.

Well, it is clear to me, as an outsider, that were Singapore a kinder, warmer, more human society, that none of those three men would have killed themselves. It is the very harshness of the Singaporean people before human sensitivity, that led to their deaths. It is also that very harshness they show in response to those deaths.

The funny part of this is, of course, that when anything befalls the coldhearted respondents, no-one around them will give a damn - and so they will come to know what it feels, to have done to themselves, what they have so often done to others.

I shall continue to be sympathetic to those on whom misfortune or too much of life's pain has fallen. No doubt, my commenters shall continue to be unsympathetic and heartless, too.

I am not going to change my outlook simply because the people around me don't share it. It is important to retain one's deeper humanity, even if the society in which one lives has lost its - or never really known it.

Singapore has yet to learn what to value. At present, they have selected the wrong things to worship. Here, Mammon is God - and, in all else, they are unbelievers.

Perhaps it would take the fall of Mammon (which might be happening) to wake them up to more meaningful aspects of life.

However, it will not be until there is a flood of shared sympathy, when I post, again, on something unfortunate, that I will finally know that Singapore has matured to become fully human. Until then, sympathy shall, no doubt, remain a crime.

(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 @ 5:00 PM 


Blogger Isabella said...

It is so sad that Singaporeans post such mindless comments on the net. However, I believe that it is only a small fraction of the entire population. People still are capable of empathy in Singapore.

Sometimes, I really hope others would just think twice before churning out heartless words that defied everything taught in school.

7:33 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

I would like, Isabella, to hope that you are right. It is qualities such as sympathy for our fellows, that make life more bearable when it is hard - as it is for many of us, at times.

Without sympathy, a society is very tough indeed.

The question is: why are posters not sympathetic on the net, if they exist in the population? Why is it the hard ones who post?

7:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Valentine,

You came up with an interesting hypothesis: "I found this rather perturbing, for it indicates that in the Singaporean "elite" there is a lack of feeling for one's fellow man."

But upon reflection, the opposite case can be made. For in a sense, Messrs. Widjaja, Ooi, and Zhou belong to the elite (if not a scholar, the latter certainly "stole" a local's place at NTU).

It may just be a simple case of sour grapes on the part of 'ordinary' Singaporeans. Other anecdotal evidence to consider: the furore which greeted Permanent Secretary Tan Yong Soon's write-up in the Straits Times about his holiday in France.

2:58 AM  
Anonymous Kathryn said...

Wow. I just stumbled across your blog when searching for random blog information about child prodigies and was stopped in my tracks by the stories that you've shared here. Very powerful, touching and frightening!

3:01 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thanks for your approval, Kathryn...but why frightening? I would be interested to know.

Kind regards

7:38 AM  
Anonymous CelluloidReality said...

Those who claim to be intelligent but lack the basic ability to value the life of an individual, are nothing more than common idiots.

We don't need brains, we need more soul.

11:25 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Well said, Celluloid Reality. A country of much soul, is a much better place to live than a country merely of many brains.

12:02 PM  
Anonymous Daniel said...

I've encountered similar reactions from Singaporeans when I expressed sympathy for people convicted under unfair or harsh laws here. When I suggested that the mandatory death penalty and the rules against peaceful protests were unjust, so many Singaporeans just say that "the law is the law, so stupid to break it". Instead of ever questioning the wisdom or fairness of the laws or the system, they blame the "stupid" people for breaking the law and any punishment seems to be ok.

1:15 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Yes, Daniel, people are not thinking here for themselves and weighing the system against an internal understanding of what is right and what is wrong. People just accept things unquestioningly without coming to an opinion on whether they are truly fair, just or reasonable. Of course, in such circumstances, with such a people, many unfair things become possible...

1:54 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Yes, Daniel, people are not thinking here for themselves and weighing the system against an internal understanding of what is right and what is wrong. People just accept things unquestioningly without coming to an opinion on whether they are truly fair, just or reasonable. Of course, in such circumstances, with such a people, many unfair things become possible...

1:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Re death penalty... is it wrong? Japan, a developed, democratic nation has it too...

2:23 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Just because Japan does something, that doesn't make it right: Japan, in its history, has done lots of crazy things.

More seriously, the death penalty is a very difficult issue. The big question is whether the state should be involved in killing people at all, for does that not make the state a murderer, too?

The difficulties only begin there. Mistakes are made and innocent people are executed for crimes they did not commit. Most countries, with the death penalty have admitted to such errors, in the past. Of course, Singapore would never admit to such a mistake, even if it had hung a thousand people in error.

Then there is the issue of the arbitrariness of the crimes for which the death penalty is levied. In some cultures, adultery would do it. That sounds pretty crazy. But then to many people the death penalty for carrying small amounts of a white powder also sounds pretty crazy. Should these crimes carry the penalty of death? Many nations would disagree with the Middle East and Singapore on these matters.

So, the death penalty is no easy issue and cannot be settled in a simple blog comment.

Generally speaking, however, it is most definitely wrong to kill people. Those who advocate the death penalty must have good reasons for doing so - and must show that it is right in the circumstances of which they speak. I don't believe that Singapore, for instance, has done that: they have simply carried it out regularly, for crimes decided by them to be worthy of such a response.

Thanks for your comment.

10:38 PM  
Anonymous exsingie said...

There is so much apathy, both political and humane in the Singapore society, that it is hardly surprising Singaporeans generally are not empathic or sympathetic towards their less unfortunate. The way the society was structured from the top for the last 40 plus years unfortunately breed the society that we have now, one devoid of soul and compassion.


11:41 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you for the historical perspective exsingie.

Yes, this is a land without a soul...yet a soul is the most precious attribute of all. Money, in that context, just doesn't cut it.

11:57 PM  
Anonymous Emigrated from Singapore said...

I think it's a case of the noisy majority. I believe there are many kind and caring Singaporeans who are not net savvy. Your point abt Singaporeans worshipping Mammon. I just chanced upon a BBC interview where PM Lee justified high ministerial salaries with a comment that we should not pretend that people are in it for "love of king and country". How sad is that? Leading by example? The young will now feel all the more justified that "money talks , bs walks".....I want to believe and I do believe that there are kind souls in my fellow citizens....It's always the loud, tough ones who put down others for their different opinions. All the same , I do appreciate your "saying it as it is" and hopefully it jolts Singaporeans out of their apathy.

12:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Singapore is not perfect.
However, it is not so much that Singaporeans lack sympathy.

I see it as more of a backlash as foreigners (David, Zhou) who enjoyed preferential treatment and members of the elite (like Allan).

These are trying times and its happening everywhere. even London and New York.

3:11 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Yes, I heard that too of Lee Hsien Loong. I would have hoped for better sentiments from the leader of a developed nation: those who lead should not be doing so for money, but PRECISELY for the King and Country he mocks.

You are right: differences of opinion are not encouraged around here - I don't think that is healthy.

I am glad you appreciate what I am trying to do.


5:40 PM  
Blogger Miao said...

Actually, I am inclined to agree with Isabella that there are still quite a number of kindred spirits out there in our society. Singaporeans donated generous sums of condolence money to Huang Na's family after she was kidnapped and murdered; financial aid (a total of $300,000 if I am not wrong) was given to the family left behind by the man who killed himself out of desperation by jumping onto the MRT track; many locals continued to support NKF despite the corruption scandal; etc. Some of us have no doubt followed the government's lead in becoming utilitarian, heartless and self-interested individuals, but fortunately there are still helpful people out there who somewhat mitigate the harshness of this environment.

7:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I appreciate your sentiments and sympathy for the victims. In addition, I believe the caring minority should not let such heartless people dominate the conversation. It only serves to entrench this sentiment as normal and acceptable.

It doesn't matter if the victims are 'foreign' or 'elite'. If some local student were to off themselves (and some have), they will get same response.

To all those who have made such comments, you all should be ashamed of yourselves. Stop pretending that such sentiments are rational or objective, they aren't. In fact, they are damaging to society in the long run.

11:42 AM  
Blogger Syahidah and Valentine said...

This situation, in Singapore, with the lack of sympathy for suicides, being seen as normal reminds me of another situation. In a high-security prison, it would be seen to be as normal, not to value human life and, indeed, to see others as of no consequence at all. This does not seem that different from the values prevailing in Singapore today. I wonder what that says about this society?

1:08 PM  
Blogger Terra Shamil said...

In America, when someone commits suicide, generally people are saddened, but I'm sure that even in the USA there are those like you describe in Singapore. Singapore isn't the only place that doesn't value human life, and those people aren't the only ones that dismiss suicides like that.

7:18 AM  

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