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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 +

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The madness of the kiasu.

Kiasu is a Singaporean attitude that means "an extreme fear of losing out". It manifests as extreme competitiveness and desire to "beat" others in all things. It also leads to some astonishingly ugly behaviour.

Today, I encountered one of the most kiasu people I think I have ever had the misfortune to meet. She got on my bus, with her son, after school. Another boy, from the same school, followed them on. As soon as they had sat down - mother and son together on one seat - the other boy diagonally opposite, across the passageway, on his own - the mother was overcome with the strangest emotion: she seemed possessed.

She leant across the passage towards the other boy, bent almost double in her effort to get close to him. She bore down upon him like a truck upon a rabbit crossing the road and there was such fierceness in her. Her body was stiff with tension.

"What's your name?", she began with a strident, demanding tone, as if she was trying to shake him with her voice.

"Why?", he asked, quietly, aware that he was being threatened somehow.

"What's your name?" She continued, ignoring his question, raising her voice a little more, as if annoyed that he should dare to question her.

"W...w...wayne.", he stuttered, her aggressiveness making him nervous.

"How do you spell that?" She almost shouted at him, her words gouging into him.

"Why?", he asked again, clearly not knowing why this mother of his fellow schoolmate should be questioning him so.

"How do you spell that?" She continued, once again, ignoring his question and, once again, raising her voice, further.

"W...a...y...n...e"

"Wangy?" She snapped, seeming to think he was putting one over on her.

"W...A...Y..N...E", he repeated, responding unwillingly, but automatically, as if to an angry teacher.

"What's your mother's telephone number?" Again, she seemed to pounce on him. There was something SO predatory in her manner, voice and approach.

"Why?", he asked, in some distress, but quiet with it.

"What's your mother's telephone number?" She continued, again, ignoring his question, again raising her voice.

He gave her his number and repeated it for her to finally grasp. She wasn't too good at listening, accurately - too busy raising her voice.

"Are you in the same class as David?". She didn't really speak. Her words were spoken as if in a stabbing motion, plunging into him, as she leant over him.

He nodded, silently.

"What mark did you get in the last maths exam?" She was so tense that I rather thought she would reach out and grab him, if he didn't give her the answer.

"66". He said, very quietly.

"What?", she said, needing to make doubly sure.

"66". He repeated, a little louder.

"The same as me.", said the clearly mad woman's son.

I understood, by now, that I was witnessing the worst of kiasu attitudes in action. Here was a mother seeking competitive intelligence for her son, in her lifelong combat with the rest of the world.

The mother ignored her son's statement. She didn't even look at him, nor shift from her raised position above the hapless other boy. It was like she was a bird of prey and the boy was a shivering mouse.

"And what did you get in the last maths test?" She seemed angry now, angry that this boy had the same mark as her son.

"93", he said, very quietly indeed.

"What?" She seemed truly pissed.

"The same as me!", her son repeated, "He got the same as me!"

Again, the mother ignored her son. It was as if he hadn't even spoken. Her gaze...her ever so fierce gaze...remained pinned on the eight or nine year old boy who seemed affixed by it, unable to move.

"Who is your maths tutor?" She asked, virtually spearing him with her intensity.

He didn't answer.

"Who is your maths tutor?", She repeated, to no answer from him. It was unclear whether he did not know the man's name...or did not want to answer.

"How did you do in science?"

He didn't answer.

"Who is your science tutor?"

He didn't answer, but just shifted in his seat, as if seeking an escape, but finding none.

"Does your mother work?" She demanded, bullyingly.

He didn't want to answer. "Why?", he asked, painfully.

"Does your mother work?" Again, she raised her voice.

"Yes.", he said.

"What time is she back from work? Seven?" She had not the patience to wait for an answer, so suggested her own.

"Yes. Seven.", he answered, finally, unable to resist her bullying any further.

The mother turned from the boy then, and sat back in her seat. She didn't look at him at all, again. She had got what she wanted. For the rest of the time that she was on the bus, she didn't engage the boy in conversation, nor acknowledge his existence. Interestingly, her son didn't speak to the boy either. They shut him out. Neither mother nor son spoke to one another.

I resolved then to speak with this crazy woman when I rose to get off the bus, for she was behind me. Unfortunately, when it came to leave, I noted that she had got off before me, while my back was turned.

I have never witnessed such an aggressive questioning of a child before, in all my life. It was quite the most astonishing thing I have ever heard.

The most perturbing thing about it was the fury this woman seemed to have in her throughout the entire bullying tirade. She could not have been more aggressive had she been beating him, the whole while.

The question all of this leaves me with is this: would not Singapore be a better place without such kiasu attitudes? Does this characteristically Singaporean behaviour pattern make any positive contribution to life?

It is incidents like this that make me think that Singaporean education is a toxic experience best avoided. Perhaps everyone should homeschool, then no-one would have to put up with this kind of bullying for kiasu aims.

I rather hope the mother of Wayne gets to read this and realizes that she should not cooperate with the mother of David (as I presume her son to be).

(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 @ 6:08 PM 

15 Comments:

Blogger riverman72 said...

It sounds extremely crazy to me. If anyone questioned a young person like that in the UK for example. The questioner would be met with a tirade of abuse from the "victim" and possibly others in the immediate vicinity defending the victim.

Fortunately I didn't encounter such episodes during my week in SG. Instead finding everyone very pleasant to talk to, even if i randomly spoke to them "politely" requesting information :)

Needless to say I enjoyed my trip very much :)

12:49 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

It was extremely crazy. However, she is the worst example of this kind of attitude that I have ever seen...so thankfully this is at the extreme end of such behaviour.

A week in Singapore is enough to get a taste of it...but not enough to see the fullness of its ways. That takes a lot of random events to come to understand.

Thanks for your comment.

6:53 AM  
Blogger Indiana said...

Is it worse that he had to withstand this tirade, or that no-one else jumped in to defend and aide the young boy against the bullying of the adult?

7:26 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

I had 90% of a mind to intervene myself. The problem in such a situation, of course, is that there is a strong social pressure not to become involved. Interestingly, when I looked around the bus, everyone seemed to be trying to pretend it wasn't happening.

Perhaps, they thought such a kiasu moment was more normal than outsiders might perceive it.

Thanks for your question.

8:49 AM  
Blogger Christine said...

That lady is scum. I think that if she wants her son to do so well, she should just try to get him to do well. Beating out competition isn't fair. Yet that seems to be the way that many people want to do things.
It is better if parents want their children to do their best and not push them so far. I am sure that child of hers will resent her later in life for ruining his relationships and being such a "stage mother".

9:29 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a crazy woman.

I remember when I was a kid, my classmates' parents were mostly warm and friendly.

9:32 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

You have made a fair point, Christine. If that mother always greets her son's friends like that, he won't have too many friends for long. It is telling that, after the exchange, none of the three talked to each other: not the victim to his friend, nor the son to the mother, or vice versa. It really brought a silence to them.

Sadly, she is not the only kiasu parent in Singapore...there are hundreds of thousands of them, though perhaps she would be among the most kiasu of them all.

Thanks for your comment.

10:30 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Re. Crazy woman.

Yes: utterly bonkers. You were lucky to have such warm people around you. Your observation has made me realize something: this was bad for the victim, here...but I think there is another victim: her son. He has to put up with kind of behaviour all the time...which, no doubt, has a terrible effect on him. Poor boy.

10:38 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Valentine

You did not intervene ...?

Congrats!
It has taken a long time but you have finally taken the 1st tiny step to becoming one of us :-)

Its really simple.
Just remember ...
1. Look out only for Number I.
2. Never stick out your neck for others unless there is monetary reward.
3. Always have a packet of tissue ready in case u need to dine at a food court ... use it to "reserve" a table.

NoName

1:56 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Hi No Name,

I had decided to remonstrate with her when I got up to leave the bus, because I would have had to pass by her on my way out...but she had left, without my noticing, before I could do so.

So, yes, I did not intervene at the moment...but I had intended to speak with her about her behaviour.

In future, I think, I would act faster in such a circumstance: it was not fair on the young kid.

Re. Singaporean behaviour...I think your three points are spot on.

Thanks for your comment.

2:02 PM  
Blogger Miao said...

A survey conducted by SPH last year revealed that popular private tutors can earn up to S$20,000 per month during the exam season. 97 students out of the 100 interviewees also said that they hire private tutors. This is incredibly insane. When I was in primary school/secondary school, parents/students were also rather kiasu, but it appears to me that such kiasu-ism has heightened to a feverish pitch now. As kiasu/competitive as my ex-classmates' parents were, they were generally friendly as well. The mother's behaviour, as described in your entry, is simply rude and unreasonable. Her preoccupation with her son's academic success has made her forget her manners.

Singaporean youth has been performing well in mathematics and the sciences compared with other countries, but I wonder how much of this achievement can be attributed to our "world-class" formal education system. Besides the credit should really go to the private tuition industry?

6:12 PM  
Blogger Miao said...

A survey conducted by SPH last year revealed that popular private tutors can earn up to S$20,000 per month during the exam season. 97 students out of the 100 interviewees also said that they hire private tutors. This is incredibly insane. When I was in primary school/secondary school, parents/students were also rather kiasu, but it appears to me that such kiasu-ism has heightened to a feverish pitch now. As kiasu/competitive as my ex-classmates' parents were, they were generally friendly as well. The mother's behaviour, as described in your entry, is simply rude and unreasonable. Her preoccupation with her son's academic success has made her forget her manners.

Singaporean youth has been performing well in mathematics and the sciences compared with other countries, but I wonder how much of this achievement can be attributed to our "world-class" formal education system. Perhaps the credit should really go to the private tuition industry?

6:13 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

It may indeed, Miao, be the private tuition industry that should take the credit. I don't see much that is "world class" about the education system, here - having seen it from the inside, long enough.

I puzzle at this need for tutors on such a grand scale. I never had one as a child. Nor did anyone I knew. My children don't have them either...

Thanks for your comment.

6:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I laughed. Literally. I've never seen such a case in all my life here.

Then again, with all sorts of crazy parents around, take a look at their education level and compare it with parents of others from the same school. You'll be able to tell when it's just insanity or friendly competition XD

7:02 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Hi,

It was too horrible to laugh at when I saw it happening...but I can see how it would seem funny.

I have never seen another case like it either...but I thought it a good example of just how extreme the kiasu attitude can get.

Luckily most people are rather more moderate.

In my view, her "kiasu" state had definitely crossed the line into insanity.

Thanks for your comment.

10:52 PM  

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