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 +

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Singaporean immigration: a modern comedy.

Singapore is becoming a modern comedy...the whole nation is just one big comic act. However, it is the sort of comedy that does groans, not laughter.

Today, we were having a meal out with the family. The restaurant had a mixed clientele of expats and locals. The atmosphere was good. The food was fine. The only worry was the staff. They were mainly Chinese mainlanders. Now, before you jump to conclusions about the intention of my remark, I would like to say that this is not about race: it is about language.

Ordering a drink should be the simplest thing in the world. However, staffing the restaurant with PRCs who would find difficulty saying: "Yes" or "No", doesn't help much.

"Drinks.", said the slenderest of slender girls from China.

"We'll, two, three, green teas, please." began my wife.

The puzzled look from the waitress told us that there had been far too many words.

"Green tea. Three." repeated my wife rather slower and more carefully.

"Green tea.", she repeated, seeming very uncertain of herself.


"One grass jelly.", I asked.

She stared at me in the kind of silence that told me that a) she hadn't understood me. b) she didn't have enough English to tell me that she hadn't understood me.

"Grass Jelly." I repeated, with an assumed patience. "Grass...jelly..."

"Grass jelly." she echoed, getting the words right, and convincing me, for a moment that she had understood.

She went away.

We chatted.

She came back with a stack of drinks and a smile that she had managed to meet our order.

There they were: three green teas...and a Cherry Lemonade.

She pointed at the Cherry Lemonade in a hopeful way, making it clear to me that she had had absolutely no idea what "grass jelly" was and had simply picked a drink at random in the vain hope that she would get it right by chance.

"No.", I said, debating whether or not to express my irritation. "Grass Jelly. That is not grass jelly."

She gave me the silent look shared by all who don't speak the language that they are presently being required to speak. Dealing with her was like dealing with a mute: she had zero ability either to speak or understand English.

I found someone sighing very close by. It was, in fact, me.

I rose then and walked past her into the restaurant area, proper, walked up to the fridge from which she had taken the drinks, reached in and took out a Grass Jelly drink. She looked very carefully at what I had taken and where it had come from. I repeated the words: "Grass Jelly", closed the door, walked out of her work area and back to my seat.

Now, I have taken the time to describe one moment of incomprehension, in Singapore, to make a point. To get an idea of what it is actually like living in a country in which many of the service staff - who once had been speakers of English, or at least, Singlish - have now been replaced by mute Chinese mainlanders - mute in the sense that they basically speak no English at all - you just have to imagine this one encounter with incomprehension multiplied so that it encompasses a good fraction of all encounters with service staff. Imagine a country, an English speaking country, in which everywhere you go there are service staff who just cannot understand you, cannot be understood and to whom it is a struggle to communicate anything at all. That is the modern comedy of Singapore. It is a comedy because the employers here think that they are being clever by hiring Chinese PRCs on wages locals would never work for. They are not being clever - they are destroying the reputation of their businesses - because it is an absolute nightmare to get served in such places.

I can see Singapore throwing away much that made it a good place to be, in the quest for ever cheaper workers. What happens when ALL service staff are Chinese PRCs, NONE of whom speak English? What sort of place would Singapore be then? Who could stand it? Will we all have to speak to them in Chinese? Is Singapore going to lose its facility with English?

I tire of it. I tire of trying to talk to PRC staff who haven't got the first idea of what I am trying to say - even if I speak with very simple words and very slowly. I am not alone. Everyone around me is complaining of the influx of PRC staff. Yet, still it goes on, still they come.

I wonder how long it will be before companies realize that they are destroying themselves by employing all this cheap, foreign - but non-English speaking - labour? Will they realize before it is too late?

(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 @ 11:24 PM 


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes. I have to agree. Although i'm ethnic chinese, i still find it terrible that many local companies only see the salary issue as their main concern, while pushing aside the language issue for the non-mandarin speaking crowd to figure it out.

I'm not against PRCs; but please train them to speak basic english before putting them on the front line.

To be fair, i've encountered PRC staff who have actually improved their command of english till they are now able to communicate with the customers. However, this group is still small.
Many of them are determined to improve their command of the english language and i sincerely hope that they will succeed- For their sake, and for the non-mandarin speaking crowd.

1:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why does she have to speak English?
Was it an English restaurant?
Chinese is an official language of Singapore so I dont see why your complaining. Besides she probably think that its your fault for not speaking Chinese just like you think its hers for not speaking English

6:43 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

It takes a LONG time to become proficient in English if you start from nothing, as most of these PRCs do. Then, many of them may not even stay long enough to learn it.

It is good that some are trying to learn...but you know what: speaking conversational English should be a basic requirement of their jobs...they shouldn't be in the position of trying to guess what the customer wants.

7:08 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

She HAS to speak English because most of the customers are expats. It is a Western restaurant.

Even if it were not a Western restaurant, she should still speak English because, you know what, ENGLISH is the main language of Singapore and we are not in China. However, I understand that some people in Singapore seem to think it is a good idea to turn Singapore into a little China. They are doing it every day by importing large numbers of PRCs.

Many Americans think that Singapore is part of China. Yes, their geography is poor - but their common sense is strong...for is that not just what Singapore is becoming?

7:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hire Singaporeans(locals)... who can at least converse in both languages...

And as much as i hate to admit it... we are indeed turning into a little China...

Not only in the US, but also in Europe, some people(hopefully not the majority) still view Singapore as another SAR like HK. I had to explain to them that we are an independent nation...

9:46 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

If people all over the Western world believe Singapore to be part of China, then, in some way, it must be true. It must be identifiably so Chinese that they think it to be Chinese. The nature of the place is confusingly like China, in their minds.

For an "independent nation", Singapore is remarkably dependent on mainland Chinese immigration.

10:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

UNfortunately, we are indeed dependent on PRCs for lots of work that locals wouldnt do...

I have to disagree with your statement "If people all over the Western world believe Singapore to be part of China, then, in some way, it must be true."

When i talked to them(Europeans), most of them havent even been to Singapore(in the past 40 years), and some, not even heard of it.
But because i'm ethnically chinese, they immediately ask me if Singapore is part of China.

I guess perception always becomes reality(in their mind).

11:31 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Singapore chooses to be dependent on PRCs for such jobs. They could easily employ English speaking people from other parts of the world - such as India. It is easy to find good English speakers in India. However, the decision to use PRCs is not just economically motivated, but racially motivated, I feel.

12:09 PM  
Anonymous twasher said...

However, the decision to use PRCs is not just economically motivated, but racially motivated, I feel.Yes. It's to counter the demographic consequences of the (generally richer) ethnically Chinese not reproducing as quickly as the other races.

1:34 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

1:46 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

1:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There are a couple of Chinese nationals working in F&B outlets at the mall near my house. Although they don't speak English well (but most probably better than the one you mentioned), I find them (those at my mall) hardworking and eager to learn.

Singaporeans in general shun frontline jobs in the service industry.

1:46 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you for your corroborating comment.

There could be one problem with this policy. The PRCs are generally brought in for low-skilled service jobs. This would seem to indicate that most of them would be of lesser ability than, perhaps, the average richer Chinese Singaporean. This could lead to unfortunate genetic consequences for Singapore...

1:48 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

It is true that they are hardworking and eager to learn...that is why China is growing so fast - on the sweat of its people. However, English, at least to a basic conversational level, should be acquired at home in China, before taking up a position in an English speaking country.

I am not saying that the PRCs are not hard working...I am pointing out that many of them find English presently beyond them.

1:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In defence of the some of the Chinese staff, I was the one who did not understand during a trip to a fast food restuarant in Orchard.

The very patient PRC lady was asking me what drink I wanted. But I didn't quite know what she was saying and kept asking for the regular meal.

She walked away saying "forget it", but kindly brought me a Cola, which if I had understood her, I would've ordered.

I actually felt embarrased for not understanding her and appreciated her professional approach :)

Should I get to Live and Work in Singapore, the locals can be reassured I don't speak any other languages other than English. :)

I hope I haven't caused any offence with this post, it should be read with a light hearted approach :)

2:14 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

just because most of the customers are foreigners doesnt make it a western restaurant. Besides grass jelly isnt a western dish

6:48 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Re. Western restaurant.

You weren't there were you? I am flabbergasted that you would actually take an opinion on a place you don't know.

For your information, it is a Western restaurant because it serves western food. The menu had such delights as burgers, steaks and fish and chips. The FOOD makes it a western restaurant.

It stocks drinks of all sorts because those drinks are locally available. Grass Jelly comes in cans like Coke.

7:16 PM  
Blogger Miao said...

I think it's a company's duty to pay for its employees' English lessons. After all, Singapore is a multiracial society. It doesn't matter whether a restaurant serves Chinese cuisine or Italian food. Non-Chinese patrons are going to drop by. I wonder how the non-Chinese locals feel about the influx of so many workers from China who do not understand English well enough to serve them. Companies want to earn revenue from non-Chinese customers, but at the same time they can't be bothered to ensure that these non-Chinese customers enjoy a pleasant dining/shopping experience.

1:16 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Re. English lessons.

That is a good idea Miao. Perhaps if companies were LEGALLY obliged to pay for English lessons for their non English speaking staff, they might see less of an economic advantage in employing them and might seek out English speaking staff in the first place. Even if they didn't it would be a great help to all if they could learn to speak English to a basic level.

9:33 AM  

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