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 +

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Salesmanship, the Singaporean way.

Last week, I had one of the strangest encounters with a salesperson I can recall. I was passing by a shop that purported to sell educational materials for young children, when a saleswoman approached me, perhaps upon noting my three year old son, Tiarnan, beside me. "********", she began in Chinese words I didn't understand.

"English please.", I replied.

"NO ENGLISH.", she countered, emphatically and then proceeded to try to sell me this educational tool entirely in Mandarin. It was bizarre both to watch and to listen to.

The only thing I understood was what her finger was pointing at, as it toured the device pointing things out and spouting Chinese. She was most passionate - or at least driven - by what she was saying. Her words were clearly well practised and she went through them as if giving the performance of her life. The oddest thing about it was that she was oblivious to my evident incomprehension.

I stood and watched her sales performance not out of any understanding, but out of amazement that she would try to sell me in a language I had already indicated that I did not understand. She proceeded as if, of course, I must understand Chinese because EVERYBODY understood Chinese. She proceeded as if my request for English, was some kind of trick to deprive her of a sale.

The entire explanation of the product took about three to four minutes. In that time, I recognized not a single word. The only understandings I grasped were those that were obvious from watching the machine in action. Her commentary provided no meaning for me, nor any improvement in her chances of making a sale.

I gathered from her fluency in Chinese, but complete lack of English, that she must be a PRC - a person from the People's Republic of China.

At the end of her presentation, she did not make a sale. How could she, when I had not understood a word? Yet, that had not dissuaded her from doing so, in an unknown (to me) language.

However, I will say this: it was a worthwhile experience simply to be able to watch her earnest determination to make a sale, despite not sharing a common language.

At the same time, it does show how ridiculously pervasive the presence of PRCs is becoming in Singapore. Not only are they not adjusting, properly, to Singapore - but as this woman made clear, they expect local people to speak to them in Chinese. It doesn't take much insight to see that a deluge of Chinese immigrants, like this saleswoman, armed with little English, but great determination to speak Chinese, could undermine Singapore's status as an English speaking country. After all, many English speaking Singaporeans are leaving - and who is replacing them but NON-English speaking PRCs.

I thought the whole incident worthy of record because it is the first time in my life that someone has tried to sell me something, in an English speaking country, in a language not my own - despite every indication that English was required. I am left to wonder: how common will such moments become with the ever increasing influx of PRCs into Singapore?

(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 @ 4:38 PM 


Anonymous ks said...

That definitely tops any experience that I've had with PRC employees here!

Why is it that there are so many PRC workers these days? "Ideally", shouldn't there be many native Tamil and native Malay speakers joining the group to give us "racial harmony"?

10:56 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Hi KS,

Racial harmony is not really the issue in Singapore: racial dominance is, however. PRCs are imported because of their race...other races are NOT imported, because of their race. It is quite simple.

I expect there to be more and more of the kind of experience I noted above in the years to come.

Thanks for your comment.

11:03 AM  
Blogger Miao said...

The other day I was going to the American Embassy, and I asked the driver to alert me when it was time for me to alight, for it was my first time taking public transport to the Embassy. The driver, who is obviously from China, looked at me with a befuddled expression and asked me to repeat my question in Mandarin. I wonder how SBS can call itself a public service company when non-Mandarin-speaking commuters are being marginalised by its decision to hire so many drivers from China.

6:53 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Miao, it is a form of anti-non-Mandarin racism to hire PRCs in ANY role. The point is that if they ONLY speak Mandarin, you are making a statement that you consider non-Mandarin speakers unimportant: it is a racist act, therefore, in being discriminatory.

Thanks for your example. I have had trouble communicating with bus drivers too.

9:26 PM  
Blogger Miao said...

"... it is a form of anti-non-Mandarin racism to hire PRCs in ANY role."

I agree with this, but it is even more annoying that a public service company should do that.

10:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Valentine,

I think you are using the term "racism" too loosely here. It is an inconvenience, yes, but racism? You have got to be kidding.


1:34 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Unfortunately, Miao, racism of this kind is very common in Singapore. However, it is not recognized for what it is.

11:05 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Re. Got to be kidding. You haven't thought about what it means that those hiring disregard the non-Chinese part of the population. They are saying, by their actions, that they don't CARE about non-Chinese people being unable to understand the PRCs. Therefore, that is a racist line of action and thought.

Thank you.

11:12 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Mr Cawley

I agree that the attitude is one of utter disregard for non-Mandarin speaking people. The store management must be too lazy or it must have deemed the non-Mandarin speaking market to be too insignificant.

I also accept that there is an undercurrent of racism in all this (in the context, arguably, of there being racism to a greater or lesser degree in every country).

But I feel that the greater force at work here is linguistic or cultural chauvinism rather than racism per se. It stems from the view that (a) China is a rising power; (b) compared against other languages, Mandarin has the largest number of speakers; and (c) China has a continuous civilization of more than 5,000 years.

The unspoken message seems to be that since the populace is almost overwhelmingly Chinese (one may argue that Singapore is not as "overwhelmingly" Chinese as Hong Kong is), then Mandarin should in the natural order of things be the lingua franca.

To any fair minded, right thinking Chinese Singaporean this is evidently wrong as Singapore is a multi-racial society which adopted English as a neutral, working language at its independence in 1965. Mandarin may rightly be the lingua franca among the various dialect groups of Chinese Singaporeans, but certainly not for all Singaporeans.

This unspoken message was actually verbalised by a PRC man in an interview segment which I saw over Channel 8 some years back. There was disapproval and a hint of disdain in his observation that Singapore, being a Chinese society (from his own words: "yi ge hua ren she hui"), should have given prominence to the English language.
But looking at it from his point of view, given his cultural perspective, there was nothing racialist about it - it seemed just so right that Mandarin should be the lingua franca.

This seems to me to be more a case of the tyranny of the majority than of out and out racism.


10:48 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Dear Mr. Clunies-Ross,

Not only does it have a racist flavour, in my eyes (and ears) to encourage such a preponderance of PRCs - but it is also a retrograde step for Singapore. Long ago, the choice was made to integrate Singapore into the international community by choosing the only global language as its lingua franca. That was a beneficial decision for Singapore which is partly responsible for its financial success. Were Singapore an exclusively CHINESE speaking society I do not think it would be, now, as remotely successful as it is: it would lose the place it has won for itself in the world.

Perhaps, in going down the Mandarin route, Singapore is risking becoming too dependent on China - and no longer the international hub it once became.

Thanks for your comment.

7:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

FYI, we are too dependent on the US. And perhaps it would be good to remind you that many non-chinese businessmen are trying to pick up mandarin.
And then there's the fact that within the next century, China will at least be as powerful as the US. Do not forget the economic and political leverage that China holds over the US now as a major creditor and N.Korea's ally, and that is even though China has yet to reach its full potential.

10:42 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Almost all businessmen in the world, of any stature, speak English. The same cannot be said for Chinese - and will never be said of Chinese. Were it so, that Singaporean businessmen and government officials could only speak Chinese, Singapore would be a backwater.

Yes, China will grow in power...but you know what: the Chinese had better learn English if they want to optimize their growth. Most of the rest of the world is NEVER going to learn Chinese when the world already has a workable lingua franca: English.

This shift to Chinese is not a good trend for Singapore and does not open options, it closes them down. A dependence on China is far more limiting than being able to speak to any businessman in the world - in English.

Thanks for your comment.

11:31 PM  
Anonymous Dean said...

haha, do you look chinese? Was it a chinese educational product?
I think that this should not be classified as racism because the saleswoman was a PRC and she probably only knew mandarin. (she only rambled on cos she was trying to make money)

But if it is not a chinese product, I agree that the companies are lazy to search for proficient people to sell their product.

On the other hand, I would like to say this: if we are not going to hire PRCs(a form of anti-non-Mandarin racism) or any other people who only speaks in chinese/malay/tamil, then wouldn't it be considered racism towards these people too? Just because they don't speak english(maybe due to them being uneducated), SBS don't hire them as bus-drivers(a job which i think is considered low-education pre-requisite), wouldn't the bulk of low-educated Singaporeans have a hard time finding a job?

My teacher have showed me how Singapore has favored english speaking students/elites over students who speak primarily in other languages in their education system: the bulk of us from better schools are english speaking. Most subjects are taught in english. Our government also removed chinese-schools. Most poorer families tend to speak in their mother tongues(chinese/malay/tamil), hence wouldn't it be racist to make everything english? i get the feeling from your post/comments that we should only hire people who speak english. i feel that that is an elitist remark and by hiring only people who speak english is being racist too.

to Miao: Hello, I think you should write in to The Straits Times forum so that you can pressure SBS to improve their hiring system.

However, we have to note that the majority of Singaporeans do not speak english, so it may be difficult for us to teach all our bus drivers english.

I personally feel that buses should have the same announcement system as our MRT, so that passengers would know what is the next stop. (Problem solved)

(Pardon my run-on sentences, haha)


11:50 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Hi Dean,

It was a Western educational product. There was nothing Chinese about it.

Singapore is supposed to be an English speaking country. Everyone here is supposed to speak English...that is why education is in English (or Singlish, anyway). The idea is to make Singapore international, in that Singaporeans can then speak to anyone. That is not being is being wise.

Chinese is spoken only by the Chinese. English is spoken by everyone. Which language, therefore, is more important to Singapore (or any nation). The answer is clear.

Everyone in Singapore is at least meant to speak English as one of their languages. Only the Chinese here speak Chinese. Therefore it is racist to hire people who cannot speak to non-Chinese people. However, Singapore is always like this. If you are not Chinese in Singapore, you are a second class least that is what I have observed over the years, here.

No. I do not look Chinese. I am a WHITE Irishman.

Thanks for your comment.

10:23 AM  

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