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, August 10, 2009

Are NUS/NTU graduates creative?

NUS and NTU are Singapore's leading Universities. Their graduates are locally very respected in Singapore. No doubt, they have studied long and hard. Yet, I have cause to wonder, are these graduates creative?

Recently, I had a conversation with an American who works in an American company working in a creative industry. It is a famous American company, so I shall have to leave clues out of this account, lest it be identified. Let it be said, however, that the work that this company does straddles a couple of major creative industries with global reach.

Now, this American was observing to me about hiring practices which puzzled him. You see, one of the senior managers in the local branch of this global company was a Singaporean graduate of NTU. It was part of this manager's job to choose whom to hire to do the creative jobs that they had vacant. What troubled my acquaintance was just who this Singaporean was hiring - and why. Every single time a creative job came up, this Singaporean NTU graduate manager would look through the pile of CVs he had in front of him and select the Singaporean NUS and NTU graduates who had the best academic records. He picked the ones whose grades glistened...whose resumes dripped with A grades. Now, if you are Singaporean you will probably be nodding at this point, thinking that this is the right thing to do and is only natural. However, my American's experience with the people that were hired in this way, says otherwise. You see, the problem with these NTU and NUS graduates is that THEY COULD NEVER DO THE JOBS.

If you are Singaporean, and conditioned to believe in grades as the be all and end all of education, you might be shocked at this. I shall explain for you. The problem was that these NTU and NUS graduates with the great grades were UNABLE TO BE CREATIVE. Their resumes looked wonderful. They had jumped successfully through every academic hoop along the way - but something was missing. They had learnt to pass exams and shine in that situation - but they had never learnt how to think creatively. They were, according to my American acquaintance, unable to do the job, in every single case. They were just not good employees of this creative company.

Interestingly, have a guess who WERE the most creative employees of this company? The Indonesians were. That is right, employees who had grown up and been educated in Indonesia were the best workers in creative jobs, at this American company. The second best were the Thais - my American contact remarked that they were creative and had a good work attitude, as well.

So, this problem with NTU and NUS graduates being uncreative, is not a problem that applies to all graduates, everywhere. It doesn't apply to the Indonesian graduates from overseas - nor to the Thais (or he noted the Vietnamese)...but it does apply to the Singaporean graduates of NTU and NUS.

This leads me to understand that the type of education being received by Singaporeans in Singapore is creating graduates who might be competent in an academic sense and able to handle known and familiar tasks, in structured environments (isn't the whole of Singapore one big structured environment?) - but they are not creative. At the end of their long and arduous education, there is little creativity left in them.

Now, this really didn't come as a surprise to me, having taught in the Singaporean system at all levels, and witnessed the dearth of creativity at close hand. What did surprise me, however, was that Indonesians (who are customarily looked down upon, by many Singaporeans, perhaps because their young women tend to be maids in Singaporean households), were the most creative of all the races (other than "Americans" was implicit in his observations) employed in this large, global American company.

Many Singaporeans clamour to get their child into NTU or NUS. Yet, do they understand what the results of such an education are? Do they really want those results? Do they want an academically competent, but creatively incompetent child? If so, NUS and NTU - and the whole Singaporean education system - are perfect. However, if you would like to have a creative child...perhaps it might be best to send them overseas to Indonesia or Thailand!

(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 @ 8:14 PM 


Blogger ozob said...

Will you be looking into sending Ainan to Thailand or Indonesia?

5:18 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

We would definitely be looking at NON NUS/NTU options overseas, yes. Given what my acquaintance said, almost anywhere would produce a more creative result than those two Universities are doing right now.

Thanks for your question.

7:52 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Valentine,

When you say that you have taught at all levels throughout the Singaporean education system, do you mean to refer to the local universities too? If so, which ones?


10:08 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Cawley,

Whatever creativity most Singaporeans once had, has been systematically stifled and snuffed out since their primary school days.

This is due to:-

(1) Singaporean parents being obsessed with grades (and who therefore give priority to their children being taught/drilled to give the "right" answers to score the highest possible marks);

(2) teachers being pressured to teach towards this objective, i.e. their pupils just giving the "right" answers (indeed, teachers are judged on this KPI); and

(3) schools and principals being judged on this criterion (the marks attained by pupils) above all else.

I had previously commented (in relation to your post on the "bouncing iPod") on conformism and social engineering in Singapore. Well, my point is that NUS/NTU are not entirely responsible for the lack of creativity in their graduates. The damage has been done from the earliest years, and not just within the context of formal education. A growing child is, after all, a social animal and he picks up values, expectations, mores and strictures. He is formed by the sum total of his growing up experiences and his environment. NUS/NTU are just the apex of the formal education system in Singapore; the icing on the cake, if you will.

By the way, have you interacted with SMU graduates? SMU's selling point is that it is different from NUS/NTU. It would be interesting to have your views of SMU graduates vis-a-vis NUS/NTU graduates, in the creative department, that is. Best wishes.


4:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Singapore education system churns out students who excel in examinations. But whether or not it has achieve the other objectives of education, remains to be seen.

Anyway, I'm quite heartened that there are creative Singaporeans out there. One person I can think of is Zhang Jingna, a 21 years old photographer, who has published a book, had an exhibition and has won several awards. Despite having only a PSLE (she gave up her studies later to pursue her dreams), she has achieved so much more then the average Singaporean with a degree.

11:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Valentine,

I just wanted to ask if you were a member of the faculty in a Singaporean university before your current line of work.


11:03 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

I have worked at primary, secondary and TERTIARY level, in Singapore, yes. However, not at NTU or NUS. I prefer not to go into the fine details of my CV online, though.

I am familiar with the level of creativity shown at each level. The system most certainly doesn't encourage such thinking.

Thanks for your query.

11:59 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the sterotyping is a bit overboard.

1. Most Singaporeans clamour to get into Ivy League universities. Not NUS\NTU.

2. Many Singaporeans think the same of "creative" American managers (WASP\HISPANIC\ASIAN). I have met my fair share of anal ones. In fact, there are many *creative* Singaporeans working successfully in Indonesia.

3. Ok, I do agree there are anal ones with shiny CVs. However, many of these local "scholars" were groomed for the civil service. If the American manager hired them, its his fault.


11:18 AM  
Blogger Syahidah and Valentine said...

Hi No Name,

You haven't read my post carefully. The manager doing the hiring was a SINGAPOREAN graduate of NTU - not an American. My American acquaintance was complaining of his hiring practices because it always brought creatively poor hires into the business.

You make statements regarding uncreative Americans and creative Singaporeans without even any anecdotes to back them up. Singapore is famous for being uncreative...and America is famous for being creative - such fame has a basis in large scale group differences. A typical American is likely to be more creative therefore than a typical Singaporean (though at extremes one could, no doubt, find exceptions).

My every experience of Singaporean education and its students tells me that it does nothing to encourage creativity and everything to discourage it. I have met few creative people who have been through the system. They are SURVIVORS of the system - and not products of it.

However, I am sure of this: Singapore will never listen to feedback that its education system is hampering creativity - because Singapore never does listen, really to anything which says: "You are not right".

Thanks for your comment.

9:50 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Re. the photographer. I find it interesting to note that your example is of someone who DROPPED OUT of the Singaporean education system...and prospered. Her example does not support the notion that such an education is a necessary prerequisite for success.

Thanks for your example.

9:57 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Re. SMU.

No. I am not familiar with its graduates and so am not equipped to comment. I am open to receiving information about how they differ from other graduates, however.

You are right about the lifelong damage to creativity done by the "system" here...

Thanks for your comment.

10:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think what you need to realise is that this is not only true for Singapore, but for Asian countries in the NE, i.e. China, S Korea and Japan, where the competition is even worse than the local situation.

As the majority here are ethnic Chinese, this thinking is some-what brought over during the immigration waves much earlier on.

That is also why many of my local friends studying in the US or UK tend to end up with 1st Class/the cream of their cohort, while those unlikely and studying in local University have to fight it out with so many other people who mug just as much.

To tell the truth, in any society, we need some who are smart academically, some who are creative...etc. The problem comes when everyone wants to be academically inclined due to pressures from the family and from society.

Oh, and btw, the reason for studying hard here is to get a job that pays well- our GDP/captia is comparable to western nations-
While creativity could lead to a well paying job as well, i am skeptical in the chances of that happening, at least locally.
America, where the people are more creative, have a high GDP too, but a massive debt(hostage to mainly China and Japan), and pensions which can no longer be supported. But that's creativity for you right?

I want to end off with this conclusion that it is GOOD to be creative, but expecting the pressures of society to change overnight is unrealistic- just like how Americans aren't going to give up their spending habits anytime soon-
I believe the govt is taking the right step by promoting more art events, e.g. arts festival, where foreign groups are brought in to perform.
Give Singapore a few more generations (im a third generation) and i'm sure a new bred of creative people will emerge. In the meantime, try to be more optimistic of the future and yet realistic of the present like Obama. I use try, because...

3:54 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Firstly, I should point out that there is no real link between creativity and a tendency to debt - as you suggested re. America...they are, I would think, two independent factors.

You are right that creativity is in short supply across parts of Asia...but that doesn't excuse Singapore's lack, in any way. One good reason that Singapore is not creative, is because Singapore does not VALUE creativity and creative people. A creative person has a very hard time of it, in Singapore (we have seen this close up).

Thanks for your comment.

10:35 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Also, I find it interesting the way you oppose being academic and being creative...I think this is a local idea: there is no reason why you can't be both, I don't think. However, here, they tend to exclude each other. Interesting.

10:36 AM  
Blogger Girl, Look At You! said...

I think it is worth mentioning that in the five-factor model of personality, openness to experience (correlating positively with creativity) correlates negatively with conscientiousness (correlating negatively with debt accumulation). In general, I am sure that you will agree this is true. It certainly seems true of Asia, based on what you have blogged. However, this seems to play out differently when applied in public finance, as Japan and Singapore lie respectively at #1 and #5 in the list of countries holding the highest amount of public debt (as a percentage of GDP). It is worth noting that the Scandinavian countries, noted for their emphasis on creativity, fall between #30 and #60 and that Indonesia falls at #73. Admittedly, Japan and Singapore probably accumulated much of their great debt in the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, but I still think that it counts. If they were more conscientiousness, they would not have taken the risks whose spoiled fruitage fuelled the crisis.


Five-factor model of personality –

Openness to experience –"openness+to+experience"

Conscientiousness (Second paragraph) –

Public Debt List –

Creativity by county -

4:20 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Girl, Look at you! Thanks for your very interesting observations...and links. I don't have a moment to check them out, at this particular moment,but when I do I will see I can comment further.


4:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would not be so quick to dismiss NUS/NTU grads as uncreative. Their creativity may have been stifled by an educational system that emphasizes rote learning, but it remains latent within them. Examples are Goh Choo San, a well known ballet choreographer with Washington Ballet, who has graduated from NUS (check wikipedia), and Margaret Leng Tan, a professional toy pianist, who must have studied in Singapore as a youth.
I would think that the 'creative' Thais and Indonesians mentioned are the ones adventurous enough to venture overseas, and hence have more reasons to tap into their creativity to survive. Perhaps the same can be said of Singaporeans who dare to venture into untested environments?

2:15 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

You may be able to find creative exceptions but, certainly, the experience of employers I have met (in more than one field), from overseas, working in Singapore, is that local graduates are almost always uncreative.

You are, however, right to say that anyone who IS creative is likely to leave, eventually, since locally they are unlikely to receive understanding, welcome, support or even opportunity. Of course, no matter how much they like their country, they will have to leave.

Thanks for your comment.

11:20 AM  
Blogger Game-R said...

Creativity requires the courage to let go of certainties. ~ Erich Fromm

I have to agree with your American contact. All one needs to do is listen to any Indonesian radio and they'll find such soulful and emotional music that's impossible without tapping from powerful emotions deep within.

Creativity in the artistic and creative media world stems from such a strong bond between body and heart.

By contrast, almost every Singaporean child's emotions, soul and creativity is brutally suppressed through many means from their birth:
parental/family "school performance" demands,
National Service,
obsessive worship of the letter/numbers "A" or "4.0" in grades.

I wouldn't really say its solely the educational system to be blamed. Its likely its that with a combination of, in no small part: culture, public perceptions, lifestyles, pressure to conform to social standards, lack of understanding (by governments & parents) and peer pressure.

12:53 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

The picture you paint, Game-R, is a very sad one. Singapore has, basically, sacrificed its soul, in pursuit of money. A moment's reflection, by any human being, who actually understood what it meant to be human, would agree that such a sacrifice is not really worth it. Too much is lost, for what gained. No amount of material success can make up for the depths of life that have been thrown away.

Thanks for your thought provoking comment.

1:18 PM  

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