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, August 15, 2009

Singapore is No.1.

"Singapore is No. 1", is a phrase I have heard so many times since coming to Singapore. When I first heard it, I thought it was absurd and couldn't understand why anyone would ever say, however, I see it as something else: it is what those in power would like the Singaporean people to believe.

Do Singaporeans believe that Singapore is No. 1? Well, it seems that the conditioning is working and that they do, in fact, believe this mantra, at least in some cases.

The other day, I was talking to an intelligent Singaporean about recent changes in how an international survey of University standing is done. I mentioned that in previous surveys that Singapore's Universities had done relatively well - because the measures only took the quantity of research papers published into account. I told him, however, that now the new measures took QUALITY of research into account as well, by including a measure of citations per paper (the number of times other researchers reference the paper).

"How well do you think Singapore's Universities did with the new measure?"

"They were No.1?", he half asked, half stated.

"No. They did rather badly...they have fallen dramatically in the rankings. You see Singapore produces a lot of research, but it is cited less often, than research elsewhere. The quality is not there."

The intelligent Singaporean in question went very quiet. He didn't know what to say. His deep seated belief that "Singapore is No.1", had just been confronted by an undeniable truth: Singapore's research quality was nowhere near "No.1". He didn't address the issue but, after a long pause, changed the topic and guided the conversation elsewhere. I didn't press the issue, or revisit it: I had learnt enough from his instinctive belief that Singapore should be No.1.

Singapore is a society filled with people who always like to win. They fight each other lifelong to do so. This is termed the "kiasu" attitude: a fear of losing. The idea that "Singapore is No.1" is a kind of cultural delusion that Singapore has somehow "won", against the whole world. The whole thing is very strange. Many Singaporeans seem to really believe that Singapore is somehow the top of the global heap in all respects. At least, it is not hard to find one, who will utter the famed "Singapore is No.1", in all kinds of situations.

The truth is, of course, that Singapore is doing OK in many respects. It has done quite a few things well. It has created an efficient, stable, relatively prosperous society. That is true. However, there are just as many things that it is not doing well (and I am not going to list them, lest I be accused of being too critical). Singapore is not a society without problems or flaws. It is most certainly not "No.1" in all things, or even in anything. I think the idea that "Singapore is No.1" is a dangerous one. It is an idea that leads to complacency, that leads to an attitude that "we don't need to change because we are the best already"...well, it just isn't true. Like all societies, there are many things that could be improved. Like most societies, there are other places which are better, in any respect you care to examine. Yet, the overall package, in Singapore, is relatively good. It would be truer to say not that "Singapore is No.1", but that "Singapore is doing OK..." Perhaps then, Singapore would actually have a chance to BECOME No.1 in some things...because there would be the awareness that improvement was necessary and possible. As it is, the mass delusion that "Singapore is No.1" creates the mass conviction that nothing needs to change, for all is perfect already. In other words, the propaganda that "Singapore is No.1" dooms Singapore to be mediocre, for it deprives any drive to improve of any real motivation.

So, give Singapore a chance to get better...and stop saying it is "No.1" already.

(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 @ 11:58 PM 


Blogger Fox said...

The citation count of a paper also depends on when the paper was published. An above average paper published in 2008 will have fewer citations than a below average one published in 1998.

A university, such as NUS, which did not emphasized research and produced a smaller volume of and lower quality research, will not fare well. The emphasis on and support for research only came about the last few years.

Let's say, hypothetically, that NUS suddenly quadruples its research output AND quality in 2007. What would you observe? Paradoxically, the citation count per paper would actually decrease because of the sudden surge in the number of publications. However, as the years pass, the average citation per paper would rise dramatically.

1:27 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Yes. It is true that papers take time to accumulate citations (this varies quite a bit depending on the field, too...some move fast, some move slow).

The University survey I read is not the only one to note the relatively low citation count of Singaporean papers...this has been noted elsewhere. I think it is because of the emphasis of local researchers on short term, immediate results, so really deep and therefore potentially very influential work does not even BEGIN to be done, here. (One Professor I spoke to at NTU said that he was not interested in any research that couldn't produce a monetary return within three to five years. That is a very short term focus which prevents the better work from being done. What is done, though, is the making of money...)

We will see, Fox, how Singapore's research rankings fare in the years ahead. I know a lot of money is being pumped into research. Only time will show if it is being spent in a good way.

2:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Arrrgh... I sort of work as a researcher. (By 'sort of', I mean that I've been doing and is currently doing research but don't hold a permanent position).

Good research takes time. I would say time and patience is more important than money.

However, there's a tendency to rush for deadlines. I am not sure if other people face this problem but it is really frustrating to be unable to follow leads and publish so-so results after facing a roadblock just because of a deadline.

10:56 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thanks for your comment...there shouldn't really be any deadlines in research...just open ended exploration until something is found.

Thank you for highlighting the situation.

12:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, I'm very interested to read more about this survey. Do you have a link for it? Thanks!

8:57 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

I read about it in Singapore's newspapers. They were attacking the survey and trying to argue that the results didn't count. Interestingly, in previous years, when Singapore had done well, they had praised the very same survey...! How typical.

So, I don't have a link. I have a memory of reading it locally.


However, it is probably on the net somewhere.

8:30 PM  
Anonymous Research Papers Writing said...

Many institutions limit access to their online information. Making this information available will be an asset to all.

3:21 PM  

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