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, June 14, 2010

Ridzwan Dzafir, Mr. Asean, Pondok Boy.

Ridzwan Dzafir is a notable Malay in Singapore. He used to be Singapore’s representative to ASEAN, hence his moniker: “Mr. Asean”. He also held senior positions at the Trade Development Board and was an ambassador to South America. Along the way, he wrote a book about his life, a book in which I played a role.

Last year, Ridzwan Dzafir published: “Ridzwan Dzafir : from pondok boy to Singapore's 'Mr ASEAN' : an autobiography”. Its publication came as a surprise to me. You see, Ridzwan’s son in law, Charles Barton, with whom I had worked on and off over the last decade, had promised to tell me when it was coming out. He had indicated that it was to be soon after I had last spoken to him. However, months passed, indeed, a good chunk of a year had passed – and I heard nothing.

This puzzled me, you see, early in the millennium, I had been given a manuscript by Charles Barton, to edit, written by Ridzwan Dzafir. I had been told very impressive things about Ridzwan Dzafir and had been led to believe that he was a “Great Man”. At least, that is the impression all the talking up of him, had left on me. Therefore, when I opened his manuscript about his life, I had high expectations of his writing. I could not have been more disappointed. The document was the most poorly written – indeed, illiterate – document I have ever seen produced by an adult. Virtually every sentence had grammatical errors. The language was clumsy. Much of it was “Singlish” in syntax and cumbersome in structure. Sentences were long, incomprehensible and very, very dull. It was, in short, shockingly badly written.

It became immediately clear that my “editing” job, had turned into a rewriting job. What made it even more of a job, than it might have been, was that there was no soft copy of this book: that had been lost. I was left, therefore, with a large pile of paper, typed with illiterate sentences, in a very boring style, to work with. I had no choice but to retype the entire book. As I did so, I rewrote every single sentence in the book, to eliminate grammatical errors, make the sentences comprehensible and make the words flow more smoothly. Sometimes, I had to work very hard to work out the intended meaning, of his torturous sentences, and render them in good English. It was not an easy task, because his writing really was the poorest I had ever seen, in one who spoke English as a first language. Yet, I worked hard at it, because of my respect for his son-in-law, Charles Barton. I wanted to do a good job.

One peculiar characteristic of the book was that there was so relatively little of the personal in it. It was, largely, about his bureaucratic career as a leading civil servant. In time, I would be asked to interview Ridzwan to gather personal stories, for planned incorporation in the book, to give it some life. I did two such interviews. I don’t know what use was made of them.

Anyway, I worked quite a few weeks on the book, every day, rewriting and editing his turgid work, into something readable. At last, I was done. I called Charles Barton to come and collect it, which he duly did.

As he left with the newly rewritten book and the original “manuscript”, I said one thing to him: “If it is ever published, make sure I am credited, for what I have done, on it.”

“Who needs credit?”, he replied.

”Without credit,” I answered patiently, “no-one can build a career. I need to be credited for my work.”

He nodded in reply.

I had made my position clear, on the offchance that it would be published. At that time, however, there was no indication that it ever would be, for it was, I had been told, being put together for his family.

It should be noted that the revised manuscript I handed Charles Barton was much improved over the original. It was now, at least, a readable work, whereas before it had been quite the most impossible book to force one’s eyes over.

Many years passed. My interviews with Ridzwan Dzafir were added to the tally of the work done by me. Yet, no word came on publishing. Finally, I heard that Editions Didier Millet would be publishing it. On being told this, I told Charles: “Make sure I get a copy…and don’t forget the credit.”

A couple of years passed and I had still heard nothing about publication of the book, so, one day, I entered Ridzwan Dzafir’s name into Google. I was shocked by what I saw: “Ridzwan Dzafir : from pondok boy to Singapore's 'Mr ASEAN' : an autobiography”, had already been published.

I clicked on the first link to mention the book and found a site that had uploaded the first few pages of the book.

I read the dedication. Then I reread the dedication. Then I looked carefully over the introductory pages looking for what should be there, but wasn’t. There was no mention of my name, or of the endless work I had put in, on the book, making it into a readable manuscript, from the biggest pile of illiterate rubbish I had ever had to read. I felt sick. Ridzwan Dzafir had broken his word to me. So, too, had Charles Barton. I hadn’t been credited at all – despite the fact that this book would never have happened had it not been for my painstaking input.

There was, however, a list of other editors and staff on the book, listed carefully. I could have laughed at the sick joke that was. The first person to edit and, in fact, entirely rewrite the book, was me – but I wasn’t credited at all. I had done much more work on the book than any of the names listed from Editions Didier Millet, since they had the benefit of working from my revised manuscript which had, at least, been improved to the level of comprehensibility.

I rang Charles Barton about it.

“Ridzwan’s book has been published.” I said to him, knowing that he would know this already. “How come you didn’t tell me?”

”I was hoping you wouldn’t find out.”, he said, rather disappointingly, for one I had long considered my friend.

“I am not credited at all, Charles.” I was hurt, but there was none showing in my voice. I was more amazed that Charles had told me nothing.

“I asked them to. I called them about it when it came out – but they said that there was a general credit to friends and family. I thought that wasn’t good enough.”

“I should have been credited Charles. I put a lot of work into that book. Don’t you remember that after I gave the book back to you, I said I should be credited if it were ever published?”

“I did ask.”

“It is not your fault…”, I said, thinking it could either have been Ridzwan’s fault – or the publisher’s.

“I am glad you think it is not my fault.”, he said. I almost felt him shift from one side to another as he did so.

The conversation ended unhappily, for me, anyway. It was the last time I ever spoke to Charles Barton – despite us being what I had thought of as good friends, for almost 10 years. You should note that this was his decision, not mine. He never returned my emails, thereafter. It seems that his father-in-law is more important to him than any friend – even if that father-in-law, claims credit to himself where it is not due, and doesn’t thank those who helped him, along the way.

I wrote to the publisher and asked them why I hadn’t been credited. They said that they had only done what they had been asked. That left two possible culprits: either Charles Barton never reminded Ridzwan Dzafir to credit my work – or Ridzwan deliberately omitted to thank me, despite the fact that his book would never have happened without my help, all those years ago. Then again, if Ridzwan Dzafir, was at all like his press, (which he isn’t), he would naturally have credited me, without prompting, for all the work I had done on his behalf. That he didn’t, is especially telling given the absurdly saintly public image he has.

Let us consider what is happening here. Ridzwan Dzafir’s original manuscript, had been not only unpublishable, but utterly unreadable. It had been, quite simply, impossible for any normal human being to get through. Indeed, that was why the job had been passed over to me, to do – because none of his own family could muster the attention required to do it. It had languished for years, in their hands, but not a one, of an extended family, had had the fortitude to work on it. An outsider was sought, because no insider would do it. So, I did it: I rewrote the entire book. One would have thought that my request to be credited, as having done so, would not have been too big a thing to ask: after all, without my work, that book would never have got to the stage of being published – yet, I see something dark in the failure to credit me. Anyone reading, “Ridzwan Dzafir : from pondok boy to Singapore's 'Mr ASEAN' : an autobiography”, might be left with the impression that Ridzwan Dzafir can write – when this is just not true. So, a possible interpretation of the failure to credit me for my work on the book, is that Ridzwan Dzafir wanted to create the false public impression that he was a fairly competent writer. He is not. He is, in fact, a wholly incompetent writer.

I do wonder, now, at how Ridzwan Dzafir succeeded so stellarly in his career. Did he do all the work himself – or did he develop great skills in securing the credit for himself, of the efforts of others? I wonder because how he handled the publication of his book, is an indication of the latter tendency. Ridzwan Dzafir has gathered to himself the credit for all the thousands of changes I made to his book, to improve its readability. Without the changes, the book, if published, would have told the public something surprising: Ridzwan Dzafir is essentially illiterate. Yet, now, the public are being told that Ridzwan Dzafir can write. The book as published had been rewritten by me – then edited again by a whole team of people from Editions Didier Millet. You must note, however, that Editions Didier Millet have actually introduced grammatical errors and stylistic failings (in my view) which were not there, in my revised manuscript. In revising it, I think they have put back some of the “Singlishness”. So, in that sense, the manuscript, as published, differs from the one I put together. They have also reordered it.

I can’t give a complete assessment of what they did to my revised manuscript because Charles Barton never kept his promise to me to give me a copy of the book. I am not going to buy a copy of a book that does not credit me for the work I did on it.

I lost a friend over this. Charles Barton and I have not had any two-way communication since. Yet, my response to this is coloured by a few observations. I asked Charles what he had asked them to print, in the dedication. He said: “I have kept no record of it.” I replied: “It will be in your email.”

His only reply to that was silence, total silence.

This does seem to indicate that it is quite possible that Charles Barton did not mention me in the dedication at all. It is also quite possible – indeed, probable – that he did not mail them, at all – or if he did, that that mail does not say, what he first told me, it said.

Thus, I am left to ask: what kind of friend have I lost, anyway? What kind of friend would do, or allow done, what Charles Barton did, after all the work I put in, on Ridzwan Dzafir’s book? Then, again, I had met Ridzwan Dzafir many times, socially, over the years, and for interviews. What kind of man doesn’t thank someone for all the work they have done on their behalf?

Perhaps, the only real, substantial thing I have lost here, is credit for the work I had done. I am not sure whether I have lost anything, in truth, on the human side. Perhaps, I never had what I thought I had, in that department in the first place.

Many people contributed to Ridzwan Dzafir’s book. Ridzwan wrote the first draft. However, I entirely rewrote it. Then, a large number of people worked further on it. Ridzwan Dzafir’s book is, now, very distant from the illiterate mess, I had had to work with. That should be remembered by anyone who actually gets to read it.

A final thought: perhaps the fact that Ridzwan Dzafir would not credit for his editing and rewriting, someone who had done so much work, on his behalf, is the most revealing aspect of the book – more revealing than any of its contents about the true nature of this unaccountably respected man.

Note: Ridzwan's writing is "illiterate" when held up against the standard of what is conventionally thought of as good english. It contains innumerable errors of grammar, indeed, more than I have ever seen in anyone except a student of English as a second language. There are other failings, too, (see text above) but I think I have conveyed the general idea.

(If you would like to learn more of Ainan Celeste Cawley, 10, or his gifted brothers, Fintan, 6 and Tiarnan, 4, this month, please go to:

I also write of gifted education, child prodigy, child genius, adult genius, savant, megasavant, HELP University College, the Irish, the Malays, Singapore, Malaysia, IQ, intelligence and creativity.

My Internet Movie Database listing is at:
Ainan's IMDB listing is at
Syahidah's IMDB listing is at

Our editing, proofreading and copywriting company, Genghis Can, is at

This blog is copyright Valentine Cawley. Unauthorized duplication is prohibited. Use only with permission. Thank you.)

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 7:36 PM 


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Valentine,

Don't take it too hard. From what I understand, editors at academic presses do not get much acknowledgment for their work. In your case, I don't think it was done out of malice.


8:49 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you for your mollifying words. However, all the editors and other staff at the publisher, were credited in the frontispiece. I was the only person involved not directly credited. So, I am not as sure as you are, that this was not a deliberate, calculated omission. The fact is, I did more work on that book than any of the staff at the publisher: I brought it up to the point where it could be considered to be a real book, and not the chaotic effusions of an illiterate. That was a big step to have taken. It should have been credited - as the much smaller steps of the other contributors were.

The fact that my "good friend" of ten years fell silent over the matter, is a good sign that something is definitely wrong with what was done. We had had, until that moment, a good communication.

Thanks, though, for your attempt to make me feel better about it! It is appreciated.

9:24 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

By the way, it is clear that this is a deliberate act, from the way Ridzwan has behaved since: there has been no word of apology or explanation. Indeed, there has been no communication from him at all. Had it been a mistake, I would have heard very quickly from him. This is a deliberate slight and omission. I rather get the impression that Ridzwan is undeserving of the reputation he has acquired - since he didn't show the requisite characteristics with respect to me.

10:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

That sucks. I supposed before taking on any work (that involves a whole lot of work), put in a contratual agreement.

I think you deserve more then a credit.

1:17 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

You are right. It does suck. You are right again: I should have had a contractual agreement, in writing. But, you know what? I trusted in the friendship I thought I had, that Charles and family would be fair to me. They weren't. So, the moral of the tale is: don't trust friendship alone to guarantee fair behaviour - get a contract, no matter what you think of your "friendship"!

Thanks for the reminder.

2:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

a little off topic, but do you believe in fengshui?

notice you seem to have problems with ppl stealing your work. perhaps you can consider getting some fengshui advice to strengthen your luck in this area.

9:58 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

I am not too familiar with the workings of Feng Shui: how does it bear upon the problem of work being stolen?

Please explain, if you can.

10:29 AM  
Blogger FrameTurnerWins Pictures said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

12:27 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thanks for the news. I must say, I shan't miss him: he didn't have the right character to make him missable. He was too dishonest and deceitful for that.

No doubt the obituaries will be filled with positive misperceptions of the man. After all, he dedicated his life to creating a certain - inaccurate - image of himself, which even extended to the pose that he was a real writer.

I didn't buy the book, myself...I couldn't bring myself to give any money to the man who had cheated me so!

12:50 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Why have you removed your post saying that Ridzwan Dzafir died today and that you wouldn't be buying his book?

12:57 PM  
Blogger FrameTurnerWins Pictures said...

My apologies for deleting the previous message. I would like to rephrase the sentence. (so used to being in a straightforward and honest culture). The man passed away today. Thanks for sharing Mr. Cawley. I've experienced deceit in this line myself! A contract is a friend. Rest assured, I won't be purchasing this book!

12:59 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you for rephrasing and clarifying your intent...much appreciated.

To my mind, it is a pity that he lived his life, so as to garner to himself, the credit for the efforts of others. This is a means to fake a reputation. He may not have understood it or seen it as so. It may not have been a conscious habit...but the way he treated him does point to a character rather at odds with the image he created in the public.

Yes. You are right. I should have had a contract. I lost credit for my work...and a friend, too, who thought that covering for his father in law, was worth more than a ten year long friendship. Personally, I would have hoped for more personal integrity, from him. He should have stood up for honesty...but didn't. It is very sad, actually.

How do you know he has died...I can't see it online, yet?

1:04 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Typo: It should not be "way he treated him..." but "way he treated ME".

1:05 PM  
Blogger FrameTurnerWins Pictures said...

I guess this is what happens when a man reaches a certain age and decides to write an autobiography as he reflects on the romantic life. And, at that point in life, ego and reputation is slightly less important than the words which will be beautifully crafted by a specialists such as yourself. He employed you and provided the scrap building materials. And you as a specialists is expected to get it done professionally, take the commission without any further questions asked.

“Who needs credit?”, he replied.
”Without credit,” I answered patiently, “no-one can build a career. I need to be credited for my work.”

The above is something which is missing dearly in Singapore. Perhaps it has become part of the work culture. Employers tend to take such things for granted since contractors are cheap, expandable and will be forgotten the next day.

How I knew he died? Facebook is a friend.

Once again thanks for this post. Now I have a good excuse to read the autobiography of T. E. Lawrence of Arabia again! :D

2:01 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

I have no doubt that TE Lawrence is a more interesting character...and a more interesting book...enjoy it.

The most troubling aspect of this is that my receiving a credit, was a condition I attached to the job. They ignored that, to create the false impression that Ridzwan could write. He could not. He was, in terms of writing, very poorly educated, or innately inept.

Yes. It may be a Singaporean problem to try to deny credit to those who actually do the work. This creates a very unhealthy environment which is, ultimately, to the detriment of Singapore itself. Ultimately, good people leave if they are not credited - if they are able to do so. Or they refuse to take work and do something else instead. This diminishes Singapore. Personally, I left...though, for many different, simultaneous reasons.

Thank you for your comments. Good luck in your quest for a good read.

3:02 PM  
Blogger Overmydeadbody said...

Valentine, you should observe more how PAP men and women will compromise integrity just to give the illusion that they are our best people doing the job of leading and forming this country. Thanks for exposing another long time supporters of Lee Kwan long as you do not rock the boat, you will do well in Singapore, if not, be prepared to be evicted and be diminished. Many more PAP MPs are of this calibre, willing to lie through their teeth to build up their status, reputation and facades of competency in their lines of work, especially the Politician lawyers, medical professionals and business sectors. But be brave and put out the hard truths, especially to people who are still naive about their political heroes!
Ridzwan Dzafir is my neighbor in Frankel Avenue and not many guests attended his wake? Illiterates and the uncouth are ideal supporters for PAP.

6:44 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Kartina, I find your note unpublishable and rather snooty. I am not surprised you are related to Ridzwan...for he, too, was unpublishable and rather snooty.

Ridzwan's written English was awful. You can reimagine his abilities in any way you like...but it won't change his inabilities one iota. I am sure that he wrote that book...because I was told so...and because it was clearly written by a lifelong, and very dull, bureaucrat. There was no life in its pages, at all, until I attempted to breathe some into them.

You attempt to make excuses for his behaviour - and refer to failing to credit my work as "a minor detail". Bullshit. You show contempt for the one who rewrote his words and made them readable. Not to credit one who rewrote every sentence, is a blatant attempt to deceive the world that he could write. He was a very poor writer. Now, I understand that he didn't have to be good at everything...but why go to so much trouble to create the false impression that he could write?

He took credit for my work on his book. The kind of person who does that, is the kind of person who always - or often - takes credit for the work of others. I think it likely that my view of Ridzwan is closer to the truth, than yours...biased as it is, by being related to him.

Ridzwan had a couple of years to apologize to me, for failing to credit me. I heard nothing. His failure was obviously deliberate, therefore.

The overall tone of your note is insulting, but I understand that you probably don't know any better.

11:13 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

By the way, you are unable to understand the difference between ability to speak and ability to write. They are not the same. Ridzwan could speak English - with Singlish influences - but he could not write. That you defend his writing based on the fact that he could speak, shows rather poor thinking skills on your part. They are different characteristics.

11:15 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

You are unaware Kartina, that the book was written over a long period, many, many years ago. It is not a recent book. I was given it about eight to ten years ago to work on and it had been sitting around for many years before that. The book was written when he quite a bit younger and fresher.

Yes. Barack Obama has problems giving impromptu speeches. I have never considered him a bright man...I see an affirmative action President there.

12:30 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

By the way, you assert that I may have done something to his son in law to provoke this. Not so. I was ever kind, hardworking and considerate, where Charles was concerned. I helped him out throughout the years and worked as well as I could, at all times, whenever assigned to projects. I thought of Charles as a good friend. He, however, didn't seem to value that.

12:34 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

In your further comment, Kartina, you say that I have "no respect for the dead". Well, Ridzwan Dzafir showed no respect for the living, in my case, which is a far worse crime, I would have thought.

I have said nothing about your personality, other than to note how your words came across. You can't blame me for that...after all, you wrote them.

Thank you for confirming that you intended to insult me...that rather bolsters the impression you are making.

You say that I would do well to make one tenth of the contributions to Singapore that Ridzwan did. I find that quite funny. Singapore's doors weren't open enough, to a foreigner, like me, to allow me to make my maximal contributions. That is Singapore's loss. I am contributing more in Malaysia, at this time, than Singapore allowed me to. But then, you wouldn't see these problems with your beloved country would you? It takes an outsider to see a place as it truly is.

My total contributions in life - if I have as long a life as Ridzwan had - are likely to considerably outshine his. My as yet unpublished works already outshine his career. You presume to know too much, therefore, when you compare me unfavourably to him. In truth, you know approximately zero about me, or my achievements.

I am not why should I pour my life into Singapore, especially since it wasn't particularly welcoming or open with respect to us? You have a strange way of thinking about other people's lives and priorities.

7:42 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

You further accuse me of arrogance. Again, that is funny in how much I am precisely not. I have a realistic sense of who I am and what I can do...but I am not arrogant. Furthermore, I appreciate others, in all their variety and respect them. What I do not respect, however, is deceitful liars and cheats. Ridzwan cheated the world by not crediting me for the work I had done. His book would have been a total embarrassment to him, had it not been rewritten. He didn't even have a grasp of English tenses, for instance...many of his sentences did not make sense, in that context, at all.

The great irony here is that he most probably didn't credit me so as to obscure the fact that he couldn't write well. However, this had the side effect of provoking me to comment on his very poor writing. Had he credited me, I would have said NOTHING about his awful writing and would have kept the matter secret. So, he has only himself to blame, for the revelation that, by the standards of a true native writer, he was pretty much illiterate.

7:48 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thanks Overmydeadbody, for your comment.

It is interesting, indeed, to learn that few people turned up for Ridzwan's wake. It seems that, perhaps, not as many people were fooled by his ploys, as he might have hoped. Either that, or he was not as truly loved, as the media makes out.

My own thought on this issue is that, if he deceived on the matter of his writing, what else did he deceive on? He chose to give a false impression of his literary, did he also give false impressions of competence in other areas? It certainly is the right question to ask. People who practise deceit in one area of life, generally do so in many. Then again, this should not be surprising for a vaguely political figure, like him.

Thanks for letting me know about his wake. That is very telling.

8:19 PM  

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