Educating Ainan has become an international competition

James Hookway
The Wall Street Journal

Lured from rival Singapore with scholarship, whiz kid gives Malaysia bragging rights

Ainan Cawley with his parentsA few months ago, 10-year-old Ainan Cawley was looking out for high-powered sports cars on the streets of Singapore.

Now the Singaporean youngster is ogling them on the streets of Malaysia, where he has just enrolled for a three-year American degree and inadvertently added to a longstanding tussle for supremacy between two of Asia’s closest but least cozy neighbors.

Ainan has a special talent when it comes to subjects like chemistry and physics. He passed a chemistry exam when he was 7 that most children don’t take until they are 16, and his parents say they couldn’t find a sufficiently challenging school back home in Singapore.

Ainan Cawley

Sensing an opportunity to generate some buzz for itself, Malaysia’s HELP University College jumped in, offering Ainan a full scholarship this year and, in the process, scored some points for landing the child over Malaysia’s traditional rival, Singapore.

To say that Singapore and Malaysia don’t get along is putting it mildly. Once conjoined as part of British-controlled Malaya, Malaysia expelled the city state from what was then the Federation of Malaysia in 1965, fearing that Singapore’s mostly ethnic-Chinese population would weaken the Muslim Malay government in Kuala Lumpur.

Since then, the two countries, separated by a narrow strait, have frequently butted heads. Some observers say their sibling-like rivalry has helped propel the development of their trade-based economies, which are the most sophisticated in Southeast Asia.

At other times, their mutual enmity spills over. Singapore is a tightly regulated, clockwork-like state that sometimes can’t keep itself from criticizing Malaysia’s messier ways. Singapore’s founding prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, famously labeled Malaysia’s Johor state as “notorious for shootings, muggings and carjackings.”

Malaysia, meanwhile, appears to enjoy testing Singapore’s patience. It periodically threatens to negotiate Singapore’s supply of fresh water, prompting Singapore’s government to develop some of the world’s most sophisticated water-recycling technology to turn waste water into something it brands “NEWater.”

Now, Ainan’s scholarship in Malaysia is provoking a fresh contest for bragging rights, especially in Singapore’s state-controlled media, where government officials say they have bent over backward to help the boy.

It’s a sensitive topic. The education industry is booming in Asia, with a number of countries seeing a surge in foreign students coming to study at universities and colleges.

Malaysia and Singapore are two of the biggest players. Paul Chan, the founder of privately funded HELP University College where Ainan is studying, says he is aiming to attract 20,000 students in 2016, up from 11,000 this year, and a quarter of them are foreign. The school is listed on Malaysia’s stock market, where its share price is up 29% since the beginning of 2008, and up 88% since the beginning of 2009.

Singapore’s National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University, meanwhile, already are big names, and Ainan’s defection to Malaysia’s education system at such an early age could be a loss.

In an emailed response to a reporter’s questions, Singapore’s Ministry of Education said it works to ensure that every child, including those with special talents, reach his or her full potential. A ministry spokesman described Ainan as “a talented young person.” The ministry “sought to work with his parents to develop him holistically to become a successful adult” while arranging hands-on experience in the chemistry laboratory.

Ainan’s parents don’t see it that way. Ethnic-Malay Singaporean Syahidah Osman Cawley, 31, and her husband, Irishman Valentine Cawley, 41, describe their quest to find a stimulating education for Ainan as “Orwellian.”

At first glance, Ainan seems like any other 10-year-old. He messes around with computers and plays with his two younger brothers, as well as keeping his eyes peeled for Ferraris and other high-performance cars. Mr. Cawley and Mrs. Syahidah said they noticed there might be something a little more unusual about Ainan when visitors to their Singapore home were surprised to see him crawling about the floor when he was 4 months old. Later, when he was 6, a visit to Ainan’s grandmother’s house revealed an unexpected interest in chemistry.

“His aunt saw him looking through a chemistry book and said he looked as if he understood it,” Mr. Cawley said. “She gave him an old sample exam paper, and he could answer the questions.”

“It was spooky,” said Mrs. Syahidah, as Ainan fiddled with the levers on a chair in the HELP campus’s offices. “It was like I’d given birth to an old man.”

The Cawleys said they realized Ainan would need more than Singapore’s regular education system could offer, and they couldn’t afford private schools. Without more challenging classes, they said, they worried that his whole attitude toward learning could be soured. “On his first day of school, Ainan was despondent,” Mr. Cawley said. “It was nothing like what he expected. He was bored silly.”

The family asked for permission to home-school Ainan, but the authorities didn’t reply to the Cawleys and didn’t respond to a reporter’s questions about their application. After 22 months of trying, Mr. Cawley said he managed to arrange some hands-on lab experience for Ainan at Singapore Polytechnic, but those classes ended when the boy’s mentor there—a Malaysian Chinese—became sick.

That, Mr. Cawley said, is when he began looking overseas. An inquiry to the Association for Gifted Children of Malaysia last year yielded several offers within a week. They chose HELP. The college’s founder, Mr. Chan, said his school agreed to accept Ainan as soon as it heard about his case.

“We in the private sector, we can decide quickly. We don’t have to go through the rigmarole of public meetings,” Mr. Chan said. “And I can’t deny the publicity helps.”

To be sure there are dangers in pushing gifted children too far. British-Malaysian prodigy Sufiah Yusof entered Oxford University at the age of 13 in 1998 to study mathematics. She fled the university two years later, accusing her father of putting her through years of emotional pressure and was placed in the care of British social services before returning to her studies. Other people in the same situation have collapsed under the weight of expectations or found themselves ill-equipped to handle university social life.

Others excel when placed in the right kind of nurturing environment—which the Cawleys hope they have found in Malaysia—and go on to build careers and raise families.

Still, moving from the well-oiled machine that is Singapore to Kuala Lumpur brings its share of obstacles—including learning how to deal with Malaysia’s traffic problems and notorious lack of taxis.

“We’ve always lived in places with good public transport,” Mr. Cawley said, waiting patiently for a cab near the HELP campus. “But it looks like we’re going to have to get a car.”

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