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Create Talented Individuals?


How Does One Create Highly Talented Individuals?


The 2008 Beijing Olympics has been awe-inspiring. Incredible world records have been broken. Brilliant sportsmen like Michael Phelps from the USA, and Usain Bolt from Jamaica have held us spellbound.


Even Singapore grabbed a little bit of the limelight when it won a silver medal in table tennis. Never mind many of our table tennis players were born and bred in China.


I have been listening to a considerable amount of discussion asking why Singapore isn't doing so well not only in sports, but in other fields such as the arts, film, and science.


One of the excuses given as to why Singapore has not produced its own international talent is that Singapore has too small a population. The theory is that geniuses are produced in a sort of mathematical ratio of one per x million population.


This cannot be true. Take Jamaica, for example. It only has a population of 2.8 million, and yet it has recently won 11 Olympic medals, compared to Singapore’s one medal. Even Ireland, New Zealand, and Croatia, with a population slightly smaller than Singapore have won more medals.


And it is not confined to just Olympic medals, but right across the board, including Nobel prizes and outstanding artists and filmmakers, and scientists. Singapore lags behind in all these fields.






New Zealand




2.8 million

4.2 million

4.2 million

4.5 million            

4.6 million

GDP per capita






Olympic Medals (2008)

11 (6 gold, 3 silver, 2 bronze)

2 (bronze)

9 (3 gold, 1 silver, 5 bronze)

5 (2 silver, 3 bronze)

1 (silver)

Nobel Prizes

1 (Derek Walcott educated in Jamaica)





Internationally Famous Musicians

Sean Paul, Bob Marley

Sinead O’Connor, James Galway

Natasha Bedingfield, Kiri Te Kanawa

Riva, Stephen Kovacevich, Ivo Pogorelic

Melvyn Tan

Famous Scientists

Cicely Williams


Lord Kelvin, Frederick Donnan

Ernest Rutherford, Maurice Wilkins

Vladimir Prelog, Lavoslav Ruzicka

SS Ratnam



I think the problem lies in Singapore’s educational system. But first, allow me to say what I think is good about our educational system. It is universal, affordable, and the standard of mathematics and science teaching is of the highest quality.


Where it falls short is in the area of sports, arts, and creative thinking. My friend (CKJ) has a son who was very creative, making toys, modifying instruments and coming up with new and improved versions. However, when he entered primary school at the age of 6 years, suddenly his creativity vanished. His father said: “it was simply a question of ‘this is the answer, this is what it is, just memorize it.’”


Indeed school children are crammed with an inordinate amount of facts resulting in information overload. So much time is devoted to memorizing that there is scarcely enough time left for anything else. One example of this is that children are made to remember every single part of a microscope including the names of the little screws and other minor components. They are tested on these relatively unimportant facts, instead of being allowed to explore the microscope, the microscopic universe, and then be guided to think through and work out the principles of optics.

If a science experiment goes askew, the typical Singapore student would just copy the “correct” results obtained by a neighbour. Unfortunately this means that the student would miss out on an important learning opportunity, namely to work out what went wrong, and how the error could have been rectified. The solution to what goes wrong in an experiment is obviously not found in a textbook, and requires hard thinking.


Encouraging students to think for themselves, to devise their own experiments, to work out solutions to problems, and to troubleshoot faults, is distinctly lacking in most Singapore schools.

There are other areas of parochial thinking. For example, it is often assumed that creative thinking takes place almost exclusively in the humanities and not in the sciences. Thus science teachers do not place much emphasis on practical observations, do not challenge current theories, and do not prod students to produce original ideas and works.


Another example of blinkered vision is the overemphasis on the commercial value of everything. For example, scientific research in Singapore is only undertaken if it has to potential to make money. Pure research is frowned upon, because it is perceived that it takes too long to achieve commercial success. This restriction of research trickles down to all thought processes, and everyone edits out any ideas that do not obviously lead to profits.


A third problem is that every project must be measured by key performance indicators (KPI). This includes the performance of teachers, which is measured by how well their students do in exams. Research projects are also subjected to such evaluation. This means that certain results are anticipated, and it distorts the focus and direction of research, which, if it is meant to make profoundly original discoveries, will be thwarted.


Turning to sports, there are several reasons why Singapore has not produced its own indigenous sportsmen. Most of our international-standard representatives are born outside Singapore, and are granted citizenship in the hope that they will represent Singapore. A lack of facilities is not one of the reasons. Indeed Singapore is ranked seventh highest in the world with respect to GDP per capita. We have excellent sports facilities that my Jamaican sports friends would envy. So what is the problem?


I believe it is in the mindset. Sports is not valued as a profession worth pursuing. Most parents would discourage their children from devoting too much time to sports, as they fear this would erode into time for academic studies. Only recently has a sports school been started, but it is too early to evaluate how successful this will become.


Sports teachers are sometimes over-restrictive in their selection of students. If a child wants to participate in a particular sport, he would only be allowed to take part if he were already highly proficient in that sport. Beginners are rejected.


By and large, the same comments also apply to the arts. Parents tend to discourage their children from becoming too involved in the arts, and many teachers prefer to accept only those students who are already proven to be adept in that art. The emphasis is almost entirely on performance, and little value is placed on the creation of original art.


So where do we go from here? Singapore needs to re-evaluate its educational system, to place more importance on independent and original thinking. In this, it needs to sharpen the use of the tools of thought, which includes a higher level of language abilities, artistic, music and bodily-kinaesthetic expression.


An individual should receive a well-rounded, balanced education. Creativity can be cultivated, but it requires a fertile environment that is friendly, encouraging, and allows freedom of thought.

Like the gymnast leaping and somersaulting on a narrow wooden beam, an educational system needs to achieve a similar delicate balance. It is a balance between freedom and discipline, between active self-exploration and passive rote learning, between creative thinking and repetitive drills (divergent versus convergent thinking), between the learner chosing what to learn versus the educator dictating what needs to be learnt.


To achieve this balance is difficult. Any changes in the educational system or method of teaching, will only bear fruits decades later. Therefore, one should not base long-term educational decisions on short-term exam results. It is well recognized that many of our best inventors, entrepreneurs, businessmen, scientists, artists did poorly in exams.


To plan for the future, one encounters a further complication. The fulcrum of what constitutes a balanced education shifts from time to time, making it difficult for educators and administrators to know where precisely to position it in anticipation of future developments. A good example of this is the rise of information technology and computer education in the past few decades.


There is one more factor to consider. To rise to the absolute top of the heap, one needs to be highly motivated and stubbornly persistent. Listen to the swimmers, athletes, pianists, who all say that they have to train for hours everyday, often giving up other activities and a social life. You might ask: “How can this be regarded as a balanced life?” You would be absolutely right. You cannot have your cake and eat it. At least not initially.


Before I return to the question of balance, there is yet another element to consider. I have been fortunate to have been taught by top scientists, including Nobel prizewinners, and have met a few highly successful entrepreneurs. Almost without exception, they are outstanding original thinkers.  They have a keen sense of humor, and they have an unconventional way of thinking. They dare to think differently.


My friend (CKJ) tells me the story of a team of Formula 1 racing car engineers. When designing increasingly powerful engines that make their cars go faster no longer helps one win a race, because all the other cars are equally powerful, this team of F1 engineers met and brainstormed. Instead of concentrating on acceleration, the team’s designers realized that if they turned their attention to deceleration, they could increase the overall speed especially when turning corners. They therefore focused on brake development. If their car could brake just that little bit later at every corner of the track, it would be able to spend that fraction of a second longer at top speed than the other cars.  If they added all the corners of a race track on each lap, they could go around it maybe 2 or 3 tenths of a second faster than the other cars of equal engine power, straight-line speed and cornering speed. In F1 terms, where there are over 70 laps, this is a lot.  The point here is that it was a bit of really creative thinking by engineers, and indeed their car went on to win.


Talent alone is not sufficient. From the above, it is patently obvious that while innate talent is important, it is not a sufficient condition for winning the Olympics or a Nobel Prize. You need training to develop that talent, you need persistence, and you need to think creatively. Some people add luck to the equation.


Where can education help? I believe that the key to success in education is to remain flexible, to embrace new developments, not to lose sight of balancing the mind and body, and never abandoning the fundamental precepts of cultivating independent thinking, encouraging hard work and persistence, fostering a spirit of creative thinking, a lively sense of curiosity, and a mind that is continuously questioning.


That is the challenge!


Kenneth Lyen

25 August 2008