Getting cat-ty about the rat race

-- ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE
-- ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

When it comes to being happy, Chibi and Fufu are world champions

Come on Chibi, you can do it!"

I cheered, jabbing my finger encouragingly towards the neon fish slinking around the iPad screen.

My eight-month-old kitten, who, until two seconds ago, had been toting up the points by clawing frenziedly at the fake swimmers, abruptly sat back on his haunches and yawned.

The neon fish prospered. Chibi's score on Cat Fishing, an iPad game for cats, did not.

I sighed and restarted the game, resisting the temptation to compare Chibi's high score - 560 - to the world record of 1,400, logged by the annoyingly impossible to dislodge Kumho.

My only comfort was that there was no way Kumho was a real cat. I knew this because, in a fit of parental pique I, a human, had once played Cat Fishing myself - and managed a high score of only 1,380.

Still, it was Chibi's future at stake here, not mine or Kumho's. If he couldn't even pay full attention to a 60-second iPad game, what prospects would he have when he grew up into an adult cat?

It was a question that had been plaguing me for some time, ever since a friend had casually mentioned that one of her cats was "dumber" than the other because he didn't know how to drink straight from the tap.

"Apparently, it's common behaviour," she told me. "Our smart cat does it every day, but the slow one still has not figured out how to do it!"

"Haha, so dumb," I said unconvincingly, mentally calculating the number of times my cats had misjudged and put a wayward paw into their stationary and eminently unchallenging water bowl.

Another friend sent me a video of a cat, who, when tempted with a treat, would stand on her hind legs and clasp her paws together, as though begging for the snack.

I looked from the video to my five-year-old cat, Fufu, a roly-poly ball of fluff whose reaction to hearing a can of tuna open is to meow loudly until my husband or I pick him up and carry him straight to the bowl of food.

It was time to face the facts: My cats were not natural geniuses. Each night, as I tucked Fufu and Chibi into their cat beds - or cardboard boxes, depending on their mood - I couldn't help but worry they might even be natural dunces.

But, perhaps, I thought hopefully, that didn't matter in a truly meritocratic society.

Perhaps, with enough extracurricular tuition and lots of devoted parental guidance, they could still make it to the top of the cat heap. At the very least, they might fulfil the middle-class dream: to do well enough to spend their days in air-conditioned comfort behind (or, as they prefer, lolling on top of) a desk.

And so, I started remedial lessons at home for Fufu and Chibi, so they wouldn't fall behind their feline peers in, well, the rat race. I knew other overachieving pets spent all day at external classes, but I wanted my cats to, you know, also be able to enjoy the carefree days of their kittyhood.

Mornings began with tech training, where Chibi alternated between attacking my iPad and staring blankly at the screen, while Fufu snoozed on my laptop keyboard.

That would be followed by negotiation exercises, in which I offered them treats in exchange for high-fives. Chibi played along at first, but later figured out I was holding the snack pack behind my back and neatly sidestepped my outstretched high-five palm to seek out the treats.

Fufu simply licked my hand lovingly until I caved and emptied the snacks into his food bowl - which, of course, I then had to place right in front of him.

Attempts at discipline with smaller food portions didn't work. Chibi started acting out, racing around noisily at night and hanging out with the bad company of dust mites behind the fridge.

The only subject the two kitties aced was physics. They learnt the angles and velocity needed to jump straight to the top rung of the cat tree - where their cat toys awaited - so quickly it was as if they had been born to do it.

Still, after a few weeks, we were making good progress, I congratulated myself with the smugness of a parent who has managed to rent the last available apartment within 1km of the best school in town.

Or so I thought, until a few months ago, when I watched in amazement as local singer Taufik Batisah's cat sauntered into a human toilet to do his business. This, it transpired, was the new gold standard for cat videos - one cat even flushed before leaving the bathroom.

With growing despair, I gazed at Fufu, who has been known to waddle out of his litter box and accidentally tip the whole box over in his haste to bury the evidence.

I finally confronted the secret fear of every parent in Singapore: What if, no matter how much I invest in their education, my precious babies never become gifted cats?

What if they can never achieve my ambition for them - of being rich and famous Instagram celebrities with lucrative merchandise endorsements and instead end up staying at home like useless bums all their lives?

Fufu gazed back at me with his limpid, doe-like eyes. Then, with unerring accuracy, he jumped from the floor onto my lap and snuggled into the crook of my arm, purring with all his might as though he were taking an exam for it.

As I resignedly scratched behind his ears, I thought back to the first day Fufu had come to live with us. He had headed straight under our bed for safety and refused to come out, and coaxing him to eat and listening to him breathe at night seemed such triumphs in themselves.

I recalled how Chibi had grown from a shivering little caramel-and-cream fuzzball to the cat curiosity couldn't kill, inquisitively poking his tiny pink nose into everything that moved and many other things that didn't.

And I remembered why we had wanted cats in the first place - so we could have little creatures to love, cherish and, occasionally, use as warm and furry pillow substitutes.

In fact, I realised how many life lessons they had already taught me: that it is never not a good time to nap, that rolling over and trustingly exposing your belly gets you a nice tummy rub and that true satisfaction had less to do with a big shiny desk than a sunny spot on a comfy old sofa.

It would be fine if my cats never learnt to jump through hoops - literally - or grew into world champion toilet flushers. When it came to being happy, they had already succeeded in life.

fiochan@sph.com.sg