Thinking Aloud

Beyond the intellectual gifts of people

I was not picked for the Gifted Education Programme, but I still believe in my gifts


More than three decades ago, I failed to snag a place in the Gifted Education Programme (GEP).

I was in one of the first cohorts to be put through the specialised tests in English, mathematics and general ability to sift out the top 1 per cent of intellectually gifted children.

Back then, not being picked for the GEP was no big deal as few people really knew what it was about.

No longer.

Today, the GEP - which marks its 34th year this year - has become a fixture in the Singapore education landscape and its places are coveted.


The Ministry of Education (MOE) has seen fit to issue this piece of advice to parents on its website: "Parents should not enrol their children in test-preparation activities for the (GEP) identification exercise."

Such activities could inflate pupils' scores, the MOE said, and "pupils who are not ready to handle the intellectual rigour and demands of the GEP will struggle to cope with the enriched curriculum and not benefit fully from it". It also warned against putting undue stress on pupils and causing them to lose confidence.

Lucky for me, I was never under any pressure to appear more gifted than I actually am.

Recently, though, I received an unexpected invitation to speak at a symposium for teachers of the same GEP that I failed to qualify for as a nine-year-old.

This surprising turn of events has set me thinking about giftedness, a concept that stirs strong feelings because it cuts to the heart of people's sense of self-worth.

People long to be told they are gifted because it makes them feel good about themselves, and hate hearing that they are not.

I have seen this first-hand because my friends and I have for a number of years been teaching a workshop on spiritual gifts. Consider it the Christian version of Gallup's Clifton Strengths assessment.

The typical response from people is a fixation on the gifts they believe they either have or lack, and far less interest in the call or duty to use their gifts to benefit others.

The message we try to get across is that it is just as important to understand where one is not gifted as it is to figure out where one is. That process helps each person decide where to focus his or her energy and effort.


Members of marginalised communities, who have been made to believe they are less than wonderfully made, have a special need to have their giftedness affirmed.

That is why a song like Coldplay and Big Sean's Miracles (Someone Special) is so moving. The official video of the song makes clear that it is a hymn to unlikely heroes, one meant to encourage refugees, migrants and minorities in their pursuit of their dreams.

It begins with Chris Martin singing:

"My father said never give up son,

Just look how good Cassius become,

Muhammad, Mahatma and Nelson,

Not scared to be strong."

Rapper Big Sean then joins in:

"What if they say I'm no good

What if they say get out of here, kid, you got no future."

Martin's rejoinder:

"Now you could run and just say they're right,

No I'll never be no one in my whole life.

Or you could turn and say, no wait they're wrong

And get to keep on dancing all life long...

"In you I see someone special,

You've got fire in your eyes and when you realise

You'll go further than we've ever gone, just turn it on."


But is giftedness just a matter of desire, of turning on the gift one seeks?

Clearly not. No matter how hard I try, I'll never be able to rock like Martin or paint like Picasso.

What matters is the belief that each of us is gifted, each in our own way, and able to make a positive difference.

That is why it is a problem when giftedness is defined narrowly so as to exclude many or most people.

The GEP, for instance, is narrowly focused on the intellectually gifted. And even though the MOE states on its website that people are gifted in a range of ways, including in leadership, music and artistic ability, there is a tendency among parents here to privilege the intellect.

Yet none of the heroes celebrated in the Coldplay song cited above were remembered for their thinking skills.

Besides the men named in the first stanza, the song also highlights in its second stanza four women:

"Just look what Amelia and Joan done

Oh Rosa, Teresa their war won

Not scared to be strong."


Four of these heroes stood out because of their moral leadership (Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Rosa Parks, Teresa of Calcutta). Of the other three, Muhammad Ali was an outstanding boxer, Amelia Earhart an aviation pioneer and Joan of Arc a patriot and war heroine.

It just goes to show that there is no universal standard of giftedness, and that what the world needs is for each person to put his unique set of gifts to the best use in the time and place he finds himself in.


Most people I know have a hard time believing they are gifted.

Others hear me say that everyone is uniquely gifted and roll their eyes at what they believe is my pie-in-the-sky idealism.

Actually, there is nothing wrong with being an idealist, even at my age.

After all, the great psychiatrist, Holocaust survivor and author Viktor Frankl was 67 years old when he told a gathering of the Toronto Youth Corp in 1972: "You won't believe it, but grey hair and at my age, I started taking flying lessons recently. You know what my flying instructor told me?"

Focusing on gifts also brings to the fore qualities that we may otherwise overlook in our rush to carve out successful careers and accumulate wealth, qualities such as patience, generosity, courage and mercy.
​t's life-affirming and far more rewarding than fault-finding.

He then went on to describe how a pilot flying into a cross wind had to use a manoeuvre called "crabbing", by which he deliberately headed north of his destination so as to land at the airfield he had been aiming at from the start.

"This holds also for man, I would say," Dr Frankl said. "If we take man as he really is, we make him worse. But if we overestimate him, if we seem to be idealists and are overestimating, overrating man, and looking at him that high above, you know what happens?

"We promote him to what he really can be.

"So we have to be idealists in a way, because then we wind up as the true realists.

"And do you know who has said this? If we take man as he is, we make him worse, but if we take man as he should be, we make him capable of becoming what he can be... this was Goethe," he said, referring to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, considered the greatest German literary figure of the modern era.

I've found that anticipating and being on the lookout for others' gifts is a wonderful way of helping them become all they can be.

Parents and teachers are in a privileged position to do this for their children and pupils.

Focusing on gifts also brings to the fore qualities that we may otherwise overlook in our rush to carve out successful careers and accumulate wealth, qualities such as patience, generosity, courage and mercy.

It's life-affirming and far more rewarding than fault-finding.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 11, 2018, with the headline 'Beyond the intellectual gifts of people'. Subscribe