SINGAPORE - While most of his peers have just started secondary school, Singaporean Nathanael Koh is enrolled in an honours programme at one of Australia’s top universities.
The music composition major at the Australian National University – named the country’s best university in Britain-based Quacquarelli Symonds’ annual higher education ranking – turns 13 on Monday.
In a Zoom video interview with The Straits Times from Canberra on Sunday, Nathanael was bubbling with excitement over his new adventure, despite him being at least five years younger than his classmates.
He said: “I can talk the same language as my professors, not like speaking with my parents or other 12-year-olds.
“Everything fits like a puzzle.”
His best experience so far? Meeting a coursemate who is also an engineer because his coursemate could understand the maths he was studying.
Brimming with confidence, he insisted that he had “absolutely no trouble” coping at university and that he was having fun, although his father Chris Koh, a director of a social enterprise, accompanies him on campus because he is a minor.
While everything might be working well now, Nathanael’s academic journey has been far from smooth.
In 2011, when he was 12 months old, he was diagnosed with global developmental delay – a condition that affects cognitive and physical development. For him, it meant he lacked the muscular strength needed to perform everyday tasks.
He could not walk properly at two, could not talk at four, could not eat solid foods at seven. He learnt to bathe, brush his teeth and go to the toilet independently only at 10. All this meant he could not attend a regular school and so he was homeschooled by his parents and tutors.
Dr Koh said: “Things that children generally pick up very easily at a young age, he can’t at all.”
Despite the challenges, between the ages of nine and 12, Nathanael scored A* and A for five GCSE O-level and two GCE A-level examinations in science and maths. They are equivalent to Singapore’s GCE O-level and A-level examinations.
He completed the Australian Guild of Music Education’s three-year Bachelor of Music programme in just two years in December 2022, earning a grade point average of 3.86 out of 4. He took the course online because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Aside from his degree, he also completed his diploma in music theory from Trinity College London at the age of nine.
Unlike many of his peers, Nathanael, whose voice has not yet cracked, said he enjoys studying: “I find my answers in journal articles.”
To ensure that Nathanael’s development is holistic, Dr Koh urges his son to swim and cycle regularly, which also helps to build muscle.
Like other kids his age, Nathanael plays board games with friends and family, as well as video games such as Plants vs Zombies – where he obsesses over the optimal strategy and thinks about what the game will be like if zombies attacked from eight directions.
He volunteers as well, composing and rearranging pieces for concerts by The Purple Symphony and the Beautiful Mind Charity this year, both with ensembles of more than 30 musicians.
The Purple Symphony commissioned him to compose a piece about Little India inspired by Carnatic music, which is commonly associated with South India.
He said: “I like contributing back to society. And maybe the symphony will remember me as someone who composed for them in a completely different style.”
He has received about 10 commissions so far, though he says he has composed about 200 pieces, most of them unpublished.
When asked about his plans, Nathanael was excited about the prospect of furthering his studies in science and maths at the university level, but said: “I don’t know what will happen in the next few years. I’m still young.”
One thing is for sure: Music is his “first love”, he said. “Music heals the soul and brings people together.”
Dr Koh stressed that parents should help their children to develop at their own pace because every child is different and there is no one-size-fits-all approach. In 2015, he moved his family – his homemaker wife, Nathanael and their second child – to New Zealand to aid Nathanael’s development. They returned to Singapore in 2019.
Dr Koh said: “Mental and emotional wellness are key, results come second. I think a lot of parents are losing sight of that in Singapore because it’s too competitive.
“We don’t dictate what he wants to pursue, that’s why he’s still doing music.”
Nathanael admitted that sometimes he wishes he had a normal childhood.
He recalled: “I was bullied a lot in Sunday school and my youth group because people didn’t understand what I was saying.”
His peers would hurl insults at him and he felt very hurt, he added. But he is over that now.
“I don’t have to fit in to be happy,” he said.