Sunday, August 12, 2012

The lure of the audacious lie

The other thing is that everyone lies on their CV. I would have no doubt that the applicant was a "senior managing editorial executive" at GlobalMegaCorp Group LLC (oh yes, I also learnt that the more grandiose the job title and company name, the more insignificant both job and company would turn out to be).
But the line that red-flagged the application could usually be found in the description of that job. It would take the form of "driving the communitisation of corporate audience assets towards a monetised Web platform", or some other naked, desperate attempt at cramming as many vague buzzwords as possible into one sentence.
The truth, after a chat on the phone, usually turned out to be "wrote articles about screws and screw-related products for the fastener industry".
Buzzwords, when used in the right places, do work.
In the case of one Kelvin Ong Wee Loong, he used words such as "gifted programme" to woo parents into signing up their bright children for his tuition sessions - at a cost of $500 for a three-hour lesson - when he had no useful qualifications to speak of.
He simply lied his way into a lucrative business by claiming to have been both a pupil and a teacher in the Education Ministry's Gifted Education Programme, when he was neither.
Relying on those lies, he claimed he had a unique insider's knowledge to teach children skills to help them ace the screening tests for entry to the gifted programme at Primary 4.
He then let parents' eagerness do the rest of the marketing work for him.
There were a couple more audacious lies, such as claiming that he was a double-maths graduate from the National University of Singapore when in fact he never went to the NUS, let alone graduate from there. He had a diploma in physiotherapy from Nanyang Polytechnic.
But the truth didn't matter to the parents who lined up to get their children into his classes, because he kept up the lies and built a reputation for success over the years.
If reporters called, he was never reticent about describing his credentials or talking up his programme for children who might be gifted, and his amazing successes over the years.
The willingness of parents to buy into this plan was even more astounding when details of his Aristocare tuition centre for gifted programme hopefuls emerged.
The conditions sounded positively Third World. He would pack 10 or more children into a bedroom. When there was no room, some had to sit on a balcony outside and be handed notes through a window. I suppose we should be grateful none of the children were asked to perch on his awning.
There's a saying attributed to both Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels: That it is easier to sell a colossal lie than a small one. The audacity required to tell a lie of breathtaking proportions would be beyond the imaginations of most.
This is the best explanation I can come up with for Mr Ong's operations. That, and that he sold into a market that was desperately eager. Mr Ong's centre for grooming kids for the gifted scheme is not the only school of its kind in Singapore.
Another school advertises itself openly as having a team of "education doctors" ready to "heal the academic ailments of students".
Top of its list of "clinics" is a "GEP Clinic" that all but promises to help children prepare for the gifted programme screening tests.
But parents need more than money to get their children into this centre because there are clear guidelines for who qualifies.
They are stated upfront: Your Primary 1 to 3 child must come with maths and English scores of above 90. Kindergarten 1 and 2 pupils must prove their worth with - and I wish I was kidding - an IQ score of 130 and above.
Well, wait a minute, if a child is already so bright, why would he have to be sent to a clinic to get prepared for the gifted programme screening tests?
I don't have any children, but if my child has a raging case of dumb-itis (quite likely as I hear it might be hereditary), this centre would turn the poor kid away?
Really, it's attitudes like this that make me think that the odds are stacked against the rest of us who are not in the top 1 per cent that the centre aims to help. It is not so subtly reinforcing that Singapore idea that if I do not test for a genius-level IQ by age five, I might as well give up and resign myself to life at the bottom of some socio-economic heap.
I suppose that is why parents threw money at Mr Kelvin Ong (his tuition centre has since closed its doors), despite evidence of the state of his classrooms.
Because parents hope. Parents are, by definition, kiasu. For their child, they will take up a hopeless cause, grasp at straws, lunge at distant possibilities.
And there will always be people like Mr Kelvin Ong to help them, for a price.