IF truth be told, I must admit that I was a bit scared of interviewing Muhammad Amir Rafiq, a 13-year-old whose reading materials from the age of 3, included the Wikipedia and encyclopaedias.
A child genius, there’s no doubt about it, as he is currently doing a PertamaPintar programme at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) and tests revealed he has an IQ (intelligent quotient) of 180, which puts him in the category of Albert Einstein, no less.
During my time, I had met a few child geniuses; the maths prodigy Sufiah Yusuf who at 13 was accepted to do Mathematics at Oxford University and Hayley Mas Abdullah, who became British Mensa director at 18. Both are half Malaysians and became the subject of enormous media attention.
It was interesting to note how Sufiah and Hayley were brought up — one was homeschooled, the other went to an ordinary school. Amir’s parents had chosen a diferent path and exploring other possibilities, too.
I have been privileged to watch Sufiah and her equally gifted siblings being taught by their mother, Halimaton, and met Hayley’s parents — Mohamad Abdullah and Carol — to hear their experience coping with a child genius.
When I heard that Amir had been invited by Nora Abd Manaf, group Chief Human Capital Officer of Maybank Group, to come to London during the recent career fair, there was no way I would let the opportunity of meeting him slip away.
When I first set eyes on Amir, he was sitting on his own at a big table in the London Maybank office before a scheduled meeting with Maybank scholars started. Bored, he approached a staff trying to regulate the temperature in the room and I assumed, he must have asked whether he could help. When his help was not needed, he turned around and did a sort of dance, oblivious to all of us in the room.
Fixing things electronics, computers and handphones had been Amir’s forte since he was 3 or 4, said his father, Mohd Rafi Harith. All he needed was to read the manual at a glance and he would tinker away. He was reading the Wikipedia, encyclopaedias and manuals when his contemporary were still grappling with ABC, doing nursery rhymes and playing with blocks.
Breaking into child mode such as the dance, slipping under the table as we were speaking and doing an enjit, enjit semut kind of game while answering my questions, was also quite normal — something which his father pointed to in reference to his ratio of IQ and EQ (emotional quotient).
It wasn’t something that Amir didn’t know about. He knew he was still a child and should be allowed to behave like one whenever he wanted to, although he could take you to task during a discussion on world politics.
“I didn’t know I was talented. I thought I was weird. I had no friends,” said Amir, once I had the opportunity to talk to him.
He sat attentively listening to my questions and answered them before I could finish my sentences. That was what I found scary as it confirmed my earlier feelings about meeting him.
It was as though he could read my thoughts and rushed to answer my questions without hesitation in a reading mode. Once in a while, he would look away, perhaps, showing boredom at some of the trivial questions I was asking.
When he told me that his parents feared he was mute as he wasn’t speaking, I told him of a case of selective mutism to which he responded with a stream of definitions on the condition. It was as if these definitions he had read in an encyclopaedia stream- ed past him.
There was no small talk. He just wanted to finish the interview and know what the headline would be. There was something on his mind. He wanted to visit Bletchley Park, the central site for British codebreakers during World War 2. I guess visiting Legoland would not be in his programme.
Like the child geniuses I had met, Amir had a voracious appetite for information since he was a baby.
“We invested in books and he would finish them in a short time. We thought he didn’t read them, but obviously, he did,” said Rafi.
Both Rafi, a businessman in Kemaman, Terengganu, and his wife, Azriza Abdul Latif, a liabililty manager at Petronas, noticed that as a baby, Amir was alert and responded to advertisements on TV, as well as took an obsession to brand names such as Sony and Hitachi. However, by the age of 2, he wasn’t speaking and would just make noises.
Worried about his development, they took him to a doctor who assured them that babies developed in different stages and not to worry about it.
True enough, by the age of 3, Amir spoke full sentences in American English and no Malay at all although Malay was the medium spoken at home.
While that was a plus, it also alienated him from his cousins, friends and classmates who could not master the language as well as he did. He spent more and more of his time with his books and on the Internet.
“By 3, he could fix our computer when it hanged. All I did was taught him the alphabets and he did everything else himself,” added Rafi.
Amir even dismantled the keyboard and rearranged the letters in alphabetical order.
This is the least of the challenges that Azriza and Rafi faced. Once in a while when Amir spoke his mind, I could see the worried looks on his parents’ faces. They were worried that he was too precocious and, at the same time, verging on rudeness when dealing with an adult like me.
Azriza would reprimand him in Mandarin, for that is the medium of communication between them. Azriza herself and her siblings went to a Chinese school, so Amir and his sister also went to one in Kemaman.
So, does Amir know that his IQ and his EQ were not quite at par?
“Yes, I have always wanted to see a psychologist,” he said nonchalantly. He reads books on common sense and on how to make friends.
“I was always lonely in school. I would sit quietly in a corner and listen to the teacher and go home to do my homework. But now at PermataPintar, I am happy as I have lots of friends that I can talk to and discuss politics,” he said, adding that some of his friends were online friends in the United States and Europe.
Rafi was, however, happy that the headmaster at the Chinese school that Amir attended had recognised his speed of learning, which unwittingly caused a lot of problems, and assigned a qualified teacher to teach him throughout the years he was there.
Rafi and Azriza had even considered mortgaging their house to invest in a path of education that would satisfy Amir’s needs, until PermataPintar came along.
For now, Amir is happy but for his parents, they have another daughter, who is just as intelligent.
Amir caught the attention of Nora when she was giving a talk at UKM.
“I noticed that he was putting up his hands to every question I asked and answering them correctly,” said Nora when she was in London recently.
“When we observed special people with special talents and strengths, I think it is important for us not to just retain them in the perceived safety of a guarded environment.
“I wanted to make sure we can make a difference in how Amir develops. And how Amir then can truly take on the leadership role that he is destined to be and to have and to be in,” she said, explaining why she brought Amir along to the fair.
Nora said it was important that Amir understood how to respond in the real world.
“He needs to be able to understand his emotions, and know how to control his emotions and that the world is not full of smart people like him. And yet, they are going to make a difference together with him.
“So, that is our interest. And I think we also need to open his oyster.
“It is not just Malaysia. If we want Malaysians to be global leaders, we need to bring them out to have the experience.
“That is one of the things that we have invested in by bringing him to London.”
It would seem that there are many options for Amir. (He dismissed my reference to him as a prodigy, “I have not given any Tedx talk yet!”)
He has at last found friends. He knows that he wants to be a researcher in Computer Science following in the footsteps of its founder, Alan Mathison Turing and, most importantly, he has visited Bletchley Park!