Malaysian immigrants Rosemary and Choon Tan aren't like many other parents in
the New Zealand south island city of Christchurch. They don't have to persuade
reluctant offspring to hurry or be late for school. Instead, they have to stop
their highly enthusiastic seven-year-old from leaving too early in the mornings
Young Michael is no boring book-worm. He's often glued to TV
cartoons. Like other kids on his street, he shatters the suburban silence with
the sounds of skate-boarding, soccer, cricket and push-bike races. But his pals
have become used to Michael racing indoors in the middle of a game. "Gotta go!"
he yells. "I've worked it out!"
The kid is a mathematics genius. But, then, it's an ability that runs in the
family: the two other Tan children have academic records that are almost as
impressive. Brother David, now 24, started at university when he was 13, had a
Ph.D. under his belt at 20 and is now in England where he's continuing his
studies at Cambridge. Sister Audrey, now 17, went to university when she was 15
and is set to graduate with an honours degree this year.
Rosemary, 45, is a full-time mother. Choon, 49 is a former electronics
engineer who now works from home as a mathematics tutor to a half-dozen bright
A couple of them, like Michael, have never been to school. Studying at home
is allowed in New Zealand, if education authorities' permission is obtained.
Choon teaches Michael a range of subjects such as English grammar, geography and
physics "informally, at his own pace. If he wants to pass exams in them later
we'll adapt to the official curriculum". He says his lad is particularly
well-informed on current events. "We read and watched TV together as the Soviet
Union broke up," reveals Choon. "He asked questions and I explained. He knows
what's going on."
Only in mathematics is the official syllabus adhered to. Choon says he didn't
force Michael. "His interest bubbled up on its own. But I suppose that's not
strange in a home where so much of the talk is about mathematics. It's my hobby
and the bigger kids excelled in it."
On his father's knee, Michael learned to add, subtract, multiply and divide
before he turned four. Choon reveals: "I encourage Michael by provoking his
interest -- his desire to solve a problem. Sometimes I'll say, 'Come on, you can
do it'! But just as often I'll go the other way and say, 'How about putting
those books away and going out to play with your friends'?
"Then he'll go off -- with a mathematical problem still rolling about in his
brain. Sure enough, he'll race back in, a broad grin on his face, an hour or so
later, shouting: `I worked it out!' He loves his math."
Early progress wasn't spectacularly fast, says Choon. "But, by the time he
was five and had mastered the basics, there was no stopping him."
Rosemary laughs now that she recalls going to the supermarket with Michael
when he was five years old. "We got to the check-out line and he asked, `Mum,
are you sure you have enough money? You've spent more than usual: $87.30
altogether'. I thought he was guessing. It couldn't be that much. But the
register reached exactly the same total. I was dumb-founded."