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It is safe to say that all of us have lied at some point or other of our lives.
Some parents, when asked by young children where babies come from, have
sputtered some childish explanation of a stork, or my personal favourite,
redirecting the question by saying: “You came from the ‘longkang’ (storm
drain)!” It is clear that many of us feel that there are situations where we
simply cannot tell the truth because — by any objective standard — it would
not be the best thing to do. Individuals may disagree on what particular
situations demand falsehoods, but I think it is fairly clear that lies must be told
when it contributes to the greater good.

I first have to say that in the vast majority of situations, telling the truth should
be the first option, even if it were to cause pain or suffering somewhere down
the line. Sometimes families refrain from telling a cancer patient that they
have, say, six months to live, in an attempt to get the patient to be more
hopeful to maximise whatever chances there are for recovery. However, this
ostensibly compassionate action may cause more harm, especially if it
prevents the family member with cancer from making peace with people
around him and even with the reality of mortality itself. Many of our white lies
often end up this way — with us trying to do good, but ending up harming
ourselves and others instead. However, I believe that there are situations
where the potential harm is so severe and catastrophic that it would warrant
almost any action — including withholding the truth — in order to prevent such

Nuclear war would be so severe and catastrophic that any action taken to
prevent it would be morally acceptable. Even a limited nuclear war would be
devastating to the entire world, and I would never want to be part of the chain
of command responsible for such an occurrence. If I were in charge of the
military aide carrying President Donald Trump’s “nuclear football” — the bag
containing the equipment President Trump would use to launch any nuclear
attack — I would probably arrange for a fake bag to be made so that Trump
would be slowed down somewhat if he made the decision to launch the attack.
There are so many things that could go wrong with this, but I find it difficult to
imagine a situation where a nuclear strike would be a good thing in today’s
world. Given a President like Barack Obama, it would be less clear that
carrying around a fake nuclear football would be the best thing to do, but
with President Donald Trump’s alleged mental instability, I find it hard to
imagine how that military aide sleeps at night. The lie of the fake nuclear
football would, in my mind, be an additional barrier that prevents the world
from descending into nuclear apocalypse.

Most of us should disregard these cases on the limits of reality and just stick
to telling the truth most of the time. The liberating quality of truth-telling means
that even if we suffer temporarily when we stick to honesty, most of us will be
better off. We can only wish the best for those stuck in situations where telling
the truth is ethically indefensible.

In cities near Singapore, like Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur, one is bound
to meet the Singaporean “national bird”. This creature utters one
incessant cry: “So cheap! So cheap!” So many Singaporean tourists get
labelled as examples of our “national bird” because we seem to be
obsessed with buying things that we perceive as cheap, which is
sometimes seen as a larger symptom of the consumerist disease.
However, I will contend that the accusation that people are too
concerned with getting things and spending money only hides the real
cause of that behaviour — the perception of economic insecurity. Given
that perception, apparently consumerist tendencies can be seen for what
they truly are: the attempt to stave off the constant fear of annihilation by
the impersonal forces of the economy.

People whose lives seem to revolve around consumer goods sometimes

appear to live essentially meaningless lives, since their lives are all
about consuming, and not producing. Their consumerist behaviour
precludes the productivity of creativity, which to me is the basis of a
meaningful life. I understand why anyone would label this consumerist
behaviour as excessive, but we must have more empathy for such
people. We are all threatened with the anxiety of meaninglessness, but
sometimes this is expressed via the anxiety of annihilation. This
annihilation is not just the destruction of our bodies, but the destruction
of the key parts of our perceived selves — our social circles, our ways of
life, our possessions, and so on. When government housing (HDB flats)
in Singapore can sell for more than S$1,000,000 for a 5-room flat, it is
no surprise that people feel threatened. Buying consumer goods is an
expression of that fear, with each additional acquisition symbolising not
just buying power, but the power to survive and thrive in spite of the
threats that seem to press from all sides. This expression of fear cannot
be condemned as excessive if we are to truly understand the mindsets
of such consumers. Moreover, almost all of us actually are those
consumers, to some degree. After all, who has never jumped at the
thought of a discount on something we really want?

I admit that from some objective point of view, this consumerist

behaviour is excessive. Life should be lived with courage, and if so many
of us were not as afraid of annihilation, perhaps we would see more
creativity in the form of compassion (creating positive change in society
through compassionate acts), art (creating beauty), and so on. However,
when even millionaires seem to be obsessed about cheap cars or
fashion, we must have empathy for them and not condemn their
behaviour as excessive when they may be concerned for their children,
for whom a million dollars may seem insufficient.
This excessive concern with getting things and spending money may be
spiritually, psychologically, and socially unhealthy and
counterproductive, and must be resisted by those who see the damage
that such behaviour can cause. However, to resist this behaviour by
labelling it “too much” is itself counterproductive. As members of global
society, we should be more concerned with building and shaping the
world into one where nobody will have to feel insecure about the
necessities of life, including food, shelter, medicine, and education.
Perhaps then we can move from being mere consumers, to create
something larger with our lives.
O-LEVEL 2016, SYLLABUS 1128)

When I was nine, I spent a good number of months begging my parents

for a chess computer. In those days of the floppy disk — when they were
still truly floppy — that meant my parents had to spend a few hundred
dollars on a child’s toy that was not guaranteed to last for more than a
couple of years, especially when that child was somewhat destructive
around fragile things. I was good at chess, though — I was already on
the school team, and three years later I would go on to place fourth in
my age group at a national tournament. My small but meaningful level of
success really was thanks in part to the clunky chess computer my
parents bought for me after enduring my begging and whining (their
acquiescence was probably also due to the fact that they could no
longer defeat their child at the game). It is probably obvious why the
game of chess, while torturously boring to most people, remains
important to me. The memories of learning, practicing, and winning
certainly are dear in my mind, but the game still retains a romance that
has seen me continue playing it to this day.

My first significant memories of chess centre around my mother, who

taught me the basic moves, and then to love and hate the game. Our
first matches were even, since we both were groping in the dark when it
came to strategy. Slowly, however, I began to defeat her regularly. This
was probably due to my more regular exposure to the game (while she
did the housework, I could play chess against myself). I began to
become accustomed to winning our matches, and thus became
complacent and embarrassingly smug, when my beloved mother sprang
the delightfully infuriating trap called the Scholar’s Mate on me, defeating
me in a mere four moves. I was surprised, shocked, amazed, nay, utterly
astounded! Apparently she had gone to her brother, an engineer who
plays chess at a very high level, to ask for help in winning a final chess
match with her son before she called it quits. He probably also told her
that she needed to practice more to play at a higher level, something
that a busy housewife who also took care of aged parents could not
afford. That day’s defeat saw my mother taking me to the library for
chess books which could further my chess education without making her
pull her hair out in frustration, marking the beginning of a more serious
approach to chess preceding the success I was to see on the national
Now that I have done some growing up, chess no longer holds the same
position it once did in my life. My preteen self could probably easily
defeat me now, but I still have continued to play casually. Sitting down at
a chessboard across from another human being, I feel the world slowing
down, and there is a soothing intensity that accompanies a well-played
game, even if I end up losing. I am unsure if those feelings are
nourished by my childhood experience, or by the nature of the game
itself. Playing chess above a certain level forces a player’s attention to
become laser-sharp; anything less intense would mean an embarrassing
defeat, somewhat along the lines of a tennis player losing because he
forgot to wear the proper shoes. Of course, chess still reminds me of the
sweeter moments of my childhood. Consequently, while chess takes up
much less of my time now, the game itself is still dear to me. Numerous
studies have also found that playing chess brings improvements in
attention, concentration, and interest in learning (source).

Anyone up for a game?

LEVEL 2014, SYLLABUS 1128)

Let us start with the proposition that it is often not easy to do the right
thing. Yet, almost by definition, it is a good thing to do the right thing. It
often costs us no money to do what is morally and ethically right, but
these difficult things that litter the paths of our lives often prove to be the
very best things in life.
I once found a fifty dollar note fluttering about in a car park, back in
primary school when my daily allowance amounted to a grand thirty
cents. This find obviously was an unbelievable fortune to my young
eyes, a fortune I was loath to part with. My father turned to me and
asked, “What shall we do with that now?” In school, we are trained not to
take something that is not ours, and so, painful as it was, I replied, “I
think we should give it to the police in case someone lost his money and
wants to find it again.”

This decision may not have cost me any money in a technical sense, but
in the moment it certainly felt like it did. Nevertheless, my father and I
headed to the police station, where I am certain the adults traded many
“I’m trying very hard not to laugh” smiles while trying to act with the
necessary gravitas (dignity) to properly reward the child with good
intentions. The police listened to my story, and — shockingly, to my
present sensibilities — told us that they would keep the money for three
days, just in case someone came forward to claim the money. They told
us that if the money went unclaimed, I could rightfully claim it as mine,
because of my honesty.

Psychologists (see Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind) have found

that getting the approval of socially significant others — such as parents
and the police — has a very significant effect on self-esteem. Our brains
process this as a kind of pleasure, and indeed, on this occasion I
enjoyed the collective approbation (approval/praise) of adults I both
feared and respected. This experience proved to me that the best things
in life are free. Incidentally, we managed to retrieve the money after the
three days passed; the difficult and rewarding thing that I did indeed
proved to be free.
On another occasion, I decided to help a stranger, a decision that cost
me nothing and brightened the day of a complete stranger. I had been
having an extremely stressful day studying in the library, when I decided
to head to a snack vending machine to give myself some kind of snack
boost. I was thoroughly preoccupied with panicky thoughts about the
upcoming examinations while waiting for my turn. The girl in front of me
stood aside with a strangely distressed look on her face while
rummaging about for more coins. It was then that I noticed her choice of
snack hanging off the edge of the vending machine’s shelf without being
dispensed — a vending machine failure! She quickly realised that she
had no coins left, and was about to leave without the snack she paid for
when I told her to wait. There was an easy solution to the problem at
hand. All I had to do was to buy the same snack that was hanging off the
shelf — sugared peanuts — instead of the more expensive cookies I
originally wanted. So, in a way, this decision not only cost me no money,
it helped me save money. Her resulting smile was the ray of light I sorely
needed that dark and anxious day, and I had no need for a psychologist
to tell me that my brain processed this experience as pleasurable.

In our age of mass over-consumption, many of us need the reminder

that the very best things in life — whether they are decisions,
experiences, or objects — are often free, costing us no money. It may
not always be easy, but it is a good thing, as comedian Russell Peters
has famously said, to do the right thing.

(The essay below is written as if I were 16 years old. You don’t have to be an
old geezer to have memorable experiences!)
Things to notice:
 The use of sensory details (i.e. things that engage the five senses)
 The attempt to entertain and edify the reader
 The evidence of planning (a clear introduction, paragraphs that flow
together smoothly, a clear conclusion)

Describe an unforgettable event or experience in your life. Why does it
mean so much to you?

I have had only a few unforgettable experiences in the sixteen years of my life
thus far, but one of the most positive unforgettable experiences I can think of
is my experience of learning how to play the guitar. It is also one of the most
meaningful experiences of my life, because of how much I have learnt from it.
Approaching the guitar as the beginner was also a considerably painful
experience — but that pain made the experience so much sweeter.

Two years ago, after finishing my Secondary Two examinations, I decided to

learn how to play the guitar. At that time, my family only had an old nylon
string guitar that was extremely difficult to tune. It smelt funny, like dust and
wood, and always left my hand aching when I tried to get my fingers round its
large neck. I learnt two basic chords on it, but I was very quickly yearning for a
new steel string acoustic guitar that one of my closest friends had. His guitar
was so much louder than mine, and it sounded so much nicer. Its bright,
percussive tone was exactly what I was looking for.

My parents are the sort who avoid giving their children too much money, so I
did not have the option of saving up for the guitar. If I had tried, it probably
would have taken me till now to save up for it! Consequently, I did what any
child would do — I whined and begged for a new guitar. As I tried every trick
in my begging book, I happened to confidently make my father a promise that
I truly believed I could keep.

“Daddy,” I proclaimed, “I’m going to have so much time during the holidays. I’ll
be able to practice all day, every day! If you buy me a guitar, I’m going to be
just like the guitarists you see on stage. Maybe I won’t be as good as them,
but I’ll definitely be able to go up on stage and play!”

With a prolonged sigh that must have lasted a week, my father eventually
gave in, but not before he got a word in himself. “You’re going to be excited
about it for a week or two, and then you’re going to give it up for something
else, a computer game or something. And you’re definitely not going to be
able to perform with only two months of practice.” With the brash confidence
of a fourteen year old, I laughed that comment off. Thusly, I received my first
ever guitar — a beautiful steel string acoustic.
I dived into my “all day, every day” practice regimen the moment I got home
with the guitar. It was easy at first — the new guitar not only
looked showroom-shiny, it sounded showroom-shiny. It was just so much fun.
The problem with transitioning from a nylon string guitar to a steel string guitar
is, as any guitarist can tell you, a painful one. There is a reason we wear
clothes with nylon, and not steel, in them. Within the first week, my fingertips
were aching like they had never ached before.

The novice guitarist’s fingers go through a journey that is like a hero’s quest.
First, the hero is filled with confidence that he will emerge victorious. The hero
plunges on ahead, but after awhile, pain arrives. The skin of my fingertips
grew red and sore. The hero balks at the immensity of the task ahead.
Strangely, I was able to play till my fingers grew numb, which meant that I
could really practice all day without too much pain bothering me. It was only
when I stopped that the blood would rush back to my fingers; now my
fingertips were always throbbing, even as they were simultaneously growing
tougher like the balls of our feet grow tougher when we walk barefoot. The
hero drags himself onward, thinking only of the terminus of his journey.

I was a month into my journey when I realized that it was going to be almost
impossible to keep my promise to my father, of being good enough to perform
on stage at the end of the holidays. My fingers were still hurting, and I could
‘only’ practice four to five hours every day, instead of the nine to twelve hours
that I was hoping for. Thankfully, it was also around this time that my fingertips
hardened to the point where it was muscular fatigue that kept a limit on my
practice hours. I kept practicing like a madman, because I was mortified that
my father’s prediction could be right — that I would not be ready to step on
stage by the end of the holidays. By the time the holidays came to a close, I
was a fairly decent guitarist, but nowhere near ready to be on stage.

The experience of learning how to play the guitar has proven to be immensely
meaningful and unforgettable. I still remember how my fingers hurt — the
million pinpricks of pain whenever I picked something up with my left hand. I
even remember how my fingers smelt, like a baffling mixture of steel, cake,
and dead skin. However, the most unforgettable and meaningful aspect of the
experience arose from the fact of my apparent failure. I was unable to keep
part of my promise, but as a result, gained so much more out of it. I had
developed an immense reservoir of discipline that has served me well to this

With the discipline and ability I have developed since that experience two
years ago, I firmly believe that music will continue to play a large part in my
life, even as I approach adulthood. Even if I do not become a working
musician, the discipline and moral lessons that I have learnt from this
experience will always stay with me.

See another powerful response to this question at Mr Steven Ooi’s blog here.
(Confession: I could only write this essay because I was able to bounce my
ideas off his essay first. This should be a clear message to all students
reading this. Read more, it helps.)

It is true that words can be more powerful than pictures. I think of Hitler’s
words that moved a nation to genocide, and I shudder. However, human
beings are visual creatures, and we see the consequences of this in the
way the Internet has taken shape. A picture can never be more powerful
than words in all circumstances, but looking at the way our culture has
developed, it appears that pictures — including moving pictures — still
hold an almost magical power over many of us.

Words are obviously potent weapons. Adolf Hitler, the dictator

responsible for the Holocaust, is often credited with saying that if you tell
a big enough lie, and repeat it often enough, people will believe it. The
effect of his lies and half-truths are now studied by school children all
over the world — millions died in Nazi concentration camps, with only
some having the dubious privilege of dying in gas chambers*. However,
Hitler’s words were often accompanied by powerful images. Few of us
are able to quote lines from Hitler’s speeches, but many more know
what the Nazi swastika looks like and what concentration camp inmates
look like in photographs of the time, which shows the power of culture-
defining images to endure.

Half a century after Hitler’s heyday, photographer Kevin Carter tragically

showed us the power of a picture to inspire action. Most of us recall the
image — a vulture watches over a child so emaciated that it has no
strength left to hold itself upright, so emaciated that his humanity seems
starved out of his fragile frame. This image won Carter the Pulitzer Prize,
and has inspired many of us around the world into fighting against
poverty. Sadly, at the height of his fame, Kevin Carter committed
suicide, claiming in his suicide note that he was “haunted” by the horrific
images that he encountered in his work. On a more mundane level, this
photograph probably inspired armies of Singaporean parents to nag at
their children not to waste food, worrying over the idea that “African
children are starving”.
It is also worrying to think of the effect the power of the image may
be having on some of us. In an offline age, people who encountered
Carter’s haunting photograph had fewer avenues with which to distract
and numb themselves. Now, in addition to the media of the offline age,
we have portable entertainment centres in the form of smartphones. In
our age of perpetual connectivity with entertainment, we may indeed
encounter Carter’s photograph in an Upworthy or Buzzfeed article, and
we may experience the same forms of disgust, sorrow, horror, and anger
that people in an offline age did. However, it is much easier these days
to numb those feelings with a never ending stream of entertainment that
is dominated by images. The success of Instagram and YouTube,
among other visually-dominated websites, is testament to the power of
images in our age. I think I can make this assertion safely: most people
who encounter Kevin Carter’s prize-winning photograph in our time will
be more likely to push it out of their minds with other forms of visual
entertainment, than to deal with the problems of inequality and poverty
by reading about the problem and what is being done to deal with it.

Inequality is a culture-shaming problem, since its consequences are so

dire. It requires solutions that are, on some levels, complicated. We
need to read books, or at least essays, to fully understand this problem
and its potential solutions. It is perhaps a sign that people are not paying
attention to these words, that the people in first-world economies have
not spoken up as one voice to the powers that be to demand change. In
this case, the pictures of entertainment seem to be more powerful than
the words spent on the problem of inequality.

The idea that a picture is always more powerful than mere words is
untrue, but it hides a deeper truth that pictures are often more powerful
than words. Words are sometimes more powerful than pictures, but the
pictures dominating the mind-numbing pap that passes as entertainment
today still seem to hold sway over our culture. Do away with this mind-
numbing pap, and perhaps we will see wise words and wise pictures
hold sway over our culture again.

(721 words)

That we live in a time of tremendous inequality is now almost a truism.

As an example, Oxfam claims that the annual income of the hundred
richest people in the world could end world poverty four times over. In
schools, inequality is also commonplace, whether it takes the form of
grades, money, or possessions. Given the assumption that the most
important aspect of school is the activity of learning, inequality in the
form of how teachers treat their students is then a crucial ill to tackle.
This is where school uniforms prove to be important. It is my opinion that
school uniforms should be worn as a symbolic reminder to teachers (and
students) that discrimination due to perceived inequality should never be

It may be an ugly fact, but it is a fact that teachers are human beings,
and are therefore naturally biased creatures, even when they try to be
completely fair. We witness this when teachers decide that certain
students are ‘bad’ or ‘badly-behaved’ individuals. I have witnessed
students who, rightly or wrongly, are labelled as troublemakers, and are
henceforth found guilty for any wrongdoing that they could conceivably
be blamed for, whether or not they actually are in the wrong. This
produces a vicious cycle where these students decide to be
troublemakers anyway, since they will be treated as troublemakers
whether they are innocent of any wrongdoing or not. A student who
expands energy on this unfortunate social phenomenon will always have
less energy to commit to the task of learning.

The school uniform, in the above-mentioned phenomenon of the

“troublemaker-bias”, can be used by students to convey the sense that
they are not troublemakers, and do not deserved to be labelled as such.
Human beings are often superficial creatures, given to rapid judgements
based on outer appearances. Students can take care to obey school
rules with regards to the uniform, and thus convey on the outside what
may be on the inside — the desire to obey the rules and hence be
treated the same as everyone else.

Consider how different the situation would be if students did not wear
school uniforms. Street clothes would have the effect of reminding
teachers of the differences between students, instead of the similarities,
and would have the potential of further reinforcing whatever biases are
within the teachers.
In contrast to street clothes, school uniforms serve as a reminder of the
similarities that students share. While students may not be completely
uniform, they all deserve the same amount of compassion, attention,
and care from teachers. The Telegraph recently reported that teachers
give their favourite students higher grades, which is a very clear
example of unjust treatment. Teachers may unconsciously decide that
students with richer or more successful parents will also be more
successful than their peers, especially if students show off their parents’
success via expensive clothing.

With the school uniform, there is less opportunity for the ostentatious
display of wealth. The school uniform is also a lesson for students that
as human beings, we share more similarities than differences.

While it is only one weapon in the fight against discrimination, the school
uniform is too valuable to do away with. The value of the individual, as
opposed to the group, is also an important lesson to learn, but I believe
that this lesson is continuously taught anyway, in this era of social media
and irreverent social commentary. The school uniform is sometimes
seen as a tool of subjugation, but all it takes for it to be an empowering
tool is a shift in mental attitude, to view it as a symbolic commitment to
justice and learning, instead of some kind of metaphorical prisoner’s
garb. People who argue for the abolition of the school uniform have to
deal with the problems that I have outlined above, with all the
opportunity for differences in wealth and sartorial ability to be displayed.
As I have explained, inequalities can affect the activity of learning, and
the school uniform has the power to mitigate these problems.

Looking at the bigger picture of the development of the human being, the
school uniform is perhaps pale in comparison to issues like justice and
equality. However, with the right mental attitude towards the school
uniform, we can use it as a tool of progress instead of viewing it as a
straitjacket. All I ask is this: that designers update uniforms for schools
regularly, and to give boys the option to wear long pants if they so

My teachers used to instil a sense of fear into me, when I was learning
how to craft essays. I was never to use contractions, I never could write
about violence, and trying to write in a fantasy realm was a definite no-
go. There were so many rules to writing, so many rules I was so afraid to
break. As a result, writing short pieces in school was a pain, for it was so
boring — especially when the prompt was “About Myself”. Not that I am
a boring person, of course.

If a teacher asked me to write about myself, I thought, should I not be

allowed to break any and all of the rules that came with writing in
school? But there was always that sense of being afraid of the teacher,
for one, and having a real fear that if I broke the rules, I would come
away without the skills I needed to ace my examinations.

This sense of fear became so ingrained into my mental processes that I

almost thought not to question it. I have always been a voracious reader,
and I noticed so many of my favourite authors using “don’t”, and
“shouldn’t”, and “wouldn’t”, and worst of all, “ain’t”. Still, when I was in
school, I would always dismiss those things as “bad” writing, rules that
these authors could break because they were paid professionals.

This changed when I was in secondary 4. I remember reading a novel

that featured such intense violence and action that I had a vivid dream
about it. It was a novel that took place in a skyscraper, that had the
protagonist running up the stairs of this building. I dreamt it, all hundred-
and-some storeys of it. I remember waking up not only tired, but
exhausted, and in some strange way, exhilarated. If an author — who
celebrated violence in his writing — could make me feel this good, and
bad, with a single piece of writing, I was going to try to be like him.

The next essay I did in class, I threw caution to the wind and wrote about
a massacre. There were hangings, there was shooting, there was a car
chase, and even a scene where my narrator jumped from a helicopter
onto a moving truck. (Thank you, Hollywood.) It felt like a release,
breaking that violence rule. Of course, now that I had broken the rule, I
did not expect to get a terribly high grade.

When I got the essay back, I was gratified to see that I had gotten a very
high mark. My teacher had written something to the effect of “I’d say try
to avoid violence, but you do it very well, so I don’t know”, and I was
absolutely delighted with that. Not only had I broken the rules, I had
gotten approval for it.
That was the point when I realised that rules about writing were meant to
be broken, sometimes, by some people. I had overcome my fear of
breaking the rules, and my grades improved for it. No longer did I have
to think about creating some boring story about going to the market to
buy vegetables with my mother, I could write about disembodied voices
(reason: schizophrenia), violence (reason: political unrest), fistfights
(reason: violent criminals), and so on.

Overcoming that fear caused me to make some mistakes, of course, but

learning how to break the rules wisely was probably the start of my
journey as a writer. If I had never overcome my fear of breaking the
rules, I would probably have abandoned writing and indulged in some
other activity instead, for I would have never started to thoroughly enjoy
A note on spelling:
I am aware that some people insist on spelling “civilized” as “civilised”, in the
attempt to stick to a British style of spelling. However, I encourage everyone to
check their Oxford Dictionaries for the word “color” (Br: “colour”) and compare
that entry to the entry for “civilized”. Not all “z’s” turn into “s’s” when you use a
British style.

When most people think of “uncivilized” societies, they often think of pre-
modern tribes, tribes that are ignorant of the marvels of science and
technology, that are made up of people still dressed in skimpy animal
skins. In that sense, Singapore is undeniably civilized. Most
Singaporeans have smartphones, and most people that I know of have
stopped dressing in animal skins. However, I would like to think of a
“civilized” society in the sense of it being refined and advanced. In that
sense, perhaps Singapore is still a significant distance from being a
civilized society.

A refined and advanced society, in my mind, cannot simply be one that

enjoys the benefits of science and technology — it also has to be one
that is compassionate and just. After all, a society made out of violent
criminals could look very attractive and civilized on the surface, but
underneath that facade, the violence and crime that would surely occur
would force us to consider that society to be uncivilized. Looking around
us in Singapore, we see some amount of compassionate behaviour.
There are charities that attempt to help the unprivileged in society, that
are well-supported by the general population. The government has also
attempted to shape students into compassionate individuals by making
community service compulsory. However, it seems to me that these
efforts only pierce through a thin layer of injustice in our society. That we
still have an army of old people collecting cardboard for a living is
testament to a society that is not completely refined and civilized yet.

The injustices in Singapore are many. In addition to the above-

mentioned army of old people, we have foreign workers being treated
unfairly, and a worrying level of income inequality. A refined and civilized
society would not accept these injustices, and would work towards
making society a little bit more equal, and a lot more just. That some old
people here have to collect old cardboard boxes for a living is perhaps
only a symptom of the larger problem of income inequality here. I grant
that there is already some level of civilization in Singapore, since nobody
has to starve and die on the streets. However, in an Asian culture, many
people value their pride (their “face”) as much as they do their lives —
for some, their pride is probably even more important than their life! With
that in mind, it is unacceptable how vast income inequality is in
I use the word “unacceptable” in the sense that a truly refined society
would find it unacceptable. There is a section of society whose children
can afford not to work anymore, those who live in multi-million dollar
mansions in secluded areas, and who sit on massive bank accounts.
Then there is a section of society who cannot afford the privileges of
having smartphones and nice clothes, even though they work their
fingers to the bone — the lowest paid in our society, including the foreign
workers and uneducated among us. Smartphones and nice clothes may
be seen as unnecessary to some, but without these privileges, it is very
difficult to participate in mainstream life — think about how difficult it
would be to get a good job when you cannot send an email or a text

Therefore, even though on some level, Singapore is already civilized, it

is not completely refined. As long as there are glaring levels of inequality
and injustice in our society, we cannot say with conviction that
Singapore is completely civilized. If we close our eyes to injustice, we
cannot claim to be civilized.

Mobile phones are everywhere these days. We see people of all ages —
from toddlers in strollers to their grandparents — using mobile phones,
particularly the ubiquitous smartphone. We use smartphones to indulge
in leisure activities and to work. It certainly seems to me that most
people in Singapore nowadays cannot, or dare not, imagine life without
a smartphone. In that sense, the statement above is true.

Among those who can afford it, the smartphone has become a status
symbol, and for those who are concerned about projecting an affluent
image, the smartphone has become a necessary part of themselves.
Like branded clothing, the smartphone can be used to signal to others
that we are ‘civilised’ or at least fashionable. It is no longer enough for
some to own a functioning smartphone. There are, in fact, functioning
smartphones on the market now that have very much the same
capabilities as branded, more prestigious smartphones. Branded
smartphones can cost up to five times more than their cheaper, less
prestigious counterparts, but you will never catch certain image-
conscious consumers with non-branded smartphones. It is not about
functionality for these people — it is about projecting an image that says
that they are up to date with the latest fashions and equipment, and that
they can afford such toys for themselves.

Another two groups of people rely on the functionality of smartphones.

One group would not mind using cheaper equipment if it can help them
send emails, access research material, and aid them with other work-
related tasks. This group of people values the smartphone for the
portability it affords them. In the past, workaholics had to stay in the
office or in front of a computer to do their work. Now everyone can take
our work anywhere we go – on public transport, to social events, to
dinner, and even to the toilet. Another group closely mirrors the first,
except that instead of being addicted to work, this group is addicted to
entertainment. We can see this type of smartphone user watching
videos, playing games, and so on. Just like the workaholic who is able to
carry work with them anywhere they go, entertainment addicts can take
their entertainment anywhere they desire.
The smartphone as status symbol, and as a vehicle for addiction – these
are two uses of the mobile phone that have a negative sheen to them.
However, it is my view that we cannot do without smartphones today
simply because with them, we can engage more with life away from
them. Instead of having to sit down with pen and paper, or in front of a
computer, people can now write essays on their phones. It is a good
practice, for example, for students to train themselves to write essays
quickly by giving themselves only an hour to write essays that are given
as homework. Students, especially those who take an hour to get home
from school, can simply spend an hour typing an essay out on the way
home, and then print the essay for submission. Office workers, instead
of having to rush to the office to send that last-minute email, can simply
send it from wherever they are, saving the time they would have spent

Of course we can do without mobile phones in the sense that we can do

without clothes or baths, but there is a danger that civilisation as we
know it might just fall apart. In that sense, we cannot do without mobile
phones and smartphones today. Our heroes these days are users of
technology; our heroes are more like Iron Man (a great user of
technology) than Hercules. Iron Man probably would not want to go
without his smartphone, but let us also not forget that he used
technology well — to save the world.

“Time really flies,” my friend remarked, chewing on his food.

“Yes, and fruit flies,” I said, grinning like a monkey with a freshly peeled

My friend looked at me, blinked a couple of times, gave a mock sigh, and
shook his head. It was a joke so bad, it was good.

I will fully admit it — I like to play. Like most people, I would prefer play to hard
work, especially boring or painful hard work. This is antithetical to the usual
idea of spending time wisely. For most, when we think about time wisely
spent, we often think of a student or office drone quietly poring over some
difficult thing, his entire body tense with concentration. I will admit that
sometimes I work hard, to the point of pain, but most of the time I prefer to
play, even when it comes to work. Moreover, I will contend in this essay that
play helps me to spend my time wisely. Perhaps, then, it is not such a stretch
to say that I always spend my time wisely.

I play the guitar, and have been pretty good at it for a number of years now.
I will admit that the first few months of playing the guitar were pretty painful —
sore fingers and terrible noises were par for the course — but it was fun. That
element of fun means that I have continued playing the guitar for many years,
when most people who try to learn the instrument give up after awhile.

I also like to think that I am pretty handy with the English language (you
may feel free to disagree). My facility with the English language has mostly
come about as a result of enjoying reading. I would read anything I could get
my hands on, when I was younger. Comics, magazines, novels, newspapers
— I would read them all. When I picked up a text that I found boring, I just put
it down. There was, after all, so much to read. I instinctively looked for
something fun to do, and reading served that purpose well.

This element of fun that I associate with the English language is in direct
contrast to my former disdain of the Chinese language. Whenever I tried
reading something in Chinese, my brain would scream at me, “difficult,
boring!” I honestly tried working hard on my Chinese, in school, but I still just
barely passed. I blame my failure to learn Chinese effectively on my failure to
look for material that was fun to read. Without that element of fun, my brain
simply shut down and refused to take in any information.

Do I always spend my time wisely? The word “always” in that question may
force me to answer in the negative. There must have been times in my life
when I have wasted time. However, prioritising the principle of play has helped
me to enjoy my work. Counterintuitively, playing more has helped me to work
more. Hence, since my life has always been a mix of play and work, perhaps it
is not so unreasonable to claim that, by and large, I always spend my time
“Fear is good.” Discuss.

Fear is the bad feeling that one has when he is in danger or when a
particular thing frightens him. A German proverb goes, “Fear makes the
wolf bigger than he is.” This is absolutely true as fear will often cause
people to imagine the worst and act irrationally. In that case, can fear be
any good? Personally, I think a small amount of fear is good and even
necessary as it not only acts as a form of control and deterrence but also
serves to motivate oneself.

Nonetheless, being overly fearful is bad as it will severely hamper man’s

progress. In this essay, I will discuss how fear can be a double-edged
sword, bringing both advantages and disadvantages to man.

Fear is good as it deters people from doing dangerous acts and prompt
them to control and regulate their behaviour. For instance, despite the
numerous wars since World War Two, the atomic bombings of
Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan remain the only use of nuclear
weapons in warfare. This is because the world is fearful of the
widespread devastation that such weapons will bring about. Therefore,
the fear of total annihilation has prevented world leaders from acting
irresponsibly and going down the path of self-destruction.

Next, fear is good as it is a powerful motivator. For individuals such as

students and entrepreneurs, the fear of failure will prompt them to work
hard and put in their best effort in their studies and business
undertakings. This will lead to results and progress. Similarly for nations,
the fear of losing their competitive edge will spur them to constantly
improve and reinvent themselves to keep pace with the fast-changing
world. For example, Singapore is taking active steps to maintain and
improve her skilled and flexible workforce to ensure that she remains
competitive and does not fall behind major economies like China.
Retraining schemes and upgrading courses have been provided for the
workforce to ensure that it stays relevant. Hence, we can see that the
fear of losing out to others is one of the reasons that has motivated
nations to take active steps in improving their economies. Without fear,
nations will become complacent and they will eventually fall into a
However, although fear is good, man must keep in mind that too much
fear may be detrimental to his development. Being overly fearful of the
unknown and intangible will prevent people from venturing into areas
previously unexplored. For instance, in the area of space exploration,
Apollo 11 would have never landed the first humans on the moon if the
Americans had let fear get in the way of their dream. As the late John F.
Kennedy once said, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and
do the other things not because they are easy, but because they are
hard.” To achieve great feats, man must learn to conquer his fear and
find the courage to overcome the obstacles that life presents. Only then
can the human race continue to make progress and enjoy the sweet
smell of success.

In sum, fear is good as it will ultimately lead to a well controlled and

motivated society. Nevertheless, people must keep in mind that they
should not be clouded by fear as it will hinder their progress. I believe
that a small dose of fear and a good deal of courage will make a great
man as such a man will have the spirit to pursue his goals and the sense
to act responsibly in the process.
Write about a stranger who left a deep and lasting impression on you
because of his or her actions.

He came, he saw, he helped. Then, he left without even telling us his

name. To this day, I still remember his face and mannerism vividly. How
could I ever forget him and the kindness he showed us?

It was during the March holidays and my mother and I were on our way
to Malaysia to visit my aunt. We were in high spirits and the mood was
set for an enjoyable day. Unfortunately, halfway through our road trip,
one of our car tyres was punctured in the middle of the highway. As my
mother did not know how to change a car tyre, we had no choice but to
seek help. For almost an hour, we waved at every passing vehicle but
no one slowed down, much less stopped. As if the situation could not get
any worse, the weather changed suddenly. Thunder rumbled and
lightning cracked open the ashen sky. Dark ominous clouds gathered
overhead as rain threatened to fall.

“Where are all the helpful people! I can’t imagine being stranded here for
hours!” I began to whine.

Just then, a screech of brakes was heard.

A battered old truck stopped a few centimetres ahead of me and out

came a towering man with broad muscular shoulders and strong heavily-
tattooed arms. His weather-beaten skin was as coarse as an alligator’s
and he had a pock-marked face that looked like a pimple plantation. His
eyes were so tiny that they were almost non-existent and his bulbous
nose had the shape of a large garlic clove. To put it plainly, he was ugly
and formidable looking.
“Do you need help?” the intimidating stranger asked in a gruff voice.

An irrational fear overwhelmed me, causing my heart to palpitate so fast

that it might just leap out of my mouth. Instinctively, I moved behind my
mother for protection.

“Ermh… yes please. Our tyre is punctured,” my mother muttered

hesitatingly after what seemed like eternity.

Without a word, the stranger walked back to his beat-up truck and took
out a toolbox. Taking the spare tyre from my mother, he flashed us an
enigmatic smile and started work. We stood near him uneasily, half
thankful and half suspicious of his motives.
Minutes passed and a gentle drizzle began to drift down from the
darkened sky. Heat was instantly radiated from the ground as the light
drizzle cooled the surroundings. My mother immediately told me to get
into the car while she took an umbrella to place over the stranger to
prevent him from getting wet. However, as the rain got heavier, my
mother also came into the car at the stranger’s bidding.

“It’s okay. There’s no point in you standing here and getting wet too,” he
said, his coarse voice muffled by the pelting rain.

For the next ten minutes or so, we sat silently in the car and watched the
good Samaritan fix our tyre. He was focused on the task even though
the wind had grabbed the umbrella and he was drenched to the skin.

When he was finally done, he simply knocked on the car window and
said casually, “Your car is good to go.”

Before we could utter a word of thanks, he turned around and hopped

into his truck. Then he left as quickly as he came. Just like that.

This mysterious man has left a deep and lasting impression on me

because he has taught me two valuable life lessons. Firstly, he has
taught me not to judge a book by its cover. When I first saw him, I
instantly associated him with criminals. Nevertheless, he turned out to
be the kindest person I have ever met. Thanks to him, I no longer form
an opinion about others just because of the way they look. More
importantly, he has taught me what it really means to help others. There
are people out there who are willing to help those in need without asking
for anything in return. These are the people who make the world a better
place with their kindness and consideration. Although our encounter was
brief, I will never forget this memorable character who gave my mother
and me a helping hand and so much more.
Describe how you celebrated an important family occasion. Why will this
event always remain in your memory? (O-level English 2014)

By Steven Ooi

All around was green and blue – the grass a blend of darker emerald
and bright parakeet green, the sky a magnificent azure. Most people
would expect an important family celebration to be in a grand place with
carpets, fine silver tableware or at least good catering at home – but all
we had around us was grass and sky, the former laid with a picnic mat,
on which sat a few containers of humble food from the hawker centre.

We were celebrating the fact that we were not bankrupt any more.
To be precise, Papa was not bankrupt any more. Even though legally it
had been his bankruptcy, all of us suffered through it with him. It had
been five long and painful years of struggle, tears and occasionally,

We opened up the little container of rice, and then the little container of
stir-fried sambal kangkong, the dark green leafy vegetable seasoned
beautifully with spices. Then the fillet fish with lemon sauce, and the
clams fried in chili sauce, and we savoured every bite with thankful
relish. It may seem a simple meal, but to us, after five years of often
getting by on plain rice and a boiled egg, it was a feast. My older brother
David pulled out his guitar, and we sang along – David, my younger
sister Donela and I – to the moving lyrics and soulful tunes of Sam
Smith’s ‘Stay With Me’. Our voices blended in what some people have
called a luscious sibling chemistry, as the setting sun scattered its fires
passionately across the sky, a flaming encore, conflagration of renewed
hope and divine mercy. Mama and Papa applauded with unmistakeable
pride in their faces – the fine tributaries incised into my father’s brow
over troubled years very visible in the orange light, but his tan face
glowing with a hard-earned wisdom.

I will never forget this meal, humble by man’s measure but glorious with
the abundance of God, because it marked not only a liberation from
financial bondage and misery, but also the redemption of my family.

Once my father had cared only about money, when his medical devices
company was thriving. We lived like kings in material terms, but were
utter paupers in spirit. He never came home for meals on weekdays, and
on Saturdays he would have a quick dinner with us before rushing off to
meet a client or a business partner. Family life was barren, arid as the
The end for the business came suddenly, like a bullet fired by an
overzealous reveller on New Year’s Eve. A competitor invented a
revolutionary device that would render my father’s products redundant.
Papa was personally liable for his company’s debts as he had signed a
guarantee. From our majestic mansion in the swanky Holland Village,
we had to move into a humble one-bedroom flat in Khatib.

It was the wake-up call my father had needed for years. He realised how
empty, fragile and transient a thing money was, and he awakened to the
foolishness with which he had lived his life for many years – neglecting
his wife and children. He made great effort to spend more time with us
even while working assiduously to pay off his debts. Those years when
we had to think hard even before buying a dozen eggs or a new ball-
point pen, when erstwhile “friends” vanished and shunned us like the
plague, were a redemption for me as well. I had been a spoilt child never
able to appreciate the comforts of my life, taking all my blessings for
granted and kicking up a fuss over the most trivial caprice. Now even a
spoonful of tasty vegetables was something I was grateful for.

As the world around us fell into darkness and the final vestiges of light
lingered on the horizon, I felt comforted and blessed. After 16 years of
what had seemed a vacuous life devoid of purpose, I finally felt that life
had a meaning, one enfolded in the mysterious higher workings of the
universe and an earnest journey to always be a better person by the
setting of each day’s sun.
What important lessons in life are learned away from school? (O-level
2010 question) A model essay

Posted on April 24, 2013by gptuitionsg

Heinrich Heine once said, “If the Romans had been obliged to learn
Latin, they would never have found time to conquer the world.” While it
may be true that school does equip us with useful knowledge and skills,
the experiences of humankind throughout history make it eminently clear
that learning transcends any single building or institution. Every
situation, every place, and every chapter of our lives offers us an
opportunity to learn something. We learn from the playgrounds; we learn
from the factory. We learn from the tough streets; we learn from the
football field. Indeed, far from the four walls of school, the world is a vast
open field offering us limitless scope for learning.

The world is a complex, difficult, often dangerous place where you need
to take care of yourself. This is probably the lesson that most stands out
in my mind. A few years ago, a student from Raffles Institution, the top
secondary school in Singapore, was stabbed by a group of gangsters
after he allegedly stared at them in a public place. Fortunately, he
survived and recovered from his injuries, but I remember thinking that
this boy was perhaps the epitome of a book-smart, street-foolish youth.

One has to be careful when encountering strangers in one’s everyday

life. Strangers are an unknown quantity. One should not stare at them
and try not to offend a stranger, especially one who appears to be
potentially aggressive. If you learn the ways of the street, if you observe
the outward demeanour of different kinds of people, you will learn to
develop a nose for sniffing out potential trouble, and learn which people
and situations to steer clear of. Within the controlled environment of a
school, it is very difficult to learn such lessons.

Even though students are still minors and naturally dependent on their
parents to some extent, I believe it is most beneficial for students to take
up a part-time job or temporary job to earn at least part of their own
keep. In doing so, they widen their horizons, being exposed to a wider
cross-section of society — people of different age groups and social
backgrounds. They learn that no matter how difficult their own lives are,
there are others with bigger problems and heavier burdens to carry. This
helps to put one’s problems in perspective: a student might go to work
feeling like her life is the worst as the boy she likes has not reciprocated
her affections, but discover a colleague of the same age who has to care
for her wheelchair-bound mother stricken with a heart problem and
kidney failure. I personally learned empathy and compassion from my
temporary work during my schooldays, to stop feeling sorry for myself
and reach out to others more in need.
Exposure to the world of work also enlightens a young person on the
value of money. When one merely collects pocket money from one’s
parents, he tends to think that money comes easily – perhaps that it
even grows on trees. After a nine-hour shift at McDonald’s, however, he
is likely to feel very differently. He learns that money is usually the fruit of
hard, exhausting work. He learns that the pieces of paper he takes from
his parents were the product of his parents’ blood, sweat, tears — and

Indeed, one’s relationship with one’s family is one of the most precious
things in life. We often devote too much time to our studies and too little
to developing healthy relationships with our family. A relationship is like
a plant: it needs to be watered, fertilised and cared for if it is to flourish. If
we mistreat it, or neglect it, it will be in very poor shape; it could even
die. Hence if we reflect on the way we relate to our families, the way that
we treat them, we might find that we tend to take them for granted
because we assume that they will always be there for us. We might find
that we hurt their feelings carelessly and callously, and fail to appreciate
them for the unconditional love they give us.

For instance, when our mother asks us whether we would like to have
lunch at home, we often just offer a cursory, indifferent reply as our
minds are more focused on our friends and hobbies. If we are open to
learning outside of school, we can learn how precious the love of our
family is and how much more steadfast their love is than the often
transient and superficial affections of our so-called “friends”.

In sum, we students should always remember that school is only the

institution of formal education, one that can never fully prepare us for the
life that is to come. With its theoretical emphasis and hypothetical
exercises, school lessons can only go so far to teach us how to live in
this world. While we should be positive about learning in the classroom,
we should also seek to learn from the world and be inspired to reach
wider horizons of thought and action.
‘Longer life expectancy creates more problems than benefits.’ Discuss.
(A-levels 2016)
Posted on October 10, 2017by gptuitionsg

Imagine waking up one day with your wife of 32 years. “Good morning,
dear,” you say with a smile, as you have every morning for over three
decades. Her eyes narrow with suspicion and she asks, “Who are you?”

This tragic circumstance – dementia – is one that befalls more and more
people every year even as we celebrate the feats of science in
concocting more and better treatments for illness and stretching out our
sojourn on this increasingly less mortal coil. It is one of many immense
costs that the human race bears – on individual, familial and societal
levels – for greater longevity.

As biological science strides on towards its likely tipping point into a

Brave New World, it is imperative that we examine whether longer life
expectancy is more a blessing or a bane. The problems wrought by the
constant uptick in our years of life are, in my view, of such magnitude
that they have preponderance even over the undoubtedly great
advantages that they bring. Thus, I take the position that longer life
expectancy does indeed bring us more difficulties than dividends.

It is not possible to deny the boost to the quality of many human lives
that more time on earth bestows. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a
formidable mountain to climb – and the more time we have, the better
our chances of reaching the windy summit of self-actualisation. If we
consider the typical example of a person born at the start of the
20thcentury, he would have had only about 40 years to pursue his
aspirations as a human being. He would probably have had to marry
young if he wanted to see his children’s 20th birthday, which would mean
less time to pursue his formal education to empower himself. After the
rigours of starting and supporting a family, he would have only at most
10-12 years to pursue other goals and interests. With such a short
runway, it is difficult to even ‘find oneself’. Today, however, people live
for 60 to 80 years in most countries. They can wait till their mid-20s or
later to get married (and society is more open to the option of not
marrying at all), and have more time before and after marriage to find
the path in life that leads them to happiness. A young adult today is likely
to have the luxury of trying out at least three or four different career
paths, travel to many more places if he is of reasonable means, move on
from bad relationships or marriages to better ones, and essentially
explore life and find fulfilment.
However, the passage of the years is not always so kind. Medical
science at this point is more adept at increasing our lifespan than our
healthspan. It often keeps us alive but in a highly fraught condition
where quality of life is, sadly, so poor that the individual may question if it
is worthwhile to even go on living. Examples abound, from dementia to
diabetes to kidney failure. All are epidemics that are sweeping across
the world. Government statistics in Japan, for instance, project that the
number of dementia sufferers over 65 is expected to jump from 4.62
million in 2012 to 7 million by 2025. Dementia rises in part because
medical science has weaker ability to preserve the brain than the rest of
the body – scientific understanding of the brain lags behind that of other
organs, as the brain is by far the most complex part of our anatomy.

Diabetes is caused by many factors but age is an important one.

Kidney failure, which sometimes is brought about by diabetes, is on the
rise and as it is difficult to obtain a legal transplant, most patients need to
be on dialysis for many years – an excruciatingly painful procedure that
lasts for four hours, three times a week. The indignities of ageing have
always been with us, but a longer mortal existence prolongs and often
aggravates them. It brings immeasurable physical and emotional pain to
the aged, and immense heartache to their loved ones watching them

Some would argue that a longer life allows one to become wiser with the
benefit of greater experience. They add that society too profits from the
collective sagacity of a larger number of members in their 60s and older.
For instance, older workers can guide their younger colleagues through
challenging situations with their steady hand and perspicacity and
grandparents are around longer to share their insights with their

That being said, I have to question whether longer lives truly lead to
wiser heads. If this were the case, then the wise men and women of
today would overshadow their predecessors from generations past. But
this is widely recognised to not be the case – even today, we often turn
to the sayings and writings of Confucius, St. Augustine, Dr Sun Yat-sen,
Machiavelli, Aristotle and other great thinkers, leaders and
revolutionaries for guidance and enlightenment – no less often than we
do the influential minds of today. Very few of these legendary thought
leaders lived lives that would be considered long by today’s standards. I
also question the value of vast experience in today’s world owing to the
exponential rate of change driven by technology. Moore’s Law, which
states that the number of transistors that can fit onto an integrated circuit
doubles every two or so years, is a good representation of this
accelerating change. A doubling of computing power every two years
may not have much perceptible impact initially, when it is rising from a
low base. However, when it crosses a certain threshold, it has seismic
repercussions which then grow faster and faster in absolute terms. In
recent years we have begun to see – and feel – the prescience of
Gordon Moore. Job security has greatly diminished or even evaporated
for hundreds of millions; social media has redefined the way we
communicate with others and sometimes even our relationships; and
whole industries from retailing to entertainment to medicine are being
reshaped by robotics, big data and artificial intelligence. In such a
context of exponential change, the lessons from the past become less
and less relevant, and possibly even a liability. The longer we live, the
higher our tendency to become attached to our familiar ways of doing
things. Undoubtedly, there are highly adaptable seniors who are very
willing to discard dogma and constantly acquire new ways of doing
things but unfortunately, they are the exception rather than the norm.

The prospect of more and more octogenarians, nonagenarians and even

centenarians looks even bleaker when we consider the ramifications for
societies and nations. While it is unquestionable that human beings love
their parents, the cold, hard reality is that the longer we stick around, the
more we are likely to burden our children and also society and the state.
The oft-prescribed solution of advancing the retirement age is a limited
one, for reasons mentioned earlier: medicine is better at raising lifespan
than healthspan, and the explosive pace of change in the world that
makes it increasingly an uphill task for older workers to stay employable.
As parents’ lifespans relentlessly extend, it takes a heavy toll on family
finances, with heartbreaking results. South Korea, a society traditionally
steeped in reverence for age, today has the highest elder poverty rate in
the industrialised world at nearly 50 percent. A Channel NewsAsia
documentary revealed that in Myanmar, impoverished families are
discarding their elderly folk by the roadside. Increasingly, the onus will
fall on the state to help the elderly, but state coffers even in the world’s
richest countries are already straining to provide for the legions of
retiring baby boomers, to say nothing of the expenses that are to come
as retirees live longer and longer. Many experts have spoken of
America’s “pension bomb”, as data from Bloomberg shows that half of
American states have pension funding shortfalls of 25 percent or more.
Illinois, for example, promised its employees US$199 billion in retirement
benefits in 2015. It is US$119.1 b short.

Despite the apparent “miracles” of medical science, our improvements in

longevity are not the fountain of perpetual youth – or quality of life, or
employability. While I unreservedly acknowledge the utility of
experiencing life’s joys, personal growth and a pursuit of self-
actualisation that a longer life brings, it is most difficult to see these as
adequate compensation for the extended years of poor health, suffering
and indignity as well as the crippling effects on families and the state to
the point that it may bring bankruptcy to many countries in the years to
come – and with it, the looming spectre of a longer life for us today
coming at the expense of the needs and happiness of future
Therefore, it is my considered opinion that longer life expectancy on
balance is more a bane than a blessing to the human race. As scientists
urge us to continue funding their relentless quest for yet another medical
‘breakthrough’, we will have to collectively engage in a very hard
conversation about the desirability of extending our individual lives ever
further into the horizon – and whether those resources would be better
expended on other human needs and hopes.
‘Human actions should be based on scientific fact, not religious faith.’
How far do you agree with this statement? (A-level General Paper exam,

The relentless rise of science over the centuries, from the days of the
great ancient Greek philosopher-scientists such as Democritus and
Aristotle to the present day’s biological experiments with implanting
human glial cells into the brains of rodents, has not only captured the
imagination of the human race but also gradually planted and nurtured
the seed of doubt in the human consciousness about our traditional
religious beliefs. Today it has become fashionable to express extreme
scepticism about the claims of time-honoured scripture or even decry
religious belief as being the domain of irrational, ignorant fools. Fixated
on the purported ‘objectivity’, ‘reliability’ and ‘rationality’ of science, the
modern man often gravitates towards putting his ultimate faith in
science; relying on it as the ultimate basis of Truth to the exclusion of all
else; and letting it be, to an overwhelming extent, the basis of his

While I acknowledge the immense value of science in bringing greater

objectivity to our understanding of the world and our lives, I believe that
human actions should be founded mainly on scientific fact rather than
religious faith only in areas where science is well-equipped to provide
more definite answers and reliable solutions than religion.

There is no denying that science often provides more objective evidence

on many matters – based as it is on observable, measurable evidence –
and therefore serves as a more rational basis for our actions in
numerous life situations. This is particularly true on matters of physical
reality such as the causes of disease or the operation of an aeroplane.
In pre-scientific times, man believed that disease had purely
supernatural causes – one fell ill because one had offended the gods.
The remedy, therefore, was to repent and undertake penance. Thanks to
science, we know today that diseases have identifiable natural causes
such as viruses, and we can treat our maladies much more reliably with
medicine formulated based on scientific evidence and find relief
(whether or not the gods were involved in the development of the
disease). Thus human action on such matters should be guided more by
scientific fact than religious faith as the former is proven to be more
reliable and effective in these aspects of life.

Be that as it may, there is equally no denying that all the glorious

discoveries and inventions of science provide extremely limited guidance
on one of the most important facets of our lives: morality. Regardless of
language, culture or religion, the human being has a deep need to feel
that she is living a good life in moral terms – suggesting that this is a
fundamental human need. But science, being rooted in physical reality,
has little to no capacity to provide answers to such abstract questions. It
can help us build a smartphone, but not teach us whether to use it to
communicate with sincerity and devotion. It can enable us to build a gun,
but not give us clarity on whether we should pull the trigger. It can
enable us to conduct bizarre genetic experiments, but not answer the
question of whether we should. Religion offers us answers to these
questions not through empirical investigation, but through dictate. One
could of course argue that religious teachings are morally problematic,
and that some principles once regarded as sacred are now often seen
as oppressive, such as the Christian prohibition on homosexuality.
However, the vast majority of religious moral teachings such as the
Christian commandment to be honest, and the Buddhist precept of
kindness to all sentient beings, are almost universally accepted as
positive, even by free thinkers. Of course this begs the question of why
one would need religion if one could accept these moral ideas to be true
even without a faith. I contend that religion provides an authoritative
basis for acting in the right way for those who choose to adhere to it. In
the absence of religion, it can be difficult to provide any other strong
basis on why one should be honest – one could proffer a logical or
scientific argument on why one should be so, but it would be equally
easy to construct another argument on why one should not. On such
matters, science does not provide many conclusive answers and thus,
human action should use religion rather than science as its compass.

Beyond morality, there are other questions that stubbornly occupy the
minds of a very substantial proportion of our species – notably the
origins of our existence, and its meaning. Where did we come from, and
why are we here? Contentious as it is, I put forth the assertion that
science fails to give any answer that is truly satisfying on either an
intellectual or emotional level. On the matter of origins of humanity and
of existence, its answers are incomplete and in particular, lacking in
some of the most critical areas. The Theory of Evolution and subsequent
research provide an impressive body of evidence that we evolved from
ape-like creatures, and ultimately from a single-cell organism (possibly
Darwin’s “universal common ancestor”). However, it begs the question,
where did the first organisms in this process come from? How did such
supposedly simple organisms have the amazing functionality of not only
being able to reproduce, but also to steadily become millions of times
more complex? In other words, even the simplest single-cell organism is
a more complex and intricate machine than any device man has ever
created. Could such intricate functionality and powerful purposefulness
arise by chance? It would be analogous to pieces of plastic and metal
randomly coming together to become a pair of Beats headphones.
Certainly there is no empirical evidence of such a thing ever happening.

Even though science has raised many doubts about the idea of a divine
creator, it has never been able to disprove it comprehensively, nor
replace the idea with a truly factual alternative. Even if one were to
believe that the universe came into being through a Big Bang, and living
creatures came into existence by chance and then evolved, science
provides little or no conclusive answer to what the meaning of our lives
is. Religion, on the other hand, offers the conceptually straightforward
idea of a relationship with a divine being or the pursuit of a divine quest
through an act of faith as the basis for a good life – which is one that
brings immense fulfilment to millions around the world. I do not deny that
religion is a highly problematic institution that contributes to strife and
conflict, and that many religious believers are delusional or irrational. But
the fact is that not all are so. There are highly logical individuals who
have found great meaning in religious faith, such as former US president
Barack Obama, Nobel prize-winning physicist Max Planck, and the Dalai
Lama. There are millions who testify to this effect of religion, whereas
one would be hard put to find more than a few who say that science has
brought similarly deep emotional fulfilment as a basis for how they live
their life. Hence in regard to the search for meaning in our lives, I hold
that religion forms a better foundation for our actions than science.

Finally, while it is a pervasive argument that science is provably factual

and religion is less objectively so, we should ponder this question: is so-
called scientific ‘fact’ really fact at all? This may come as a shock to
21st-century sensibilities, but a fundamental basis of scientific assertions
is their falsifiability. All scientific claims are made with the readiness to
be retracted in the presence of contradictory evidence in the future. One
thinks of how Isaac Newton’s idea of absolute space – once considered
to be fact – was debunked later by Albert Einstein’s General Theory of
Relativity, which turned the foundations of physics on their head. Can
anyone guarantee that Einstein’s theory will not, in the decades to come,
be shown to be myth? The so-called ‘facts’ of science are really beliefs
rooted in the shifting sands of constant theoretical challenge and
empirical inquiry. Indeed scientists, if true to the spirit of science, do not
advance any of their claims as absolute fact; religion, however, does.
Absolute fact forms firmer grounds for deciding what one should do in

The atheist would no doubt argue that the falsifiable claims of science
are still more reliable than the baseless claims of religion. Well-known
intellectuals like Carl Sagan deride religious adherents as following a
belief without a shred of evidence. We should, however, not be overly
narrow in our definition of evidence. The scientific paradigm – repeatable
experiments, observation and measurement under pre-defined
parameters – need not be the only paradigm through which we can
derive truth. Speak to one or two hundred believers of different faiths,
and you will hear many striking accounts of events in their lives that they
believe were influenced by metaphysical forces such as God or karma –
events that substantiate the claims of their scripture and cannot be
explained by science or mathematics. For instance, a believer narrates
that she prayed to God to reveal himself to her and guide her on which
religion to follow. While asleep in a taxi, she is woken by an unexplained
feeling of a tug on her arm. She awakes to see a place of worship
outside the taxi with a banner that beckons her to come in and
experience God. She then asks God for confirmation. That week a friend
meets her for lunch, testifies to how God changed her life, and invites
her to the very place of worship that she passed in the taxi. Testimonies
like this abound among the religious. Science and mathematics cannot
explain how this happened – indeed the probability of such an event
happening by chance is minuscule. While there is no way to provide
proof in as observable a way as science, in a laboratory, such events
serve as quite objective evidence to religious believers in a way that
often only each individual believer has access. We should not be too
quick to dismiss religious beliefs as groundless or religious testimonies
as delusional – indeed, we often have no proof of that.

Thus, it is my position that human action should be based primarily on

scientific fact in areas where science provides relatively greater certainty
than religion does – such as the treatment of physical illness – but in
other domains of action where science does not possess this advantage,
our path in life should be guided more by religion. Indeed, even in
realms such as physical health, there is sometimes a case for choosing
a spiritual rather than medical course of action. There are many
testimonies to how prayer created what appears like a miracle when
many medical therapies had failed. Even if the supposed ‘miracle’ does
not materialise and the believer dies, he may do so happy in the belief
that he is about to go on to a better place. Whether we are atheist or
religious follower, we should keep our minds open to anything that has
not been comprehensively falsified.
In your society, how well are the demands of the economy and the
environment balanced? A model essay (A-level GP exam 2015)

It has often been said that pragmatism is Singapore’s governing principle. A

minuscule island largely made up of immigrants that underwent a sudden
metamorphosis into a nation when we were forced out of Malaysia in 1965,
Singapore has always had to be unwaveringly practical-minded in order to
survive in a tough world. Through this, we achieved what many around the
world have termed an economic miracle and have become a respected player
with an outsized influence on the world stage both diplomatically and
economically. Along the way, we have had to compromise the environment at
times, for instance producing substantial carbon emissions from our key
manufacturing and aviation sectors, and clearing a large proportion of our
rainforest to build homes, shopping malls, offices and warehouses. However,
even in our times of most acute economic need, Singapore has never totally
forsaken the environment and has made significant efforts to contribute
constructively to global endeavours to protect the Earth, ameliorate our own
environmental impact, and even find a complementarity between economy
and environment. Thus I am of the view that Singapore strikes a reasonably
good balance between the economy and environment, but leans slightly
towards economic imperatives in its decision-making.

It cannot be denied that this tiny country of 716 square kilometres with no
natural resources needs to make certain compromises on environmental
protection in order to feed its 5.54 million people and provide them with the
high standard of living they have come to expect as citizens and residents of a
First World nation. We have always had to pursue development in any
industry in which we could carve out a relevance for ourselves in the world
economy. When a country is so insignificant geographically that one needs a
magnifying glass to find us on the world map, it cannot be too ethically
delicate or idealistic in the economic choices it makes. Thus we have built up
some key industries that pollute significantly – tourism, aviation, shipping and
manufacturing to name a few. In fact, one great irony in our economy is that
even though we do not produce a single drop of crude oil, we are world
leaders in oil rig building through Keppel Corporation and Sembcorp Marine.
We are also a major oil refining and trading hub with a growing liquefied
natural gas trading and storage industry. Our airport and seaport are among
the busiest in the world and we attract some three times more tourists each
year than the size of our resident population. Inevitably, all these activities
either produce, or are complicit in producing, very large amounts of carbon
emissions contributing to anthropogenic climate change.

However, Singapore has always tried to mitigate its adverse impact on the
environment through a range of measures. The country’s leadership has
shown fairly consistent awareness of the need to strike a balance. In fact, at
the very beginning of our nationhood, our founding prime minister Lee Kuan
Yew possessed the foresight to recognise that we needed to green our city-
state in order to make it a pleasant, tolerable place to live. Thus we planted
thousands of trees and flowering plants throughout the country, earning the
moniker of Garden City. This lush vegetation keeps our air clean despite the
heavy vehicular traffic on the roads and industrial pollution. Since the time of
Mr Lee, successive governments have continued to introduce policies to
alleviate the strain on the ecosystem. In recent times, the government has
sought to encourage the use of public transport as well as other
environmentally-friendly modes of transportation such as cycling. The mass
rapid transit (MRT) network has been steadily expanded as new lines such as
the Downtown Line and Circle Line were added to the original North-South
and East-West lines. Park connectors have been built as well as broad
pavements with bicyle lanes have been developed in several estates including
Tampines and Ang Mo Kio. As for those who insist on driving a car, the
Carbon Emissions-Based Vehicle Scheme, which provides subsidies for fuel-
efficient vehicles, has been put in place. Finally, we have cleaned up our
rivers and they are no longer the fetid, repulsive dumps they once were but
rather lovely places for a boat ride or a stroll. Thus it is clear that despite the
seemingly overwhelming need for economic realism, Singapore has made
serious efforts to care for the environment.

A fascinating paradox for Singapore is that our lack of natural resources has
made us very resourceful. It is this quality that has enabled us to find a
complementarity between economic growth and environmental concerns,
such that we engage in projects that bring benefits to both. In recent times,
there has been a pressing need to both grow the economy and, with
increasingly alarming reports of a warming planet, to care for Gaia as well –
and Singapore is living proof that necessity is the mother of invention. Our
showcase public park, Gardens by the Bay, is highly popular with tourists for
its innovative design and horticultural technology, and yet a marvel of eco-
friendliness with its beautiful trees and lush flowering plants. In fact, even our
less glamorous public parks and even roadside trees have not only helped
safeguard our environmental health, but played their part in boosting our
economy as well. The clean air and outdoor lifestyle options that they provide
gives us a major advantage over other major cities in terms of liveability. Take
Hong Kong for example, another major financial centre in Asia which is
generally seen as our biggest regional rival. It is perpetually plagued by air
pollution, as are Beijing, Mumbai and Manila. Our outstanding air quality and
concomitant high quality of life afford us a key advantage in the global war for
talent, which is critical to our economic competitiveness as a small state. Thus
it is evident that for Singapore, the ostensible conflict between economy and
environment is at times a false dichotomy.

Apart from pursuing eco-friendly initiatives on our fair shores, Singapore is

also a constructive, committed and respected participant in regional and
global efforts to solve environmental challenges. Our government invests
heavily in technology and human resources to enable us to make an outsized
contribution on the world stage. One example would be our role in managing
the perennial smoke haze problem in Southeast Asia caused mainly by
Indonesian plantation owners clearing land by burning. We have provided
satellite data to the Indonesian authorities to help them pin down those
responsible and sent our aircraft to aid in water-bombing operations. We have
more than pulled our weight even on the highest stage in global environmental
efforts – the United Nations climate change summits, notably the landmark
conference in Paris in 2015. According to the Today newspaper, the
Singapore team led by Foreign Affairs Minister Dr Vivian Balakrishnan worked
tirelessly – often overnight – to act as an honest broker, particularly on the
critical issue of differentiation. Singapore was able to perform this role
because it is a well-respected nation, perceived as neutral and credible, and
possesses strong skills in diplomacy. That we played an important part in
achieving the historic climate deal in Paris – which binds all signatories to
emissions cuts – is testament to the claim that we take the environment
seriously and have struck a respectable degree of balance between economy
and environment.

On the whole, it is my position that the demands of the economy and the
environment are reasonably well-balanced in Singapore, as well as one could
expect of a small nation not blessed with natural resources. Of course we are
some distance from being perfect in this regard, and are still responsible for a
substantial amount of carbon emissions and deforestation, producing 4.32
metric tons of carbon dioxide per capita in 2011, according to the World Bank.
But given our circumstances I contend that we have done a credible job. Our
emissions are below those of most other developed countries such as the
United States (17.02 tons), South Korea (11.84 tons), and France (5.19 tons).
Pragmatic Singapore would do well to continue to devote itself to preserving
Mother Earth – after all, our own survival as a low-lying island would be
greatly imperilled by rising oceans.
‘For the majority of people, the Arts are irrelevant to their daily lives.’ How true
is this of your society? (A-level GP exam, 2014)
By Steven Ooi

Being a small state with no natural resources or strategic hinterland to fall

back upon, my country Singapore has always had to be unwaveringly
pragmatic in order to survive, let alone prosper, in this harsh and unforgiving
world. In the early days of our independence and industrialisation, our
government and schools focused heavily on STEM – science, technology,
engineering and mathematics – to boost the value added per worker so that
we could compensate for our geographical disadvantages. Between the 1960s
and the 1990s, there was a strong perception that Science was the ticket to a
good life, and the Arts were an abstract waste of time. Even now, that
mentality has not totally disappeared. This emphasis on the sciences at the
expense of the Arts led to Singapore being a cultural desert in the early
decades, though the nation is now far more culturally vibrant. For the
purposes of this essay, I shall define ‘irrelevant to their daily lives’ as being not
important, useful or connected to the ordinary everyday activities and
concerns of Singaporeans. As the Arts are critical to Singapore’s economic
development and vital to the alleviation of stress and unhappiness in our
everyday lives, I believe it is largely untrue that for most Singaporeans, the
Arts are irrelevant to their daily existence.

Detractors of the Arts might put forth the contention that for a small, natural
resource-poor country like Singapore, the people need to devote themselves
to fields that yield more assured tangible economic returns, such as science,
engineering, economics, law and so forth. The Arts, they assert, are merely an
interesting and meaningful pastime at best, a frivolous distraction from
practical concerns at worst. How would watching the angst and pathos of
Shakespeare’s King Lear, for instance, put food on the table for the family?
How would revelling in the splendour of the Singapore Chinese Orchestra help
an accountant clinch a promotion, or keep a banker from getting laid off? On a
national level, how would the multimillion-dollar investment in the resplendent
Esplanade theatre enable the country to fend off fierce economic competition
from larger economies such as China and the United States? Therefore, they
claim, the Arts are of no concern to the everyday realities of a Singaporean.

This argument, unfortunately, fails to depict the world in holistic terms. The
Arts, The Sciences, politics, economics, architecture – these, and more, are
intricately connected to one another. In truth, the Arts are now critical to
Singapore’s economic development. I say “now” because when we were a
low-cost manufacturing nation at the start of our history as an independent
nation in the 1960s, the Arts were of little, if any, importance to us
economically – we needed only technical skills to carry out the instructions of
foreign multinationals to manufacture slippers and transistor radios. Even into
the 1990s, when we became a high-cost First World nation, the Arts were still
of limited economic value to us as we were still mainly carrying out the
instructions of foreign investors, just that we had moved up the value chain
into manufacturing pharmaceutical and electronic products, and diversified
into services such as banking. In the 21st century, however, countries with a
lower cost base have closed, and are continuing to close, the skills and
capabilities gap between themselves and Singapore. China and India each
produce tens of millions of university graduates every year, and each year
such emerging economies move higher and higher up the value chain while
their workers demand a mere fraction of what Singaporean workers are paid.
The Singapore government is concerned about a growing number of
professionals, managers and executives being made redundant by companies
that have moved their operations out of Singapore. We now cannot merely
rely on our ability to carry out instructions and work according to received
knowledge – we need to re-imagine, innovate, create if we are to stay
competitive. For that, we need the Arts, which teach us to always look at
things in new and interesting ways. This can enable us to make the quantum
leaps in value needed to survive in a world of cut-throat competition. For
instance, the home-grown food and beverage company The BreadTalk Group
has opened over 800 bakery outlets across Asia with its artistic recipes, while
health and wellness firm Osim sells hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of
imaginative health products such as massage chairs and fun workout
machines throughout the world each year. The imaginative recipes and
designs sold by these companies are forms of art too, and without them, we
would not be able to achieve such leaps in economic value. If we did not have
this artistic flair, more and more Singaporeans would lose their jobs to
cheaper competitiors overseas.

Our relentless and frenetic efforts to stay ahead of the economic curve,
however, take a considerable toll on us mentally. Hence, Singaporeans are
under immense mental stress, which the Arts play a vital role in alleviating.
Singaporeans’ working hours are among the longest in the developed world –
2,287 hours a year, according to the Federal Reserve Economic Data website.
Many feel overwhelmed by work or studies and neglect their families. The Arts
can relax the mind and help protect Singaporeans’ mental health. For
instance, thousands of Singaporeans head to the beautifully designed
Gardens by the Bay every month to free their minds from the shackles of work
and lose themselves in the creative landscaping in the sprawling gardens
which feature everything from Chinese to Indian gardens with statues of
various sizes. At the President’s Star Charity in 2014, the Japanese Zen
dancer Miyoko Shida-Rigolo enthralled the audience with her incredibly
peaceful, tranquil and delicate act of balancing an intricate lattice of long
branches – it was an artistic act that resonated with many Singaporeans as it
taught us the concentration needed to find peace and tranquility in the chaotic
world of the 21st century. The Arts are vital to our everyday mental well-being.

The intense rat race not only makes us stressed – it also deprives
Singaporeans of arguably the most precious goal in human life: happiness.
Singaporeans were ranked the least positive and most emotionless people in
the world in a Gallup poll in 2012. However vehemently Singaporeans may
deny the truth of these polls, a close observation of its people in day-to-day
life here would suggest there is more than a grain of truth. Cynicism and
negativity abound, manifesting themselves in a never-ending stream of
complaints about all kinds of petty imperfections such as a brief delay in train
service. Emotionless faces fill the streets, and when a supermarket cashier
says, “Thank you” to a customer, very few thank her in return. We need the
Arts to bring us positive emotion and help us find beauty in our everyday lives.
Whether it is experiencing the uplifting words and melody of The Sam Willows’
‘Glasshouse’ or the solace found by sufferers of mental illness in the
Necessary Stage’s acclaimed play ‘Off Centre’, the Arts can re-sensitise us to
our emotions and help us see the bigger picture in life that lies beyond the
chase for material success. It can help us discover the meaning in life that we
will not find in the money and titles we are conditioned from young to pursue.
This meaning must be found in our daily lives. As Margaret Bonnano once
said, “It is only possible to live happily ever after on a day-to-day basis.”

Sceptics might assert that the Arts are too high-brow for most Singaporeans,
who in their pragmatism chose not to study the Arts and humanities in school
as these subjects are reputedly “difficult to score in”. These sceptics often
point to the high proportion of foreigners in the audience at artistic events such
as the Laneway Music Festival and Art Stage. However, this is to ignore the
fact that not all art is high-brow. All art, even the simplest, can bring us all the
benefits mentioned above. Indeed, even a simple crayon drawing by a child is
art as well, and can bring us joy or solace. Architecture, too, is an art and
Singaporeans of all levels of artistic literacy can revel in the beautiful design of
the Marina Bay Sands integrated resort. Our subway stations on the Circle
Line often feature elegant or breathtaking artworks, such as the multi-coloured
mural at Serangoon station and the thrilling sports-themed illustrations at
Stadium station. Highly accessible art increasingly fills the everyday spaces of
Singaporeans and brings not only economic benefits by attracting more
tourists and foreign talent to Singapore, but also joy to our everyday lives.

In sum, the Arts are filled with tangible and intangible value, and therefore full
of relevance to the everyday lives of Singaporeans. Without the Arts, not only
would Singaporeans find it extremely difficult to cope with stress and find the
deepest fulfilment and greatest joy – they might even find themselves reduced
to economic irrelevance, unable to meet even their most basic daily needs.
After all, we should not forget that making a small country succeed takes
ingenuity and inventiveness – which are the very essence of Art.
“The pen is mightier than the sword.” Do you agree?
by Steven Ooi

“Before all else, be armed.” Thus wrote the ruthless Florentine politician-
philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli, a man famed for his unflinching pragmatism
and grasp of the darker truths of life. While a master of the written word, he
also understood the brutal might of physical weaponry. The irony of
Machiavelli’s influential assertion is that it proved the power of the written word
even while arguing for the supreme might of military capabilities. For the
purposes of this essay, I shall interpret “the pen” to refer to the written word
and “the sword” to denote military power – in accordance with what I consider
to be the spirit of the original quote “The pen is mightier than the sword”. While
military armaments grow ever more devastating with the march of technology,
I believe the quote remains timelessly true: the written word is, and always will
be, more powerful than any force of arms.

Sceptics will argue that military muscle – whether in the form of swords, guns
or fighter planes – can allow any authoritarian or totalitarian leader to
dominate the masses and intimidate them into submission. Those who speak
the language of violence may scoff at the power of the pen (or its modern-day
equivalent, the touchscreen keyboard) in comparison, and the seemingly frail
and intangible words that issue from it as being easily brushed aside by lethal
physical weapons. Indeed the writers of words of dissent can be silenced with
just a sword or a bullet. A case in point is the burning of books by Mao Zedong
during the Cultural Revolution. The pen seemed to be sliced apart by the brute
force of the sword, and indeed many eminent writers were mercilessly

However, we should remember that the pen often has profound influence over
those who wield the sword. Mao himself, we must remember, was profoundly
influenced by the writings of an intellectual – Karl Marx, the writer of the
Communist Manifesto. It was a book which, for better or worse, took the world
by storm and sparked revolutions from West to East, North to South –
including the Communist Revolution in China which lifted Mao to power. We
should also recall that Mao used the power of the written word to control the
people, in the form of communist literature which was used to indoctrinate
young and old in the political ideology he espoused. The antiwar literature of
1960s America also fomented fierce protests and demonstrations against
America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, and drove the United States (US)
government – who were ostensibly in control of the military – to withdraw from
Vietnam in 1975. In a democracy, the will of those who control the military
often bends to the will of the people, who are often swayed by the written
word. Indeed, democracy itself was spread by the written word of majestic
writers such as Thomas Jefferson. When all is said and done, the sword or the
gun cannot kill anyone by itself. Every weapon requires human agency to
become an instrument of death, and it is the pen which most influences
human thought and behaviour as it is the most eloquent way to convey ideas.
Proponents of the primacy of the sword will contend that all the words and
books in the world count for nothing if one’s country is unable to defend itself
against military invasion. Indeed, all the fine writers and books in Poland
seemed helpless and ineffectual in the face of German military might during
World War Two, nor did Malayan literature seem to count for much when the
country confronted the onslaught from the formidable Japanese army in the
same conflict. When one’s country is unable to match the other side for
firepower, one’s entire country – including its governance, society and culture
– will be subjugated by another and all its words can be wiped out and
replaced. The written word and all the knowledge and wisdom it contains, it
seems, can seem purely academic as an awesome army cuts a swathe
through one’s territory.

This, unfortunately, is only a superficial and myopic view. Words contain

knowledge and wisdom, and these carry the greatest power that man can
harness; all the greatest powers on earth ultimately stem from knowledge and
wisdom. Military power is itself a function of economic power: to build and
sustain military power, one must have a robust, sustainable economy.
Weapons cost money, and armies must be fed. Economic power, in turn, is a
function of knowledge and wisdom. To build prosperity, a nation needs to
have a good command of economics, science and technology, even sociology
and psychology as economic prosperity rests in considerable part on social
cohesion and human motivation and mentality. Most of this knowledge comes
from the written word. Consider the military aggression of Russia and its
President Vladimir Putin, who seemed so Herculean as the Russian military
intervened in the Ukrainian civil war in 2014 and brushed aside the Ukrainian
government forces to annex Crimea. It seemed that all the condemnation of
world leaders and economic sanctions were powerless to stop the crushing
force of the Russian military juggernaut. However, Mr Putin soon met with a
severe setback in the form of plunging oil prices, which his nation’s economy
is overly dependent on. Faced with a nosedive in the value of the rouble and
unbearable strain in the state of his government’s finances, Mr Putin is now
struggling to keep his country economically afloat. Russia’s military power is
not likely to be sustainable and even now has become very limited. Even after
a whole year of fighting, the Russian military and its allies in Ukraine have still
not been able to conquer Ukraine, a much smaller country. This sorry state of
affairs is due to Mr Putin’s lack of economic knowledge: he did not
understand the basic principle that commodity prices are volatile by nature,
and that an oil-producing country needs economic diversification if it is to
achieve long-term economic stability and wealth.

When one takes a still broader perspective, one should not fail to recognise
too that the world has changed from the days when might was always right.
After the indelible trauma of two devastating world wars, humanity has by and
large come to the realisation that war is an unproductive, abhorrent way of
solving problems. In the wake of World War Two, the United Nations was
formed and with it, an increasingly established international law that the great
majority in the world abide by today. For instance, the laws of national
sovereignty. Today the vast majority of nations stand up for the sovereign
rights of nations large and small, and we have a nascent sense of a
community of nations who collectively enforce global norms on all. Hence the
economic sanctions imposed by many countries, including the US and the
members of the European Union on Russia and Iran have severely curtailed
the economic, and therefore military power of these countries which have
stepped out of line with international norms. Today a country’s might rests
heavily on its political knowledge as well – its ability to win the global political
acceptance and support of other countries. Failing which, it will be ostracised
and severely weakened. This political knowledge comes from the pen, and not
the sword.

In sum, I stand by my conviction that the pen is indeed mightier than the
sword – a truth that endures through the ages and all the transformations
engendered by science and technology. Ultimately, humanity’s greatest gift is
the intellect, which can only be grown and nourished by the written word and
the knowledge therein. Brute force without the buttresses of intellect is always
proven to be a short-lived, grasping and superficial power, one that will be
sooner or later be exposed and vanquished by a superior mind. In any case,
civilised human beings should turn to military force only as a last resort. For it
is a truth just as timeless that those who live by the sword, will die by it.
How far is increased prosperity for all a realistic goal in your society?
(GCE A-levels 2013)
By Steven Ooi

A playground for the rich. Disneyland with the death penalty. A vibrant city
where East and West do meet. These are just some of the descriptions of
Singapore by the world media over the years. My tiny city-island-nation of just
712 square kilometres rose from abject poverty in just three decades to
become one of the most advanced and affluent nations in the world today. We
have embraced globalisation and thrown our doors open to foreign talent and
capital, and succeeded so emphatically that we now have the world’s highest
concentration of millionaire households – at 17 percent. But beneath the shiny
exterior of luxury condos and BMWs lies a darker reality: the poorer members
of our society struggling to make ends meet. Our income inequality is now
second highest in the developed world and social frictions have consequently
risen. In order to achieve increased prosperity for all, we need not only to grow
the economic pie but slice it more equally. This is exactly what the
government is striving to do. Despite the immense challenges we face, I
believe that Singapore has what it takes to achieve these goals with a high
degree of success. Hence I believe it is a very realistic goal for us to attain
greater material well-being for the great majority of our population, but to do
this for the entire society is an impossibility not only here, but anywhere in the

What gives me greatest confidence that we can grow the pie is the fact that
we are the world’s second most economically competitive nation, according to
the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report 2013. This is in
no small part due to our clean and capable government, which has built the
security, stability, infrastructure, strong rule of law and open economy that
make Singapore a great place to invest and do business. This, together with
the strong work ethic of the people, has made Singapore the wealthiest
country in the world on a per capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP) basis,
according to a study by Citi Private Bank and Knight Frank. Even though we
no longer enjoy the 7-8 percent GDP growth of the past, our economy is still
growing at 2-3 percent a year and continues to attract tens of billions of dollars
in foreign direct investment a year, for instance, Rolls Royce’s aircraft engine
manufacturing facility and Procter & Gamble’s regional R & D centre.
While Singapore has reaped the benefits of globalisation with its highly open
economy, we are also constantly buffeted by the fierce and growing
competition that it brings. Emerging economies like Thailand, South Africa and
Brazil constantly nip away at our heels, climbing the value chain and
threatening to eat our lunch. Many multinationals such as HGST, a US-based
hard disk drive manufacturer, have closed or downsized their factories in
Singapore to move to a lower-cost location. It is a constant challenge to stay
ahead of the competition to even maintain the size of our pie, let alone expand
it. But little Singapore possesses enduring competitive advantages that other
countries find very hard to replicate. Besides the aforementioned clean and
capable government, security and stability, outstanding infrastructure and
strong rule of law, we are also free from natural disasters. A multinational can
set up its headquarters or semiconductor plant here without fear that it will be
shattered by an earthquake. Furthermore, Singaporeans are in the unique
position of being fluent in both English and Asian languages such as Chinese,
Malay and Tamil, and can thus act as an invaluable bridge between East and
West. Hence I have little doubt that we can continue to grow the economic pie.

Furthermore, our government is very determined to slice the pie more equally
and reduce inequality. While there is some truth to the claims that the
government had become rather insensitive and unempathetic to the poor in
recent years, the disappointing election result for the ruling People’s Action
Party (PAP) at the 2011 General Election – where the PAP retained power but
with the lowest vote share since independence of 60.1 percent – has
propelled the government to redistribute wealth much more aggressively and
create greater prosperity for the majority. Among its recent wealth
redistribution policies are higher taxes on big houses and cars and more
generous subsidies for everything from public housing to preschool education,
healthcare and utilities.

What if, in our eagerness to redistribute wealth, we destroy our strong work
ethic and bring our government to bankruptcy or near-bankruptcy, a fate that
has befallen several European welfare states? After all, in recent years, we
have seen once-prosperous nations such as Greece and Spain succumb to
the folly of populism and brought to financial ruin. Sceptics may paint this
depressing picture for Singapore, but our country remains highly committed to
preserving our work ethic. We are a nation of immigrants, and the values of
hard work and thrift which our ancestors espoused have been cherished and
inculcated from generation to generation. This pragmatism is evidenced by
parents’ deep reluctance to let their children become professional athletes as
the monetary prospects are still poor for career athletes in Singapore. Further
substantiation is provided even by the way Singaporeans vote in elections.
Despite widespread disgruntlement with the PAP over soaring housing prices,
overcrowded buses and trains and the escape of the terrorist Mas Selamat
Kastari from a high-security prison, Singaporeans still voted them back into
office and extended their hitherto 52-year rule because of their proven track
record and the still-patchy quality of the opposition parties. With our hard-
nosed pragmatism, the people are highly unlikely to demand that the
government introduce overly populist policies that would seriously erode the
incentive to work hard and ruin the nation economically.
However, it must be conceded that greater prosperity for every last member of
society is just something that exists only in one’s fantasies. There is always a
trade-off between welfare and the work ethic. Hence a highly welfarist system
will ultimately sap an economy of its vitality and shrink the economic pie. A
close examination of the Scandinavian states makes this very apparent. Even
countries like Denmark and Sweden, so fiercely proud of their cradle-to-grave
welfare systems, are starting to ask serious questions about the sense and
sustainability of such policies. Youth unemployment has remained stubbornly
high in Sweden at over 20 percent in recent years. And hidden by the
unemployment statistics are among the world’s highest proportions of people
on disability pensions, even though the Scandinavian countries have among
the best health indicators in the world. Clearly, these legions of welfare
recipients are unlikely to enjoy greater wealth due to the limited capacity of the
state to increase their entitlements. Already, the citizens of Nordic countries
pay some of the highest taxes in the world. In any country, there will always
be people who are lazy and do not wish to work. With almost zero natural
resources, Singapore can afford even less than other countries to indulge
indolent individuals with over-generous welfare benefits and hence, it is not
possible to achieve greater prosperity for such individuals.

In sum, it is well within Singapore’s capability to achieve greater prosperity for

the great majority, but not everyone. While we are an extraordinary country
that has overcome great odds, we remain subject to the same laws of
economics, society and human nature as other countries. As we have
developed as a country and ascended Maslow’s hierarchy, we have steadily
aspired to attain loftier goals such as social equity and equality. Nevertheless,
we are very aware that a geographically-challenged country like ours must
keep its feet on the ground and maintain that resolute pragmatism that built
the foundations for our success today.
‘The most influential individuals in history are those who have caused
the most harm.’ How far would you accept this view? (A-levels Nov 2012)
by Steven Ooi

Each of us leaves his or her footprint on this earth, a mark in the hearts and
lives of others, for better or for worse. Some individuals, however, leave an
extraordinarily large and profound legacy, to the extent that their names are
forever inscribed in the hearts and minds of humanity. Some of their names
are spoken of with love and reverence, names like Gandhi, Martin Luther King
Jr., Saint Joan of Arc. Others are uttered with horror, such as Hitler and Stalin.
Still others attract a considerable amount of ambivalence, such as Napoleon
and Mao Zedong. For the purposes of this essay, ‘influential’ shall be defined
as causing a change in the life circumstances and thinking of people over a
period of time. While the likes of murderous tyrants and merciless conquerors
may seem to have left a more powerful mark on the story and minds of
humanity, I believe that the most influential individuals in history are actually
those who have brought the most good, as their influence on human
behaviour and thinking is far more enduring; while those who wrought harm
are remembered but have much less effect on human behaviour and thinking
in the long term.

Detractors may argue that the likes of Hitler and Genghis Khan, who
plundered foreign lands and killed millions, left the deepest imprint on human
history. Hitler’s attempted genocide left six million Jews dead, and tens of
millions more were slaughtered in the military aggression of Nazi Germany in
Europe as it invaded nations such as Poland, France and Russia, and
bombed Great Britain. The ocean of blood and canyon of loss they left in their
wake are beyond human comprehension — who could fathom the loss of a
million fathers, husbands and friends, let alone tens of millions? Who can
comprehend the agony of many millions more wounded by swords, guns and
artillery bombardments? There is little doubt that these conquerors have left
their mark, and that their names will be remembered forever.

However, those who do the most good in this world leave a far more enduring
legacy. Eventually when the grieving over the victims of tyrants and mass
murderers has ebbed and generations come and go, people heal and move
on with their lives. Tyrants are remembered only in name and for the wrong
they did, but leave little influence on how people live their lives over the
decades and centuries that follow. Those who do good, however, leave a
message and a legacy that echo through the centuries. They inspire
generation after generation to live their lives well and stand up for truth,
righteousness and justice — among other worthy values and causes. Florence
Nightingale has been the guiding light to millions of nurses around the world
for over a century. The words of Martin Luther King, Jr., who fought for social
justice in America, will touch the hearts of not only Americans but all of
humanity, forever. “I have a dream that one day, even the state of Mississippi,
a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of
oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a
dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will
not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
Dr King inspired a civil rights movement which has brought equal rights for
African-Americans. He died for his beliefs, and his death will remain a symbol
of courage and sacrifice forever. It will always resonate in the hearts of
humanity and fill them with courage to face injustice wherever they may be.
Hitler’s death, on the other hand, means nothing today.

In addition to the great personages of history who have left moral lessons for
humanity, there are also those who have contributed immense inventions,
knowledge, insight, wisdom and beauty. These include the scientists,
inventors, writers and philosophers. The Wright brothers invented the airplane
which has enabled us to experience foreign lands and cultures more than ever
before. The great philosophers have in many cases left us with immeasurable
wealth of the mind in a single sentence. A case in point would Friedrich
Nietzsche’s famous quote “In the mountains of truth, you never climb in vain”,
which gives us courage to always keep on searching for truth in our lives and
never be deterred. William Shakespeare’s words continue to captivate and
provoke thought across the world, almost four hundred years after the Bard’s
passing. Till today, his words are like what Frank McCourt called ‘jewels in
[the] mouth”. When we recite or hear “There is a tide in the affairs of men,
which/ Taken at the flood/ lead on to fortune/ Omitted, all the voyage of their
lives is bound in shallows and in miseries/ On such a full sea are we now
afloat/ And we must take the current when it serves/ Or lose our ventures”, we
are not only enthralled by the gorgeous imagery, but also given the gift of
wisdom — in this case to seize our opportunities in life.

There are those who argue that those who have caused the most harm leave
a lasting influence in the sense that the horrors caused by their actions teach
us to avoid repeating their mistakes. Humanity, argue this camp, has learned
deep and indelible lessons from the perpetrators of these dastardly acts. For
instance, some may assert that the memory of the Holocaust under Hitler’s
reign will prevent humanity from repeating such an atrocity. That to me is
naive. Evil, hatred and prejudice will continue to exist as long as there are
men on this earth. Anti-Semitism, for one, has certainly not gone away — men
like Hitler have simply been replaced by men like Iranian President Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad, who once declared his intention to wipe Israel “off the world
map” and has been remorselessly pursuing a nuclear programme that could
potentially yield nuclear weapons. Good people inspire others to be good;
evil souls do not inspire others to be less evil.

In conclusion, I believe the most influential individuals in history are those who
have done the most good, and not the most harm. Those who have turned
their lives into beacons of light will always provide guidance and inspiration to
the generations after them, who keep the light shining as the values, ideas
and wisdom they imparted are always relevant to humanity. Those who did
good were enlightened beings who open the eyes of others; those who did
harm were deluded, and only influence those whose eyes are closed.
Eventually people’s eyes are opened, and the truth is revealed.
Consider the view that efficient government is more important than

Democracy is a word and an idea that whips up a great deal of emotion and
idealism in people all over the world. While there is no perfect or universal
definition of democracy, it is generally accepted that it refers to a political
system in which all the citizens have a say in who governs their country, and
how their country is governed. To most people, democracy is also a belief in
the freedom of the individual to express his or her opinions and wishes freely
in the form of free speech and even public protests and demonstrations.
However, a problem that arises with democracy is that despite its lofty
aspirations and ideals, it often does not deliver an efficient government, which
this essay shall define as a government that is effective in delivering the
positive long-term outcomes which most people desire, such as prosperity,
stability and good health, with the resources that are available to it. In fact,
many nations that are considered to be highly democratic are also among the
poorest in the world, and their people have a very low quality of life. Examples
would be India and the Philippines. Conversely, some countries that are either
ruled by autocratic regimes, such as China, or only marginally democratic,
such as Singapore, enjoy greater economic prosperity than India. While
democracy brings many benefits, I believe that efficient government is more
important than democracy.

Thomas Jefferson once said, “The care of human life and happiness, and not
their destruction, is the first and only object of good government.” What people
want most from a government is that it should take good care of their needs,
in other words, that it should be efficient. To provide the people with a high
standard of living and quality of life, a government needs to be efficient in its
administration of the country and its long-term strategic planning.

However, democracy often obstructs this goal, especially when there is too
much democracy. When the voices of the people and the voices of politicians
who claim to represent them grow too loud and strident, or worse, when the
democratic liberties are taken to extremes and violence erupts, a country can
be paralysed or worse, torn apart. The constant political wrangling and
frequent policy gridlock in America illustrates this point well. When President
Barack Obama sought to introduce healthcare reform in 2009, the
Republicans bickered with Mr Obama’s Democrats so intensely and
combatively that it took one whole year before both sides agreed on a
healthcare plan. Even then, it was a heavily watered-down version of what Mr
Obama had wanted as he had to make huge concessions to appease the
Republicans, who controlled the House of Representatives. Ultimately,
America’s healthcare system, which is widely regarded as broken and
excludes tens of millions of Americans from access to medical treatment, did
not get the thorough overhaul that it so badly needs. Even after the healthcare
reform that was agreed on by US politicians, 30 million Americans are likely to
be deprived of access to healthcare in the world’s richest country.
Yet another example would be the massive political upheaval and turbulence
in Thailand from 2008 to 2010. As Thais “enjoy” a high degree of freedom of
assembly, protesters wearing red or yellow shirts, depending on which political
faction they supported, staged massive rallies and even blockaded important
public buildings such as the airport and parliament. Street rallies often turned
violent and the streets of Bangkok descended into chaos and bloodshed.
Hundreds were killed and thousands injured.

By contrast, some countries are less democratic but have more efficient
governments capable of providing their people a higher quality of life. A prime
example is Singapore, where the people enjoy only the rudiments of
democracy, such as universal suffrage and a Parliament. Beyond that,
Singaporeans are given hardly any freedom of assembly and very limited
freedom of the press. The only place in Singapore where people are allowed
to stage protests and demonstrations is the sleepy, quiet Hong Lim Park. If
anyone takes his protest one step outside the park, he can be arrested. The
country’s media are all government-owned and their content is quite tightly
controlled. A single political party, the People’s Action Party (PAP), has
dominated since independence in 1965. Currently it holds about 90 percent of
the seats in Parliament. While the government allows everyone to vote and
opposition parties to contest, it often creates a playing field that is not level, for
instance by giving preference for estate upgrading to constituencies that
support the PAP. Yet Singapore enjoys far greater prosperity than Thailand,
as well as greater stability, safety and security. Singapore is a magnet for
foreign investors who greatly appreciate these qualities; major multinational
corporations including Procter and Gamble, Citigroup, Harley Davidson and
Bayer invest billions of dollars setting up regional headquarters and research
and development centres in Singapore, creating an abundance of jobs and
wealth in the country. According to the CIA World Factbook, Singapore’s
Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita, adjusted for purchasing power, is
US$62,100, higher than that of America (US$47,200), France (US$33,100)
and Sweden (US$39,100).

When democracy is taken to extremes, governments have to constantly fight

in the arena of politics and have therefore less time and energy to devote to
governance, which is far more central to the well-being of the people. In a
highly democratic country such as the US or India, the government is
constantly fighting for its political survival and hence finds it very difficult to
adopt policies for the long-term good of the country. The government is often
unable to look beyond the next election. However in a country like Singapore
or China, the government is more entrenched and secure in its position, and
thus finds it easier to plan for the long term. For instance, the Chinese
government has carried out massive long-term projects to upgrade the
infrastructure of the country, including close to 10,000 km of high-speed
railway and modern water treatment plants. America may be a more
developed nation than China, but its infrastructure is ageing and crumbling –
many experts have criticised the decrepit state of its subway stations. The
infrastructural development in China has propelled its economy to very high
growth averaging 10 percent over the last three decades. Its economic growth
is faster than India’s, and the average income in China is three times higher
than that in India. While China’s infrastructure in some ways already
surpasses that in many developed countries, India is notorious for regular
power outages, even in major cities like Mumbai.

To be sure, it is highly desirable to have the rudiments of democracy,

especially elections, as they engender accountability and transparency of
government. Without accountability, a government would have absolute
power, which is likely to lead to corruption and abuse. Democracy also
promotes a basic degree of social equality as every member is conferred
certain basic rights, such as the right to live and vote. However, too much
democracy often leads to inefficient or even worse, dysfunctional government
and mayhem in the country. Furthermore, democracy has certainly proven to
be no bulwark against corruption. Among the more than 200 countries in this
world, the great majority practise democracy, but most of these countries
suffer from very significant, often egregious, corruption. Interestingly,
Singapore – which many Westerners like to label a police state – ranks as the
fifth most transparent country in the world in the Transparency International
Corruption Perceptions Index, ahead of many more democratic countries such
as the United States, Australia, Italy, France and Germany.

To conclude, I believe that efficient government is more important than

democracy. What people want most is for the government to create the
conditions in which they can have a comfortable quality of life, and find
happiness; it is clear that democracy is highly overrated as a means to
achieving these goals. Democracy can help if it is adopted in measured
doses, but being the highly idealistic and emotive notion that it is, it is usually
taken to excess and ends up hampering rather than aiding what Jefferson
called “the care of human life and happiness”. As John Simon once said,
“Democracy encourages the majority to decide things about which the majority
is ignorant.” Ordinary people can be given some say in the running of a
country, but for it to progress, you still need highly capable leaders to be firmly
in command. A ship where thirty people are wrestling with the captain for the
steering wheel is not likely to be successful in its voyage.
To what extent has technology had a negative impact on the skill levels
of people? (A-level 2010 question)
by Steven Ooi

With their amazing ingenuity, human beings have for centuries conceived,
invented and designed machine after machine to make their lives easier and
satisfy their desires. Machines act as multipliers of human ability that allow
people to accomplish more in life. It is ironic, however, that in creating
machines that are ever more useful, Man has made himself ever less useful.
Machines have made human beings redundant in many lines of work, and
even where humans are still needed in the production of goods and delivery of
services, their levels of skill have largely declined. It may be true that more
advanced technology has created a need for new, high-tech skills which have
replaced many of the old skills. However, it is this writer’s contention that the
new skills pale in comparison with the old skills in terms of the level of
intricacy and finesse. Hence I believe that technology has had a negative
impact on the skill levels of people to a large extent.

Our professional skills are a major casualty of automation. Across a wide

swathe of industries, the role of human beings has been minimised as
machines take over a myriad of functions. In manufacturing, processes from
the slicing of potatoes to the soldering of computer chips have been
automated. In the aviation sector, today’s pilots rarely fly their aircraft
manually, but rather through a highly sophisticated ‘fly-by-wire’ system which
uses an electronic interface; flight control computers determine how to control
the actuators to provide the desired response. Commands from the computers
are even input without the pilot’s knowledge. With autopilot systems, pilots are
often actively involved only in the takeoff and landing phases of flight. While a
pilot’s skill is called upon in a crisis situation or when the avionics fail, these
are only exceptional situations – the level of skill required of the pilot is
considerably lower than before.

In the area of sports, our skills have also largely declined as a result of
technological advancement. The proliferation of new and ever more advanced
forms of indoor entertainment has enticed us to carry out more and more of
our recreational activities in the comfort of our homes. In the past, children
typically went outdoors to have a good time. They played football and other
sports and swam in rivers. While sports are still popular with the youth, many
have become addicted to electronic games played on their tablet computers
and video game consoles like the PlayStation. On average, they spend
significantly less time than before playing sports. English football manager
Harry Redknapp has bemoaned the ‘PlayStation culture’ which is making it
increasingly difficult to find promising young English footballers.

To be sure, playing video games takes skill too. However, these skills have
little value or substance in the real world. Being able to move your fingers
dexterously is far less useful in real life than the ability to move your whole
body dexterously, as the latter gives you a feeling of physical confidence
which can then translate into greater overall confidence and self-esteem as a
person. Furthermore, the latter can save your life in a dangerous situation.
Perhaps the most deleterious deterioration in human skills is in the area of
interpersonal skills. Information technology (IT) as well as mobile
communications technology have no doubt enhanced the speed and efficiency
of communication by leaps and bounds. However, the obsession with speed
and efficiency in communication has made people very reluctant to spend time
to express themselves thoughtfully, articulately and beautifully in language.
The art of communication – a time-honoured skill – has been sacrificed on the
altar of speed and efficiency. Where once people would spend hours lovingly
writing a letter to their friends and loved ones sharing their deepest thoughts
and feelings, today they spend five seconds posting a picture or brief
comment on the other person’s Facebook page, and do not even bother to
type their words in full. They use “n” for “and” and “LOL” for “laugh out loud”,
and emoji become a convenient substitute for a thoughtfully crafted
expression of one’s feelings. Seeking to move at the blinding speed of
computers, people today also lack the patience and the attention span to
listen carefully to what others say and to ponder it. Of course, listening well is
just as central to good communication as speaking or writing well. There is a
tendency today to rush to judgement, as evidenced by the flood of visceral,
frequently hare-brained comments on the online social network Twitter. Many
people have experienced a severe degradation of their communication skills.

Interpersonal skills, however, go well beyond communication skills. Two other

precious capabilities sacrificed on the altar of technology are empathy and
social skills. I consider empathy to be a skill, not just a quality, because it can
be improved with practice. When one spends countless hours engaging in
battles in a virtual fantasy world or staring at pictures on Instagram rather than
engaging in the more holistic verbal and nonverbal communication face-to-
face with others, it becomes more difficult to put oneself in a real person’s
shoes. Psychological research has shown that young people who spend a lot
of time playing online games have lower levels of empathy than their peers.

Some may argue that people have more than replaced their old skills with very
sophisticated IT skills. Indeed, it is easy to form this impression when one
sees the female executive in her chic office outfit sliding her fingers on her
smartphone or tablet and running application after application. However, the
truth is that the gadgets of today are extremely user-friendly, almost idiot-
proof. The skill levels needed to operate today’s computers cannot hold a
candle to the finesse that our ancestors in the days of yore needed to carry
out such intricate tasks as stitching a garment by hand, hunting with a bow
and arrow, and performing surgery without advanced tools.

All said, I believe that technology has had a negative impact on the skill levels
of people to a large extent. The gains in skill are woefully unable to
compensate for what has been lost. While the progress of technology is
inexorable, we should be watchful that it does not bring about the regression
of the human species. A little reflection is in order: we should once in a while
take a step back from automation and practise our good, old-fashioned skills
so that we retain our wonderful human keenness and competitiveness. One
can buy a manual car instead of an automatic one; perform mental
calculations rather than use a calculator; and write a long, heartfelt letter to
our dear friend instead of a ten-word tweet. The machines may be impressive,
but let’s not forget who designed them.
May 25, 2011 · by englishcafe · in O Levels Paper 1, Situational: Model Ans. ·
Comments : Students who attempted this question did miserably when they
did not specify the subject they would have created. Instead, many students
left it open ended, choosing to expand on either committee member’s
suggestion with the specific words given only. Students who scored higher for
this question suggested a subject, and gave according reasons and a plan for
its implementation. Many students also mixed up the formal letter writing and
report format, losing precious marks.
by Ms Dawn
You are advised to write between 250 and 300 words for this section. You
should read the information carefully and plan your answer before beginning
to write. At the head of your composition, write the number of the topic you
have chosen.
Your principal has raised the prospect of introducing a subject that has not
been taught before in your school. As head of the student committee, you are
tasked with a report to present to the principal of the committee’s choice of
what the new subject is.
One committee member suggests :
“The subject should be practical to prepare us for working opportunities and
not just tertiary.”
Another committee member suggests :
“The subject should be rigorously academic one, to challenge us to participate
in deeper thought in society.”
Choose ONE of the suggestions made by the other committee members. You
may wish to adapt the idea you choose. In your report, give reasons for your
choice and explain how the subject can be carried out so that it would
be enjoyable and interesting for students.
Set out your report correctly in clear, accurate English and in a polite tone,
showing that you will be supportive of the new subject scheme that the
principal has raised.
Model Essay (Helpful information is given in [ ] boxes)
To : Mr Vincent Lee, Principal of Stamford Secondary School
[Because you know the P’s name, you should refer to it here, and not just

From : Jason Wu, Head of the Student Committee

[Be specific about your designation. The P should know you, so you should
not repeat who you are in the introduction]

Date : 15th January 2011

Re: Proposal of Songwriting as a New Subject in School

[Get straight to the point – what is the subject the committee proposes?]

[Paragraph 1: Introduction of your proposal, mentioning choice of subject, and

the member’s suggestion ]
With regards to the request for the student committee’s take on the new
subject, we have unanimously chosen songwriting as a prospect. It would add
value to our current curriculum, especially in the area of deeper academic
thought, in order to contribute back to society.

[Paragraph 2 : Giving reasons for the choice]

In a school wide survey, 80% preferred a more academically challenging
course, because they felt the current subjects already met their needs for
tertiary application. Out of a list of new subjects suggested, songwriting was
the most popular because the students felt that it would be flexible and
rigorous at the same time. In our follow up interview with a national songwriter,
he said songwriting enabled deeper thought into how language and music
interacted. According to our research online, songwriting as a new subject
would require at least 3 years for the students to grasp and by then, our first
year students would have graduated. A successful cohort of songwriting, then,
would be able to think abstractly on deeper issues of life, especially where
communication and the arts is concerned.

[Paragraph 3 : how the subject can be carried out so that it would

be enjoyable and interesting for students]
In terms of how the subject would be carried out, we suggest hiring an
experienced songwriting teacher who has written for different media. As
students already enjoy a variety of music, they would be fascinated with
different styles of songwriting like rap to classical opera, that may be more
esoteric. Next, we suggest at least 2 periods a week, with enough time to
emphasise on creating language and then music. This would ensure that
students are not too stressed with information crammed in one session. More
time would allow interaction between the teacher and the class. Last, the
songwriting subject could culminate in annual performances themed on
different cultures in history.
[Paragraph 4 : Show that you will be supportive of the new subject scheme
that the principal has raised.]
In conclusion, the student committee is pleased to put forth the proposal for
songwriting as a subject. We are supportive of your idea and we hope to be of
assistance should the proposal be approved.

May 19, 2011 · by englishcafe · in How to Write Essays, O Levels Paper 1. ·
We should organise our writing clearly into paragraphs for others to
read.Paragraphs have structure because each paragraph must have a
purpose/topic (sentence), elaboration of that topic sentence to help others
understand what, why, and how it means to the writer.
Below is an example based on the open ended theme, Friendship. The
writing was limited to 3 paragraphs as a beginner’s practice. (2008)

Step 1 : Find a purpose for each paragraph.

Paragraph 1 : I will describe who Mary is.
Paragraph 2 : I will describe the activities we enjoy together.
Paragraph 3 : I will imagine what life is without Mary.

Step 2 : Create topic sentences for each paragraph.

Paragraph 1 : Mary is my best friend.
Paragraph 2 : Mary and I enjoy the simplest things together.
Paragraph 3 : I wonder what would happen if Mary is not around.

Step 3 : Elaborate on the topic sentences using ‘What’, ‘Why’ and ‘How’
as prompts.

Mary is my best friend. We met when we were children at a playground. We

have stuck together eversince then, and gone through thick and thin as

Mary and I enjoy the simplest things together : eating a home cooked meal
that my mother prepares, telling stories about school and walking home from
the playground after sunset – I especially love how the muted purples of the
evenings echoes our unfailing friendship, as if nature understands what it
means to a friend for all times. I love how the simplest things in life become for
me, treasured moments that stick in my memory.

I wonder what would happen if Mary is not around. The playground may look
empty, with me alone on the swing. I would be walking home, whistling a tune,
and longing for someone to hear it. In short, I simply cannot imagine life
without my best friend. (149 words)