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An educator’s perspective on “fake news”

I intend to send this in to the Select Committee that has been formed to tackle fake news in a few days. Comments and suggestions are welcome, but I also encourage my readers to send in their views.

I am a private tutor who teaches General Paper (GP), and new students sometimes say: “I thought I wasn’t allowed to criticise Singapore’s government in my essays!”

When it comes to misperceptions of the world, my new students start off with plenty. It’s already an uphill battle to fight these errors, and I believe that introducing legislation aimed at battling fake news will only further stoke needless fear into a populace already unsure of those (in)famous “OB markers“. This would especially be so if the legislation is aimed at social media, the ground for so much of our political discourse these days.

I completely understand if politicians think that this fear of authority, particularly the fear of speaking out against authority, is a good thing — surely it makes a population easier to control, in some ways. However, considering the current government’s goals, this fear that has worked so well in the past may prove counterproductive now, especially when we consider Singapore’s economic productivity.

Already we are struggling to attain a level of productivity comparable to other developed countries, but this makes no apparent sense: aren’t we topping the charts when it comes to the famed international student assessment benchmark, PISA? Why is this not translating to high levels of productivity in the workplace? My opinion is that the fear of authority — which is so effectively worked into Singaporeans via the education system, national service, and our national bureaucracies — plays a huge role in this lack of productivity.

The economy from here on out is going to be ever-shifting and unpredictable. The current government correctly places an emphasis on lifelong learning, since it is those with the ability to react effectively to such changes who will be more productive in this new landscape. It isn’t just knowledge that is important. What is crucial is the ability to use that knowledge, to test data against reality, to tell falsehood from truth — in short, we need to know how to solve those inevitable problems that arise daily for the modern worker.

The fear of authority acts against this skill of problem-solving that necessarily involves some level of risk-taking, and therefore the risk of angering authority, especially in the context of the modern office.

Witnessing history unfold before us with the presidency of Donald Trump and the attendant phenomenon of fake news is worrying, but we must be careful of knee-jerk reactions that will only set us back as a nation. What we need to combat fake news is a Singaporean public that can think critically for itself. It may be a public that’s more resilient to persuasion, but isn’t that the goal here, to have a public that can resist manipulation by malign forces?

My child would be homeschooled (a private tutor’s perspective)

If I had a child, I would not subject her to mainstream schooling in Singapore. Perhaps if we were living in a country like Finland, I would happily send her off to school there. But not in Singapore. In Singapore, we don’t have enough of an emphasis on play, and way too much emphasis on high-stakes examinations, to the point where even young children have problems with managing stress. Unlike other (potential) parents who may have a harder time making such a decision, my fiancée and I are (happily and fortunately) uniquely qualified for the challenge of homeschooling; she is naturally better with young children and has a training in psychology, and I am naturally better with teenagers, being a private tutor and all that. I imagine that my child would be an elite performer (if not a prodigy) in any academic area, given the combined knowledge and experience of her parents.

My main concern with schooling in Singapore is that it tends to kill the love of learning and encourages instead the habit of slavishly looking for the “correct answer”. With so many of my students, I have to repeatedly remind them to trust their own instincts when answering questions, even after we have successfully demonstrated that they already have the ability to think for themselves (I sometimes tell them: haha, you got your brain hammered out of you by Singapore’s system). It is in early childhood that parents and teachers can make a pivotally significant impact on a child’s learning process, and I don’t trust the system here in Singapore to do the job for me. The teacher turnover rate remains worrying because it means that my child would be less likely to have the good fortune of being taught by a well-trained and experienced teacher. I was lucky to have a very experienced teacher myself in Primary One — she was perceptive enough to realise I wasn’t enjoying primary school — but I wonder how many of such teachers are left in the system in Singapore.

The love of learning and developing a “bullshit detector” (Neil Postman’s words) would form the bedrock of my homeschooling approach. A story my father enjoys telling is instructive. As a young child, he would play near and in longkangs (storm drains), catching guppies and spiders and whatnot. One day, he saw a creature swimming in the water, and wondered: what’s this strange fish with legs? Upon arriving home, he asked his father what that creature was, thereby learning what frogs are. This is exactly how I want my child to learn. Of course, my father was wrong when he labelled the frog a “fish with legs”. In schools here, instead of spending a day outdoors developing his innate curiosity and fulfilling his need for play, he might have been asked to label a series of black-and-white drawings of animals on a worksheet. He might have labelled a picture of a frog as a fish, and gotten a huge red cross on his work for that (WRONG WRONG WRONG screams the red ink). But he already loved learning, as children naturally do when given a loving, nurturing environment. As children get older, they also need to develop the ability to judge thoughts, ideas, beliefs, statements, and so on, against evidence. They need to be able to tell what is trustworthy, and what is not. Again, with mainstream schooling’s obsession with getting the “correct answer”, this ability is often hammered out of children. The heuristic students often end up using is the question: does the teacher think this is right? My father might have thought that all creatures that swum in water could be called fishes, but he could have asked himself: I swim in water, but I’m not a fish, so what is this? In a larger sense, the question we want children to ask when engaging the world is: does this make sense? (Does it make sense to label all things that swim in water “fishes”?)

Beyond the pedagogical concerns, there are extremely mundane objections I have with the system here, including school start times. There will also be other concerns with homeschooling (Where will my child’s friends come from? Will we go crazy? Will I still be able to work as I do now?), but the mainstream education system here is one that I am loath to send my child to. It inflicts all kinds of unnecessary pain on children here and avoids inflicting the necessary disciplines on them. For now, the decision whether or not to homeschool my (theoretical) child remains theoretical; I can only hope that the system here improves in the meantime.

‘People should always tell the truth.’ Do you think there are any situations in which this might not be the best thing to do? Explain your views. (English O-level 2017, Syllabus 1128)

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 harm.

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.

(547 words)

It is often said that people are too concerned with getting things and spending money. What is your opinion? (English O-level 2017, Syllabus 1128)

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.

(552 words)

I’ve also posted this under A-level essays because it would be really easy to expand to satisfy the GP marking requirements. I would add sections on:
– What the anxiety of annihilation is
– Precarity
– How consumerism is threatening the environment (climate change and pollution) and society (inequality)

I’m sick and tired (and why I write more effectively than you)

I mean it literally: I’m sick, I’m tired. As I sit typing this, I feel like I’m coughing my throat to shreds, and the lethargy has left my eyes half closed. I just turned my head to look to the right for awhile, and I was surprised by a sharp throb in my head. Ugh. I’m sick.

And for the two days I’ll probably take to recover, I’ll treat myself.

Today I’m treating myself to a book that has been on my list for awhile, Elie Wiesel’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, Night, an account of his survival as a teenager in the Nazi death camps. It’s heartbreaking, it’s heart-wrenching, even though I know from reading other books how horrific those camps were. Reading this has been an exquisite experience of the bittersweet kind, particularly as a reminder of what can happen when decent people close their eyes just enough to the realities of politics.

I don’t mean to give a review of the book, though. What I want to say to all the students who flock daily to my website to read my essays (hi!) is this: I read for fun, and that’s why I write more effectively than most of you. (I also read to improve myself, but I think that’s a topic for another day.)

I appreciate the fact that so many of you are coming here to read my writing, but please register the fact that you need to head out to your libraries and bookshops to get reading material for yourself.

Read for fun. It’ll help.

For the adults/parents who don’t understand why I’m advocating reading for fun, see this research overview of what happens when we read for pleasure (spoiler alert: good things happen).