Essay writing tip: question everything

I first heard this tip from my GP teacher, way back in 2000 when phones could only make calls and send messages (no internet on phones!), and when one of the five co-founders of Facebook (Mark Zuckerberg) was only 17 years old. At the time, I didn’t know that this quote was attributed to Einstein (The Albert!), but that’s how far this quote has travelled to get to you. Depending on who you ask, the idea may even have originated in the discourses of the ancient philosophers (wow). WOW!

Here it is, the idea that has survived longer than any of us has been alive: question everything.

Question everything.

A fellow blogger puts it in naked terms:
…let me tell all my fellow citizens that deception comes from everywhere. Your parents probably have lied to you before. Your teachers have not told you everything. Newspapers conduct misleading, shabby polls and print biased news. Life isn’t like they show on TV. Magazines publish more articles about brands that pay more ad dollars. And yes, governments – they withhold information too, manipulate statistics, spin the news, censor, mislead, distract, fight dirty, dirty wars online.” (Read Daniel’s original blogpost here — DRUMS and Dumb Singaporeans)

When you are writing an essay, check your arguments. Question your arguments, try to find flaws in them, and plug the holes. When you first begin to do this, it may feel slightly strange, and you may even end up writing essays that start with a particular stand but end with the opposite viewpoint (please don’t do that!). This is where essay planning comes in — you question your arguments at the planning stage, not the writing stage.

Even when you graduate from school, the habit of questioning everything is going to be helpful. The blogpost I linked to above shows how useful the habit can be when we deal with the media and the discourse of politicians. I’ll say that it’s even useful for querying the very meaning of life. (WAH).

How to do it? Well, most people question life and ask what it has to offer them. So, I questioned my question. Instead of asking what life had to offer me, I asked: what do I have to offer life? Hmm.

HEADLINE: Millions working in honest jobs in Singapore

Observers say that most people here earn their money through paid work.
Last updated: 27 May 2014

Singapore’s workforce continues to earn salaries in jobs that require hard work, patience, and Monday mornings. The tradition of rush hour continues as the second quarter of 2014 draws to a close. Analysts say that this is likely to continue into the foreseeable future.

According to the Land Transport Authority (LTA), an average of 4.1 million public transport journeys were made per day in 2012.

Said Dr. Quoteme Allthetime: “We don’t think about it a lot these days, but most people here are honest workers who concentrate on doing what is expected of them. As a people, we care about putting food on the table for our families, so we work, even though it gets difficult sometimes.”

Adding to Dr. Allthetime’s sentiments is Professor Ohno Nobodylefttocallforquotes: “Singaporeans are a very decent bunch. The vast majority of us don’t take bribes. When we see corruption occurring, as a nation we tend to name and shame the wrongdoers quickly, reinforcing the idea that people should work hard for their wealth and money.”

A commuter this reporter spoke to in his head, Mr. Everyday Gotowork is resigned to his fate: “Money go to this loan (sic), that loan (sic), how to not work? Got no work then jialat ah! (very sic)”

Another commuter summed up the sentiment on the ground: “Wah piang, I trying to go to work lah, where got newspaper want to interview me? Who cares? Siam, siam! (very very sic)”

Jialat: to be in a state of trouble
Siam (see-Ahm): get out of the way



Of course this is satire. Let’s all stop to consider what daily exposure to the news really means for us. Are we getting information that is truly important, or are we letting someone else define for us what we should view as “important”? 

How to choose a tuition centre for your child (and how NOT to run a tuition centre)

When all tuition centres claim to have “committed” teachers, how is a parent to know who is really telling the truth? Thankfully, there’s a way to get under all the fancy marketing and advertising: win a teacher’s trust, and ask if they are happy working at the centre.

I have heard too many horror stories of tutors in tuition centres being paid peanuts, and contracts with draconian measures built into them. For example, I heard about a particular centre in Singapore that pays its full-time employees a monthly pay just slightly above a part-time employee’s salary — and this is a centre with massively impressive marketing and advertising.

The problem for tutors is obvious — if you are worrying about money too much, you will not be able to put your whole being into your teaching. If you are unhappy with your employer, it makes your job harder.

If you have a motivated employee who is taken care of well, that employee will always tend to be more productive than an unhappy, underpaid and overworked employee. In a tuition centre, this doesn’t just affect the bottom line, it affects students as well.

Of course, parents, you have to be careful how you ask tutors about their pay and working conditions, because these can be sensitive things to talk about. But you can try to win a tutor’s trust by asking a few questions about the way they teach, and if you’re impressed with the answer, you can try saying, “Ah, you really know your stuff, you must be getting paid a lot!”

Watch for the answer. If your child has an unhappy, underpaid, and overworked tutor, chances are that your money is just going towards paying for somebody else’s two-month long holiday.

Blogging in a climate of fear: a response to PM Lee’s defamation suit(s)

I believe that leaders set the tone for the organizations they lead. In any school, if the leadership sets a domineering and controlling tone, its students are more likely to attempt to be domineering and controlling in their interactions with one another (see Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy for a moving and incisive analysis of the subject). Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, in continuing his father’s habit of using defamation suits, continues to maintain a climate of fear.

Mr Steven Ooi has noted that “a civilised society needs not only liberty and rights, but also rules, boundaries and guidelines”, and bemoans the state of American political discourse in the mass media. He says it better than I do: “I look at the kind of political mud-slinging that takes place in the West, where one can say practically anything one likes about one’s opponent and get away with it, and wonder whether that is the tone of politics that we would like to have in Singapore. President Obama was accused of “palling around with terrorists” by his rival John McCain’s running mate Sarah Palin in 2008. She got away with it. Do we want such baseless allegations to be flying around in Singapore politics?” (read his article here)

While I agree with Mr Ooi that baseless allegations should never be the currency of political discourse here, I am opposed to the use of defamation suits, particularly in the manner that Lee Kuan Yew and Lee Hsien Loong have used them. The problem, as I see it, is that these suits create a climate of fear, and years of psychological experiments have shown that people do not make the best decisions when acting out of fear. When a nation acts out of fear, we have a serious problem.

If anyone makes a libellous statement, I believe that the person should be punished. But I also expect that the leaders of my country feel strong and confident enough about their standing in the public eye by demanding apologies from a position of strength. As it stands, it seems that PM Lee is acting from a position of weakness, with his reliance on the legal system to maintain his reputation. It would be so much more impressive if PM Lee demands an apology without the force of law behind him, and invites bloggers like Roy Ngerng to have a public dialogue in order to clear any misconceptions and concerns that Ngerng has.

Instead of a climate of fear, I hope PM Lee encourages a climate of informed discussion. Yes, I would like PM Lee to put his years of education and experience forward, and be the expert that he really is. Destroy Roy Ngerng if you will, PM Lee — but only in the realm of academic discussion. Prove him wrong, and you will win the hearts and minds of the people.

PM Lee, I truly believe you can do better than this. You can even hire me as a writer if you want 😉

[I understand some PAP positions, like the concern with GDP growth — I’ve read Chrystia Freeland’s Plutocrats! You all need better PR la!]

Should students wear school uniforms?

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 acceptable.

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 choose.

(749 words)