The joy of doing nothing.

Do nothing. Don’t look at your phone, drop the video games, deliver yourself from panicked overwork.

Sit, and enjoy being alive. Stand, and enjoy breathing.

No, not even that.

Do nothing. Your mind is overworked, over-entertained, oversaturated with the pap of the online age.

Stop. Turn off your devices. Turn off your cravings.

Do nothing. Stopping is doing something, doing nothing is doing something, but do nothing! (The mind says no, the mind says yes)

The joy of doing nothing is joy itself.

Joy. Find that foreign familiar frisson, flowing, vibrating through veins, murmuring through muscle.

Do nothing. The divine mystery awaits.

Pictures vs Words: a response to gptuitionsg’s views

Photo credit: Kevin Carter. The photographer committed suicide shortly after this photograph was taken.

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.)

‘A picture is always more powerful than mere words.’ What is your view?

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)


*For an account of this, see the brilliantly written book, Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl.

NLB book withdrawals/destruction: my response in three stories.

Preamble: I’ve been finding it very hard to articulate my views on the NLB book withdrawal/destruction. I’m not a fantastic storyteller, so this has to do for now.

Both sides of this war have to understand each other’s pain. That’s the starting point. Then we can talk about democracy and how we want to move forward as a civilization. But attacking each other out of anger and hate isn’t going to change anything. Hate only begets hate.

The arguments have been made from both sides, but what I’m not seeing is an increase in understanding on either side. The anger keeps on building. What is that going to change?


Story 1 (a loving couple’s grief):

They met as students in university, back when televisions were made out of wood and glass, a time when youth and abandon ruled their lives. Slowly, but surely, they aged. They couldn’t have children, so they adopted a number of dogs.

There was Fifi, their first mongrel who invited herself into their home with her irresistible charm and good looks.

There was Tiny, an unwanted German Shepherd who tested the limits of their cheap wooden bedframe.

There was Sir Jackie Stewart, who, unlike his namesake, spent more time banging into things than actually racing.

There finally there was Juliet, who saw them through their final years as a couple. A remarkably calm and affectionate terrier, Juliet watched as her masters grew feeble, and learned to be satisfied with walks that never extended too far beyond her home. It was clear that they weren’t as healthy as before.

Then came a time when the house was suddenly empty. Only one of her masters arrived home late at night, clearly too tired to play with her, but who kept on walking around the house as if he had lost something. He kept on crying, no matter how much Juliet licked his tears off his face.

“Juliet,” he sobbed. “They won’t let me keep him company at night because we’re not relatives! How am I supposed to be his relative when they wouldn’t let us get married? And he’s dying! He’s dying!”

Story 2 (a parent’s grief):

Johnny walked up the stage and received his award for topping his school in the A-levels. Johnny beamed at his father a megawatt smile, who was so proud that tears were threatening to spill over.

Johnny’s mother died when he was in primary school. It almost broke his father, who took to drinking his grief away. His wife, before she passed away, made him promise to always take care of Johnny, to always remind Johnny that she was with God now. Johnny’s father tried to keep his promise, but failed. He ended up descending into an alcohol- and gambling-fuelled pit so deep, that when he got out, he could only thank God for it.

It was when he fell on Johnny’s science project, during his nightly alcohol binge, that he realised he needed help. Johnny had been working on it for almost three months, and the little town with its little people, with its little red mountain poised to erupt all over the town, all were smashed to smithereens in one night.

It was church and God who dragged him out of that hole. Johnny’s father never drank or gambled again, after he gave his life to God. Johnny’s father started studying the Bible, volunteering at church activities especially for addicts.

When Johnny finished his National Service, he came back home with a troubled expression on his face. Without any warning, he turned to his father and mumbled, “Daddy, I’m gay.”

Johnny’s father thought he was going crazy.

“I said, I’m gay.”

Never had the pair argued since the death of Johnny’s mother, not with this intensity. Johnny’s father raged at his son with such ferocity that Johnny fled the house, never to return.

“He’s going to hell! He’s going to hell.. fire..” Johnny’s father sobbed well into the night, well into the decades of estrangement. Johnny’s father died believing that his son would never know the glories of heaven and the wonder of God’s love.

Story 3 (a good dog):

Juliet ran away from home. She didn’t mean to, but she knew that she had a mission to accomplish. When she got to the mission target, she knew it immediately, even though she didn’t have an address. The house smelled of grief. She knew the smell well. Her tail wagged, as she squeezed through the gate into the property.

Johnny’s father blinked his tears away. Was he seeing things? A small brown dog stared up at him, wagged her tail, and barked. Johnny’s father couldn’t help smiling.

“Hi, how did you get in? Umm.. are you lost? Well you can’t be, you look so happy. You look thirsty, do you want some water?”

Juliet barked. She didn’t understand these big apes, but she knew that looking happy and barking every now and then (especially when the apes made their noises) made good things happen.

“Ah, you must be that lost dog I’ve seen on those posters. Gotta get you back. One less lost child.” Johnny’s father sighed, picking the little dog up.

Johnny’s father knocked on his neighbour’s door, dog in hand. The moment the door opened, Juliet (the little brown dog) shot out of his arms. His neighbour picked the dog up, and started tearfully babbling at her, such was his relief at getting his beloved dog back.

“Ah, this dog must surely be yours then,” Johnny’s father awkwardly said as dog and owner were reunited.

“Oh, I’m so sorry, thank you, thank you, thank you! Can I give you the reward money? Hey!”

Johnny’s father turned around as he walked away, smiling at his neighbour and waving his hand in the universal sign for refusal. This wasn’t about the money, it was about doing the right thing.

Agency behind the “my father bet on Germany” anti-gambling ad just played a Jedi mind trick on you

They just reminded you that gambling can be so, so attractive sometimes.

We’ve all seen it by now. “Singapore anti-gambling advert falls flat after Germany win,” screams Channel NewsAsia. Even the Wall Street Journal proclaims: “German Success Unravels Singapore’s Anti-Soccer Betting Ad“. People all over my Facebook feed are gleefully making fun of the advertisement, as if it has somehow failed. Aren’t we missing the point a little bit?

Of course, sometimes gamblers win. That’s what makes gambling so addictive. We all know that gambling is a problem, and this ostensibly ‘failed’ ad just gave the National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG) an incredible return on its investment.

We all know who to call now, if we ever need help with problem gambling.

I don’t think any of us need any convincing that gambling is, by and large, a guilty pleasure that we indulge in only once in awhile. This is why it is a social norm to only gamble during certain periods associated with Bacchanalian revelry. We gamble only when we meet during certain festive periods (lookin’ at you, Chinese New Year) or when we are on holiday (lookin’ at you, Genting Highlands). If a family member starts to gamble compulsively, we’re more likely to freak out than to approve of his/her behaviour. Why? Because gambling addiction is a real problem that has more consequences than only an empty bank account.

Choosing Germany for the ad seems to be a stroke of genius and luck. If the boy said something unrelated to the World Cup (“I can’t play football anymore, I have to work. My dad lost all our savings gambling.”), only a fraction of us would have seen this ad. The majority of us probably would have ignored the ad with the sad boys (too busy looking at highlights of a certain 7-1 match, I suppose?).

If I were the NCPG, I’d wait till the World Cup is over before releasing a statement to the public. If Germany loses in the final, the NCPG could say “Aha! I told you so!”, and if Germany wins, it could release a more sober statement about how gambling’s little successes contribute to a larger problematic addiction.

What a mind trick.


PS: This writer is a private tutor and editor. He needs a bit more money. If Goodfellas want to give me some of their bonuses…. please do 😉

Alamak! GE2016 coming! (A tongue in cheek guide to writing “wall of text” essays for the general reader)

tl;dr — use tl;dr paragraphs, deal with all the evidence, keep to a single idea per paragraph, don’t assume prior knowledge (assume that your reader is an idiot), end with a bang.

Bonus: this is also relevant to O- and A-level students. The principles of writing are the same, just avoid the acronym (tl;dr) and snark.

1. If you plan on posting a wall of text, always, always have a tl;dr.

Your tl;dr paragraph is necessary. People online don’t have infinite attention spans. In fact, our attention spans have been shrinking.

Your tl;dr paragraph should contain the brilliance of your entire essay. There have been complaints that the tl;dr phenomenon has been dumbing down online discourse (online discussion), but the tl;dr has actually had a long and storied history. You may recall from your GP lessons a thing called the “introductory paragraph“. This is your tl;dr paragraph.

The reader should be able to guess at the purpose of your wall of text from this paragraph. If he can’t, he may just lose interest and not read your essay.

2. Deal with all the relevant evidence

When you are trying to decide on which shiny bicycle to buy, you don’t go around only comparing prices. You look at what you get for your money —  Does it have good parts? Will I be comfortable on it? Will it make me look like a clown? — and so on.

Likewise, in your wall of text, avoid looking only at limited evidence. Look at ALL the relevant evidence. For example, if you want to buy a certain bicycle, you cannot only look at the benefits it might bring you, you also have to look at the benefits the next bicycle might bring you — and all their drawbacks.

Please do the same for political parties. As your teacher might have once said, please give me a balanced argument!

3. One idea, one paragraph

This is a rule that is frequently broken, but still serves as a good guideline.

The purpose of this rule is crucial to understand: readers are stupid cows (but not you, heheh!) who can’t keep a huge amount of information in their heads. Breaking your wall of text into smaller bricks of text will help your reader understand and retain information.

You see how I’ve broken down my tips into numbered sections? Ah.

4. Assume a stupid reader (really, not you)

(This tip comes from my JC Economics teacher!)

While you may be an expert in political philosophy, your reader almost certainly won’t be. If you use a set of words in a specific way, be sure to define it for your reader.

Think about how everyone knows the definitions of these words: kings; divine; of; right. But if I say “they rule as if they had the divine right of kings”, most people wouldn’t understand that I am talking about the old kings (the real ruling kind, not the “only good for TV” kind) who claimed that their authority came from God Himself.

5. End with a bang

If your wall of text deserves to be read, your last paragraph should be a knockout. Remember that human beings now have very short attention spans, and may need some prodding to actually process what you are saying.

Lazy readers also have a tendency to skip the middle to get to the end.

So, it’s true. Your GP teacher wasn’t wasting your time. Academic principles of writing are useful in ‘real’ life. Now go forth and write! (But go read my whole post again if you skipped the middle. Naughty!)

Why we don’t need to panic over that Temasek Junior College photograph



I understand why a conservative parent would panic if s/he sees notes for students that contain the following statement: “Discrimination based on one’s sexual orientation violates the right for all human beings to be free and equal in dignity and rights.” It is as if schools are “pro-gay” in teaching impressionable young minds.

This was brought up recently in a letter to “All Singapore Stuff” (ASS).

It is unfortunate, but true, that the letter writer has misinterpreted the information found in the photograph. The most sinister part of the picture comes under the “UDHR” field, which may sound like some kind of evil conspiracy if one did not know that it stands for The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The notes do not say that homosexuality should be accepted, they only observe that discrimination (unfair or unequal treatment) on the basis of sexual orientation violates the codes found in the UDHR.

(Background information: The UDHR arose partially as a result of the Allied experience in World War II, where Nazi Germany curtailed certain freedoms. In other words, the UDHR arose as a force to fight against the evils that Adolf Hitler put into play. Read more here.)

Whether this discrimination is acceptable, or not, is up to the student to argue. To put it in simpler terms, whether or not homosexuals should be discriminated against (treated unequally or unfairly) is a decision that we leave to a student to decide for himself or herself.

In fact, nothing in the photograph condones or promotes homosexuality. It simply observes facts. At the top of the photograph we find this statement: “Removal of laws that discriminate LGBT community as state recognition is fundamental to the acceptance and integration of the LGBT community.” Ignoring the fact that the sentence structure is a little bit awkward, this statement observes the fact that if a society desired to accept the LGBT community fully (“acceptance and integration”), then the laws that work against that community have to be abolished. The notes even go on to observe that this is a “fairly complicated” thing. There is nothing here that promotes homosexuality, it only states facts.

It is also a fact that some religions (especially the “Abrahamic religions” referenced to in the notes) see homosexuality as a sin, and this fact is presented to students. Again, this is not the promotion of religion but a statement of fact.

Since I do not have the notes in front of me, I do not have the whole picture (pun intended). It is extremely unlikely, but possible, that the notes say “everyone should be homosexual”. In that case, we should be very concerned, because the teacher who makes such a statement may have some underlying mental health issues that we need to deal with in order to protect our students from any harmful behaviour. However, teachers in Singapore, by and large, understand the sensitive nature of these topics, and teach our students so that they can satisfy the requirements of the syllabus:

The syllabus aims to enable candidates to achieve the following outcomes:
2.1 Understand better the world in which they live by fostering a critical awareness of
continuity and change in the human experience
2.2 Appreciate the interrelationship of ideas across disciplines
2.3 Broaden their global outlook while enabling them to remain mindful of shared historical,
social and cultural experiences both within Singapore and regionally
2.4 Develop maturity of thought and apply critical reading and creative thinking skills
2.5 Develop the skills of clear, accurate and effective communication
2.6 Develop the skills of evaluation of arguments and opinions
2.7 Promote extensive and independent reading and research.

When I teach GP, I expect students to think for themselves. The attempt to parrot the teacher’s views often results in disaster, anyway. To do well in GP, a student needs to know about the world s/he lives in (see statement 2.1 above). This includes knowledge about the UDHR, the struggles that the LGBT community faces, and the religious response to the issue.

There is no excuse for ignorance, especially if you are a student. In the academic arena, ignorance means failure. Parents, if you see notes that make you worried, ask your child about them. S/he should be able to explain them to you. If s/he cannot, it may indeed be time to panic.

Teachers do not have an interest in “corrupting” their students. We are more interested in shaping them into individuals who understand the world they live in, and who can think critically to form mature responses.

It means better results, anyway!


Edit: “Critical thinking” is not code for “must accept homosexuality”. If a student believes that to be homosexual is a sin, I do not try to change that view. In fact, I encourage the student to speak to his/her pastor or youth leader if s/he does not know why homosexuality can be considered to be a sin. What is more important is that the student understands how to write a proper GP essay. This includes thinking about theocracies, democracies, and the separation (or not) of the church and state.