Which person has had the most positive impact on your life? Describe this individual’s personality and in what ways he or she has influenced you. (2019 O-level English Paper 1, Syllabus 1128)

TW: mention of death and an old person dying


Death is a strange thing. Many people fear it, but it stands as a chance to express our greatest triumphs in life. As a teenager, it is a little strange to say this, but the person who has had the most positive impact on me is no longer with us, and it is exactly his death that changed my life. While I have struggled to understand the precise nature of his giant spiritual stature and how he has influenced me, I will try to convey the sense of who he was and what kind of effect he had on me — how he helped me feel a lasting sense that life is alright, even though things may look bad at times.

I first met Uncle George when he met my family for dinner at home, and by that time he was already old. Not old like the kind of old most of our parents are, but old like the kind of old where it starts to get difficult to imagine how that old man could be so sprightly and happy. I eventually saw him lose that former quality, but Uncle George never lost his sense of joy and peace, even as he lay on his deathbed. I am getting ahead of myself a little, but to understand the gravity of his death, you would have to understand the nature of his life and how he was in life.

Uncle George would act as if he was always a little drunk and a little sad, but also always ready to laugh and make people laugh. As an octogenarian, he avoided alcoholic drinks, but my grandfather spoke of Uncle George’s younger days as a “hot mess” (where these old folks get their slang, I have no idea) of irresponsibility and way too much drinking. How did he remain so joyful and silly, then? When I asked this of him, Uncle George pretended to be shocked that I would call him silly, as he childishly threw back the accusation — “You then silly!” — in Singlish. Then, with a twinkle in his eye, he looked straight at me with his thick glasses on his face, and said, “I never, ever want to lose the ability to be playful and childish. Something in a person dies when they lose that.”

Now, as a teenager, all I want to do is to grow up and be an adult. I struggle to understand what Uncle George means, but I feel like, maybe, there is something there, especially since I know that my parents spoke to him frequently for advice on philosophy and spirituality, and especially those boring “spiritual disciplines” the older people are always so excited about. Uncle George did say to me that if I found those things boring, that I should chase the things that fascinated me, like novels, politics, and girls (he added that last one), and that these disciplines would always be waiting for me if I ever wanted a little something more. I am now convinced that there is something more there, because his deathbed scene was tearful, sure, but also joyful.

It was something special to see Uncle George comfort the people around him even as the cancer ate away at his body. I felt awkward about being in his presence since he was so weak, so all he did was to ask to hold my hand as he spoke to my parents. Now that he is gone, I struggle to understand how he has left me with that enduring sense of peace and hope. I guess it must be something about how he made peace with his inevitable death. There must be something, after all, in those boring spiritual disciplines.

618 words

Note: this is completely fictional, and I had to dig a little deeper than usual to come up with this response. Reading all kinds of text (novels, self-help books, memoirs, biographies, etc) helps with essay questions that you may have trouble with, especially when you have to write from a place that may be slightly less than authentic. Also, this one gestures at religiosity, so the same old caveat applies — when in doubt, ask the adults already in your life! I’m not your pastor ;D

Write about a time when you did something just to impress someone which you later regretted. (2020 O-level English Paper 1, Syllabus 1128)

If anyone ever reads a report on a school bully who was struck by a haunting only days before his examinations, with his bag with all his notes and textbooks set on fire without any explanation, please know that I am utterly sorry for what I did. The only defence I have is that nobody in school really liked Bruce the bully, especially since he made life in school hell for so many people. I am cursed with this knowledge, that I made the life of a friend already suffering even worse.

Stacy and I were spying on him just as a fun thing to do, when we saw that Bruce had to use the toilet again for his stomachache. We were the only two friends that Bruce had, and we used to study in the quietest part of the school because in our little group, none of us had a home quiet enough for us to be left in peace. Out of the three of us, though, Bruce was the most hardworking, and I was just the boy with too many sisters. Stacy, however, was the prettiest girl in the school, by far. I had even seen adult men smile at her for no particular reason. Our study table was in a corner of our school compound, where there is a toilet reputed to be haunted that nobody uses. It is a strange little toilet: even though nobody uses it, and the school cleaner cleans it regularly, there is always a faint smell of rotten fruit coming from it. We have witnessed the school cleaner cleaning it too, since we help him sometimes when we are sick of studying. No one dares to come near it, and that corner of the school is always quiet, but what was the haunted toilet area to our schoolmates was a sacred sanctum for us.

Still, Bruce would never dare to sit in the haunted toilet for too long, so he often had to take the long walk to the other clean toilet in school. Stacy looked at me as Bruce left, her eyes bleary from studying and not having gotten enough sleep. She was bored, and she wanted to do something. What was that something? She was sick of having to defend Bruce, the bully who hit people all the time because that was what Bruce’s parents did to him almost every day. His parents were a special kind of evil: they hit him only where marks would not show up, so he could never get the sympathy he would otherwise have gotten if he had carried obvious bruises. One can punch a hungry boy with a book tucked into his shorts so hard that he vomits. This I learnt from Bruce.

Stacy could not take it anymore with Bruce — both of them were almost equally hated by students and staff, though Stacy would never hurt anyone physically. That day, in a break from our usual spying routine, she pulled me to where the three of us had been studying and started packing Bruce’s things up. Was the something she wanted to do just a little tidying up? I was even more puzzled when Stacy handed a pair of gloves to me, and told me to put them on. To my horror, she pulled the lighter and lighter fluid Bruce always carried with him out from his bag, handed the packed bag to me, and told me to set fire to the bag in the haunted toilet. The thing about Stacy and her pop star looks is that everyone always wants to impress her, no matter how much one hates her, and I was no exception to the rule. She had planned this. Maybe she would kiss me again.

I set fire to the bag and walked away briskly. On the security cameras we knew that we would simply look like two teenagers taking a break from studying — we were in the habit of walking away from the study area even after five minutes of “studying”, and Bruce knew this. We headed back to the study table only after seeing Bruce return to the table. Of course I acted innocent, I was in too much shock to even think about what I had done, and no way was I going to get another beating from Bruce. What I was unprepared for, once I pretended to investigate the toilet to report that it indeed was his bag on fire, was Bruce’s total collapse into tears when he realised what was happening. Good grades were his way out of his abusive household, and his precious notes were gone.

Bruce still got good grades, that year. It is a testament to his iron-clad discipline that he did well in spite of his notes disappearing up in flames. Stacy never spoke to me again, maybe because she lost whatever respect she had for me when I bent so easily to her will. Meanwhile, I failed that year’s examinations so badly I had to transfer out of my school, and maybe I failed because I could not concentrate on anything for months after that for the sheer intensity of the guilt and regret that I felt. Karma is real, I guess.

(874 words)

Further notes:

Powerful poems #1: Wendell Berry’s “Enemies”

When I talk about poetry with any student whose only exposure to this genre has been the torture of having to sit for exams, I sometimes start with this observation:

Poets don’t craft their poems so that they can torture you in an exam room; they write to convey something powerful, something that makes them want to create art that in turn creates in them a desire for escape from the confines of prose.

There is power in poetry, and I’m hoping to be able to talk about it in a new series of posts, just to see if I can get a few more people in the world to appreciate this form of literature.

I’ll start with Wendell Berry’s “Enemies” — please click and read it before continuing reading my post!

Quick instructions for reading a poem:

  • Read it aloud, don’t worry too much about unearthing meaning yet. Please don’t forget the title.
  • Check the dictionary for any word you want to think more deeply about, even if you think you understand the word already.
  • Read the poem again — preferably, aloud.

How much we need poetry like this in our age of polarisation. Poet Wendell Berry quite clearly knows this, hailing from a society that is particularly polarised — the US. In Singapore we are perhaps less split along political lines, but we are still prone to the habit of thinking that the people we disagree with are our enemies.

That one word title primes all of my protective faculties. Who are these enemies that the poet wants me to think about? (Grrr, my inner guard dog goes.) I consider those I think of as my enemies, and I am blindsided by the first line’s introduction of a hypothetical: “If you are not to become a monster”. Why should I be bothered with not becoming “a monster”? Shouldn’t I be more concerned with the monstrosity of my enemies? And why, if I am not to become a monster, must I “care what they think”?

The poetic voice points out that there is danger in caring about what my enemies think. “If you care what they think”, he asks, “how will you not hate them”? I’ll reveal a little about myself here: I almost unavoidably think of certain groups of people I find irredeemably selfish as my enemies because I view them as hampering and preventing the larger mass of humanity from progressing in several ways I find important.

I think of the people who support the structures in our world that worsen the problems associated with climate change and resource depletion. I think of our younger generations, who will be growing old in a world that we may not recognise. In 2021, the rich world is already suffering from the ravages of extreme weather. What will this look like in 2070? Or in 2100, when the babies born now will just be finishing their eighth decade of their lives?

I think about my enemies, and I consider what they must be thinking — perhaps they’re greedy, and they just want to generate profit at all costs, the future generations be damned. Maybe they’re an example of pure, unadulterated evil, and that they just want to watch the world burn. And then I catch myself, and I realise: I’m becoming “a monster / of the opposite kind”, just like the poem warns.

If I’m honest with myself, I am capable of harbouring the desire to destroy my enemies. I have become monstrous. “From where then / is love to come — love for your enemy / that is the way of liberty?” Berry asks. The enjambment that leads from the second stanza into the third stanza is a little distracting, as if the text is screaming at me: Pay attention!! Don’t let your focus waver!! You’re capable of monstrosity!!

The text answers me: “From forgiveness.” But I can feel myself resisting the idea that my liberty lies in the forgiveness of those I think of as monsters. I could label that resistance as anger, bitterness, and indignation — and I realise that without the ability to drop those emotions, I remain a prisoner of those feelings that potentially have such a debilitating effect on our bodies.

Personally speaking, I need to be able to understand the motivations of someone I’m angry with in order to be able to move from anger to love. My enemies might, in fact, be suffering with insecurity in spite of the wealth and power so many of them already have. When I sit with that knowledge, I find myself able to find my own insecurity, and to identify how I sometimes have been far less than perfect because of my fears. I find myself less able to hate my enemies, and more able to love them, when I spend enough time with that knowledge.

I can feel, within myself, the freedom and liberty that our poetic voice presents to us when I manage to love my enemies (a freedom that is also rooted in my spirituality that includes the love for our enemies that Jesus called for). My enemies then become “as sunlight / on a green branch” to me – they have provided a pathway for me to experience the nourishment of what forgiving someone feels like.

But it is still important to register that what my enemies have done is, to me, wrong. To my judgement, their actions are destructive. Wendell Berry’s final words in “Enemies” warns me that I “must not / think of them again, except / as monsters like (myself), pitiable because unforgiving.” Perhaps my enemies have chosen their paths because they are unable to forgive. (Are they unable to forgive the universe for not being protective enough of the ones they love? Hmm.) If I allow myself to hold on to my indignation, my hate rises again, and I remember that I, too, am capable of monstrosity.

So I remind myself that despite their wrongdoings (that might be right and justifiable actions in a moral framework different from mine), it is possible to love and forgive my enemies. It is possible, perhaps, for me to avoid monstrosity myself.


I recently texted a friend that “the Big Sin of social justice movements is to fail to extend compassion to the oppressor”. I know that many people will resist this by ranting about how nobody bothers to extend compassion to the oppressed and marginalised. But hear me out — maybe we can do both, and maybe progress can be had if we made as much of an effort to understand the pains of the oppressors as we put in the effort to stand with the marginalised.

My sense of things is that those we think of as our oppressors are acting from positions of pain and trauma, even while they cause more pain and trauma. I read Wendell Berry’s “Enemies” as calling for us to end that cycle. I hold on to the hope that we can.


Did you enjoy this article? Did you manage to enjoy the poem? Let me know in the comments!

‘Learning how to respond to making mistakes is an essential part of becoming successful.’ What is your opinion? (2020 O-level English Paper 1, Syllabus 1128)

Pre-reading vocabulary list:

  • Essential: Absolutely necessary; extremely important.
  • Truism: A statement that is obviously true and says nothing new or interesting.
  • Relentless: Harsh or inflexible.
  • Burnout: Physical or mental collapse caused by overwork or stress.
  • Utterance: The action of saying or expressing something aloud.

‘Learning how to respond to making mistakes is an essential part of becoming successful.’ What is your opinion?

The Covid-19 pandemic has been extremely tiring for many of us. Many adults have lost their jobs, or have had to deal with the stresses of their businesses doing poorly. Many children and teenagers, meanwhile, have had to deal with the anxiety and fatigue of not being able to understand the pandemic fully, and the stresses of learning from home on online platforms that do not reproduce properly the experience of being in a classroom. Even when we are in classrooms, we have to wear masks. In this context, the truism that learning from our mistakes is crucial strikes me as a little inappropriate for these times. People of all ages in Singapore have suffered from the relentless pursuit for success, and many of us have realised that pursuing success at all costs is, in fact, a major mistake that many in our society have made.

While it is true that to get on the road to success we have to learn helpful responses to failing and making mistakes, we sometimes have to allow ourselves to stop chasing success. Paradoxically, success could lie in that practice. When we learn how to cook, we sometimes have to figure out why a particular dish we just cooked tastes bad. When we learn how to play a musical instrument, we sometimes have to figure out why a song we just played sounds bad. There are some people who give up when they fail, and worse, even people who avoid trying to be good at something just because they are afraid of failure. Anyone who wants to be a straight-A student has to be willing to try and fail, because the only path to success is to keep on trying till you succeed — and a person who tries anything worth trying will inevitably make mistakes along the way. What should we do, however, about the fact that chasing success is sometimes the crucial mistake that we make? The Covid-19 pandemic saw many of my most hardworking friends try to keep up with their usual pace of work, but some of them have ended up experiencing burnout, and have had to stop working as hard because they chased after academic success without considering the larger challenge of successfully taking care of their mental and physical health. For them, learning how to stop chasing success has been essential in staying healthy and happy.

On the level of language, let us note that the word “success” has power; the mere utterance of that word can create in people the desire for the thing itself. Since these friends of mine find me a helpful person to talk to, I have found myself listening to their conflicting desires for rest, play, and success. Sometimes a human being just needs to give up for awhile. Sometimes we need to play till sanity returns. Unfortunately, some people have such difficulty even allowing themselves thirty minutes to play a video game or to watch a show, because they think that they have to be perpetually grinding on towards their goals. Sometimes we have to be willing to let our truisms go, no matter how true they are, because there are always other truths that we have to account for, like the truth that suicide rates among young people in Singapore rose worryingly in 2020. It strikes me as more important to be able to say to people: be willing to fail, and be willing to fail joyfully and healthily. As our Education Minister Chan Chun Sing says, we must have frank conversations about the definitions of success. It is my view that learning how to respond to making mistakes is an essential part of becoming successful, and that the most important lesson in season of the Covid-19 pandemic has been that of the necessity to be comfortable with failure.

It is my hope that with that lesson learnt, as a nation we will be able to live with more love for ourselves and each other, more joy in life itself, and more hope for the future. That would see us, I think, becoming successful not just as individuals but as a society that has achieved a kind of happiness and prosperity that is truly worth celebrating.

(704 words)

There is no place like home. How true is this for you? (2020 O-level English Paper 1, Q6)

When Dorothy, in the classic movie The Wizard of Oz says to herself “there’s no place like home”, I find myself identifying with her desires. Even if I get the chance to live in some kind of fabled green emerald city where everyone loves me because I saved the day, like Dorothy, I still would want to go home. There is, indeed, no place like home for me, because it is the place where I feel the safest and most loved.

One of the fondest and earliest memories I have of home is when my sister and I made salty hot chocolate for my parents during family movie night. Even as young children, we knew, of course, that hot chocolate was supposed to be sweet, not salty. It was family movie night, however, and we had made hot drinks for our parents before, to their delight — but we had also just watched a television show that featured salty drink pranks. I cannot remember clearly how much salt my sister put into the drinks (it was her idea, I swear), but what really stuck with me was the way my parents reacted. The drinks were salty, and they still tried to pretend they tasted nice, at least for a while. We were mystified — did the drinks not taste salty? It was just that my parents wanted to show appreciation for our efforts even if, for some strange reason, we mistook salt for sugar. So we confessed, everyone had a laugh, and movie night continued. There was no scolding. As children, we knew we were safe and loved.

Not everything goes smoothly in a home like ours, though. We have our difficult times, especially when the world is in the shape it is right now. My parents both work, but my father’s income has been unstable in recent times and both of them are understandably stressed out about it since it is his income that has always been higher. We all are worried, in a way, but as a teenager I can only imagine what kinds of stresses adults deal with. Sometimes one parent will come home overworked and irritable about something, but as children who are more used to the reliability of parental love, it can be a bit of a shock to the system when it happens. When we were much younger, and when our parents were more secure in their jobs, they would still occasionally arrive home in an irritable state, but we were less able to understand it. Still, the atmosphere of safety and love has prevailed through these difficult times, because one parent would almost unfailingly step up to provide us with that security whenever the other one would falter. If one of them snapped at us for no good reason, the other parent would, in a quiet moment, reassure us that “Daddy didn’t mean it, he still loves you”, or “Mummy is overworked now, but she still loves you”.

Even though my family is not perfect, home has been a place of love and security, and there is no place like it for me. With a home environment like that, is it any surprise that I feel together with Dorothy when she wants to go home at the end of The Wizard of Oz?

(548 words)

Note: I wrote this with a teenager’s voice, and I tried to anchor it in the 21st century. This is, however, more or less about my own family, with some fictional elements. One thing’s true though — my imperfect family might be irritating at times (heh), but they’re lovely!

How do I start with preparing for the unseen poetry section?

Very occasionally I respond to posts on Reddit, and a few days ago someone asked for notes on unseen poetry. My response:

I’ve found Edward Hirsch’s writing helpful in helping my students think about poetry more deeply – https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69955/how-to-read-a-poem

For unseen poetry, the band descriptors say that the best answers show a “Sensitive and informed personal response showing close engagement with the text”. Ask your teachers if the use of the personal voice (“I feel”, “it strikes me”, “I have an impression that”, etc) is encouraged, and how you can express that in your literature essays (I’ve found that there sometimes are teachers that will discourage this, so please check your school’s style).

Hirsch’s writing resembles the kind of writing we’d LOVE to see in an essay, especially since he does that “personal response” thing very powerfully (but he’s a GREAT writer, so don’t be concerned about sounding like him, develop your own style).

As always, check the dictionary to ensure that you KNOW the meaning of the words in any text. (I’ve found the Merriam-Webster dictionary most helpful for digging out meanings that aren’t listed in the Lexico or Cambridge dictionaries.)

At the B4/C5 level you probably have some difficulty with understanding the literal meanings of some of the poems, so really try to work at that.

Poetry Foundation also has an app that allows you to spin for random poems, and some of my students have found that helpful too. (Spin till you get one you like, lol.)

Hope this helps!


I want to say more about Edward Hirsch’s book How to Read a Poem: And Fall in Love with Poetry, because it saved my academic life when I was in NUS. If not for it, I probably would have done quite badly, and that’s putting it mildly.

When I entered university fresh from the army, it was already already seven years since I’d last read a poem. That was in my Sec 2 literature class, when my school (a boys’ school famous for students unable to speak Chinese properly) kept on telling those of us who wanted to take literature at the O-levels that “boys generally aren’t very good at literature”. (Ha! Look at me now!)

So, as a 21-year-old entering academia again after 2.5 years in the army, I didn’t dream that I would be able to major in literature, and I definitely couldn’t see a future where I could compete with students who’d been taking literature at the O-levels and the A-levels. I thought I was going to major in psychology. Fortunately, (or unfortunately, depending on your point of view) the entry-level psychology module was mind-numbingly boring, but the entry-level literature module was pure FUN from day 1.

But what could I do, when I was writing essays on poetry, and I was graded on the same scale as the O- and A-level literature kids?

Enter Edward Hirsch’s amazing book. I devoured it, finishing it in about a week (it’s a long one). It saved my life when it came to discussing poetry with the other A-for-A-level-literature kids.

I don’t know if Hirsch expected a young undergraduate to end up falling in love with poetry through his brilliantly written book, when that undergraduate picked up the book out of a desire to get an A for his university assignments and exams. It’s weird how other people’s writing can impact us like that.

I am filled with gratitude that the world carries such treasures such as these!


I tell that story on this website because I want to convey to the students desperate for unseen poetry notes that learning about poetry and how to write about poetry is a process that needs a deep commitment. If you sit down for hours each day to study for a single science paper, you should be doing the same for literature as well.

There is no shortcut.

But I want to reassure you that if you put in the effort to think about poetry and reading more deeply, it will eventually become rewarding and fulfilling to the point where you will never want to give up the habit. And it’s a good habit too.

Hope this helps!

Covid-19, inequality, and student stress

We can’t deal with stressed out students at the national level by merely tinkering with the education system. We have to lower the penalties for those of us who do not do well in school.

Covid-19 and its impact on the economy has highlighted for us the inequalities baked into our society. Regardless of the progress that we may have made in Singapore on income inequality, the divide here has never been clearer.

Two headlines from recent weeks have helped me explain this to students who have trouble understanding the economic divide we have here. One reads: “From luxe private home dining to discounted tickets, high-end restaurants innovate to cope with heightened alert.” The second reads: “Covid-19 restrictions: Taxi, private hire drivers report fall in income as some operators offer aid.”

Our young people can be forgiven if they think that the exam results they get now will dictate their future. It certainly seems like it, right? Fail to get into university, or fail to get into JC, or fail to get into a good secondary school, and it all seems like it’s going to fall apart.

The truth is that there are ways to succeed in Singapore even if you don’t do well in school. But it is also true that a comfortable life is much easier to come by if you do well for your exams at each stage. The advantages really do add up.

If you do well for your PSLE, you get into a better secondary school that will make it easier for you to get into a better JC, which raises your chances of getting into a good university, which raises your chances of getting a good degree. At each stage, there are ways to raise your chances of success even if you’ve tripped a bit at the previous stage (hello, private tuition).

But a cruel tendency remains: there are penalties for those who don’t do well at each stage.

Fortunately, there are paths to success for those who don’t do well in school. If you fail your A-levels, for example, you could always take it again as a private candidate. Our lives are a sum of our choices at each moment, and it is always possible to choose better actions at each stage of life.

But a cruel tendency remains: there are penalties for those who don’t do well at each stage.

There are solutions to the problem of economic inequality, including giving free money to all of us. It probably sounds ridiculous to some of you, but the case for a Universal Basic Income (UBI) has been argued for in Parliament, by AWARE, and even in the Singapore Business Review.

Whatever solution is chosen or not chosen, those of us with the privilege to examine these problems and their solutions must care about this. Sure, if you’re rich, during the lockdown you get to consider ordering a luxury meal in–but do you see the way that your children may be suffering?

Children and teenagers are not blind agents shuffling their way through the world till they finally get to adult maturity; almost all of them are sensitive and perceptive creatures who are have already developed some of the abilities they will continue to use as adults.

Many of them, even if they cannot speak eloquently about these issues, already have impressionistic understandings of how our world works. Many of them understand, on some level, the penalties they face for failure, and pressure themselves into working hard because of that.

Some of them have even put themselves under such profound stress that they cope by appearing lazy.

Those of us who are privileged neglect societal problems at our own risk, and Covid-19 should remind us of exactly how connected we are. The air your private chef or delivery rider breathes out is exactly the same air that you will breathe in.

Why is our society so relentlessly competitive? Maybe because we understand that to fall behind in the race is to lose out on all kinds of safety and dignity.

This is why we can’t deal with stress in the education system by merely tinkering with that system, even though incremental improvements are always welcome.

We teach and learn in a larger system that impinges on us, and no matter how much teachers and tutors try to deal with our students’ wellbeing in the educational setting, we are effectively powerless when it comes to the larger problems in society–unless we all come together as a society to solve these problems.

There are solutions to be thought about, and those of us who can do so must at least care about what is to be done.


PS: For those who are too stressed out about this, let me recommend a few books (and one article) that I’ve personally found helpful. There are ways to success, no matter how you define it. Don’t give up!

Shawn Achor (2010). The happiness advantage: The seven principles of positive psychology that fuel success and performance at work.

Shawn Achor (2018). Big Potential: How Transforming the Pursuit of Success Raises Our Achievement, Happiness, and Well-Being.

Charles Duhigg (2012). The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.

Dan Harris (2014). 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works—A True Story

Bertrand Russell (1932). In Praise of Idleness.

Describe the things that you do to relax after you have been very busy. Explain why you find them enjoyable.

Describe the things that you do to relax after you have been very busy. Explain why you find them enjoyable. (2020 O-level English Paper 1, Q3)

If you found yourself running away from a lion, you would not be able to think very deeply about whether the dagger that Macbeth saw was only in his imagination, or if a bystander would have been able to see it too; you would be running away from a lion. When we worry about something, our brains and bodies react with a stress response that resembles what happens when we have to run from danger. That is why my teachers have taught me to pay attention to my body when I unwind after a long day of busyness. Through this process, I have found myself more deeply enjoying my time listening to music, reading, or just sitting still.

It is no secret that I am not very good with the Chinese language, but I have found that I can relax and get better at the subject at the same time by listening to Chinese music. In the past, I would torture myself into memorising characters and meanings of words, reading my textbook and painstakingly checking the dictionary so that I could match the foreign words with what I already knew in English. I did not enjoy it. Now, after a day spent working on whatever else I have to work on, I sometimes unwind just by sitting and listening to Chinese music. As the plucked notes of acoustic guitars and lightly tinkling pianos comfort my heart, I unavoidably end up enjoying the beautifully sung words that I would otherwise shudder to meet in an assessment book. ‘There are a million possibilities and uncertainties’, the singer tells me musically, and the words sink into a part of my brain that feels layers and layers deeper than when I engage only with the words on a page. When I become curious about the deeper meanings of a song’s lyrics, I engage with it with a level of stress that paradoxically feels relaxing; it is an expanding feeling I feel at the back of my head, and it is difficult to convey exactly how deeply relaxing this form of learning feels.

Reading novels also relaxes me, and as someone who enjoys fictional violence, I effortlessly devour books that deal with different kinds of violence. I read one recently that had the protagonist smash someone’s skull in a shockingly graphic manner, and while my parents may balk at the idea of such a story, this is one of the main ways I have gotten better at the language. I have to admit, this habit of mine is relaxing and agitating almost in equal measure, especially since I have been known to stay up till the early hours of the morning to finish a book. In those instances, even though I may wake up tired, the sheer joy of reading an exciting book fuels me in an unexplainable way the next day. It remains mysterious to me why something can be tiring and relaxing at the same time, but I guess it reflects the limitation of the words we use to reflect human experience.

What makes the most sense is the way I enjoy the relaxation that comes from sitting still, which took a surprising amount of effort to learn how to do in the first place. Young people these days have trouble sitting still because of how our attention is perpetually cut into pieces by social media and gaming apps, and while most people have trouble learning how to sit still, I have one advantage: I love classical music. Before covid-19 hit, my parents would bring me to classical music concerts at the Esplanade, where it would be thoroughly embarrassing to reveal that one could not sit still when hundreds of people are sitting as quietly as they can. In the last moments of Gustav Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, the final notes of the violins fade out so slowly, tenderly, and quietly that one is never sure of the exact moment when the piece ends. Could you sit still with that without getting agitated, in silence? Achieving that is enjoyably energising and relaxing all at once, and I recommend it to anyone who is curious about how this feels.

Over the years, I have come to the realisation that hanging loose after a long day involves careful choices. When I hear about other teenagers who have become addicted to video games and social media, I think of how sad it must be for something that was once relaxing to become a source of stress itself. Thankfully, there are other much more enjoyable ways to relax!

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Do I say “migrant workers” or “foreign workers”? What’s the difference?

[This question came up in a chat group I’m in. My response below.]

Let’s think about how the words “migrant” and “foreign” are used.

When I am dealing with an idea that is completely unfamiliar, I say that “the idea is foreign to me”. When an object that does not belong in a human body enters it — like a sharp piece of something — we say something like “the foreign object entered his body, causing injury”.

When we think of “migrants”, on the other hand, we think of migrant birds, migrant animals — or the fact that the vast majority of us (Singaporeans) are either descendants of people who migrated from lands some distance away or first-generation migrants.

Describing people as “foreign workers”, therefore, foregrounds the differences between “us” and “them” — they are foreign, they are alien, they are something other than us.

But when we say “migrant workers”, we leave more linguistic space to acknowledge commonalities. They are migrants, and we are migrants and the children of migrants.

Social media brings many benefits. Discuss.

Even schools and teachers use social media these days, with lessons, assignments, and whole-class discussions conducted on platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp. Clearly, they think that social media brings many benefits. I agree that it does, but we have to be careful to bring nuance to our understanding of social media, not just because it poses profound dangers for individuals and societies, but because it also has an immense potential for good, a potential that unfortunately only has been fulfilled in very limited situations.

Like any good tool, social media brings many benefits when used well. Students who already have good learning habits (e.g. the ability to ask meaningful and exciting questions; the skills to pursue answers to these questions; the know-how to share knowledge with others) can leverage social media into becoming powerful learning tools for themselves. A student who is aware, for example, of communities of experts who share their knowledge for free on forums like StackExchange, and who also has the cultural and digital literacy to take advantage of these forums, automatically has an advantage over a student without these skills and knowledge. For experts in a field, it can be innately rewarding to share one’s knowledge, even for free; at times, it also forces the expert to come to a deeper knowledge of his domain when s/he has to break down complex concepts and ideas into simpler ones for the purpose of teaching an amateur. These benefits of social media are especially important when they concern communities that otherwise would not be able to form or communicate, like the handful of musicians in Singapore interested in avant-garde post-rock improvisation — there are social connections, art, and frissons of joy that would not otherwise be in the world, without social media to connect these individuals.

Unfortunately, the power social media has to connect individuals has resulted in the worst kinds of people finding each other and gaining power for themselves. Most reprehensible are the communities that glorify racism, sexual assaults, and other kinds of injustices not fit to mention in polite company. While much attention has been given to how rumours, lies, and various kinds of other propaganda have spread on social media (i.e. fake news), less attention has been given to Facebook’s complicity in the Rohingya genocide not far north of Singapore’s borders, in Myanmar (Myanmar’s military has been using the darker tendencies of social media to allow posts that inflame our tribal tendencies to stoke hatred of Muslims).

Moreover, the negative impacts on students can be legion. Teachers and parents continue to be concerned about children who unknowingly sexualise themselves on social media while simply trying to fit in with internet trends, with sexualised girls seen as less intelligent and less worthy of help than other children, among other consequences. Let us be clear: if sexual assault were the only problem, many of us would be baying for the blood of rapists and molesters, instead of victim blaming. But the consequences of the sexualisation of children are present even without the presence of such criminals, and so we worry. The problems of addiction to social media also are well known, with predictable negative effects on student performance and health.

Still, we have to acknowledge the power that social media carries that can be used for good. It has many benefits, but many problems which are inherent to digital technologies at large (especially since they are embedded in a larger context of profit-driven capitalism). Social media is a tool — we have to use it well.

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