‘People can only be happy if they feel they are treated fairly.’ Do you agree? (2019 O-level English Paper 1, Syllabus 1128)

Happiness is an elusive thing. Some people find happiness in their daily cup of coffee, and others in a good meal, and some even claim to have never been happy before. What makes many of us unhappy, of course, is unfair treatment. Still, I feel that people are capable of being happy even if they feel they have been unfairly treated, because we know that if we cultivate certain skills and mindsets, happiness almost inevitably follows.

We cannot discount the kinds of anger, bitterness and resentment that can arise if we have been the victims of unfair treatment. Even the meekest student will raise some kind of unhappy protest, for example, if he gets an examination response marked wrong when he has gotten it correct. On a deeper level, many of us feel on the receiving end of unfair treatment because we see other students from richer families being able to afford expensive private tutors while our own families can only afford cheap private tuition, or even no tuition at all. It is easy to give in to a slow-burning resentment, in this context, and lose the ability to be happy. Why does the government not tax rich people more, or make sure our perpetually overworked parents get paid more even if they work as hawkers or cleaners? Why not, even, make sure that our teachers are not so frequently overworked so that they can spend more time teaching each of us when we need it?

Despite these difficulties, however, I truly believe that happiness is within reach for most people today. Even if we find ourselves in poverty in the richest country in the world, and even if we feel hard done by, we still can make it a point to try to spread happiness into the world. We can make it a point to look into the eyes of each security guard or bus driver we meet, and smile or nod to acknowledge their presence, their work, and their innate value as a human being. We can share our notes with our friends when they ask for them, and even teach them what we know, especially since our teachers tell us that teaching others is one of the most effective ways to learn. People seem to instinctively know that this path of humble selflessness is a path to happiness, which might be why most people do not hesitate to help if a stranger drops something in public.

Beyond altruism, cultivating positive mindsets can also help in the bleakest of times. I do not speak of the kind of blind positive thinking that results in people denying the realities of their situation. The kind of positive mindset that I see adding towards our own happiness is the kind that might see a bad grade on an important examination as the temporary setback it actually is, and a chance to try again by learning from our mistakes; it is a positivity that comes from always seeing hope in the darkness. While we may be on the receiving end of unfair treatment, and we should feel the full brunt of the injustice that this unfairly structured world forces upon us, we must also see that every injustice in the world is a chance for us to work towards justice. In becoming workers for justice, we may find, too, that happiness becomes a treasured byproduct of our work. This may be a humbler kind of happiness in the face of feeling unfairly treated, but it is happiness, nevertheless.

Happiness is attainable even when we feel unfairly treated, but I still wish that people everywhere would be more indignant about the kinds of unfair treatment that so many of us are subject to. Could we not work together to build a better world? Call me idealistic, but I really do think that the answer to that question is a resounding ‘yes’.

(648 words)

Further reading:

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:

‘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!

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!

760 words

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.

591 words

Write about a time when you felt anxious. What did you do to cope with the feeling?

At the end of my Secondary 2 year, I did badly enough for the end-of-year examinations that I was almost not promoted to the next year. When my teachers were going through the examination papers, I had to beg and plead for a few marks for my Mathematics and Science papers so that I could ensure my promotion. Thankfully, I succeeded in that effort, barely getting through the promotion criteria. After this experience, I promised myself that I would not put myself through that anxiety ever again; paradoxically, that made my Secondary 3 year one of the most anxious years I had ever experienced. I coped, but just barely, both in healthy and unhealthy ways, and has been to this day a very important learning experience for me.

Entering the Secondary 3 year, in order to avoid the stress and anxiety of the previous year, I started studying even before classes had properly started. While my friends would play football or go out together after school, I would head straight home or to the library to study. After a few class tests, the results started showing — I started to get straight-A’s, something I had never achieved before. My friends were happy for me, but they started expressing concern for me. What had happened to the playful and social teenager they used to know?

Unbeknownst to them, I had carried the anxiety of my Secondary 2 year straight through to the Secondary 3 year; the anxiety of needing to fight so hard for my promotion was so hard to shake off, I had actually studied straight through my November and December holidays. Not only had I continued studying, I also had developed a very unhealthy caffeine habit, mainly via the consumption of up to six cups of coffee a day. Because of this bad habit, my anxiety did not abate during the holidays. I believed that by studying hard through my holidays, I would do well in my Secondary 3 year, therefore doing away with my anxiety. This proved to be true, in some way; since I was doing well in school, I was no longer anxious about my results. However, I was still anxious — I was anxious about anxiety itself! (How silly I was.)

After the mid-year examinations, I started to cope in more healthy ways with this anxiety. Instead of spending as much as possible of my free time studying, I made sure that I spent enough time with my friends and my hobbies while ensuring that my grades did not suffer that much (an occasional B was really no cause for worry). I also made sure to get fitter, while drinking less coffee, because these changes would help me feel less anxious while also giving me more energy. Life finally got better for me, because I realised that I would rather get a few B’s than feel anxious all the time. I had fun with my guitar, my band, my friends — and my studies were doing decently, even though my grades were no longer all perfect.

This kind of balance in life is the key for me, to avoid the extremes of perpetual anxiety and the ennui that precedes failure. If I only I could teach my younger self this!

(540 words)

‘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)