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

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

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

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

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

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

Read for fun. It’ll help.

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

Describe a childhood toy, or a game you played, which still means a great deal to you. Why is it so important? (English O-Level 2016, Syllabus 1128)

When I was nine, I spent a good number of months begging my parents for a chess computer. In those days of the floppy disk — when they were still truly floppy — that meant my parents had to spend a few hundred dollars on a child’s toy that was not guaranteed to last for more than a couple of years, especially when that child was somewhat destructive around fragile things. I was good at chess, though — I was already on the school team, and three years later I would go on to place fourth in my age group at a national tournament. My small but meaningful level of success really was thanks in part to the clunky chess computer my parents bought for me after enduring my begging and whining (their acquiescence was probably also due to the fact that they could no longer defeat their child at the game). It is probably obvious why the game of chess, while torturously boring to most people, remains important to me. The memories of learning, practicing, and winning certainly are dear in my mind, but the game still retains a romance that has seen me continue playing it to this day.

My first significant memories of chess centre around my mother, who taught me the basic moves, and then to love and hate the game. Our first matches were even, since we both were groping in the dark when it came to strategy. Slowly, however, I began to defeat her regularly. This was probably due to my more regular exposure to the game (while she did the housework, I could play chess against myself). I began to become accustomed to winning our matches, and thus became complacent and embarrassingly smug, when my beloved mother sprang the delightfully infuriating trap called the Scholar’s Mate on me, defeating me in a mere four moves. I was surprised, shocked, amazed, nay, utterly astounded! Apparently she had gone to her brother, an engineer who plays chess at a very high level, to ask for help in winning a final chess match with her son before she called it quits. He probably also told her that she needed to practice more to play at a higher level, something that a busy housewife who also took care of aged parents could not afford. That day’s defeat saw my mother taking me to the library for chess books which could further my chess education without making her pull her hair out in frustration, marking the beginning of a more serious approach to chess preceding the success I was to see on the national stage.

Now that I have done some growing up, chess no longer holds the same position it once did in my life. My preteen self could probably easily defeat me now, but I still have continued to play casually. Sitting down at a chessboard across from another human being, I feel the world slowing down, and there is a soothing intensity that accompanies a well-played game, even if I end up losing. I am unsure if those feelings are nourished by my childhood experience, or by the nature of the game itself. Playing chess above a certain level forces a player’s attention to become laser-sharp; anything less intense would mean an embarrassing defeat, somewhat along the lines of a tennis player losing because he forgot to wear the proper shoes. Of course, chess still reminds me of the sweeter moments of my childhood. Consequently, while chess takes up much less of my time now, the game itself is still dear to me. Numerous studies have also found that playing chess brings improvements in attention, concentration, and interest in learning (source).

Anyone up for a game?

(618 words)

‘The best things in life are free.’ Write about some of the occasions when you have found this to be true. (English O-level 2014, Syllabus 1128)

‘The best things in life are free.’ Write about some of the occasions when you have found this to be true.

Let us start with the proposition that it is often not easy to do the right thing. Yet, almost by definition, it is a good thing to do the right thing. It often costs us no money to do what is morally and ethically right, but these difficult things that litter the paths of our lives often prove to be the very best things in life.

I once found a fifty dollar note fluttering about in a car park, back in primary school when my daily allowance amounted to a grand thirty cents. This find obviously was an unbelievable fortune to my young eyes, a fortune I was loath to part with. My father turned to me and asked, “What shall we do with that now?” In school, we are trained not to take something that is not ours, and so, painful as it was, I replied, “I think we should give it to the police in case someone lost his money and wants to find it again.”

This decision may not have cost me any money in a technical sense, but in the moment it certainly felt like it did. Nevertheless, my father and I headed to the police station, where I am certain the adults traded many “I’m trying very hard not to laugh” smiles while trying to act with the necessary gravitas (dignity) to properly reward the child with good intentions. The police listened to my story, and — shockingly, to my present sensibilities — told us that they would keep the money for three days, just in case someone came forward to claim the money. They told us that if the money went unclaimed, I could rightfully claim it as mine, because of my honesty.

Psychologists (see Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind) have found that getting the approval of socially significant others — such as parents and the police — has a very significant effect on self-esteem. Our brains process this as a kind of pleasure, and indeed, on this occasion I enjoyed the collective approbation (approval/praise) of adults I both feared and respected. This experience proved to me that the best things in life are free. Incidentally, we managed to retrieve the money after the three days passed; the difficult and rewarding thing that I did indeed proved to be free.

On another occasion, I decided to help a stranger, a decision that cost me nothing and brightened the day of a complete stranger. I had been having an extremely stressful day studying in the library, when I decided to head to a snack vending machine to give myself some kind of snack boost. I was thoroughly preoccupied with panicky thoughts about the upcoming examinations while waiting for my turn. The girl in front of me stood aside with a strangely distressed look on her face while rummaging about for more coins. It was then that I noticed her choice of snack hanging off the edge of the vending machine’s shelf without being dispensed — a vending machine failure! She quickly realised that she had no coins left, and was about to leave without the snack she paid for when I told her to wait. There was an easy solution to the problem at hand. All I had to do was to buy the same snack that was hanging off the shelf — sugared peanuts — instead of the more expensive cookies I originally wanted. So, in a way, this decision not only cost me no money, it helped me save money. Her resulting smile was the ray of light I sorely needed that dark and anxious day, and I had no need for a psychologist to tell me that my brain processed this experience as pleasurable.

In our age of mass over-consumption, many of us need the reminder that the very best things in life — whether they are decisions, experiences, or objects — are often free, costing us no money. It may not always be easy, but it is a good thing, as comedian Russell Peters has famously said, to do the right thing.

(667 words)

Learning how to play the guitar (Describe an unforgettable event or experience in your life. Why does it mean so much to you?)

Mr Seah performing.. on stage! :D

Mr Seah performing.. on stage! 😀

(The essay below is written as if I were 16 years old. You don’t have to be an old geezer to have memorable experiences!)

Things to notice:

  • The use of sensory details (i.e. things that engage the five senses)
  • The attempt to entertain and edify the reader
  • The evidence of planning (a clear introduction, paragraphs that flow together smoothly, a clear conclusion)

Describe an unforgettable event or experience in your life. Why does it mean so much to you?

I have had only a few unforgettable experiences in the sixteen years of my life thus far, but one of the most positive unforgettable experiences I can think of is my experience of learning how to play the guitar. It is also one of the most meaningful experiences of my life, because of how much I have learnt from it. Approaching the guitar as the beginner was also a considerably painful experience — but that pain made the experience so much sweeter.

Two years ago, after finishing my Secondary Two examinations, I decided to learn how to play the guitar. At that time, my family only had an old nylon string guitar that was extremely difficult to tune. It smelt funny, like dust and wood, and always left my hand aching when I tried to get my fingers round its large neck. I learnt two basic chords on it, but I was very quickly yearning for a new steel string acoustic guitar that one of my closest friends had. His guitar was so much louder than mine, and it sounded so much nicer. Its bright, percussive tone was exactly what I was looking for.

My parents are the sort who avoid giving their children too much money, so I did not have the option of saving up for the guitar. If I had tried, it probably would have taken me till now to save up for it! Consequently, I did what any child would do — I whined and begged for a new guitar. As I tried every trick in my begging book, I happened to confidently make my father a promise that I truly believed I could keep.

“Daddy,” I proclaimed, “I’m going to have so much time during the holidays. I’ll be able to practice all day, every day! If you buy me a guitar, I’m going to be just like the guitarists you see on stage. Maybe I won’t be as good as them, but I’ll definitely be able to go up on stage and play!”

With a prolonged sigh that must have lasted a week, my father eventually gave in, but not before he got a word in himself. “You’re going to be excited about it for a week or two, and then you’re going to give it up for something else, a computer game or something. And you’re definitely not going to be able to perform with only two months of practice.” With the brash confidence of a fourteen year old, I laughed that comment off. Thusly, I received my first ever guitar — a beautiful steel string acoustic.

I dived into my “all day, every day” practice regimen the moment I got home with the guitar. It was easy at first — the new guitar not only looked showroom-shiny, it sounded showroom-shiny. It was just so much fun. The problem with transitioning from a nylon string guitar to a steel string guitar is, as any guitarist can tell you, a painful one. There is a reason we wear clothes with nylon, and not steel, in them. Within the first week, my fingertips were aching like they had never ached before.

The novice guitarist’s fingers go through a journey that is like a hero’s quest. First, the hero is filled with confidence that he will emerge victorious. The hero plunges on ahead, but after awhile, pain arrives. The skin of my fingertips grew red and sore. The hero balks at the immensity of the task ahead. Strangely, I was able to play till my fingers grew numb, which meant that I could really practice all day without too much pain bothering me. It was only when I stopped that the blood would rush back to my fingers; now my fingertips were always throbbing, even as they were simultaneously growing tougher like the balls of our feet grow tougher when we walk barefoot. The hero drags himself onward, thinking only of the terminus of his journey.

I was a month into my journey when I realized that it was going to be almost impossible to keep my promise to my father, of being good enough to perform on stage at the end of the holidays. My fingers were still hurting, and I could ‘only’ practice four to five hours every day, instead of the nine to twelve hours that I was hoping for. Thankfully, it was also around this time that my fingertips hardened to the point where it was muscular fatigue that kept a limit on my practice hours. I kept practicing like a madman, because I was mortified that my father’s prediction could be right — that I would not be ready to step on stage by the end of the holidays. By the time the holidays came to a close, I was a fairly decent guitarist, but nowhere near ready to be on stage.

The experience of learning how to play the guitar has proven to be immensely meaningful and unforgettable. I still remember how my fingers hurt — the million pinpricks of pain whenever I picked something up with my left hand. I even remember how my fingers smelt, like a baffling mixture of steel, cake, and dead skin. However, the most unforgettable and meaningful aspect of the experience arose from the fact of my apparent failure. I was unable to keep part of my promise, but as a result, gained so much more out of it. I had developed an immense reservoir of discipline that has served me well to this day.

With the discipline and ability I have developed since that experience two years ago, I firmly believe that music will continue to play a large part in my life, even as I approach adulthood. Even if I do not become a working musician, the discipline and moral lessons that I have learnt from this experience will always stay with me.

(978 words)

Note to sixteen year old self: by the time you turn 31, you would have made thousands of dollars of music. Keep on keeping on! 😉

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.

Should students wear school uniforms?

That we live in a time of tremendous inequality is now almost a truism. As an example, Oxfam claims that the annual income of the hundred richest people in the world could end world poverty four times over. In schools, inequality is also commonplace, whether it takes the form of grades, money, or possessions. Given the assumption that the most important aspect of school is the activity of learning, inequality in the form of how teachers treat their students is then a crucial ill to tackle. This is where school uniforms prove to be important. It is my opinion that school uniforms should be worn as a symbolic reminder to teachers (and students) that discrimination due to perceived inequality should never be acceptable.

It may be an ugly fact, but it is a fact that teachers are human beings, and are therefore naturally biased creatures, even when they try to be completely fair. We witness this when teachers decide that certain students are ‘bad’ or ‘badly-behaved’ individuals. I have witnessed students who, rightly or wrongly, are labelled as troublemakers, and are henceforth found guilty for any wrongdoing that they could conceivably be blamed for, whether or not they actually are in the wrong. This produces a vicious cycle where these students decide to be troublemakers anyway, since they will be treated as troublemakers whether they are innocent of any wrongdoing or not. A student who expands energy on this unfortunate social phenomenon will always have less energy to commit to the task of learning.

The school uniform, in the above-mentioned phenomenon of the “troublemaker-bias”, can be used by students to convey the sense that they are not troublemakers, and do not deserved to be labelled as such. Human beings are often superficial creatures, given to rapid judgements based on outer appearances. Students can take care to obey school rules with regards to the uniform, and thus convey on the outside what may be on the inside — the desire to obey the rules and hence be treated the same as everyone else. Consider how different the situation would be if students did not wear school uniforms. Street clothes would have the effect of reminding teachers of the differences between students, instead of the similarities, and would have the potential of further reinforcing whatever biases are within the teachers.

In contrast to street clothes, school uniforms serve as a reminder of the similarities that students share. While students may not be completely uniform, they all deserve the same amount of compassion, attention, and care from teachers. The Telegraph recently reported that teachers give their favourite students higher grades, which is a very clear example of unjust treatment. Teachers may unconsciously decide that students with richer or more successful parents will also be more successful than their peers, especially if students show off their parents’ success via expensive clothing. With the school uniform, there is less opportunity for the ostentatious display of wealth. The school uniform is also a lesson for students that as human beings, we share more similarities than differences.

While it is only one weapon in the fight against discrimination, the school uniform is too valuable to do away with. The value of the individual, as opposed to the group, is also an important lesson to learn, but I believe that this lesson is continuously taught anyway, in this era of social media and irreverent social commentary. The school uniform is sometimes seen as a tool of subjugation, but all it takes for it to be an empowering tool is a shift in mental attitude, to view it as a symbolic commitment to justice and learning, instead of some kind of metaphorical prisoner’s garb. People who argue for the abolition of the school uniform have to deal with the problems that I have outlined above, with all the opportunity for differences in wealth and sartorial ability to be displayed. As I have explained, inequalities can affect the activity of learning, and the school uniform has the power to mitigate these problems.

Looking at the bigger picture of the development of the human being, the school uniform is perhaps pale in comparison to issues like justice and equality. However, with the right mental attitude towards the school uniform, we can use it as a tool of progress instead of viewing it as a straitjacket. All I ask is this: that designers update uniforms for schools regularly, and to give boys the option to wear long pants if they so choose.

(749 words)

Fear (a young writer’s journey)

My teachers used to instil a sense of fear into me, when I was learning how to craft essays. I was never to use contractions, I never could write about violence, and trying to write in a fantasy realm was a definite no-go. There were so many rules to writing, so many rules I was so afraid to break. As a result, writing short pieces in school was a pain, for it was so boring — especially when the prompt was “About Myself”. Not that I am a boring person, of course.

If a teacher asked me to write about myself, I thought, should I not be allowed to break any and all of the rules that came with writing in school? But there was always that sense of being afraid of the teacher, for one, and having a real fear that if I broke the rules, I would come away without the skills I needed to ace my examinations.

This sense of fear became so ingrained into my mental processes that I almost thought not to question it. I have always been a voracious reader, and I noticed so many of my favourite authors using “don’t”, and “shouldn’t”, and “wouldn’t”, and worst of all, “ain’t”. Still, when I was in school, I would always dismiss those things as “bad” writing, rules that these authors could break because they were paid professionals.

This changed when I was in secondary 4. I remember reading a novel that featured such intense violence and action that I had a vivid dream about it. It was a novel that took place in a skyscraper, that had the protagonist running up the stairs of this building. I dreamt it, all hundred-and-some storeys of it. I remember waking up not only tired, but exhausted, and in some strange way, exhilarated. If an author — who celebrated violence in his writing — could make me feel this good, and bad, with a single piece of writing, I was going to try to be like him.

The next essay I did in class, I threw caution to the wind and wrote about a massacre. There were hangings, there was shooting, there was a car chase, and even a scene where my narrator jumped from a helicopter onto a moving truck. (Thank you, Hollywood.) It felt like a release, breaking that violence rule. Of course, now that I had broken the rule, I did not expect to get a terribly high grade.

When I got the essay back, I was gratified to see that I had gotten a very high mark. My teacher had written something to the effect of “I’d say try to avoid violence, but you do it very well, so I don’t know”, and I was absolutely delighted with that. Not only had I broken the rules, I had gotten approval for it.

That was the point when I realised that rules about writing were meant to be broken, sometimes, by some people. I had overcome my fear of breaking the rules, and my grades improved for it. No longer did I have to think about creating some boring story about going to the market to buy vegetables with my mother, I could write about disembodied voices (reason: schizophrenia), violence (reason: political unrest), fistfights (reason: violent criminals), and so on.

Overcoming that fear caused me to make some mistakes, of course, but learning how to break the rules wisely was probably the start of my journey as a writer. If I had never overcome my fear of breaking the rules, I would probably have abandoned writing and indulged in some other activity instead, for I would have never started to thoroughly enjoy writing.