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)

Advertisements

‘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)

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)

Addendum
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! 😉