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! 😉

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.

 

 

What is your idea of a civilized society? Do you feel that Singapore has achieved that status?

A note on spelling:
I am aware that some people insist on spelling “civilized” as “civilised”, in the attempt to stick to a British style of spelling. However, I encourage everyone to check their Oxford Dictionaries for the word “color” (Br: “colour”) and compare that entry to the entry for “civilized”. Not all “z’s” turn into “s’s” when you use a British style.

When most people think of “uncivilized” societies, they often think of pre-modern tribes, tribes that are ignorant of the marvels of science and technology, that are made up of people still dressed in skimpy animal skins. In that sense, Singapore is undeniably civilized. Most Singaporeans have smartphones, and most people that I know of have stopped dressing in animal skins. However, I would like to think of a “civilized” society in the sense of it being refined and advanced. In that sense, perhaps Singapore is still a significant distance from being a civilized society.

A refined and advanced society, in my mind, cannot simply be one that enjoys the benefits of science and technology — it also has to be one that is compassionate and just. After all, a society made out of violent criminals could look very attractive and civilized on the surface, but underneath that facade, the violence and crime that would surely occur would force us to consider that society to be uncivilized. Looking around us in Singapore, we see some amount of compassionate behaviour. There are charities that attempt to help the unprivileged in society, that are well-supported by the general population. The government has also attempted to shape students into compassionate individuals by making community service compulsory. However, it seems to me that these efforts only pierce through a thin layer of injustice in our society. That we still have an army of old people collecting cardboard for a living is testament to a society that is not completely refined and civilized yet.

The injustices in Singapore are many. In addition to the above-mentioned army of old people, we have foreign workers being treated unfairly, and a worrying level of income inequality. A refined and civilized society would not accept these injustices, and would work towards making society a little bit more equal, and a lot more just. That some old people here have to collect old cardboard boxes for a living is perhaps only a symptom of the larger problem of income inequality here. I grant that there is already some level of civilization in Singapore, since nobody has to starve and die on the streets. However, in an Asian culture, many people value their pride (their “face”) as much as they do their lives — for some, their pride is probably even more important than their life! With that in mind, it is unacceptable how vast income inequality is in Singapore.

I use the word “unacceptable” in the sense that a truly refined society would find it unacceptable. There is a section of society whose children can afford not to work anymore, those who live in multi-million dollar mansions in secluded areas, and who sit on massive bank accounts. Then there is a section of society who cannot afford the privileges of having smartphones and nice clothes, even though they work their fingers to the bone — the lowest paid in our society, including the foreign workers and uneducated among us. Smartphones and nice clothes may be seen as unnecessary to some, but without these privileges, it is very difficult to participate in mainstream life — think about how difficult it would be to get a good job when you cannot send an email or a text message.

Therefore, even though on some level, Singapore is already civilized, it is not completely refined. As long as there are glaring levels of inequality and injustice in our society, we cannot say with conviction that Singapore is completely civilized. If we close our eyes to injustice, we cannot claim to be civilized.

(589 words)

“We can’t do without mobile phones today.” What are your views?

Mobile phones are everywhere these days. We see people of all ages — from toddlers in strollers to their grandparents — using mobile phones, particularly the ubiquitous smartphone. We use smartphones to indulge in leisure activities and to work. It certainly seems to me that most people in Singapore nowadays cannot, or dare not, imagine life without a smartphone. In that sense, the statement above is true.

Among those who can afford it, the smartphone has become a status symbol, and for those who are concerned about projecting an affluent image, the smartphone has become a necessary part of themselves. Like branded clothing, the smartphone can be used to signal to others that we are ‘civilised’ or at least fashionable. It is no longer enough for some to own a functioning smartphone. There are, in fact, functioning smartphones on the market now that have very much the same capabilities as branded, more prestigious smartphones. Branded smartphones can cost up to five times more than their cheaper, less prestigious counterparts, but you will never catch certain image-conscious consumers with non-branded smartphones. It is not about functionality for these people — it is about projecting an image that says that they are up to date with the latest fashions and equipment, and that they can afford such toys for themselves.

Another two groups of people rely on the functionality of smartphones. One group would not mind using cheaper equipment if it can help them send emails, access research material, and aid them with other work-related tasks. This group of people values the smartphone for the portability it affords them. In the past, workaholics had to stay in the office or in front of a computer to do their work. Now everyone can take our work anywhere we go – on public transport, to social events, to dinner, and even to the toilet. Another group closely mirrors the first, except that instead of being addicted to work, this group is addicted to entertainment. We can see this type of smartphone user watching videos, playing games, and so on. Just like the workaholic who is able to carry work with them anywhere they go, entertainment addicts can take their entertainment anywhere they desire.

The smartphone as status symbol, and as a vehicle for addiction – these are two uses of the mobile phone that have a negative sheen to them. However, it is my view that we cannot do without smartphones today simply because with them, we can engage more with life away from them. Instead of having to sit down with pen and paper, or in front of a computer, people can now write essays on their phones. It is a good practice, for example, for students to train themselves to write essays quickly by giving themselves only an hour to write essays that are given as homework. Students, especially those who take an hour to get home from school, can simply spend an hour typing an essay out on the way home, and then print the essay for submission. Office workers, instead of having to rush to the office to send that last-minute email, can simply send it from wherever they are, saving the time they would have spent traveling.

Of course we can do without mobile phones in the sense that we can do without clothes or baths, but there is a danger that civilisation as we know it might just fall apart. In that sense, we cannot do without mobile phones and smartphones today. Our heroes these days are users of technology; our heroes are more like Iron Man (a great user of technology) than Hercules. Iron Man probably would not want to go without his smartphone, but let us also not forget that he used technology well — to save the world.

631 words

 

 

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‘Time flies…’. Do you always spend your time wisely?

“Time really flies,” my friend remarked, chewing on his food.

“Yes, and fruit flies,” I said, grinning like a monkey with a freshly peeled banana.
My friend looked at me, blinked a couple of times, gave a mock sigh, and shook his head. It was a joke so bad, it was good.

I will fully admit it — I like to play. Like most people, I would prefer play to hard work, especially boring or painful hard work. This is antithetical to the usual idea of spending time wisely. For most, when we think about time wisely spent, we often think of a student or office drone quietly poring over some difficult thing, his entire body tense with concentration. I will admit that sometimes I work hard, to the point of pain, but most of the time I prefer to play, even when it comes to work. Moreover, I will contend in this essay that play helps me to spend my time wisely. Perhaps, then, it is not such a stretch to say that I always spend my time wisely.

    I play the guitar, and have been pretty good at it for a number of years now. I will admit that the first few months of playing the guitar were pretty painful — sore fingers and terrible noises were par for the course — but it was fun. That element of fun means that I have continued playing the guitar for many years, when most people who try to learn the instrument give up after awhile.

    I also like to think that I am pretty handy with the English language (you may feel free to disagree). My facility with the English language has mostly come about as a result of enjoying reading. I would read anything I could get my hands on, when I was younger. Comics, magazines, novels, newspapers — I would read them all. When I picked up a text that I found boring, I just put it down. There was, after all, so much to read. I instinctively looked for something fun to do, and reading served that purpose well.
This element of fun that I associate with the English language is in direct contrast to my former disdain of the Chinese language. Whenever I tried reading something in Chinese, my brain would scream at me, “difficult, boring!” I honestly tried working hard on my Chinese, in school, but I still just barely passed. I blame my failure to learn Chinese effectively on my failure to look for material that was fun to read. Without that element of fun, my brain simply shut down and refused to take in any information.

    Do I always spend my time wisely? The word “always” in that question may force me to answer in the negative. There must have been times in my life when I have wasted time. However, prioritising the principle of play has helped me to enjoy my work. Counterintuitively, playing more has helped me to work more. Hence, since my life has always been a mix of play and work, perhaps it is not so unreasonable to claim that, by and large, I always spend my time wisely.

531 words