Doing away with a Singaporean accent (Improving your pronunciation and enunciation for oral examinations)

Short answer:
Use the Oxford Dictionaries‘ pronunciation guide. Select “English (UK)” if you want to sound more British, and “English (US)” for the American version. Keep your Singaporean accent, but develop a new one if you need to.

Long answer:
I’m an English Literature graduate, and I entered NUS with a very, very heavy Singaporean accent. I can speak Singlish like any other normal Singaporean, but after some years of suffering and recording my own voice, my students are surprised when I make the switch from my teaching voice to my “for taxi driver uncle” (Singaporean/Singlish) voice.

<If you wanna hear what I sound like these days, check out my music, but just read on if you wanna, no loss — Take Your Time (Bedroom Demo). Warning: no autotune.>

I still remember the day I decided I really had to work on my pronunciation. I was making some clever-clever point about something or other being an anachronism, clever-clever except for the fact that I was saying “AN-na-KRO-niz-m” instead of “a-NAK-ruh-niz-m”.

My hitherto strait-laced lecturer almost giggled as he corrected me.

So began the painful process to correct my pronunciation, bit by bit. I still have some Singaporean-isms in my speech — some of my “L’s” and vowels aren’t properly enunciated, for example. But by and large, most of the problems are gone.

The quickest way I’ve found that works is to record yourself speaking — or in my case, singing. My 2011 recordings really exposed how much work I had left to do, and how difficult that work is. Singaporeans/Asians, try saying the word “golden” now. Do you notice how much it sounds like “gowden”? Or this fantastic one — “children”. (Chewren, hee hee..) Try your best to properly pronounce the “L” sound. It’s not easy, I know.

To this day, I use online dictionary apps to make sure that I’m pronouncing my words properly. It’s an ongoing process.

It’s also important to pay attention to word stress, which is the emphasis that we place on certain syllables within a word. The pronunciation guide is a good way to understand this in a visual manner. The entry for the word “decide” shows us this guide: [dih-sahyd]. If you stretch the second syllable [dih-saaaaahyd], notice that it doesn’t sound as awkward as stretching the first syllable [diiiiih-sahyd]. 

One benefit I’ve found is that no English-speaking foreigner has ever found it hard to understand what I say, no matter how quickly I’m speaking. And it’s true — when you switch to Singlish, the ang mohs really tiah boh (the foreigners really don’t understand), especially if they haven’t spent any time in Singapore/Asia before.

There’s also the matter of sentence stress, which essentially is the choice of what words we choose to emphasize in a sentence. This has some impact on how our listeners perceive our meaning and intention when we say something.

For example:
Put your phone away. (Instead of putting it on the table, in your pocket, etc)
Put your phone away. (Instead of your pen, or toothbrush, etc)
Put your phone away. (Instead of my phone, or his phone, etc.)


Combining proper word stress, pronunciation, and sentence stress will help the average Singaporean become more intelligible to an English speaker who has no knowledge of Singlish or the Singaporean accent.

Funny story:
I actually tested my different accents in Copenhagen. When a friend and I conversed in our Singaporean accent, our Danish friend assumed that we were speaking in a foreign language that was only slightly related to the English language. And when we switched to Singlish (“Eh, you eat oredi anot?”), she thought it was Chinese.

I’m still terribly proud of my Singaporean accent, and of Singlish in general. If you live in Singapore, you NEED it. If you’re a Singaporean overseas, it will be THE thing that unites you with other Singaporeans living overseas. That and char kway teow.


Alamak! GE2016 coming! (A tongue in cheek guide to writing “wall of text” essays for the general reader)

tl;dr — use tl;dr paragraphs, deal with all the evidence, keep to a single idea per paragraph, don’t assume prior knowledge (assume that your reader is an idiot), end with a bang.

Bonus: this is also relevant to O- and A-level students. The principles of writing are the same, just avoid the acronym (tl;dr) and snark.

1. If you plan on posting a wall of text, always, always have a tl;dr.

Your tl;dr paragraph is necessary. People online don’t have infinite attention spans. In fact, our attention spans have been shrinking.

Your tl;dr paragraph should contain the brilliance of your entire essay. There have been complaints that the tl;dr phenomenon has been dumbing down online discourse (online discussion), but the tl;dr has actually had a long and storied history. You may recall from your GP lessons a thing called the “introductory paragraph“. This is your tl;dr paragraph.

The reader should be able to guess at the purpose of your wall of text from this paragraph. If he can’t, he may just lose interest and not read your essay.

2. Deal with all the relevant evidence

When you are trying to decide on which shiny bicycle to buy, you don’t go around only comparing prices. You look at what you get for your money —  Does it have good parts? Will I be comfortable on it? Will it make me look like a clown? — and so on.

Likewise, in your wall of text, avoid looking only at limited evidence. Look at ALL the relevant evidence. For example, if you want to buy a certain bicycle, you cannot only look at the benefits it might bring you, you also have to look at the benefits the next bicycle might bring you — and all their drawbacks.

Please do the same for political parties. As your teacher might have once said, please give me a balanced argument!

3. One idea, one paragraph

This is a rule that is frequently broken, but still serves as a good guideline.

The purpose of this rule is crucial to understand: readers are stupid cows (but not you, heheh!) who can’t keep a huge amount of information in their heads. Breaking your wall of text into smaller bricks of text will help your reader understand and retain information.

You see how I’ve broken down my tips into numbered sections? Ah.

4. Assume a stupid reader (really, not you)

(This tip comes from my JC Economics teacher!)

While you may be an expert in political philosophy, your reader almost certainly won’t be. If you use a set of words in a specific way, be sure to define it for your reader.

Think about how everyone knows the definitions of these words: kings; divine; of; right. But if I say “they rule as if they had the divine right of kings”, most people wouldn’t understand that I am talking about the old kings (the real ruling kind, not the “only good for TV” kind) who claimed that their authority came from God Himself.

5. End with a bang

If your wall of text deserves to be read, your last paragraph should be a knockout. Remember that human beings now have very short attention spans, and may need some prodding to actually process what you are saying.

Lazy readers also have a tendency to skip the middle to get to the end.

So, it’s true. Your GP teacher wasn’t wasting your time. Academic principles of writing are useful in ‘real’ life. Now go forth and write! (But go read my whole post again if you skipped the middle. Naughty!)

(A response to..) Don’t keep calm! And don’t carry on!

This post is a response to the article in the link — Dont keep calm! And dont carry on! – Opinion – Al Jazeera English.

Mr Seah cares about students, and if you care about students, you have to care about politics as well, because what happens in the political realm impacts students too. If, for example, the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) comes into power, then it will probably enact policies that they have described here (which, in my opinion, would be good for students but bad for the tuition industry).

So, it was with great admiration that I read the article “Don’t keep calm! And don’t carry on!“. It is such a well-written article, and anyone who even dreams of doing well for their General Paper (GP) should be able to understand and critique this article. It contains a cogent analysis of the ideology embedded within the “keep calm and carry on” meme, and is a call to action — except that the author (Michael Marder) does not spell out for us what that action should be.

I agree with the bulk of the article, and it seems worth the effort to write about the implications of my agreement for my own actions — in terms of my teaching and existence — in the Singaporean context.

The premise of the article — that we exist with a “highly destructive status quo” — is one that I accept. As another author has observed:

“The condominium of state and private actors in the financial-monetary sector is a proper object of civic curiosity. The power to describe must also be disentangled from the formal powers of office and the prerogatives of wealth.”

The inequality that I observe in this world is simply unacceptable, in a moral sense. It is inexplicable that the world’s billionaires continue to hold on to their wealth so tightly when one in three people in the world live in poverty. Marder observes that “the danger is real that the public is about to lose its collective cool”, and it really is no surprise when we have statistics like that to look at.

As a GP tutor, I expect my students to have enough general knowledge to score well in their essays, and this makes up part of the general knowledge that they should have. Once a student is aware of such statistics, there is no way s/he will be able to ignore it without some effort. In the same way that a person will find it difficult to be happy in a room of sobbing people, most people will find it unacceptable to hoard wealth when the problem of poverty is so widespread.

This is not to say that I don’t encourage my students to be successful — I always point to the efforts of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to show how a billionaire can make a massive difference in the world, more than what a humble tutor (me) can achieve. Success isn’t bad — it is unrestrained greed that destroys the world.

In addition to greed, there is also the problem of apathy, brought about by what Marder calls the “ideological constructions of normalcy”. A student of mine has pointed out that this includes the dystopic phenomenon of people being entertained to death with their smartphones, both of us having observed people on trains and buses nowadays being glued to their smartphones in what seems to be an orgy of mindless consumption.

As a teacher of young minds, I always try to encourage mindful consumption, rather than mindless consumption. This is incidentally good for a student’s grades as well — if a student spends hours reading thought-provoking material rather than spending hours playing games or watching inane videos, it will surely have a positive impact on his academic performance.

My teaching is my way of not keeping calm, of not carrying on as if the world was alright. I don’t claim to have a tremendous impact on the world, but I am doing what I can to try to change things. As I explain to my students, we can help by supporting tax reform (an idea that many political and business leaders support), and by volunteering to help whoever we can in our country.

Yes, I want my students to be successful and to do well. But I also want them to remember that keeping calm and carrying on isn’t the best thing to do all the time.

Essay writing tip: question everything

I first heard this tip from my GP teacher, way back in 2000 when phones could only make calls and send messages (no internet on phones!), and when one of the five co-founders of Facebook (Mark Zuckerberg) was only 17 years old. At the time, I didn’t know that this quote was attributed to Einstein (The Albert!), but that’s how far this quote has travelled to get to you. Depending on who you ask, the idea may even have originated in the discourses of the ancient philosophers (wow). WOW!

Here it is, the idea that has survived longer than any of us has been alive: question everything.

Question everything.

A fellow blogger puts it in naked terms:
…let me tell all my fellow citizens that deception comes from everywhere. Your parents probably have lied to you before. Your teachers have not told you everything. Newspapers conduct misleading, shabby polls and print biased news. Life isn’t like they show on TV. Magazines publish more articles about brands that pay more ad dollars. And yes, governments – they withhold information too, manipulate statistics, spin the news, censor, mislead, distract, fight dirty, dirty wars online.” (Read Daniel’s original blogpost here — DRUMS and Dumb Singaporeans)

When you are writing an essay, check your arguments. Question your arguments, try to find flaws in them, and plug the holes. When you first begin to do this, it may feel slightly strange, and you may even end up writing essays that start with a particular stand but end with the opposite viewpoint (please don’t do that!). This is where essay planning comes in — you question your arguments at the planning stage, not the writing stage.

Even when you graduate from school, the habit of questioning everything is going to be helpful. The blogpost I linked to above shows how useful the habit can be when we deal with the media and the discourse of politicians. I’ll say that it’s even useful for querying the very meaning of life. (WAH).

How to do it? Well, most people question life and ask what it has to offer them. So, I questioned my question. Instead of asking what life had to offer me, I asked: what do I have to offer life? Hmm.

You are not alone

If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.
— Sir Isaac Newton

Whether you identify yourself as a student, a teacher, a young parent, a child, or whatever it is, know this: you are not alone. There have been those who have come before you, who have blazed trails before you, who have left lessons for you — if only you have the eyes to see them.

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Why I love reading non-fiction (this one simple trick will add years to your life!)

(First off, apologies for the buzzfeed-y sub-title, but ever since I saw VisakanV make a joke out of it on his facebook, I’ve been doing it in my head as well. It’s entertaining, la!)

I recently was reading (listening to) a book that talked about the wisdom of grandparents. If you have people around you that are, say, 70 years old on average, and you have ten of these old people around you, what do you first think of? Do you think oh, all these old people are so troublesome, I have to take care of them and they’re so much hassle, there’s so much farting and oh no no no? Or do you stop to consider that around you is the accumulation of 700 years of life experience and wisdom? Hmm.

That, in a nutshell, encapsulates why I love non-fiction so much. Authors put in years of research and energy into putting these books together, and those of us who read quickly can ingest that information in a few days. In my buzzfeed-y headline I wrote that “this one simple trick will add years to your life”, and sometimes it really feels this way. It feels like I’m living years of other people’s lives from the books that they have written.

When I read Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala, the intensity of her prose and emotions made me feel as if I was living through the 2004 boxing day tsunami with her. When I read The Art of Happiness, it felt like I was accessing years of wisdom from the Dalai Lama, and years of research from psychologist Howard Cutler. When I read Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, I marvelled at how much effort went into turning scholarly research about the historicity of Jesus into a fast-moving, readable narrative mixed in with historical fact and conjecture. Since I know some of that scholarly research, I also understood why Christian scholars were complaining that Aslan presented scholarly debates as resolved to one side or the other, without touching on the complexities of some of the debates.

Living in this modern age, where we can download ebooks almost instantly, is a massive, massive privilege. But it is also a kind of disadvantage since so many things are calling out for our attention. The choice that faces me daily is this: will I let media outlets, websites, the rush of social media, or trite entertainment shape my brain? Or will I direct my attention to things that I judge to be more helpful to me in developing my mind, my maturity, and my overall sense of well-being?

The pleasure of reading non-fiction is a pleasure that can be hard to get into, but I promise you, it is worth the effort. And for all your kids who need to write argumentative essays, listen up. The pleasure of reading non-fiction is one that will help you get that A for your English, General Paper, English Literature, and any subject that requires critical thinking and an ability to write well. So get cracking. Read some non-fiction today! 😀


Are you looking for an English tutor? For one-on-one lessons or group lessons, please send an email to, or call/SMS/whatsapp 97700557 (Singapore only). I’m not always at my phone, so if I don’t pick up, please leave me an SMS to let me know you’re looking for a tutor.

For editing and proofreading services, email or call/SMS/whatsapp +65 97700557 for an obligation-free quotation. I’m not always at my phone, so if I don’t pick up, please leave me a message to let me know your requirements.

Essay scoring tip: deliver ‘truth’

People who grade essays are human beings, and human beings will always have their own biases. Here’s something that works (I know because I tested it out in JC, and I topped my school in GP!) that is almost never taught — if your essay delivers some kind of earth-shattering ‘truth’, the marker feels the urge to ignore your weaker points and just give you a higher grade.

Let us look at the SAT essay marking criteria, for example. (Yes, the SATs may be an American thing, but trust me, the essay marking schemes for the O- and A-levels are quite similar. These essay tests assess very similar abilities. A good writer is going to score well on any English essay test.) In the marking criteria, it states that for an essay to be given a 6 (the highest score), it “Effectively and insightfully develops a point of view on the issue and demonstrates outstanding critical thinking, using clearly appropriate examples, reasons and other evidence to support its position” (emphasis mine). Now, how many times have you heard your English teacher talk about the need for an essay to be insightful? (I hope the answer is “many!”)

I like the way defines insightpenetrating mental vision or discernment; faculty of seeing into inner character or underlying truth. When you gain an insight into something important, you get a feeling of WOW or as some might put it, ZOMGWTFLOLBBQ (sry). That should be the feeling your essay gives your marker. The word that occurs most frequently in my head when I think about insight is the word “truth” (more often than not my brain goes TRUTH in big bright letters). When I read an insightful piece of writing, I feel like I know more about the truth of the world. For example, reading about the neuroscience of meditation and the various sociological ways of seeing the world simply blew my mind (ZOMGWTFLOLBBQ).

How do you include genuine truths or insights in your essays? You have to have experienced that ZOMGWTFLOLBBQ feeling, that feeling or wonder that comes with learning something genuinely insightful about the world. Optimally, by the time you sit for your examinations, you would have experienced ZOMGWTFLOLBBQ numerous times. This will allow you to respond to many essay questions with something genuinely worth writing about. You should have the feeling of “wow, that was a brilliant essay with a brilliant message, I need to blog about it when I get home so that more people will know about what I’ve written” when you step out of the examination hall. You get this feeling either by parroting/modifying a truth you have read about, or by spontaneously coming up with a truth of your own.

(Side note: the English language should have a word for “wow, that was a brilliant essay with a brilliant message, I need to blog about it when I get home so that more people will know about what I’ve written”. I propose ZOMGWTFLOLBBQ. Probably won’t catch on, though..)

Where do we find readily available truths and insights? A really popular place to start is the lovely TED website. In fact, you will often find speakers “demonstrat[ing] outstanding critical thinking, using clearly appropriate examples, reasons and other evidence to support [their] position[s]” (that’s SAT marking criteria again). Another thing you could do is to look for non-fiction books about a subject you are interested in. I personally enjoy books about psychology or sociology, like this.

As a thoroughly rewarding and useful side effect, you get to learn more about the world while you prepare for your big essay examinations. So go get a dose of truth or insight. Good luck!


Are you looking for an English tutor? For one-on-one lessons or group lessons, please send an email to, or call/SMS/whatsapp 97700557 (Singapore only). I’m not always at my phone, so if I don’t pick up, please leave me an SMS to let me know you’re looking for a tutor.

For editing and proofreading services, email or call/SMS/whatsapp +65 97700557 for an obligation-free quotation. I’m not always at my phone, so if I don’t pick up, please leave me a message to let me know your requirements.