Describe the things that you do to relax after you have been very busy. Explain why you find them enjoyable.

Describe the things that you do to relax after you have been very busy. Explain why you find them enjoyable. (2020 O-level English Paper 1, Q3)

If you found yourself running away from a lion, you would not be able to think very deeply about whether the dagger that Macbeth saw was only in his imagination, or if a bystander would have been able to see it too; you would be running away from a lion. When we worry about something, our brains and bodies react with a stress response that resembles what happens when we have to run from danger. That is why my teachers have taught me to pay attention to my body when I unwind after a long day of busyness. Through this process, I have found myself more deeply enjoying my time listening to music, reading, or just sitting still.

It is no secret that I am not very good with the Chinese language, but I have found that I can relax and get better at the subject at the same time by listening to Chinese music. In the past, I would torture myself into memorising characters and meanings of words, reading my textbook and painstakingly checking the dictionary so that I could match the foreign words with what I already knew in English. I did not enjoy it. Now, after a day spent working on whatever else I have to work on, I sometimes unwind just by sitting and listening to Chinese music. As the plucked notes of acoustic guitars and lightly tinkling pianos comfort my heart, I unavoidably end up enjoying the beautifully sung words that I would otherwise shudder to meet in an assessment book. ‘There are a million possibilities and uncertainties’, the singer tells me musically, and the words sink into a part of my brain that feels layers and layers deeper than when I engage only with the words on a page. When I become curious about the deeper meanings of a song’s lyrics, I engage with it with a level of stress that paradoxically feels relaxing; it is an expanding feeling I feel at the back of my head, and it is difficult to convey exactly how deeply relaxing this form of learning feels.

Reading novels also relaxes me, and as someone who enjoys fictional violence, I effortlessly devour books that deal with different kinds of violence. I read one recently that had the protagonist smash someone’s skull in a shockingly graphic manner, and while my parents may balk at the idea of such a story, this is one of the main ways I have gotten better at the language. I have to admit, this habit of mine is relaxing and agitating almost in equal measure, especially since I have been known to stay up till the early hours of the morning to finish a book. In those instances, even though I may wake up tired, the sheer joy of reading an exciting book fuels me in an unexplainable way the next day. It remains mysterious to me why something can be tiring and relaxing at the same time, but I guess it reflects the limitation of the words we use to reflect human experience.

What makes the most sense is the way I enjoy the relaxation that comes from sitting still, which took a surprising amount of effort to learn how to do in the first place. Young people these days have trouble sitting still because of how our attention is perpetually cut into pieces by social media and gaming apps, and while most people have trouble learning how to sit still, I have one advantage: I love classical music. Before covid-19 hit, my parents would bring me to classical music concerts at the Esplanade, where it would be thoroughly embarrassing to reveal that one could not sit still when hundreds of people are sitting as quietly as they can. In the last moments of Gustav Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, the final notes of the violins fade out so slowly, tenderly, and quietly that one is never sure of the exact moment when the piece ends. Could you sit still with that without getting agitated, in silence? Achieving that is enjoyably energising and relaxing all at once, and I recommend it to anyone who is curious about how this feels.

Over the years, I have come to the realisation that hanging loose after a long day involves careful choices. When I hear about other teenagers who have become addicted to video games and social media, I think of how sad it must be for something that was once relaxing to become a source of stress itself. Thankfully, there are other much more enjoyable ways to relax!

760 words

‘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)

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)