Parents often believe that it is better to be safe than sorry. Do you consider young people to be too protected? (2013 O-level English Paper 1, Syllabus 1128)

Sometimes it feels like hard work being a child. Students have many complaints these days: too much homework, too many restrictions, too much anxiety, and so on. It is perfectly possible that we complain so much because we have been too protected by our parents and society, but I think the picture is a bit more complicated than that: young people are, on balance, not excessively protected though it may seem so, because we are not sufficiently protected from the dangers that the younger generations will face together from the various global crises that we learn about in school.

Parents try to protect their children because many of them cannot bear to see their little ones get hurt, and I admit that it can really appear excessive at times. This protection occurs on the individual level: many of us have private tuition, for example, because the penalties for not doing well in school are still fairly heavy. It really is quite unpleasant to do poorly in school and be treated as a lower form of human being, as a result, but that is what our society has come to: people tend not to respect the humble plumber or waiter as much as they do the businessman with the bungalow or the lawyer who makes it into government. It is not just a penalty we pay in our future income, it is also a social penalty that we pay if we fail to do well at school, and parents who try to protect us from that can sometimes can go too far, though they have very sound reasons for trying to provide us with the best of what they can offer.

Even so, I consider the children of very anxious parents still insufficiently protected, unfortunately, because all of us face the dangers that will come from the ecological crisis that still is not being sufficiently dealt with. These dangers do not simply come from a warming climate, though that is part of it. We will need to worry about the social and political fallout, including whether countries will start to bomb each other in order to gain access to precious resources like food, water, and land if the climate crisis starts to impact areas like food production. Already during this covid-19 pandemic that has gone on for way too long, we see evidence of adults not being able to deal with a crisis sufficiently: the Omicron variant has emerged in part because rich countries have hoarded vaccines. How are young people to expect to be protected from present and future dangers when the older generations seem to be unable to protect themselves? It appears more likely that young people will have to take over the reins of power in order for all of us to be sufficiently protected.

It is for these dangers that are sometimes too wide-ranging to even imagine properly that I consider young people insufficiently protected these days. This is not to say that we have no hope, as a human species–I have hope in today’s young people, that as connected and passionate as we are, we will be able to lead humanity through whatever nightmares come.

530 words


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To what extent is human life in general about the survival of the fittest? (A-level GP 2020 Paper 1, Q2)

Photo by Markus Spiske on Pexels.com

To what extent is human life in general about the survival of the fittest?

When we ask what human life is about we are asking two things, in the main: firstly, what the structure of the world is as it stands especially in terms of the realities we have to deal with; secondly, what the first question says about how we construct our meanings in life. In the 21st century, we have realised that climate change and resource drawdowns could see widespread death from a cascade of ecological catastrophes, and that would mean that human life becomes a game of survival. However, I feel that human life in general remains about loving, being loved and building communities sustained by love because this remains a good response to both questions. Therefore, human life in general is about the survival of the fittest — about the survival of our genes — only to the extent that it describes an evolutionary reality; everything else is about love.

There are those who are called ‘eco-fascists’ or ‘social Darwinists’ these days, who see the potential ecological catastrophes in our future as structuring human life into a competition for survival, and who then respond to that competition by building a meaning-world that is centered around the self and the community around the self in a limited way. To put it simply, they would prefer to ensure the death of all those they do not care about — particularly those they consider inferior, like the poor, the uneducated, and those not of their own race — so as to ensure the survival of those they think are fitter for that challenge, usually their own kin and kind. Their argument sometimes starts from the racially charged position that there are people in the world who are richer and more successful in this world, and that these are the people who should be prioritised in terms of their survival and the perpetuation of their genes, because they have already proven their fitness in the competitive world we have now. Additionally, they see the mass of poorer consumers as the cause of our ecological challenges, through the problems of overpopulation and overconsumption. This is a position that is based on myths that must be fought. Beyond being an inaccurate view of the world, seeing human life in this way requires that people dehumanise a whole swathe of humanity. This is a view of life that, to me, barely rises above the bacterium’s perspective.

Human life in general should be seen through the lenses of love, because it is that which makes us human in the first place. If we still see life as a survival of the fittest, it is perhaps because without a global level of love for each other, the human species faces a risk of extinction, failing the test of evolution in a strict Darwinian sense. Academics have told us that human beings are unlikely to go extinct because of a combination of how numerous and scattered over the globe we are, though it remains a possibility. Perhaps humanity might cause its own extinction by a perfect storm of climate change, resource depletion, and a hot war involving nuclear and biochemical weapons, but this would require such a failure of humanity’s love for itself that it would force us to judge that version of humanity as somewhat inhuman. As it stands, a majority of people want action to be taken on climate change, and though individual consumers have almost no power over the larger issue many of us still choose to live low-carbon and low-consumption lives as an expression of our care for the people we live with on this planet.

Human life is not just about staying alive, but about the fact of our being human, and this is captured most powerfully in the symbols and images that are held most closely to human hearts. We value the image of parents lovingly holding an infant; we value the image of the self-sacrificial hero or heroine; we value the image of young and passionate lovers ageing together into the peace and comfort of old age. These images celebrate roles that involve the most human of experiences, love, for even the hero(ine) who charges into battle does so for a community that s/he loves. When we consider the heroism of the young people who are pushing those in power to take significant action on climate change, for example, we can read their actions as an expression of love for their communities and humanity at large, especially for those activists who are not as ‘clickworthy’ as Greta Thunberg who could face consequences even to the point of their deaths, just like the environmental activists — over 200 of them, according to the BBC — who were killed in 2020 alone. This is the kind of love superyacht owners, some of whom are reputed to have secondary superyachts for prostitutes, probably need. How large must their craving for love be? When we ask what human life in general is about, we are not just asking about the shape that human life takes in this world, we are also asking about the meanings we see in life, and the meanings that we manage to create for ourselves that are the most fulfilling and satisfying. Looking at young climate activists and the love that we all strive for in our own families and relationships, it is almost unavoidable to come to the following conclusion: that human life in general is about loving and being loved, and not about our fitness in surviving and passing on our genes, beyond that being the mechanism of the evolution of species.

Jack Kornfield once said that the deep happiness of well-being comes from caring for yourself and loving the world. It is this kind of philosophy that underpins my argument that human life in general is about love, and only about the survival of the fittest in the strictest evolutionary sense. We can only hope that more of humanity comes to acknowledge this consciously, instead of repressing this truth into self-destruction on a civilisational scale.

1001 words

Further reading:


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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


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

‘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)


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

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

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)