There is no place like home. How true is this for you? (2020 O-level English Paper 1, Q6)

When Dorothy, in the classic movie The Wizard of Oz says to herself “there’s no place like home”, I find myself identifying with her desires. Even if I get the chance to live in some kind of fabled green emerald city where everyone loves me because I saved the day, like Dorothy, I still would want to go home. There is, indeed, no place like home for me, because it is the place where I feel the safest and most loved.

One of the fondest and earliest memories I have of home is when my sister and I made salty hot chocolate for my parents during family movie night. Even as young children, we knew, of course, that hot chocolate was supposed to be sweet, not salty. It was family movie night, however, and we had made hot drinks for our parents before, to their delight — but we had also just watched a television show that featured salty drink pranks. I cannot remember clearly how much salt my sister put into the drinks (it was her idea, I swear), but what really stuck with me was the way my parents reacted. The drinks were salty, and they still tried to pretend they tasted nice, at least for a while. We were mystified — did the drinks not taste salty? It was just that my parents wanted to show appreciation for our efforts even if, for some strange reason, we mistook salt for sugar. So we confessed, everyone had a laugh, and movie night continued. There was no scolding. As children, we knew we were safe and loved.

Not everything goes smoothly in a home like ours, though. We have our difficult times, especially when the world is in the shape it is right now. My parents both work, but my father’s income has been unstable in recent times and both of them are understandably stressed out about it since it is his income that has always been higher. We all are worried, in a way, but as a teenager I can only imagine what kinds of stresses adults deal with. Sometimes one parent will come home overworked and irritable about something, but as children who are more used to the reliability of parental love, it can be a bit of a shock to the system when it happens. When we were much younger, and when our parents were more secure in their jobs, they would still occasionally arrive home in an irritable state, but we were less able to understand it. Still, the atmosphere of safety and love has prevailed through these difficult times, because one parent would almost unfailingly step up to provide us with that security whenever the other one would falter. If one of them snapped at us for no good reason, the other parent would, in a quiet moment, reassure us that “Daddy didn’t mean it, he still loves you”, or “Mummy is overworked now, but she still loves you”.

Even though my family is not perfect, home has been a place of love and security, and there is no place like it for me. With a home environment like that, is it any surprise that I feel together with Dorothy when she wants to go home at the end of The Wizard of Oz?

(548 words)

Note: I wrote this with a teenager’s voice, and I tried to anchor it in the 21st century. This is, however, more or less about my own family, with some fictional elements. One thing’s true though — my imperfect family might be irritating at times (heh), but they’re lovely!

How do I start with preparing for the unseen poetry section?

Very occasionally I respond to posts on Reddit, and a few days ago someone asked for notes on unseen poetry. My response:

I’ve found Edward Hirsch’s writing helpful in helping my students think about poetry more deeply – https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69955/how-to-read-a-poem

For unseen poetry, the band descriptors say that the best answers show a “Sensitive and informed personal response showing close engagement with the text”. Ask your teachers if the use of the personal voice (“I feel”, “it strikes me”, “I have an impression that”, etc) is encouraged, and how you can express that in your literature essays (I’ve found that there sometimes are teachers that will discourage this, so please check your school’s style).

Hirsch’s writing resembles the kind of writing we’d LOVE to see in an essay, especially since he does that “personal response” thing very powerfully (but he’s a GREAT writer, so don’t be concerned about sounding like him, develop your own style).

As always, check the dictionary to ensure that you KNOW the meaning of the words in any text. (I’ve found the Merriam-Webster dictionary most helpful for digging out meanings that aren’t listed in the Lexico or Cambridge dictionaries.)

At the B4/C5 level you probably have some difficulty with understanding the literal meanings of some of the poems, so really try to work at that.

Poetry Foundation also has an app that allows you to spin for random poems, and some of my students have found that helpful too. (Spin till you get one you like, lol.)

Hope this helps!


I want to say more about Edward Hirsch’s book How to Read a Poem: And Fall in Love with Poetry, because it saved my academic life when I was in NUS. If not for it, I probably would have done quite badly, and that’s putting it mildly.

When I entered university fresh from the army, it was already already seven years since I’d last read a poem. That was in my Sec 2 literature class, when my school (a boys’ school famous for students unable to speak Chinese properly) kept on telling those of us who wanted to take literature at the O-levels that “boys generally aren’t very good at literature”. (Ha! Look at me now!)

So, as a 21-year-old entering academia again after 2.5 years in the army, I didn’t dream that I would be able to major in literature, and I definitely couldn’t see a future where I could compete with students who’d been taking literature at the O-levels and the A-levels. I thought I was going to major in psychology. Fortunately, (or unfortunately, depending on your point of view) the entry-level psychology module was mind-numbingly boring, but the entry-level literature module was pure FUN from day 1.

But what could I do, when I was writing essays on poetry, and I was graded on the same scale as the O- and A-level literature kids?

Enter Edward Hirsch’s amazing book. I devoured it, finishing it in about a week (it’s a long one). It saved my life when it came to discussing poetry with the other A-for-A-level-literature kids.

I don’t know if Hirsch expected a young undergraduate to end up falling in love with poetry through his brilliantly written book, when that undergraduate picked up the book out of a desire to get an A for his university assignments and exams. It’s weird how other people’s writing can impact us like that.

I am filled with gratitude that the world carries such treasures such as these!


I tell that story on this website because I want to convey to the students desperate for unseen poetry notes that learning about poetry and how to write about poetry is a process that needs a deep commitment. If you sit down for hours each day to study for a single science paper, you should be doing the same for literature as well.

There is no shortcut.

But I want to reassure you that if you put in the effort to think about poetry and reading more deeply, it will eventually become rewarding and fulfilling to the point where you will never want to give up the habit. And it’s a good habit too.

Hope this helps!

Covid-19, inequality, and student stress

We can’t deal with stressed out students at the national level by merely tinkering with the education system. We have to lower the penalties for those of us who do not do well in school.

Covid-19 and its impact on the economy has highlighted for us the inequalities baked into our society. Regardless of the progress that we may have made in Singapore on income inequality, the divide here has never been clearer.

Two headlines from recent weeks have helped me explain this to students who have trouble understanding the economic divide we have here. One reads: “From luxe private home dining to discounted tickets, high-end restaurants innovate to cope with heightened alert.” The second reads: “Covid-19 restrictions: Taxi, private hire drivers report fall in income as some operators offer aid.”

Our young people can be forgiven if they think that the exam results they get now will dictate their future. It certainly seems like it, right? Fail to get into university, or fail to get into JC, or fail to get into a good secondary school, and it all seems like it’s going to fall apart.

The truth is that there are ways to succeed in Singapore even if you don’t do well in school. But it is also true that a comfortable life is much easier to come by if you do well for your exams at each stage. The advantages really do add up.

If you do well for your PSLE, you get into a better secondary school that will make it easier for you to get into a better JC, which raises your chances of getting into a good university, which raises your chances of getting a good degree. At each stage, there are ways to raise your chances of success even if you’ve tripped a bit at the previous stage (hello, private tuition).

But a cruel tendency remains: there are penalties for those who don’t do well at each stage.

Fortunately, there are paths to success for those who don’t do well in school. If you fail your A-levels, for example, you could always take it again as a private candidate. Our lives are a sum of our choices at each moment, and it is always possible to choose better actions at each stage of life.

But a cruel tendency remains: there are penalties for those who don’t do well at each stage.

There are solutions to the problem of economic inequality, including giving free money to all of us. It probably sounds ridiculous to some of you, but the case for a Universal Basic Income (UBI) has been argued for in Parliament, by AWARE, and even in the Singapore Business Review.

Whatever solution is chosen or not chosen, those of us with the privilege to examine these problems and their solutions must care about this. Sure, if you’re rich, during the lockdown you get to consider ordering a luxury meal in–but do you see the way that your children may be suffering?

Children and teenagers are not blind agents shuffling their way through the world till they finally get to adult maturity; almost all of them are sensitive and perceptive creatures who are have already developed some of the abilities they will continue to use as adults.

Many of them, even if they cannot speak eloquently about these issues, already have impressionistic understandings of how our world works. Many of them understand, on some level, the penalties they face for failure, and pressure themselves into working hard because of that.

Some of them have even put themselves under such profound stress that they cope by appearing lazy.

Those of us who are privileged neglect societal problems at our own risk, and Covid-19 should remind us of exactly how connected we are. The air your private chef or delivery rider breathes out is exactly the same air that you will breathe in.

Why is our society so relentlessly competitive? Maybe because we understand that to fall behind in the race is to lose out on all kinds of safety and dignity.

This is why we can’t deal with stress in the education system by merely tinkering with that system, even though incremental improvements are always welcome.

We teach and learn in a larger system that impinges on us, and no matter how much teachers and tutors try to deal with our students’ wellbeing in the educational setting, we are effectively powerless when it comes to the larger problems in society–unless we all come together as a society to solve these problems.

There are solutions to be thought about, and those of us who can do so must at least care about what is to be done.


PS: For those who are too stressed out about this, let me recommend a few books (and one article) that I’ve personally found helpful. There are ways to success, no matter how you define it. Don’t give up!

Shawn Achor (2010). The happiness advantage: The seven principles of positive psychology that fuel success and performance at work.

Shawn Achor (2018). Big Potential: How Transforming the Pursuit of Success Raises Our Achievement, Happiness, and Well-Being.

Charles Duhigg (2012). The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.

Dan Harris (2014). 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works—A True Story

Bertrand Russell (1932). In Praise of Idleness.

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

Write about a time when you felt anxious. What did you do to cope with the feeling?

At the end of my Secondary 2 year, I did badly enough for the end-of-year examinations that I was almost not promoted to the next year. When my teachers were going through the examination papers, I had to beg and plead for a few marks for my Mathematics and Science papers so that I could ensure my promotion. Thankfully, I succeeded in that effort, barely getting through the promotion criteria. After this experience, I promised myself that I would not put myself through that anxiety ever again; paradoxically, that made my Secondary 3 year one of the most anxious years I had ever experienced. I coped, but just barely, both in healthy and unhealthy ways, and has been to this day a very important learning experience for me.

Entering the Secondary 3 year, in order to avoid the stress and anxiety of the previous year, I started studying even before classes had properly started. While my friends would play football or go out together after school, I would head straight home or to the library to study. After a few class tests, the results started showing — I started to get straight-A’s, something I had never achieved before. My friends were happy for me, but they started expressing concern for me. What had happened to the playful and social teenager they used to know?

Unbeknownst to them, I had carried the anxiety of my Secondary 2 year straight through to the Secondary 3 year; the anxiety of needing to fight so hard for my promotion was so hard to shake off, I had actually studied straight through my November and December holidays. Not only had I continued studying, I also had developed a very unhealthy caffeine habit, mainly via the consumption of up to six cups of coffee a day. Because of this bad habit, my anxiety did not abate during the holidays. I believed that by studying hard through my holidays, I would do well in my Secondary 3 year, therefore doing away with my anxiety. This proved to be true, in some way; since I was doing well in school, I was no longer anxious about my results. However, I was still anxious — I was anxious about anxiety itself! (How silly I was.)

After the mid-year examinations, I started to cope in more healthy ways with this anxiety. Instead of spending as much as possible of my free time studying, I made sure that I spent enough time with my friends and my hobbies while ensuring that my grades did not suffer that much (an occasional B was really no cause for worry). I also made sure to get fitter, while drinking less coffee, because these changes would help me feel less anxious while also giving me more energy. Life finally got better for me, because I realised that I would rather get a few B’s than feel anxious all the time. I had fun with my guitar, my band, my friends — and my studies were doing decently, even though my grades were no longer all perfect.

This kind of balance in life is the key for me, to avoid the extremes of perpetual anxiety and the ennui that precedes failure. If I only I could teach my younger self this!

(540 words)

H2 Economics vs General Paper: and why I’m taking the H2 Economics examination in 2018

[W]hy do we study perfect markets, where firms are price takers? One reason is that they provide a useful approximation to the real world and give us many insights into how a market economy works. [. . .] Another is that perfect markets provide an ideal against which to compare the real world, since in perfect markets we see resources being used and allocated efficiently. (John Sloman, Alison Wride, and Dean Garratt. Economics. 8th Edition, Pearson, 2012. Quote from p.32)

H2 Economics vs General Paper: and why I’m taking the H2 Economics examination in 2018

In plain English, when we say that something — let’s say, the way a society is structured — is “efficient” and “ideal”, we are making a normative statement, or a value judgement. We are saying that the society under discussion makes such a good use of its resources (and hence is efficient) to the extent that we see it as so good and desirable, it might as well be perfect (and hence is ideal). Of course, Sloman et al. are not saying that “perfect markets” are ethically, morally, or aesthetically perfect. They are simply “perfect” in a very limited sense delineated by the field of economics, which includes the idea that firms are “price takers”, meaning that firms do not have the power to set the prices of the goods they sell themselves.

[Note:
Sloman et al. use the word “efficiently” in the sense that “efficiency is achieved when each good is produced at the minimum cost and where individual people and firms get the maximum benefit from their resources” (p.10). I want to argue that “ideal” here means “existing only in the imagination”, but given their reasoning (“since in perfect markets we see resources being used and allocated efficiently”), I find it difficult to make that argument.

To me, what is most suitable — and therefore, ideal — for the global society is a market system that is regulated to the extent that we bring the full force of our human capabilities to combat the ills of unsustainable human activity (i.e. climate breakdown, over-production/over-consumption, etc.), and to build a society that is inclusive in the most profound sense. Of course, to make that argument, I would have to pivot away from the discipline of economics as it is taught and examined in JCs in Singapore!]

In the hands of the wrong student or teacher, confusions between value judgements and value-free statements (i.e. normative statements and positive statements) can proliferate. Bombarded by words like “maximum satisfaction”, “perfect”, “efficient”, and “ideal”, many students end up thinking that what their economics teachers are talking about is some kind of utopia designed by economists that the real world has failed to live up to. In the hands of a clumsy student, information from the H2 Economics syllabus can appear in a GP essay with disastrous results. Some students end up defending the value of competition, for example, by saying that more competition will result in greater productivity.

(If only I had a dollar for every time…)

When I get new students studying GP and H2 Economics for the first time, I usually have to work to chip away at these types of misunderstandings that crop up with alarming frequency (alarming because I see H2 Economics as one of the propaganda tools of the neoliberal movement). In 2017, I thought to myself: why not tackle these misunderstandings at their root, and teach both H2 Economics and GP?

I started thinking aloud with some of my students, and close to the end of 2017, I ended up making a promise to them: that I would take the H2 Economics examination in 2018. While I feel a slight feeling of regret creeping in (the Sloman textbook is remarkably boring), I’m finding motivation by telling myself that beyond expanding my customer base by expanding my teaching repertoire, I will be uniquely positioned to battle the misconceptions (that just so happen to be helpful to the neoliberals) that so many students end up with — and with the amount of stuff that I post online, perhaps I can be of help to the larger community as well.

So stay tuned, Mr Seah’s H1 and H2 Economics tuition is coming soon!

An educator’s perspective on “fake news”

I intend to send this in to the Select Committee that has been formed to tackle fake news in a few days. Comments and suggestions are welcome, but I also encourage my readers to send in their views.


I am a private tutor who teaches General Paper (GP), and new students sometimes say: “I thought I wasn’t allowed to criticise Singapore’s government in my essays!”

When it comes to misperceptions of the world, my new students start off with plenty. It’s already an uphill battle to fight these errors, and I believe that introducing legislation aimed at battling fake news will only further stoke needless fear into a populace already unsure of those (in)famous “OB markers“. This would especially be so if the legislation is aimed at social media, the ground for so much of our political discourse these days.

I completely understand if politicians think that this fear of authority, particularly the fear of speaking out against authority, is a good thing — surely it makes a population easier to control, in some ways. However, considering the current government’s goals, this fear that has worked so well in the past may prove counterproductive now, especially when we consider Singapore’s economic productivity.

Already we are struggling to attain a level of productivity comparable to other developed countries, but this makes no apparent sense: aren’t we topping the charts when it comes to the famed international student assessment benchmark, PISA? Why is this not translating to high levels of productivity in the workplace? My opinion is that the fear of authority — which is so effectively worked into Singaporeans via the education system, national service, and our national bureaucracies — plays a huge role in this lack of productivity.

The economy from here on out is going to be ever-shifting and unpredictable. The current government correctly places an emphasis on lifelong learning, since it is those with the ability to react effectively to such changes who will be more productive in this new landscape. It isn’t just knowledge that is important. What is crucial is the ability to use that knowledge, to test data against reality, to tell falsehood from truth — in short, we need to know how to solve those inevitable problems that arise daily for the modern worker.

The fear of authority acts against this skill of problem-solving that necessarily involves some level of risk-taking, and therefore the risk of angering authority, especially in the context of the modern office.

Witnessing history unfold before us with the presidency of Donald Trump and the attendant phenomenon of fake news is worrying, but we must be careful of knee-jerk reactions that will only set us back as a nation. What we need to combat fake news is a Singaporean public that can think critically for itself. It may be a public that’s more resilient to persuasion, but isn’t that the goal here, to have a public that can resist manipulation by malign forces?

My child would be homeschooled (a private tutor’s perspective)

If I had a child, I would not subject her to mainstream schooling in Singapore. Perhaps if we were living in a country like Finland, I would happily send her off to school there. But not in Singapore. In Singapore, we don’t have enough of an emphasis on play, and way too much emphasis on high-stakes examinations, to the point where even young children have problems with managing stress. Unlike other (potential) parents who may have a harder time making such a decision, my fiancée and I are (happily and fortunately) uniquely qualified for the challenge of homeschooling; she is naturally better with young children and has a training in psychology, and I am naturally better with teenagers, being a private tutor and all that. I imagine that my child would be an elite performer (if not a prodigy) in any academic area, given the combined knowledge and experience of her parents.

My main concern with schooling in Singapore is that it tends to kill the love of learning and encourages instead the habit of slavishly looking for the “correct answer”. With so many of my students, I have to repeatedly remind them to trust their own instincts when answering questions, even after we have successfully demonstrated that they already have the ability to think for themselves (I sometimes tell them: haha, you got your brain hammered out of you by Singapore’s system). It is in early childhood that parents and teachers can make a pivotally significant impact on a child’s learning process, and I don’t trust the system here in Singapore to do the job for me. The teacher turnover rate remains worrying because it means that my child would be less likely to have the good fortune of being taught by a well-trained and experienced teacher. I was lucky to have a very experienced teacher myself in Primary One — she was perceptive enough to realise I wasn’t enjoying primary school — but I wonder how many of such teachers are left in the system in Singapore.

The love of learning and developing a “bullshit detector” (Neil Postman’s words) would form the bedrock of my homeschooling approach. A story my father enjoys telling is instructive. As a young child, he would play near and in longkangs (storm drains), catching guppies and spiders and whatnot. One day, he saw a creature swimming in the water, and wondered: what’s this strange fish with legs? Upon arriving home, he asked his father what that creature was, thereby learning what frogs are. This is exactly how I want my child to learn. Of course, my father was wrong when he labelled the frog a “fish with legs”. In schools here, instead of spending a day outdoors developing his innate curiosity and fulfilling his need for play, he might have been asked to label a series of black-and-white drawings of animals on a worksheet. He might have labelled a picture of a frog as a fish, and gotten a huge red cross on his work for that (WRONG WRONG WRONG screams the red ink). But he already loved learning, as children naturally do when given a loving, nurturing environment. As children get older, they also need to develop the ability to judge thoughts, ideas, beliefs, statements, and so on, against evidence. They need to be able to tell what is trustworthy, and what is not. Again, with mainstream schooling’s obsession with getting the “correct answer”, this ability is often hammered out of children. The heuristic students often end up using is the question: does the teacher think this is right? My father might have thought that all creatures that swum in water could be called fishes, but he could have asked himself: I swim in water, but I’m not a fish, so what is this? In a larger sense, the question we want children to ask when engaging the world is: does this make sense? (Does it make sense to label all things that swim in water “fishes”?)

Beyond the pedagogical concerns, there are extremely mundane objections I have with the system here, including school start times. There will also be other concerns with homeschooling (Where will my child’s friends come from? Will we go crazy? Will I still be able to work as I do now?), but the mainstream education system here is one that I am loath to send my child to. It inflicts all kinds of unnecessary pain on children here and avoids inflicting the necessary disciplines on them. For now, the decision whether or not to homeschool my (theoretical) child remains theoretical; I can only hope that the system here improves in the meantime.

‘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?

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