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 –

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.

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?

I’m sick and tired (and why I write more effectively than you)

I mean it literally: I’m sick, I’m tired. As I sit typing this, I feel like I’m coughing my throat to shreds, and the lethargy has left my eyes half closed. I just turned my head to look to the right for awhile, and I was surprised by a sharp throb in my head. Ugh. I’m sick.

And for the two days I’ll probably take to recover, I’ll treat myself.

Today I’m treating myself to a book that has been on my list for awhile, Elie Wiesel’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, Night, an account of his survival as a teenager in the Nazi death camps. It’s heartbreaking, it’s heart-wrenching, even though I know from reading other books how horrific those camps were. Reading this has been an exquisite experience of the bittersweet kind, particularly as a reminder of what can happen when decent people close their eyes just enough to the realities of politics.

I don’t mean to give a review of the book, though. What I want to say to all the students who flock daily to my website to read my essays (hi!) is this: I read for fun, and that’s why I write more effectively than most of you. (I also read to improve myself, but I think that’s a topic for another day.)

I appreciate the fact that so many of you are coming here to read my writing, but please register the fact that you need to head out to your libraries and bookshops to get reading material for yourself.

Read for fun. It’ll help.

For the adults/parents who don’t understand why I’m advocating reading for fun, see this research overview of what happens when we read for pleasure (spoiler alert: good things happen).

My Twitter is back up!

Sometimes students look at the articles I’ve saved on my own reading list app (I use pocket), and they wish that they had a nicely curated series of articles (like mine) to read. So I’ve revived my Twitter account! I’ll be posting tweets with links to articles that I think people should read.

If you’re doing the O-levels, you should understand the vocabulary in these articles, at the very least.

If you’re doing the A-levels, you need to go one step further: please be able to analyse each article, and be familiar with all the underlying issues.

Happy reading!

On ignorance and politics in Singapore

A fellow tutor-blogger recently wrote one of the loveliest and funniest sentences I have seen recently, a sentence that possesses such an impact because it is simple and true:

If you are a Singaporean GP student and you don’t know what GRC stands for, you are ignorant about your own country, you’re in a hole where your GP is concerned and you’d better dig yourself out before it’s too late. — Mr Steven Ooi (

While younger students could be forgiven for their ignorance, what is less forgivable is the profound level of ignorance among some Singaporeans, an ignorance that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong references in the speech Mr Ooi links us to:

By design, the President has no executive, policy-making role. And this remains the prerogative of the elected Government commanding a majority in Parliament. But in the last Presidential Election, many people didn’t understand this. I suspect even now, quite a number of people still don’t understand this. — PM Lee (

Mr Ooi has quite rightly pointed out that the speech linked above is engaging, and if one actually reads the entire thing, the speech does inform us of several important aspects of Singapore’s political system. However, one thing Mr Ooi (kindly?) neglects to observe is the way in which PM Lee’s speech plays upon the very ignorance that he has observed. PM Lee’s words, outside of Singapore’s political and historical context, sound very pleasing — but one has to remember that our PM is, after all, a politician. And you know that joke about politicians and lawyers…

I am not accusing PM Lee of being a liar, of course, but of obscuring the true state of matters by selectively ignoring several troublesome aspects of the performance of his government so far.

For example, PM Lee points out that our government has “(invested) in education at all levels” for many years. This is true: the Ministry of Education (MOE) has been funded enough such that we have seen teachers’ pay rise over the last few years. This has supposedly allowed people to “achieve their aspirations for themselves and for their children”.


Those of us in the education industry know very well the systemic inequalities that have been worked into the system, whether intentionally or not. Our school days are short enough such that a billion dollar tuition industry chugs along, rewarding richer families disproportionately; it is not an accident that students from the top schools tend to come from these families.

All over Singapore are students who aspire to enter a local university — and many of them will fail to achieve that aspiration. I do have to note that our education system is strong enough to see students who have never received private tuition go on to get degrees, but it remains true that you can pay top dollar for a tuition teacher who can give a child a level of attention that other students will never get in a typical classroom.

It is not just attention from a teacher that matters, of course; the quality of teacher also matters. I have repeatedly heard horror stories of teachers who barely do any teaching in class (ask the students around you about teachers who screen videos in class without any accompanying discussion, or about teachers who choose to complain about their personal troubles without linking it to any teaching point, etc). Then we have “English Literature teachers” who cannot tell the difference between an author and a narrator (shudder…).

PM Lee references many more issues in his speech, and beyond education, another issue that really irritates me is the way the word “multi-racial” is used here:

Fourthly, our political system must uphold a multi-racial society. Multi-racialism is fundamental to our identity as a nation because we have three major races in Singapore. We have all the world’s major religions in Singapore, and race and religion will always be fundamental tectonic fault-lines for us. If we ever split along one of these faultlines, that’s the end of us. — PM Lee

I fully agree that our society has fault lines, but even our young students are aware that we use the categories of “Singaporean” and “foreigner” much more frequently to point out difference, as compared to the Chinese/Malay/Indian/Others (CMIO) separation that was more evident here in the 1960s. PM Lee is definitely aware of this issue, but still he chooses to emphasize the CMIO classification, which has been criticized as a hindrance for Singapore. It is as if PM Lee is gearing his speech towards an audience whose political education has been dominated by “Social Studies“.

GP students have to be engaged with the world around them, and being able to engage with the issues mentioned in PM Lee’s speech is necessary. (If you are a Singaporean GP student and your knowledge of Singapore does not extend beyond what you have learnt from your Social Studies textbook, you are ignorant about your own country, you’re in a hole where your GP is concerned, and you’d better dig yourself out before it’s too late.) It is also necessary for the citizenry to be well-informed, in order that we have the “good politics” that PM Lee ostensibly desires.

Unfortunately (or fortunately,  depending on your perspective), Singapore remains the gilded cage that makes it too easy to set one’s political awareness at the level of “blissfully ignorant”. I fully agree with PM Lee when he says that “No ruling party or government must ever be afraid of open argument” — but what does this ruling party have to fear when the vast majority of Singaporeans are neither willing nor able to participate in that argument?

Creepy lullabies and close reading

Last night, I tried to illustrate what close reading should feel like to my student, and I used the example of our childhood lullabies. Do you remember the lullabies from your childhood? I give you my personal favourite:

Rock-a-bye baby on the treetop,

When the wind blows, the cradle will rock,

When the bough breaks, the cradle will drop,

And down will come baby, cradle and all.

I vividly remember my mum carrying me as a young (and light!) child, singing this lullaby, rocking me gently with an almost-manic grin, and suddenly dipping her body and arms on the “cradle will drop” line. Giggles all round, good times for all. Thinking back now, my dad certainly enjoyed doing that too, but he also enjoyed throwing my sister and I up into the air, probably more than the “cradle will drop” thing. (Evidence currently shows that we weren’t dropped too many times on our heads.)

What does any of this have to do with close reading? This is just an innocent lullaby we sing to children to get them to sleep, right?….. riiiiight…?

Well, maybe not.

Some of us may have problems with the word “bough”, since we no longer use the word very often these days. It means “the main branch of a tree”. So far, so good. The bough breaks, the baby falls, ha ha ha. But where does the baby fall from? The treetop. The top of the tree. Look at any tree around you! That’s a fall too far for any baby to survive!

Grim, isn’t it?

And it doesn’t stop there. If we look at itsy-bitsy spider (another one of my favourites), we see arachnophobia (meaning: the fear of spiders) in grand action:

Itsy-bitsy spider climbed up the water spout.

Down came the rain and washed the spider out.

Out came the sun and dried up all the rain.

And the itsy-bitsy spider climbed up the spout again.

What’s a spout? Think of the little teapot, short and stout. Ah, that’s its spout (through which the tea is poured). Careful, there’s a spider there! Though, in this case it’s probably a spout exposed to the rain, which may mean that the spout is that of a water pump. Careful, there’s a spider in your water!!!!

I have to admit that this isn’t close reading, an activity that is much more involved than just thinking about what a spout or treetop is. But if you registered the shock of realising that some of our most treasured lullabies are actually quite grim and scary, that’s the kind of emotion you want to register when you read something closely. Some of the most powerful poems have that same power to shock and move us, and if you get a poem for the unseen poetry section of your exam, you can be sure that there is some kind of power hidden there. You just have to find it.

For more on close reading, I highly recommend Edward Hirsch’s How to Read a Poem (And Fall in Love with Poetry). If you don’t have time for a book (time management!!), you may find the University of Victoria’s guide useful.

Malaysia’s command of the English language is stronger than Singapore’s?! What can we do about it?

Mr Seah boleh! ;)

Mr Seah boleh! He got the highest grade! 😉

Singapore has lost to Malaysia, in an academic contest! It is time for outrage and panic, remorse and shame! Why? Because Malaysia has attained a whopping rank of #12 — the highest in Asia — according to the EF English Proficiency Index (EF EPI). Singapore, meanwhile, has come in at #13. I like The Rambler’s take on this: “In a land where appearing on the top of world charts is something devoutly to be wished for, it must come as a blow to us when year after year, we are trounced by a country as incompetent as Malaysia.”

Malaysia has attained a whopping rank of #12. Singapore, meanwhile, has come in at #13.

I found the ranking a tiny bit strange, though. In my experience, even though Malaysians and Singaporeans work as peers in the highest levels of academia and business, at the ‘lower’ levels — the taxi drivers, retail assistants, service staff, and so on — Singaporeans seem to hold the advantage over Malaysians in terms of proficiency with English. Most taxi drivers in Singapore can hold very interesting conversations in English (ask them about the ERP, go ahead, I dare you), but a Malaysian taxi driver who can do the same is rare indeed. (DISCLAIMER: I only have been a tourist in Malaysia, and I understand my perception may not reflect the reality in Malaysia.)

How is it that the EF EPI ranks Malaysia ahead of Singapore? Is it a failure of Singapore’s education system, and a sign of Malaysia’s emerging power in Asia? Perhaps not, because the methodology of the EF EPI (how they rank the countries) leaves plenty of room for improvement. To put it simply, this ranking is biased. The EF people know it. For those who understand methodology, I quote directly from the website’s FAQ:

“We recognize that the test-taking population represented in this index is self-selected and not guaranteed to be representative of the country as a whole. Only those people either wanting to learn English or curious about their English skills will participate in one of these tests. This could skew scores lower or higher than those of the general population. In addition, because the tests are online, people without internet access or unused to online applications are automatically excluded. In countries where internet usage is low, we expect the impact of this exclusion to be the strongest. This sampling bias would tend to pull scores upward by excluding poorer, less educated, and less privileged people.”

To put it simply, this ranking is biased. The EF people know it.

Nevertheless, it stings a little bit, knowing that Malaysia has beaten Singapore, even if the ranking isn’t representative of our general populations. It must be that kiasu element in me rearing its head. What can Singaporeans do to ensure we beat Malaysia next year, and what can Malaysians do to try to maintain their lead over Singapore in the EF EPI? You can do as I did, and take the test yourself, if your command of English is good. I cannot emphasize that enough — if your command of English is bad, and you take the test, you will pull your country’s ship down.

If you are confident of your English abilities, take an hour from your day, sit down with a cup of coffee, and click here to take the test. Come on, Singapore, we can do it! Singapura boleh! (Eh? Wrong country, wrong slogan?)

If you feel like you need English tuition before you take the test, contact me. It’s in the nation’s interest 😉

Pictures vs Words: a response to gptuitionsg’s views

Photo credit: Kevin Carter. The photographer committed suicide shortly after this photograph was taken.

See another powerful response to this question at Mr Steven Ooi’s blog here. (Confession: I could only write this essay because I was able to bounce my ideas off his essay first. This should be a clear message to all students reading this. Read more, it helps.)

‘A picture is always more powerful than mere words.’ What is your view?

It is true that words can be more powerful than pictures. I think of Hitler’s words that moved a nation to genocide, and I shudder. However, human beings are visual creatures, and we see the consequences of this in the way the Internet has taken shape. A picture can never be more powerful than words in all circumstances, but looking at the way our culture has developed, it appears that pictures — including moving pictures — still hold an almost magical power over many of us.

Words are obviously potent weapons. Adolf Hitler, the dictator responsible for the Holocaust, is often credited with saying that if you tell a big enough lie, and repeat it often enough, people will believe it. The effect of his lies and half-truths are now studied by school children all over the world — millions died in Nazi concentration camps, with only some having the dubious privilege of dying in gas chambers*. However, Hitler’s words were often accompanied by powerful images. Few of us are able to quote lines from Hitler’s speeches, but many more know what the Nazi swastika looks like and what concentration camp inmates look like in photographs of the time, which shows the power of culture-defining images to endure.

Half a century after Hitler’s heyday, photographer Kevin Carter tragically showed us the power of a picture to inspire action. Most of us recall the image — a vulture watches over a child so emaciated that it has no strength left to hold itself upright, so emaciated that his humanity seems starved out of his fragile frame. This image won Carter the Pulitzer Prize, and has inspired many of us around the world into fighting against poverty. Sadly, at the height of his fame, Kevin Carter committed suicide, claiming in his suicide note that he was “haunted” by the horrific images that he encountered in his work. On a more mundane level, this photograph probably inspired armies of Singaporean parents to nag at their children not to waste food, worrying over the idea that “African children are starving”.

It is also worrying to think of the effect the power of the image may be having on some of us. In an offline age, people who encountered Carter’s haunting photograph had fewer avenues with which to distract and numb themselves. Now, in addition to the media of the offline age, we have portable entertainment centres in the form of smartphones. In our age of perpetual connectivity with entertainment, we may indeed encounter Carter’s photograph in an Upworthy or Buzzfeed article, and we may experience the same forms of disgust, sorrow, horror, and anger that people in an offline age did. However, it is much easier these days to numb those feelings with a never ending stream of entertainment that is dominated by images. The success of Instagram and YouTube, among other visually-dominated websites, is testament to the power of images in our age. I think I can make this assertion safely: most people who encounter Kevin Carter’s prize-winning photograph in our time will be more likely to push it out of their minds with other forms of visual entertainment, than to deal with the problems of inequality and poverty by reading about the problem and what is being done to deal with it.

Inequality is a culture-shaming problem, since its consequences are so dire. It requires solutions that are, on some levels, complicated. We need to read books, or at least essays, to fully understand this problem and its potential solutions. It is perhaps a sign that people are not paying attention to these words, that the people in first-world economies have not spoken up as one voice to the powers that be to demand change. In this case, the pictures of entertainment seem to be more powerful than the words spent on the problem of inequality.

The idea that a picture is always more powerful than mere words is untrue, but it hides a deeper truth that pictures are often more powerful than words. Words are sometimes more powerful than pictures, but the pictures dominating the mind-numbing pap that passes as entertainment today still seem to hold sway over our culture. Do away with this mind-numbing pap, and perhaps we will see wise words and wise pictures hold sway over our culture again.

(721 words)


*For an account of this, see the brilliantly written book, Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl.