‘People can only be happy if they feel they are treated fairly.’ Do you agree? (2019 O-level English Paper 1, Syllabus 1128)

Happiness is an elusive thing. Some people find happiness in their daily cup of coffee, and others in a good meal, and some even claim to have never been happy before. What makes many of us unhappy, of course, is unfair treatment. Still, I feel that people are capable of being happy even if they feel they have been unfairly treated, because we know that if we cultivate certain skills and mindsets, happiness almost inevitably follows.

We cannot discount the kinds of anger, bitterness and resentment that can arise if we have been the victims of unfair treatment. Even the meekest student will raise some kind of unhappy protest, for example, if he gets an examination response marked wrong when he has gotten it correct. On a deeper level, many of us feel on the receiving end of unfair treatment because we see other students from richer families being able to afford expensive private tutors while our own families can only afford cheap private tuition, or even no tuition at all. It is easy to give in to a slow-burning resentment, in this context, and lose the ability to be happy. Why does the government not tax rich people more, or make sure our perpetually overworked parents get paid more even if they work as hawkers or cleaners? Why not, even, make sure that our teachers are not so frequently overworked so that they can spend more time teaching each of us when we need it?

Despite these difficulties, however, I truly believe that happiness is within reach for most people today. Even if we find ourselves in poverty in the richest country in the world, and even if we feel hard done by, we still can make it a point to try to spread happiness into the world. We can make it a point to look into the eyes of each security guard or bus driver we meet, and smile or nod to acknowledge their presence, their work, and their innate value as a human being. We can share our notes with our friends when they ask for them, and even teach them what we know, especially since our teachers tell us that teaching others is one of the most effective ways to learn. People seem to instinctively know that this path of humble selflessness is a path to happiness, which might be why most people do not hesitate to help if a stranger drops something in public.

Beyond altruism, cultivating positive mindsets can also help in the bleakest of times. I do not speak of the kind of blind positive thinking that results in people denying the realities of their situation. The kind of positive mindset that I see adding towards our own happiness is the kind that might see a bad grade on an important examination as the temporary setback it actually is, and a chance to try again by learning from our mistakes; it is a positivity that comes from always seeing hope in the darkness. While we may be on the receiving end of unfair treatment, and we should feel the full brunt of the injustice that this unfairly structured world forces upon us, we must also see that every injustice in the world is a chance for us to work towards justice. In becoming workers for justice, we may find, too, that happiness becomes a treasured byproduct of our work. This may be a humbler kind of happiness in the face of feeling unfairly treated, but it is happiness, nevertheless.

Happiness is attainable even when we feel unfairly treated, but I still wish that people everywhere would be more indignant about the kinds of unfair treatment that so many of us are subject to. Could we not work together to build a better world? Call me idealistic, but I really do think that the answer to that question is a resounding ‘yes’.

(648 words)


Further reading:

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:

Which person has had the most positive impact on your life? Describe this individual’s personality and in what ways he or she has influenced you. (2019 O-level English Paper 1, Syllabus 1128)

TW: mention of death and an old person dying


Death is a strange thing. Many people fear it, but it stands as a chance to express our greatest triumphs in life. As a teenager, it is a little strange to say this, but the person who has had the most positive impact on me is no longer with us, and it is exactly his death that changed my life. While I have struggled to understand the precise nature of his giant spiritual stature and how he has influenced me, I will try to convey the sense of who he was and what kind of effect he had on me — how he helped me feel a lasting sense that life is alright, even though things may look bad at times.

I first met Uncle George when he met my family for dinner at home, and by that time he was already old. Not old like the kind of old most of our parents are, but old like the kind of old where it starts to get difficult to imagine how that old man could be so sprightly and happy. I eventually saw him lose that former quality, but Uncle George never lost his sense of joy and peace, even as he lay on his deathbed. I am getting ahead of myself a little, but to understand the gravity of his death, you would have to understand the nature of his life and how he was in life.

Uncle George would act as if he was always a little drunk and a little sad, but also always ready to laugh and make people laugh. As an octogenarian, he avoided alcoholic drinks, but my grandfather spoke of Uncle George’s younger days as a “hot mess” (where these old folks get their slang, I have no idea) of irresponsibility and way too much drinking. How did he remain so joyful and silly, then? When I asked this of him, Uncle George pretended to be shocked that I would call him silly, as he childishly threw back the accusation — “You then silly!” — in Singlish. Then, with a twinkle in his eye, he looked straight at me with his thick glasses on his face, and said, “I never, ever want to lose the ability to be playful and childish. Something in a person dies when they lose that.”

Now, as a teenager, all I want to do is to grow up and be an adult. I struggle to understand what Uncle George means, but I feel like, maybe, there is something there, especially since I know that my parents spoke to him frequently for advice on philosophy and spirituality, and especially those boring “spiritual disciplines” the older people are always so excited about. Uncle George did say to me that if I found those things boring, that I should chase the things that fascinated me, like novels, politics, and girls (he added that last one), and that these disciplines would always be waiting for me if I ever wanted a little something more. I am now convinced that there is something more there, because his deathbed scene was tearful, sure, but also joyful.

It was something special to see Uncle George comfort the people around him even as the cancer ate away at his body. I felt awkward about being in his presence since he was so weak, so all he did was to ask to hold my hand as he spoke to my parents. Now that he is gone, I struggle to understand how he has left me with that enduring sense of peace and hope. I guess it must be something about how he made peace with his inevitable death. There must be something, after all, in those boring spiritual disciplines.

618 words

Note: this is completely fictional, and I had to dig a little deeper than usual to come up with this response. Reading all kinds of text (novels, self-help books, memoirs, biographies, etc) helps with essay questions that you may have trouble with, especially when you have to write from a place that may be slightly less than authentic. Also, this one gestures at religiosity, so the same old caveat applies — when in doubt, ask the adults already in your life! I’m not your pastor ;D

Write about a time when you did something just to impress someone which you later regretted. (2020 O-level English Paper 1, Syllabus 1128)

If anyone ever reads a report on a school bully who was struck by a haunting only days before his examinations, with his bag with all his notes and textbooks set on fire without any explanation, please know that I am utterly sorry for what I did. The only defence I have is that nobody in school really liked Bruce the bully, especially since he made life in school hell for so many people. I am cursed with this knowledge, that I made the life of a friend already suffering even worse.

Stacy and I were spying on him just as a fun thing to do, when we saw that Bruce had to use the toilet again for his stomachache. We were the only two friends that Bruce had, and we used to study in the quietest part of the school because in our little group, none of us had a home quiet enough for us to be left in peace. Out of the three of us, though, Bruce was the most hardworking, and I was just the boy with too many sisters. Stacy, however, was the prettiest girl in the school, by far. I had even seen adult men smile at her for no particular reason. Our study table was in a corner of our school compound, where there is a toilet reputed to be haunted that nobody uses. It is a strange little toilet: even though nobody uses it, and the school cleaner cleans it regularly, there is always a faint smell of rotten fruit coming from it. We have witnessed the school cleaner cleaning it too, since we help him sometimes when we are sick of studying. No one dares to come near it, and that corner of the school is always quiet, but what was the haunted toilet area to our schoolmates was a sacred sanctum for us.

Still, Bruce would never dare to sit in the haunted toilet for too long, so he often had to take the long walk to the other clean toilet in school. Stacy looked at me as Bruce left, her eyes bleary from studying and not having gotten enough sleep. She was bored, and she wanted to do something. What was that something? She was sick of having to defend Bruce, the bully who hit people all the time because that was what Bruce’s parents did to him almost every day. His parents were a special kind of evil: they hit him only where marks would not show up, so he could never get the sympathy he would otherwise have gotten if he had carried obvious bruises. One can punch a hungry boy with a book tucked into his shorts so hard that he vomits. This I learnt from Bruce.

Stacy could not take it anymore with Bruce — both of them were almost equally hated by students and staff, though Stacy would never hurt anyone physically. That day, in a break from our usual spying routine, she pulled me to where the three of us had been studying and started packing Bruce’s things up. Was the something she wanted to do just a little tidying up? I was even more puzzled when Stacy handed a pair of gloves to me, and told me to put them on. To my horror, she pulled the lighter and lighter fluid Bruce always carried with him out from his bag, handed the packed bag to me, and told me to set fire to the bag in the haunted toilet. The thing about Stacy and her pop star looks is that everyone always wants to impress her, no matter how much one hates her, and I was no exception to the rule. She had planned this. Maybe she would kiss me again.

I set fire to the bag and walked away briskly. On the security cameras we knew that we would simply look like two teenagers taking a break from studying — we were in the habit of walking away from the study area even after five minutes of “studying”, and Bruce knew this. We headed back to the study table only after seeing Bruce return to the table. Of course I acted innocent, I was in too much shock to even think about what I had done, and no way was I going to get another beating from Bruce. What I was unprepared for, once I pretended to investigate the toilet to report that it indeed was his bag on fire, was Bruce’s total collapse into tears when he realised what was happening. Good grades were his way out of his abusive household, and his precious notes were gone.

Bruce still got good grades, that year. It is a testament to his iron-clad discipline that he did well in spite of his notes disappearing up in flames. Stacy never spoke to me again, maybe because she lost whatever respect she had for me when I bent so easily to her will. Meanwhile, I failed that year’s examinations so badly I had to transfer out of my school, and maybe I failed because I could not concentrate on anything for months after that for the sheer intensity of the guilt and regret that I felt. Karma is real, I guess.

(874 words)

Further notes:

‘Learning how to respond to making mistakes is an essential part of becoming successful.’ What is your opinion? (2020 O-level English Paper 1, Syllabus 1128)

Pre-reading vocabulary list:

  • Essential: Absolutely necessary; extremely important.
  • Truism: A statement that is obviously true and says nothing new or interesting.
  • Relentless: Harsh or inflexible.
  • Burnout: Physical or mental collapse caused by overwork or stress.
  • Utterance: The action of saying or expressing something aloud.

‘Learning how to respond to making mistakes is an essential part of becoming successful.’ What is your opinion?

The Covid-19 pandemic has been extremely tiring for many of us. Many adults have lost their jobs, or have had to deal with the stresses of their businesses doing poorly. Many children and teenagers, meanwhile, have had to deal with the anxiety and fatigue of not being able to understand the pandemic fully, and the stresses of learning from home on online platforms that do not reproduce properly the experience of being in a classroom. Even when we are in classrooms, we have to wear masks. In this context, the truism that learning from our mistakes is crucial strikes me as a little inappropriate for these times. People of all ages in Singapore have suffered from the relentless pursuit for success, and many of us have realised that pursuing success at all costs is, in fact, a major mistake that many in our society have made.

While it is true that to get on the road to success we have to learn helpful responses to failing and making mistakes, we sometimes have to allow ourselves to stop chasing success. Paradoxically, success could lie in that practice. When we learn how to cook, we sometimes have to figure out why a particular dish we just cooked tastes bad. When we learn how to play a musical instrument, we sometimes have to figure out why a song we just played sounds bad. There are some people who give up when they fail, and worse, even people who avoid trying to be good at something just because they are afraid of failure. Anyone who wants to be a straight-A student has to be willing to try and fail, because the only path to success is to keep on trying till you succeed — and a person who tries anything worth trying will inevitably make mistakes along the way. What should we do, however, about the fact that chasing success is sometimes the crucial mistake that we make? The Covid-19 pandemic saw many of my most hardworking friends try to keep up with their usual pace of work, but some of them have ended up experiencing burnout, and have had to stop working as hard because they chased after academic success without considering the larger challenge of successfully taking care of their mental and physical health. For them, learning how to stop chasing success has been essential in staying healthy and happy.

On the level of language, let us note that the word “success” has power; the mere utterance of that word can create in people the desire for the thing itself. Since these friends of mine find me a helpful person to talk to, I have found myself listening to their conflicting desires for rest, play, and success. Sometimes a human being just needs to give up for awhile. Sometimes we need to play till sanity returns. Unfortunately, some people have such difficulty even allowing themselves thirty minutes to play a video game or to watch a show, because they think that they have to be perpetually grinding on towards their goals. Sometimes we have to be willing to let our truisms go, no matter how true they are, because there are always other truths that we have to account for, like the truth that suicide rates among young people in Singapore rose worryingly in 2020. It strikes me as more important to be able to say to people: be willing to fail, and be willing to fail joyfully and healthily. As our Education Minister Chan Chun Sing says, we must have frank conversations about the definitions of success. It is my view that learning how to respond to making mistakes is an essential part of becoming successful, and that the most important lesson in season of the Covid-19 pandemic has been that of the necessity to be comfortable with failure.

It is my hope that with that lesson learnt, as a nation we will be able to live with more love for ourselves and each other, more joy in life itself, and more hope for the future. That would see us, I think, becoming successful not just as individuals but as a society that has achieved a kind of happiness and prosperity that is truly worth celebrating.

(704 words)

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

Do I say “migrant workers” or “foreign workers”? What’s the difference?

[This question came up in a chat group I’m in. My response below.]

Let’s think about how the words “migrant” and “foreign” are used.

When I am dealing with an idea that is completely unfamiliar, I say that “the idea is foreign to me”. When an object that does not belong in a human body enters it — like a sharp piece of something — we say something like “the foreign object entered his body, causing injury”.

When we think of “migrants”, on the other hand, we think of migrant birds, migrant animals — or the fact that the vast majority of us (Singaporeans) are either descendants of people who migrated from lands some distance away or first-generation migrants.

Describing people as “foreign workers”, therefore, foregrounds the differences between “us” and “them” — they are foreign, they are alien, they are something other than us.

But when we say “migrant workers”, we leave more linguistic space to acknowledge commonalities. They are migrants, and we are migrants and the children of migrants.