‘Practical ability is just as important as intellectual skills.’ How far is this true in your society? (model essay: N17 A-level GP exam)

Young children attend a tutorial class after school (picture credit: Straits Times)

By Steven Ooi

Many parents in Singapore lament that children in our country today cannot enjoy their childhood. The emphasis on academic grades has risen steadily over the 50-odd years of our independence to the point that almost every waking hour of a child or teenager is spent either attending classes (and co-curricular activities) in school, attending extra tutoring classes after school or doing homework assigned by either the school teacher or private tutor. It can seem that intellectual skills, which this essay shall define as the capacity to solve abstract problems and grasp abstract concepts such as those in advanced calculus, take precedence over every other measure of a person including practical ability – which I shall define as the capacity to solve problems in day-to-day life such as fixing a leaky tap, managing a team of workers or investing in the stock market. To clarify, intellectual skills are the focus of academic studies, and thus the country’s focus on grades are a good index of the importance that it places on intellectual skills. In spite of this, it is my contention that it is to a great extent true that practical competence is just as high a priority as intellectual skills in Singapore.

Opponents to my claim would point to the obsession with grades and not only the doors that impressive academic credentials open for a person, but also the tremendous social prestige that they confer. Scoring straight A’s at the A-level exams or graduating with first class honours from a highly regarded university adds considerably to a person’s social status, and even that of his parents. Little wonder that parents are often heard comparing their children’s grades, schools and so on. Studies also consistently show that the percentage of graduates of the highly regarded state universities such as the National University of Singapore who secure a full-time job within six months after graduation is much higher than those from less well-regarded institutions – about 80 percent versus 60 percent in a recent case. The traditional model of marquee government scholarships being granted to top scorers in examinations, who then typically go on to occupy top jobs in public service and government-linked corporations (GLCs), serves to cement the position of those who hold a view counter to my own. A notable feature of Singapore is the heavy involvement of government in business even while promoting free enterprise – a curious hybrid of free-market capitalism and socialism. This gives rise to the phenomenon of “Singapore Inc”, the idea of country as corporation with the government owning some of the largest companies such as Keppel Corporation and ST Engineering. The boards of directors at these GLCs include many former government scholars such as Lee Seow Hiang of Changi Airports International.

Sharpening the perception that intellectual or academic talent outweighs practical ability is the impression held by many that some of these scholars, despite their sterling academic record, do not perform well on the job. Desmond Kuek, a scholar and former military general, oversaw the country’s rail operator SMRT Corp while it suffered a spike in breakdowns, a tunnel flooding and even a collision between two trains. Ng Yat Chung, another scholar and former general, was CEO of state-owned shipping liner Neptune Orient Lines, which racked up over a billion Singapore dollars in losses until it was sold to French firm CMA CGM, which managed to turn it around into profitability after one year. Such instances have led to questions of whether Singapore is a true meritocracy of practical skills, or just a hierarchy of grades.

An SMRT train sits stranded in a flooded tunnel, 2017

An SMRT train sits stranded in a flooded tunnel, 2017

However, we should not let such relatively isolated occurrences obscure the fact that Singapore society prizes practical results even more than academic ones. It is the nature of this microscopic, natural resource-starved island nation to be ultra-pragmatic, and Singaporeans know more than anyone else that practical outcomes matter more than any textbook treatise. The very fact that scholars such as Mr Kuek and Mr Ng faced fierce public criticism makes it clear that the country as a whole places practical competence above intellectual skills. When public housing prices soared beyond the reach of many in the first decade of the 21st century, the former minister in charge Mr Mah Bow Tan faced considerable public opprobrium – not too many were heard mentioning his impressive academic credentials or the fact that he was a President’s Scholar then.

Singapore society is also evolving to accept and even embrace a wider diversity of talents and paths to success than the traditional yellow brick road of academic excellence leading to a good job in government or a large company. Today, partly thanks to government efforts, those who do well in everything from sports to arts to cooking are well respected. Thanks to the commercialisation of sport, skills such as swimming and football can be seen as very practical today, and swimmer Joseph Schooling, who won Singapore’s first ever Olympic gold medal, is now one of the most respected figures in the country. Chan Hong Meng, a humble hawker who received a Michelin Star for his $3 chicken rice and noodles, saw his achievement celebrated by virtually the whole country, who also cheered as he took his signature dishes to Manila and London, receiving worldwide acclaim. Certainly the likes of Hawker Chan, as he is fondly known, command greater esteem from society in this day and age than a person who has tremendous intellect but little practical success.

This is all the more so as the traditional marker of intellectual skills – a college degree – becomes so common in Singapore as to become commoditized. In the 1980s, a mere 10 percent or less of the population held a bachelor’s degree or higher. Today close to half of those in their 20s and 30s have a degree, and the growth in professional, managerial and executive jobs has not kept up. As a result, graduate unemployment numbers have crept upwards and as mentioned earlier, a recent survey found that about a fifth of fresh graduates from even the highly rated state universities could not find a full-time job after six months. As Nominated Member of Parliament Kuik Shiao-yin articulated recently, what is important in today’s world is not just what degree one holds, but what one acquired from one’s degree programme – a personal network, knowledge, and yes, sharper skills. By that I assume she was referring to practical skills and not just intellectual ones. Increasingly Singapore society is coming to terms with the fact that the world is becoming more competitive, and few employers are going to give you a job merely for intellectual skills demonstrated in an exam. One must possess the aptitudes, know-how and problem-solving abilities needed to navigate an increasingly complex, volatile and interconnected world.

In sum, I stand by my stance that practical capabilities are at least as high a priority in Singapore as intellectual, academic attainments. A close examination of the issue in this country reveals that the national preoccupation on academic scores is overshadowed by its fixation on pragmatic results – which are much more correlated to practical ability. If one adds to that the inflation of grades and academic credentials, and the widening of the forms of achievement recognised by society, an inexorable trend towards increased emphasis on real-life skills becomes clear. After the euphoria or disappointment of an examination result ebbs, every Singaporean will be judged ultimately on what he or she accomplishes in the often inhospitable waters of real life. For this tiny island, practical success has always been not just a matter of glory, but of its very survival.

Copyright 2018 Steven Ooi. All rights reserved. No part of this work is to be reproduced without the written consent of the author.

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Website owner Steven Ooi, a First Class Honours grad from NUS, retired from a distinguished 14-year career as an English and GP tutor in 2016. He continues to blog on issues of concern to GP and student life.

To view tutors recommended by him, click here.

More GP model essays here.

English or General Paper tutors keen to be listed on this website (consistently ranked top 10-15 on Google) as a Recommended Tutor, please email stevenooi18 @ yahoo.com (remove the spaces). Tutors in other subjects interested in having links to their website are also welcome to contact him.

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Hopes from Hong Lim: Disappointment could give way to delight

Not my President Sg 01 - Nikkei Asian Review

Photo: Nikkei Asian Review

This article is a bit old (from late 2017), but I only just discovered it and think it is still very much worth sharing.

One of the points that writer Jason Tan makes would probably be met with a firm rebuttal from the former president of Singapore, Dr Tony Tan. Jason Tan writes that it is the President’s duty to “be an effective check on the elected government” and “assert herself as a distinct and independent power centre and [counterbalance] the executive branch of government”.

In 2016, then-president Tan expressed in a message to Parliament that the Elected President must act in accordance with the roles prescribed in the Constitution and not hold back the Elected Government of the day from performing its executive role. He or she cannot be a second centre of power, he asserted.

You can read the official description from the Istana about the president’s roles and responsibilities here.

I agree to a large extent with Dr Tony Tan’s sentiments, as under our political system, Parliament is the primary setting for political contestation as well as checks and balances to be manifested. If the Elected President were to actively engage in political debate and seek to be another “power centre”, Parliament would be undermined and our system would be heavily unsettled.

However, the President also holds an office steeped in symbolic meaning; he or she is the Head of State, chosen by the people, and therefore is supposed to be a wise man or woman revered by the people. Given this status and exalted position, I believe that she should be willing to speak up on the basis of conscience and social duty if she feels that something is wrong in the country. Of course she should not wade into every controversy and public debate, much less to align herself with any political party. She should think long and hard about expressing a view on any issue with a political dimension, but expressing such a view does not necessarily mean that she is engaging in politics, in the narrow sense of the word. If done the right way – with respect and empathy for differing viewpoints – she could simply be speaking up for the shared values and common conscience of the nation, to protect values that Singaporeans hold dear. Of course some would disagree with any such viewpoint, but it would be more a unifying act than a divisive one on the part of the President – and thus compatible with the President’s role as a “symbol of unity” (quoting the Istana website).

Put another way, the President can and should share his or her wisdom with the people on matters where his or her wisdom is needed. It is something that the people expect of their elected head of state and esteemed elder – his or her wise counsel. The vast majority understand that the President has very limited executive power – but she certainly has influence, and should use it sagaciously for the betterment of the country.

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September 20, 2017
By Jason Tan

Anger, rage, disappointment and a profound sense of sadness – these were emotions which coursed through the veins of many Singaporeans who were aggrieved at the non-election of the next President of Singapore. It did not come as a surprise that only one Certificate of Eligibility was issued – to the former Speaker of Parliament and current President Halimah Yacob. Aspiring hopefuls and her would-be contenders for the highest office in the land were disqualified as they were unable to meet the SGD500million qualifying threshold for private sector candidates. Hence, the Presidential Election 2017 (PE2017) was consigned to a walkover for the PAP government-endorsed candidate.

I was not angry as much as I was disappointed at the way the ruling government push through complicated changes which all but assured that the preferred choice for the next president was appointed and not elected. I felt a profound and pervasive sense of sadness – how did we end up like this?

Prima facie, it is hard to argue that no tenets of democracy and meritocracy – key pillars undergirding Singapore as a nation and society – were undermined. Many Singaporeans would have celebrated the victory of Halimah Yacob with great and genuine joy if she were given the opportunity to contest and campaign against other candidates (she would probably have won with a decent margin, given her track record and her affable demeanour). Instead, she was denied the dignity of winning the PE2017 and becoming President by dint of her merits and mettle.

Read more here.

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Website owner Steven Ooi, a First Class Honours grad from NUS, retired from a distinguished 14-year career as an English and GP tutor in 2016. He continues to blog on issues of concern to GP and student life.

To view tutors recommended by him, click here.

GP model essays here.

English or GP tutors keen to be listed on this website (consistently ranked top 10-15 on Google) as a Recommended Tutor, please email stevenooi18 @ yahoo.com (remove the spaces). Tutors in other subjects interested in having links to their website are also welcome to contact him.

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Education arms race fuelling inequality; solution to improve income alongside access

Education arms race

Picture: The Edge

By Sharanya Pillai, The Edge

4 June 2018

SINGAPORE: Part-time supermarket cashier Rozaini and her husband, who works as a driver, earn a combined income of S$2,000 a month. That money has to support them and their four children, aged between four and 19. Their oldest son is currently undergoing national service, while the second and third children are in primary school. The couple pay $500 a month to rent their two-room flat, spend $800 on groceries and need another $100 for the medical expenses of one son with a skin condition. That takes up the bulk of their income.

In spite of this tight financial situation, Rozaini hopes to send her schoolgoing children for private tuition. She and her husband are both looking for a second job. Rozaini also sells clothes online, which brings her about $100 in extra income monthly. “I just want my children to have a chance to be better than us. They need to get better jobs than what we are doing, and earn more money,” she says. Rozaini and her husband completed Secondary Two and primary school, respectively, and want their children to attain higher educational qualifications.

Households such as Rozaini’s have come under the spotlight in recent weeks as discourse heats up on the concept of upward social mobility — that one can achieve a better socio-economic status than that of one’s parents. In Singapore’s meritocratic system, it has traditionally been a point of pride that anyone with some talent and the willingness to work hard will get ahead. Increasingly, however, this concept is being challenged.

Today, education has become transformed to less of a social leveller and more of an arms race. It has become harder for those from less well-to-do backgrounds to compete on equal terms with their well-to-do counterparts,” says Eugene Tan, an associate professor of law at the Singapore Management University (SMU) and a former nominated member of parliament. “So, even as the opportunities are open to all, access to and utilisation of those opportunities are unequal.”

Read more in The Edge business newspaper here.

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Website owner Steven Ooi, a First Class Honours grad from the National University of Singapore, retired from a distinguished 14-year career as a GP and English tutor in 2016. He continues to blog on issues of concern to General Paper and student life.

To view tutors recommended by him, click here.

GP model essays here.

GP or English tutors (including part-timers) keen to be listed on this website (consistently ranked top 10 on Google for GP tutor/ tuition searches) as a Recommended Tutor, please email stevenooi18 @ yahoo.com (remove the spaces). Tutors in other subjects interested in having links to their website are also welcome to contact him.

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Malaysia Finds an Unlikely Champion of Democracy: Its Ex-Strongman

Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia waved to his supporters after Friday Prayer in Kuala Lumpur, the capital. Credit: European Pressphoto Agency, via Shutterstock

By Hannah Beech and Richard C. Paddock

The New York Times

May 11, 2018

The story line is a familiar one these days: A populist strongman with a long record of racially divisive commentary prevails in the polls.

But Mahathir Mohamad, who was sworn in as prime minister of Malaysia on Thursday, was not swept to power by the kind of nationalist demagoguery that has captivated electorates in places like Hungary, India and the Philippines.

Instead, Mr. Mahathir was at the head of a multiethnic opposition that ousted a government long dependent on stoking the fears of Malaysia’s Malay Muslim majority to prolong its grip on power. That Mr. Mahathir, 92, had for decades toughened the network of race and patronage that contributed to Malaysia’s political sclerosis is just one of the many surprises of the national elections on Wednesday.

It has produced a multiracial — not Malay or Chinese — tsunami of protest against the corruption, economic mismanagement and abuse of political power,” said Lim Teck Ghee, a public policy analyst and author of the book “Challenging the Status Quo in Malaysia.” “It has avoided racial and religious rancor and acrimony, which would have left a contentious and dangerous aftermath.”

Read more here.

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Website owner Steven Ooi, a First Class Honours grad from the National University of Singapore, retired from a distinguished 14-year career as a GP and English tutor in 2016. He continues to blog on issues of concern to General Paper and student life.

To view tutors recommended by him, click here.

GP model essays here.

GP or English tutors (including part-timers) keen to be listed on this website (consistently ranked top 10 on Google for GP tutor/ tuition searches) as a Recommended Tutor, please email stevenooi18 @ yahoo.com (remove the spaces). Tutors in other subjects interested in having links to their website are also welcome to contact him.

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Working smart: be active after eating

Tidying up

So here’s my work-smart tip of the day for y’all students. But before I share it, remember: in the hyper-competitive world of today, working hard is nothing special anymore. It’s working smart that will make the difference.

This tip is really very simple. You know how you tend to feel sleepy after a meal, especially lunch? Many of us doze off after lunch or just become completely unproductive, for instance staring at the phone drowsily for two hours. Not smart!

What I advise you to do is to be physically active after a meal. No, not running or football or rope skipping. But just doing some physical chores, for instance washing dishes and walking the dog; tidying up your room or your file; or doing your grocery shopping. This will help regulate blood sugar and not only reduce the drowsiness that comes from the surge in blood sugar followed by the crash, it will also lower the risk of diabetes. You can also lessen the drowsiness by eating natural, whole-grain foods (such as brown rice and whole-grain bread) rather than refined carbohydrates.

I find that after eating is the best time to do all the mundane chores as I have a surplus of energy from the carbohydrates that I just consumed. Not only do I get the annoying chores out of the way, I also reduce my post-meal sleepiness – which unlocks more energy for me to do other, non-physical work thereafter such as studying and writing.

A productive day is a cause for much satisfaction – it is a day well lived. May we all work smarter.

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Website owner Steven Ooi, a First Class Honours grad from the National University of Singapore, retired from a distinguished 14-year career as a GP and English tutor in 2016. He continues to blog on issues of concern to General Paper and student life.

To view tutors recommended by him, click here.

GP model essays here.

GP or English tutors (including part-timers) keen to be listed on this website (consistently ranked top 10 on Google for GP tutor/ tuition searches) as a Recommended Tutor, please email stevenooi18 @ yahoo.com (remove the spaces). Tutors in other subjects interested in having links to their website are also welcome to contact him.

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Then they came for Peppa Pig

Peppa Pig

AP photo

By Josh Rogin
Columnist, The Washington Post

May 3, 2018

Most Americans have never heard of Peppa Pig, the cartoon star of a British television show for preschoolers, which Chinese censors started purging from Internet apps and Chinese social media over the past week. Americans may not be bothered that an animated pig was deemed subversive by China’s state media and a bad influence on China’s youth. But we should be.

That China would suppress Peppa at all shows the government’s insecurity about any cultural phenomenon it can’t control. But for foreigners, it may seem harmless. Last year, many reacted with bemusement when China began censoring Winnie the Pooh, partly out of concern he looks like Chinese President Xi Jinping. (Personally, I don’t see the resemblance.)

China’s internal Internet censorship regime is part of its greater effort to control the behavior of its citizens. Combined with blanket surveillance, intrusive monitoring and a new Orwellian social credit score system, the Chinese Communist Party links loyalty to success in all aspects of Chinese life. But aside from altruistic belief in universal human rights, why should Americans care?

Read more here.

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Website owner Steven Ooi, a First Class Honours grad from NUS, retired from a distinguished 14-year career as an English and GP tutor in 2016. He continues to blog on issues of concern to GP and student life.

To view tutors recommended by him, click here.

GP model essays here.

English or GP tutors keen to be listed on this website (consistently ranked top 10-15 on Google) as a Recommended Tutor, please email stevenooi18 @ yahoo.com (remove the spaces). Tutors in other subjects interested in having links to their website are also welcome to contact him.

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A difficult topic, but a moral responsibility for parents

Dear parents,

Many of us don’t talk to our kids about sex because we’re afraid that it will encourage them to experiment. Actually studies show the opposite – adolescents who are the best informed about sexuality are the most likely to postpone sex and avoid risky behaviour. So talk to your kids about sexuality and do not shy away from sharing your values. Explain your beliefs and your reasons for them, without forcing them onto your child (because we all know what happens when you try to force a teenager to take your point of view). Be an askable parent – someone whom your child can have a safe, non-judgemental, open conversation with about sex and sexuality.

Here are a few pictures from a wonderful book by Filipina college lecturer and development worker Pammy Godoy, who got pregnant at 17 and rose above her mistakes to raise awareness of sexuality education around the country. Please share this article with your teenage children.

Website owner Steven Ooi, a First Class Honours grad from NUS, retired from a distinguished 14-year career as an English and GP tutor in 2016. He continues to blog on issues of concern to GP and student life.

To view tutors recommended by him, click here.

GP model essays here.

English or GP tutors keen to be listed on this website (consistently ranked top 10-15 on Google) as a Recommended Tutor, please email stevenooi18 @ yahoo.com (remove the spaces). Tutors in other subjects interested in having links to their website are also welcome to contact him.

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