Is General Paper that bad? No, it’s the best

by Steven Ooi, BA (First Class Honours), NUS

I often look at the site traffic data on my blog to see what kind of search queries are leading people to it. Quite often I see searches along the lines of “Is General Paper that bad?” or “Is General Paper so difficult?” These searches speak volumes about prevalent attitudes and perceptions of this time-honoured subject at the A-levels. From my 12 years of tutoring, I have seen with my own eyes how students are generally negative, apprehensive, even terrified of this subject. Part of this attitude stems from GP’s reputation as a ‘hard-to-ace’ subject. At almost every junior college, distinction rates for GP are among the lowest, if not the lowest, amidst all subjects. Horror stories abound of otherwise straight-A students getting a D (or worse) for GP.

So, while the question “Is General Paper that bad?” may have led some students to my blog, I have not yet had a chance to answer that question. Now I will, and my answer is: What a strange question! General Paper is in truth a wonderful subject. It is the only subject you will ever do that allows you to read about, think about, talk about, and write about anything on Earth (and beyond) that interests, excites or fascinates you. Do you like pop music? There are essay questions about contemporary music. Are you into sports? There are questions about sports, too. Are you concerned about how Facebook is actually destroying social skills? Well, questions abound on the psychosocial ramifications of social media.

For English and GP tutors recommended by the blogger, a retired GP tutor with an outstanding track record, pls tap ‘Recommended Tutors/ Testimonials’ above.

This subject embodies the very joy of learning because it is about learning without boundaries, learning unconfined, which is the way that learning should be. It is an openness to learning that motivated Steve Jobs to attend calligraphy lessons in college. He didn’t realise the practical value of calligraphy at the time, but it later inspired him to create the beautiful typology and interfaces on Apple computers. It is an openness to learning that inspired Fazlon Abdul Wahab, who has only O-level qualifications, to devour books on fitness and management and rise from being a manual labourer and nightclub bouncer to now one of Singapore’s top personal trainers and a successful gym owner. Some of you might not be so lucky to have an inspiring GP teacher, but you must never let any teacher destroy your desire to learn. Cultivate a love of learning. It is your life, and your destiny.

Therefore to excel in GP (and indeed in life), you need first and foremost to be open to learning about anything and everything. This includes the major human concerns that affect us all: society, politics, economics and business, history, science and technology, the arts and culture, the environment, globalisation and more. The sad truth is that even though Singapore is one of the most wired and globalised countries in the world, many of our youth resemble the proverbial frog at the bottom of the well, which is a Chinese idiom used to describe a person who is ignorant about the wider world. I have met many, many Singaporean youths who say they don’t care about politics or history or the arts. I have hardly ever met a Singaporean youth who could name the Prime Minister of our nearest neighbour, Malaysia (Mr Najib Razak). If you think politics, history or the arts do not concern you, think again.

Politics, for instance, is a game that grown-ups play for power and wealth, and when you are in JC, you are already two-thirds of the way to becoming a grown-up. Whether you run in elections for not, you will have to engage with politics in one form or another one day, particularly the beast known as office politics. You need to gain some understanding of this game grown-ups play. What is more, the politics of government shapes the future of your country and the world, and therefore your future and your children’s future. To be apathetic towards politics is to be indifferent towards your own future and that of your children.

Therefore open your mind and seek to become a truly educated person. Indeed that is the noble goal of GP: to make you a truly educated person. A person is not truly educated unless he or she has at least a basic knowledge and understanding of all the major human concerns. No matter if one holds a PhD in molecular biology: if he is ignorant of politics (“Hong Kong is an independent country”), the arts (“Julius Caesar? Did he invent the Caesar salad?”) or history (“The Renaissance? What’s that?”), he is not a truly educated person. These great human concerns and events shape the world, shape humanity and share a rich interrelationship with one another.

Indeed I believe the true power of knowledge is unlocked when one discovers the interrelationships and connections between disparate areas of knowledge. What made Steve Jobs so successful was that he and his people brought art, science and many other things together in their products. He once said, “It’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our hearts sing.”

So go out there and read newspapers, magazines, websites, books about anything and everything. Explore all the different sections of the newspaper and don’t just stick to one or two. By all means read what you enjoy, but also push yourself to read what you don’t enjoy or even what you hate to read. After you learn more about something, you might find that it’s actually quite interesting. You can also learn by searching the Internet for the background on various topics or watching a documentary on TV or on Youtube.

And if you want to truly excel in GP, you will need to go beyond knowledge: you need to attain understanding of how this world works. It is reading followed by thinking and engagement that will get you there.

And then you will be a truly educated person.

I wish you the very best in your journey of learning and personal growth.

Copyright Steven Ooi 2012

This article originally appeared on Domain of Singapore Tutoring Experts on 26 December 2012.


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.

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 @ (remove the spaces). Tutors in other subjects interested in having links to their website are also welcome to contact him.


About gptuitionsg

A dedicated English and GP tutor with First Class Honours from the National University of Singapore, Steven Ooi retired from the profession after a 14-year career during which he was one of the most sought-after private tutors in Singapore. He is the recipient of the Minerva Prize from NUS, which is awarded to the top English Language honours student of each cohort. This website, which has consistently ranked among the top 10 on Google and has received over 530,000 hits, has now been converted into a GP resource site cum listing of recommended tutors. If you are a GP or English tutor who wishes to be listed here, please email Steven Ooi at stevenooi18 @ (remove the spaces). Interested parties will be assessed and interviewed by him, and qualifications will be checked. These procedures are necessary to uphold quality standards. DISCLAIMER: While every reasonable effort has been made to assess the competence and verify the qualifications of recommended tutors here, no guarantees are made and you engage them at your own risk. By using this website, you agree that you will not hold the webmaster Steven Ooi responsible for any consequences — direct or otherwise — that occur in relation with your use of this website.
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10 Responses to Is General Paper that bad? No, it’s the best

  1. Elizabeth says:

    Bravo! I enjoyed reading this article, and I agree with your points.

    The problem is, knowledge for its own sake is not a very exciting or tempting offer for most Singaporeans. Not unless you can show a step by step guide/graph of how knowledge leads to monetary rewards. People here are ruthlessly pragmatic. Like the circus trainer, one must offer material titbits to get things moving.

    What bothers me is how this lack of intellectual curiosity literally permeates everyone in EVERYTHING they do. People here are just content to do their job, plug the hole, and go home. There’s no wondering about why the hole came about, what it means etc etc. It’s none of their business. Most of my friends are doctors, and all they care about is getting into their speciality of choice, learning the dues and making buck loads. Which is hard work and nothing to sneeze at, but the lack of interest in pioneering new techniques or medical research is kinda disheartening. And these are the brightest products of the nation’s education system!

    Small wonder the government’s got their panties in a twist over the situation. It’s Economics 101: we’re maxing out our Production Possibility Curve, but no one’s innovating us to our next high.

    • gptuitionsg says:

      Thank you for your kind and thoughtful comments, Elizabeth. The image of our government getting their panties in a twist is hilarious.

      Knowledge for its own sake — that is ancient wisdom taught by Latin scholars of yesteryear. It is one of those truths that are empirically unprovable and bring no tangible reward, and that is why today’s scientifically-obsessed, materially-programmed people (especially Singaporeans) cannot accept their simple, profound truth.

      But they are true nonetheless. They just are.

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