The Moral Problem of Accelerating Change

Exponential growth of computing

When we were kids, we were usually taught that an action is absolutely right or absolutely wrong. This philosophical essay from Dr John Danaher argues that morality is contextual, and the exponential rate of change in modern society – driven by technology – is posing enormous challenges to our traditional moral belief systems and theories. Dr Danaher is a breath of fresh air in philosophy, applying age-old concepts to cutting-edge contemporary developments. His writing is highly erudite, yet surprisingly readable. Great for GP students to read the philosophical pieces on his blog to develop the ability to reason and argue critically, cogently and systematically.

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Holmes knew that killing people was wrong, but he faced a dilemma. Holmes was a member of the crew onboard the ship The William Brown, which sailed from Liverpool to New York in early April 1842. During its Atlantic crossing, The William Brown ran into trouble. In a tragedy that would repeat itself 70 years later during the fateful first voyage of The Titanic, the ship struck an iceberg off the coast of Canada. The crew and half the passengers managed to escape to a lifeboat. Once there, tragedy struck again. The lifeboat was too laden with people and started to sink. Something had to be done.

The captain made a decision. The crew would have to throw some passengers overboard, leaving them to perish in the icy waters, but raising the level of the boat. It was the only way anyone was going to get out alive. Holmes followed these orders and was complicit in the deaths of 14 people. But the remaining passengers were saved. Holmes and his fellow crew were their saviours. Without doing what they did, everyone would have died. For his troubles, Holmes was eventually prosecuted for murder, but the jury refused to convict him for this. They reduced the conviction to one of manslaughter and Holmes only served six months in jail.

I discuss this case every year with students. Most of them share the jurors’ sense that although Holmes intentionally killed people, he didn’t deserve much blame for his actions. In the context, we would be hard pressed to have done differently. Indeed, many of my students think he should avoid all punishment for his actions.

Holmes’s story illustrates an important point: morality is contextual.

Read more.

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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.

To view tutors recommended by him, click 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.

Read GP model essays here.
Is General Paper really that bad?

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Six Features of the Disinformation Age

Fake news

The world has been swept by an epidemic of fake news

A classy commentary highly relevant to one of the most pressing and controversial issues engendered by the continuing rapid development of social/ new media – disinformation, or false information that is intended to mislead, especially propaganda issued by a government organisation to a rival power or the media (Oxford definition).

This is to be distinguished from misinformation, which may not be intended to mislead (it could, for example, merely have resulted from ignorance or negligence).

For avoidance of doubt, the Oxford dictionary defines key terms as follows:

new media – means of mass communication using digital technologies such as the Internet.

social media – websites and applications that enable users to create and share content or to participate in social networking [blogger’s note: therefore social media is a subset of new media]

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By Kelly Born

Published Oct 2, 2017 on Project Syndicate

Concern about the proliferation of disinformation, misinformation, and propaganda has reached the point where many governments are proposing new legislation. But the solutions on offer reflect an inadequate understanding of the problem – and could have negative unintended consequences.

This past June, Germany’s parliament adopted a law that includes a provision for fines of up to €50 million (US$59 million) on popular sites like Facebook and YouTube, if they fail to remove “obviously illegal” content, such as hate speech and incitements to violence, within 24 hours. Singapore has announced plans to introduce similar legislation next year to tackle “fake news.”

In July, the US Congress approved sweeping sanctions against Russia, partly in response to its alleged sponsorship of disinformation campaigns aiming to influence US elections. Dialogue between the US Congress and Facebook, Twitter, and Google has intensified in the last few weeks, as clear evidence of campaign-ad purchases by Russian entities has emerged.

Such action is vital if we are to break the vicious circle of disinformation and political polarization that undermines democracies’ ability to function. But while these legislative interventions all target digital platforms, they often fail to account for at least six ways in which today’s disinformation and propaganda differ from yesterday’s.

Read more.

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Blogger and 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.

To view tutors recommended by him, click here.

Read GP model essays here.

How to write a good intro

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Is America Headed for a New Kind of Civil War?

Charlottesville

The recent unrest in Charlottesville, Virginia, after a white-supremacist rally has stoked some Americans’ fears of a new civil war. Photograph by Glenna Gordon for The New Yorker

By Robin Wright, The New Yorker

A day after the brawling and racist brutality and deaths in Virginia, Governor Terry McAuliffe asked, “How did we get to this place?” The more relevant question after Charlottesville—and other deadly episodes in Ferguson, Charleston, Dallas, St. Paul, Baltimore, Baton Rouge, and Alexandria—is where the United States is headed. How fragile is the Union, our republic, and a country that has long been considered the world’s most stable democracy? The dangers are now bigger than the collective episodes of violence. “The radical right was more successful in entering the political mainstream last year than in half a century,” the Southern Poverty Law Center reported in February. The organization documents more than nine hundred active (and growing) hate groups in the United States.

America’s stability is increasingly an undercurrent in political discourse. Earlier this year, I began a conversation with Keith Mines about America’s turmoil. Mines has spent his career—in the U.S. Army Special Forces, the United Nations, and now the State Department—navigating civil wars in other countries, including Afghanistan, Colombia, El Salvador, Iraq, Somalia, and Sudan. He returned to Washington after sixteen years to find conditions that he had seen nurture conflict abroad now visible at home. It haunts him. In March, Mines was one of several national-security experts whom Foreign Policy asked to evaluate the risks of a second civil war—with percentages. Mines concluded that the United States faces a sixty-per-cent chance of civil war over the next ten to fifteen years. Other experts’ predictions ranged from five per cent to ninety-five per cent. The sobering consensus was thirty-five per cent. And that was five months before Charlottesville.

Read more here.

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Blogger and 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.

To view tutors recommended by him, click 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.

Read GP model essays here.

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How to write a good introduction to your GP essay

Fountain pen

Before we begin, a Common Sense check (because Common Sense is becoming increasingly uncommon, especially in Singapore). What is an introduction? It is something to introduce: to give people a basic idea of something (in the context of a GP essay, that ‘something’ is the topic under discussion), and it’s written as though the reader knows nothing about it.

Perhaps the reader knows even more than you, but certainly we should not make any such assumptions. That’s one reason why we have introductions.

What are the other functions of an intro?

1. To warm up the reader.

A GP essay is a tiring, intellectually challenging thing to follow. That’s why we must have an introduction that gives a broader sense of the issue and its general context before we throw the reader into the deep waters of the specific and detailed arguments. Therefore your intro must be of sufficient length (I recommend 80-120 words), to give the reader an adequate warm-up.

2. To ‘hook’ the reader.

In case you haven’t realised, a GP essay is an English essay, and an English essay is a work of art. Please don’t write a GP essay like a science or economics essay, with no feeling or style. In the art form known as a GP essay, the introduction also serves to draw the reader in, much like the opening of a song or a movie. You can also think of it as an invitation to a conversation (but don’t make your essay too conversational – for instance, addressing the reader too directly “Do you believe that democracy is a panacea? Let me show you why it is not!”).

How do we ‘hook’ the reader? Well, I can (and will) give you a list of techniques but first let me say, use your imagination! Yes! Unlike many other General Paper or English teachers, I have no intention of killing the joy of language, expression and learning by just drilling you in a whole list of formulas. Everyone has a divine spark of creativity within, and that creativity is essential to solving problems in life and making life beautiful. Never let any stuffy, narrow-minded person kill your desire to express yourself or explore your individuality and your ideas.

There is no limit to the range of ideas, techniques and angles for getting a reader interested in the argumentative writing you are about to engage in. Exercise your creativity, just like you would when you’re trying to get your friend (or that cute girl from 2A31) interested in what you have to say in the canteen. For inspiration, you can also look at how the master writers open their commentaries in the newspapers (and yes, every newspaper from the Guardian to the Boston Globe to the South China Morning Post has a commentary section – it’s usually called ‘Opinion’, ‘Commentary’ or ‘Voices’).

I will now share with you a small selection out of the multitude of possibilities (of course, whatever you use has to be relevant to the question!):

(a) Fascinating figures (statistics)

Q: ‘People who do the most worthwhile jobs rarely receive the best financial rewards.’ To what extent is this true of your society?

In Singapore, a senior teacher makes about S$8,000 to S$9,000 a month. A senior banker makes more than that in a day. Senior lawyers earn that amount in three hours. (This example also involves another technique called the Power of Three. What we say has more power when it is presented as a set of 3 – try it!)

(b) Examples (specific instances of people, places, organisations, events and so on that get the reader thinking about the topic and question – this is one of the easiest techniques to use)

Q: Is competition always desirable?

The Argentinian football superstar Lionel Messi pushes his Portuguese rival Cristiano Ronaldo to play more inventively and score an even more breathtaking goal. The entry of a fourth telecoms company into the Singapore market drives the incumbents to lower their prices and improve service. But the onslaught of global offshoring hollows out the manufacturing industry in Pennsylvania, the United States – leaving factories to rust and thousands of workers jobless and unable to feed their families. Competition is a fact of life – and globalisation powered by modern communications and transport now makes the effects of competition more intense and pervasive than ever.

(c) Compare and Contrast

This is a subtype of the example technique – one that uses strong contrasts to capture the reader’s attention.

Q: How far is it possible for one country to forgive another for its past actions?

Until today, the sentiments of Koreans are inflamed whenever a Japanese prime minister visits the Yasukuni Shrine where some Japanese war heroes (to the Koreans, war criminals) are buried as the emotional scars of World War II are opened anew. But by contrast, the Vietnamese have recently welcomed the United States’ leaders to visit the country, as former President Barack Obama did in 2015. Trade and security cooperation between the once bitter foes in the Vietnam War have also grown steadily in recent years, and the appalling memories of the more than two million Vietnamese killed by American troops, and generations of children born with deformities possibly as a result of America’s use of Agent Orange, are increasingly being put aside.

(d) Quotable Quotes

I know this is a traditional favourite and I love a profound or witty quote applied in a relevant manner to a question. But I must add a critical caveat here – it is not the only way to open an essay! So for the love of God please don’t use a quote that has no connection to the question or worse – make up a quote! That is a huge insult not only to the person you attributed the quote to, but the teacher and the subject of GP as well.

If you can’t think of a quote that works for the question, there is no shortage of other methods to use for ‘hooking’ your reader.

Q: ‘No cause is ever worth dying for.’ Discuss.

A man who won’t die for something is not fit to live,” said Dr Martin Luther King Jr., a man who was true to his words and paid the ultimate price for his life’s convictions.

3. To frame the discussion.

GP questions, just like many issues in life, need to be broken down in order for clarity on exactly what the question involves. Clarity is often needed on what certain words mean, because they may be complex or open to interpretation. For instance, what is success? Quality of life? Democracy? What is a newspaper? Is it only the physically printed daily publication that reports and comments on current affairs, or is the digital version of the same publication (eg the New York Times app) also a kind of newspaper? Of course different people will have different notions of what a term refers to, but try to adopt a definition that is reasonable and even if someone disagrees with it, he will not find absurd or overly far-fetched. Where the definition is particularly debatable, it is advisable to provide a brief justification for why you define it that way.

Definitions should be reasonably precise, but don’t be overly obsessive or pedantic. Few markers would like such definitions.

Clarity is sometimes also needed on what approach the author proposes to take to resolve the question. Take the question “How far is increased prosperity for all a realistic goal in your society?” If we are to answer this question, we need to figure out how you achieve greater prosperity for all in the first place. Thus I would state in the intro that in order to achieve increased material well-being for every member of society (paraphrased), we first need to grow the economic pie (the overall economy) and then slice the pie (distribute the gains) more equally. This breaks down the issue and lays out the approach I am going to take – assess first how realistic it is for us to grow the overall economy and then how realistic it is to distribute the consequent wealth more equally – so that the reader becomes clearer on how I will resolve this issue.

It’s good to give the reader a clear sense of the approach the essay will take. But please don’t go overboard and turn the intro into a blow-by-blow synopsis of every point it is going to make. Not only will this make the intro terribly tedious, it will also show all your cards too early and destroy the suspense for the reader.

4. To answer the question (duh!)

Now what’s the most basic part of answering the question? It’s having a stand (thesis statement)! This is probably the second most commonsensical part of essay writing (after reading the question C-A-R-E-F-U-L-L-Y, double duh), yet so many students forget to actually state their stand in the intro. It’s like someone asking me whether Donald Trump is a good president, and me going on and on about everything that’s good and bad about him – but never stating clearly whether I believe he is a good president or not (at least to a specific extent). Now in real life you can sometimes get away with sidestepping people’s questions or sitting on the fence. But in a GP essay, this is suicide.

So please have a stand, and state it at the end of your intro. Not at the beginning because that would be (a) premature – you haven’t introduced the topic, haven’t framed the discussion and are already telling us your bottom line and (b) aesthetically displeasing (ie ugly!) – the opening line of your intro is a first impression, a chance to charm the reader, an invitation to a dance. Don’t waste it by using it to do something as boring as stating your stand. Therefore, save your stand for the end of your intro.

Some suggested formulations for your stand:

(a) I believe that… (the simplest – where in doubt, keep things simple!)

(b) It is my view that…

(c) It is my position that…

(d) It is my conviction that… (stronger – but use it with sincerity and you’d better be able to back it up!)

(e) It is my considered opinion that… (high class)

(f) I hold firmly to the view that… (also a strong expression – same comments as in point d above)

Some teachers tell their students not to use the personal pronouns ‘I’ or ‘my’ in their stand/ thesis because, they argue, it is ‘too personal’ and ‘compromises’ the essay’s objectivity. I take the opposite position: I insist that my students use ‘I’ or ‘my’ in their stand. Why?

(a) Yes a GP essay should maintain a degree of emotional detachment and avoid excessive personal involvement in order to project an image of objectivity. However, what could be more personal than your own stand? It is your individual position on a controversial matter that has been considered from your own perspective. Yes, objectivity is important, but it would be disingenuous and insincere to write as if your stand were a statement of absolute objectivity (like 1+1=2). Yes, you have tried to consider the facts and logic objectively, but ultimately all that is filtered through the lens of your individuality as a human being.

Your stand/ thesis is a statement in the subjective realm of personal opinion and belief.

(b) It distinguishes your stand from every other sentence in your essay. The stand is not just any other sentence. It is the ultimate point of the essay.

(c) It signals that you take responsibility for that central statement. You take ownership of it, and you stand by it.

I would agree that you should minimise the use of ‘I’ and ‘my’ in other parts of the essay. But for the stand, to me it is a must to use either of these words.

Last but not least – I’ve noticed a growing tendency among Singapore students in recent years to avoid answering the question. They provide a so-called ‘stand’ that basically does not address the question fully, or at all. I would strongly recommend that you always let Common Sense lead the way. My hypothesis is that ‘Common Sense’ is increasingly dying in Singapore students as the education system grows in its demands and the complexity of its curriculum year after year. Students are mentally stretched to such levels of complexity that they have lost the ability to think simple and maintain a focus on the basic things in life. Thus I observed a steady rising trend in students failing to answer the essay question precisely. Many do not even read and understand the question properly.

In the GP exam, the essay makes up half your score, and essay questions are framed with little nuances of language that are easy to misapprehend if a student is not careful and using her Common Sense. I believe this is the reason why GP grades can be so unpredictable – even an A student can abruptly find himself with a D at the A-levels. Take a deep breath, calm your anxiety and get your basics right first at all times. Otherwise all the hard work you have put in over two years will go down the drain at the A-levels. Understand the question thoroughly.

Having understood it, answer it precisely. Don’t avoid the question, hijack it or dance your way around it. I suspect some students do these things because they find it difficult to answer these profound questions of life, or they take a memorise-and-regurgitate approach to GP. They ‘crammed’ themselves with model essays and lecture notes and just want to puke the contents out to hopefully score an A. But when the question does not fit what they memorised, they unconsciously hijack the question and answer the question they wish had been set, instead of the one that actually was. That is really the road to disaster.

This truly highlights the dangers of the memorise-and-regurgitate approach which, sadly, too many students are using (and too many teachers promote). Yes, I know it is difficult for you, a 17 or 18-year old, to write your own essay in answer to these profound questions of life. Even adults struggle with them. But the purpose of your education is to prepare you to answer such questions in your own life, is it not? When you are 30, 40 or 50 years old and facing an ethical dilemma, a family problem or a tough decision on what direction to take in your life, I assure you there isn’t going to be someone to hand you a model answer.

Wrestle with it, and grow as a GP student. Grow as a person.

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Blogger and 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.

To view tutors recommended by him, click here.

English or General Paper tutors keen to be listed on this website (consistently ranked top 10-15 on Google for GP tutors/ tuition) 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.

Read GP model essays here.

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Crack down on inconsiderate smoking neighbours: my response to a Forum letter

Lit cigarette emitting plenty of smoke in a dim place

I was quite struck by this letter to the Straits Times Forum on July 18, 2017. The writer, like me, has suffered from the effects of secondhand smoke drifting into her HDB flat (public housing flat in Singapore, for the benefit of my international readers) from her neighbours’ units. Below is her letter, followed by my response.

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Crack down on inconsiderate smoking neighbours

Published Jul 18, 2017, 5:00 am SGT
Straits Times

I am one of the HDB dwellers who have been exposed to second-hand smoke from neighbours living in the flat below.

In my case, the family of three are all chain smokers and, on weekends, they would invite their friends, who are also smokers.

They smoke in the balcony, bedrooms, kitchen and toilets with the doors and windows wide open. Ceiling fans and exhaust fans expel cigarette smoke from their flat.

Though I had been suffering from chronic respiratory infections since moving into the flat five years ago, I was unaware of the harmfulness of the second-hand smoke until a chest X-ray during a medical check up last year showed that I had a growth in my lower right lung.

Read the full letter here.

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My comments

The problem is complex and requires both very frank discussion and a strong will to resolve.

On the one hand, everyone has the right not to be harmed physically by others. On the other hand, society widely acknowledges that smokers have the right to smoke. Now that smoking is banned in all common areas of HDB estates, it is difficult for smokers to find a place to smoke except for their own home. But when they do so, smoke wafts outside and affects their neighbours. As a society, we need to have a dialogue and negotiate our rights when they come into conflict. Does a smoker have the right to smoke in such a way that he significantly harms the health of others? I think most would say no. In that case, how do we define “significantly harm”?

Usually when one’s neighbours smoke, the toxins come in through one window and you can just close that window. But Ms Kong’s is an extreme case where you have multiple people smoking in different parts of one flat. You can’t reasonably expect her to close all her windows.

Yes, you can have legislation to ban smoking in apartments (if any MP has the concern and gumption to push for it) but that cannot be the whole solution. Because enforcement can never be everywhere. In my old block, people were smoking everywhere – void deck, common corridor, staircase. All that a selfish, thoughtless person needed to do was glance around, make sure there was no NEA officer around, and light up.

It’s like the littering problem. We have stiff fines for littering, but we still have plenty of litter around Singapore.

Thus we need to also build a society whose behaviour is driven not only by financial carrot and stick, but love and consideration for fellow human beings.

This will require a fundamental rethinking and soul-searching in Singapore society.

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Blogger and 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.

To view tutors recommended by him, click here.

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

Read GP model essays here.

 

 

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Singapore needs to move beyond the Lee family

move beyond

As mud, dust and fire swirl around the bitter feud taking place within Singapore’s pre-eminent Lee family, a calm, highly thoughtful, impressively knowledgeable voice emerges on new media presenting the fruits of his soul-searching on the kind of political system Singapore needs in the post-Lee Kuan Yew era. The article is also highly balanced, and therefore I consider it a must-read for all Singaporeans.

GP students have much to learn from the way the writer argues for his point a healthy respect for the facts, a determination to be fair to even the opposite point of view and respect for different perspectives, and making his case with force and authentic feeling while backing up his statements with logic.

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By subrathiru

We have been in a limbo for a while now about where we want to go. As usual, in our country, the talk is about the future of the economy. Interestingly, the future economy is not going to tie in well with a model of authoritarian control. Free-spiritedness and creative thinking will be the currency of the future. There is obviously a realisation within policy circles that we need to get prepared for technological disruption. The only problem is that while everyone foresees disruption, nobody is willing to take bold steps to free up this society.

Read more here.

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Blogger and website owner Steven Ooi, a First Class Honours grad from NUS, retired from a distinguished 14-year career as an English and General Paper tutor in 2016.

To view tutors recommended by him, click here.

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

Read GP model essays here.

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Climate change pact: Trump shouldn’t have, but Duterte has to

West Cebu Industrial Park

West Cebu Industrial Park in the Philippines

A commentary by Manila Times journalist Rigoberto D. Tiglao supporting Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s decision not to honour his country’s commitment to the Paris Climate Agreement.

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PRESIDENT Trump’s announcement that the US will pull out of the landmark Paris Climate Agreement adopted in 2015 has shocked the world, with near universal condemnation of the move.

After all, the US is the world’s second biggest polluter—accounting for 14 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emission—after China with 30 percent. If you include India’s 7 percent, these three countries already account for 51 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions. If the US doesn’t cut its carbon emissions, the climate pact is doomed.

China has suddenly become the world’s environmental leader, announcing that it wouldn’t pull out of the pact which it struggled mightily not to join.

After all, the US is now the most advanced industrialized nation, and had already polluted the world for over a century, using the cheap, polluting coal the West is now condemning. In contrast, China is still struggling to be an industrialized nation, and its argument against joining the pact is certainly valid: Now that the West has already become industrialized, it has no right to demand that China stop using the cheapest source of power, coal, that the Western countries used before.

Trump’s move though is good news for us. We could use it as a perfect excuse to withdraw from the past administration’s commitment to the pact that was so unrealistic, and could even block our development.

Read more here.

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Blogger and website owner Steven Ooi, a First Class Honours grad from NUS, retired from a distinguished 14-year career as an English and General Paper tutor in 2016.

To view tutors recommended by him, click here.

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

Read GP model essays here.

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