If you’re in urgent need of help, Samaritans of Singapore 1800 221 4444 (Suicide Prevention/Crisis hotline) Hello! This is the first part of a series of evidence-based mental health articles that’ll cover a broad range of topics: free and affordable mental health resources in Singapore, how we can seek psychiatric help, strategies we can use to improve your wellbeing, and stories of people with mental disorders. The next article will cover more on mental health and on seeking help, so stay tuned! This article will cover some general questions on mental health, psychiatry, and psychology. If you have any feedback or questions you’d like to see answered in future articles, click here! Will seeking psychiatric help or having a mental illness affect my job prospects? Will I have to declare my seeing a psychiatrist or having a mental disorder when applying for a job? No. The Tripartite Guidelines on Fair Employment Practices, which the MOM refers to when dealing with employee discrimination, has stated that employers are not allowed to request job applicants to declare mental health issues or discriminate against those with mental health issues. Who will know that I’ve sought psychiatric help? Will my parents know that I sought therapy or counselling? Counsellors and psychotherapists are generally required to keep all the information that you’ve given them confidential. In some cases, such as when a professional believes that you may harm yourself or other people, your confidentiality rights will be waived. For some counselling organisations, like TOUCH Youth Intervention, therapy for minors cannot begin unless they’ve received parental consent. Whereas for some private practices, psychiatrists will see minors without their parents knowing. Even at the Institute of Mental Health, many psychiatrists see minors who request not to involve their parents. Nonetheless, clinicians generally recommend that you inform your parents before seeking help. But if you feel that telling your parents about your mental health issues can worsen your mental health issues, you can always ask whoever you’re seeing their protocols and inform them of your concerns. For school counsellors, the issue is a bit more complicated. School counsellors often have to file reports that’ll be seen by their superiors, like principals and vice-principals, and private therapists and counsellors don’t have to do this. And because these higher-ups don’t receive the same ethics training as counsellors do, they might not know what to do with this information. Do I have a mental disorder? Only a diagnostician (eg. a therapist, psychologist or psychiatrist) can determine whether or not you have a mental disorder. Anyone can develop a mental disorder at any stage of life. Some disorders like depression, anxiety, and eating disorders can arise at any age and to any demographic, while other disorders like ASD and ADHD arise and may start to present symptoms at very young ages (APA, 2013). Different mental disorders have different symptoms and can occur as a result of different reasons; if you suspect you have a mental disorder, it’s always best to seek professional help. Should I seek psychiatric help? If you have thoughts of suicide, the intention to commit suicide, or thoughts of hurting other people, you should seek psychiatric help immediately. If you feel that “something is not quite right”, the American Psychiatric Association has the following list of symptoms as warning signs of mental illness: Sleep or appetite changes: Dramatic sleep and appetite changes or decline in personal care Mood changes: Rapid or dramatic shifts in emotions or depressed feelings Withdrawal: Recent social withdrawal and loss of interest in activities previously enjoyed Drop in functioning: An unusual drop in functioning, at school, work or social activities, such as quitting sports, failing in school or difficulty performing familiar tasks Problems thinking: Problems with concentration, memory or logical thought and speech that are hard to explain Increased sensitivity: Heightened sensitivity to sights, sounds, smells or touch; avoidance of over-stimulating situations Apathy: Loss of initiative or desire to participate in any activity Feeling disconnected: A vague feeling of being disconnected from oneself or one’s surroundings; a sense of unreality Illogical thinking: Unusual or exaggerated beliefs about personal powers to understand meanings or influence events; illogical or “magical” thinking typical of childhood in an adult Nervousness: Fear or suspiciousness of others or a strong nervous feeling Unusual behavior: Odd, uncharacteristic, peculiar behavior The APA recommends that if you notice yourself experiencing several of these symptoms, seeking help may be useful to you. If you notice a person exhibiting these symptoms, it could also indicate that they may need psychiatric intervention. What exactly is a mental disorder/illness anyway? “Mental illness, also called mental health disorders, refers to a wide range of mental health conditions — disorders that affect your mood, thinking and behaviour. Examples of mental illness include depression, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, eating disorders and addictive behaviours.” —The Mayo Clinic (Hyperlinks my own.) There are hundreds of types of mental disorders, each of which present with different symptoms. If you feel like you may have a mental illness, or that you display traits of mental illnesses as listed by the APA, it’ll best to see a clinician or mental health professional to receive any treatment, if necessary. One-in-seven Singaporeans have faced a mental disorder, while one-in-three youths in Singapore have self-harmed. Mental illnesses are prevalent among all demographics, and early-intervention can mean the difference between life and death. If you’re looking for online-resources available to you during the current circuit breaker period, this document provides a comprehensive list. (I am not affiliated with the author(s) of the document). Further readings American Psychiatric Association. What is Psychiatry? https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/what-is-psychiatry American Psychological Association. Understanding psychotherapy and how it works. https://www.apa.org/helpcenter/understanding-psychotherapy National Health Service. (2018). Antidepressants. Retrieved from https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/antidepressants/ National Institute of Mental Health. (2016). Mental Health Medications. Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/mental-health-medications/index.shtml WebMD. Guide to Psychiatry and Counselling. https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/guide-to-psychiatry-and-counseling References American Psychiatric Association. (1994). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th ed.). Washington, DC: Author. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.
It happens to the best of us. After countless relationships and friendships in your pursuit of a soul mate, or just someone you thought would be there for you; you’ve taken too many hits, you’re too tired, too emotionally drained. You feel unwanted, unloved by a world that just passes by. You belong nowhere, no one cares. Your self-worth spirals down an abyss day by day until you are too tired to track how deep it went. Tired, lost. And no one cares. Well, I do. I’m here to tell you it’s okay to feel what you’re feeling because it’s what makes us human. I might even give you a pat on your back for your courage to love. If negativity is still what you’re feeling right now, I’m glad I found you. Once a friend told me: “It’s okay to be emotional, just make sure that you’re not a pushover. There’s a difference.” Since my earliest relationship, I thought love was just giving and doing things for that special someone or that group of special people until you could give no more. Their happiness ranked before yours. That was love to me. Sure, it was beautiful: You felt a connection, an instant vibe with that special person, and the next thing you know your entire world revolves around him or her. Days, weeks before your next date, you start planning where to go, what food to have. You take notes of what she likes. What she doesn’t never ever appears in front of her. She invades your mind with every thought, action, and breath. She demolishes the walls you spent so long building up from the one that came before her. She steals your heart. Knowingly or not, you’ve put in feelings, you felt “emotionally attached”. You went all in for that mirage of a future with her/him that you saw. Then it happens. Whether to you it went out like a slow, long burning candle, or like fireworks bursting brilliantly and dying instantly; it ends. The person leaves a gasping void. You're strangers once more. Your heart falls into a million tiny bits. I exaggerate, but you get the picture. We have all, at some point in time, been there. Hey, if it hasn’t happened for you, good for you! But if it has, here’s the problem: When you put in so much time and attention into someone you lose sight of someone more important. When the wind blows the wool off your eyes and your rational mind takes back control, why base your happiness, your own happiness, on others, people you totally have no control over? In your quest to make someone else happy, you lose control of your own happiness, my friend. Time to take it back. Do whatever makes you happy (As long as no one gets hurt and it isn’t illegal). Go out with friends, make new ones. Explore new places, pick up new hobbies. For once do things that make you happy. Not for anyone but you. Don’t let your world revolve around a person. Start by snapping out of social media For one, you’re not Santa Claus. It’s not your job to take full detailed notes with picture illustrations of who has been naughty or nice (Yes Instagram and Snapchat I’m looking at you). Don’t make it yours. So keep less track of what others are doing and start living your life. Let’s be honest. Being human, we self-glorify. When we’re living an awesome life, we like people to know the fun we’re having And that’s okay. It becomes unhealthy when it becomes a competition, where we put our self-esteem on the line. We unconsciously start to compare who’s doing cooler stuff, who is getting more likes, who’s getting more followers, or perhaps you find out about that party that everyone else was invited to but you. We all know what happens after. So use it occasionally, and spend more time building relationships in real life. If you haven't travelled, you haven't lived. Read this amazing article on traveling. Right now, everything surrounding you could be negativity and bad thoughts. So just drop that mental-emotional baggage and go. Fly to a new place. Meet new people and see new things. Soon you’ll realize that the world is much bigger than the sadness you trap yourself in. In comparison to the humongous world you have yet to see, your troubles would seem so small. Find yourself again, grow. It all boils down to what you gave up for the happiness of someone who was truly never meant to be yours. ‘Re-meet’ yourself for the first time. Who were you before bad memories and thoughts of her/him at 4am in the morning came along? A cheerful and happier person, that’s for sure. What made you happy? What do you like to do? Set goals, form beliefs and set standards. If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything. Plan for your own future. I’m assuming here, but I don’t think you’re dying anytime soon. You still have a long way to go, many years to live, many better people to meet. Pick up a new skill, a new hobby, a third language, anything! Be someone you would be proud of. For you Understand that what you’re going through is just a phase in life. How long you’re in this phase depends entirely on you. Fully commit to yourself and believe you’ll get through; you will. Learn, grow, overcome. It is through the bad that we can appreciate the good; meeting the wrong person develops our eye for the right one. So the next time when you meet someone or something that even slightly resembles what you went through and how it made you feel, get the hell out of there. I got you buddy. And you got this too. It’s all going to be okay.
One of our users recently asked me for advice on his/her situation. I thought it would be helpful to share the correspondence. It is reproduced here with his/her permission and some minor edits. The Question I’m a J1 BCME student. I’m not doing that well. I’m considering if I should change subjects and if so whether I should (voluntarily or involuntarily) retain one year to do that. I want to switch to a hybrid combination: maybe switching to H1 Math, removing Econs, and taking H2 E. Lit. Would it be advisable for someone who has absolutely zero experience in English literature to take H2 E. Lit? I had wanted to take it (as part of combined humanities) at the 'O' levels, but the principal of my school then just didn't believe in the value of it; they didn't want to open a class. For context, I wouldn’t say I’m gifted in the languages, having gotten a B3 for English at the 'O' levels. But I do know I like English as a subject. It's something I have liked studying since young, and I do take pride in it and see it as one of my stronger fronts. I’m fine with reading books. I didn't say "love" because I guess it really depends on what I'm reading. What worries me the greatest is that enjoying a good story is NOT the same as analyzing and picking it apart. Googling about H2 Literature intimidates me - the skill and immense quality expected of H2 English Literature candidates are things I fear I may not meet. Of the 6 poems you shared here, I could only get 2 of them (poems no. 2 and 4). My understanding of the rest is entirely partial... and messy. :'( I guess it is that thing about there not being fixed answers in Literature - not necessarily a bad thing at all, I agree, but I'm always worried my answers may not be good enough. Is Literature really that much of a subject where "you either have it or you don't"? Given the above, the bell curve for literature is probably very steep as only those who are confident in it take it. And the Humanities Scholars are required to take it as well. Literature can seem so simple as a subject yet so daunting. What if I get 'writer's block'? What if I simply can't "see the light"? There are few people I can approach in school about this and Google hasn't been the most helpful. Given what you (now) know of my situation, what would you advise me to do? Regards, PTC (not his/her actual initials) My Response Hi PTC, I think you should not take H2 literature. Here's why: Even though I strongly believe that everyone should learn literature, learning literature is not the same as taking H2 literature in school. To be very honest, JC is just a way for you to get As. Anything that makes it difficult to get As should be seriously (re)considered. It does sound like H2 literature will not be easy for you. The concerns you raised are very valid. Analyzing a book is not the same as reading one. Everyone enjoys a good movie but few people can ever film a blockbuster. Note that this says nothing about whether you are actually good in literature, nothing about whether you can compete with a bell curve of Humanities scholars. An O level grade is not much to draw conclusions from. It is more of how I suspect that you will not be blessed with the luxury of time, resources, and a conducive environment to study literature given your current situation. I still think literature is easy once you get it. And it is not hard to get. But school connotes homework, exams, and other mundane requirements. People who are good at a subject don’t necessarily do well at them in school. This is especially so for literature because we are trying to force-fit a living, open-ended art into dead, close-ended modes of instruction and assessment. Don’t get me wrong: exams are simply the pragmatic way to go. And literature is a lot more disciplined and methodical than most people give it credit for. It is just that exams are structural constraints dictated by the needs of industrialised schooling and ill-suited to encourage the pursuit of anything really meaningful. If you really like literature the better way is to do subjects that are easier to score in, save time, and spend that extra time analyzing the books you like to read and learning true literature (few Singapore schools teach it). Pragmatically speaking as well, it seems you are well into your J1 year, and unless you are really doing badly for all your other subjects, switching now is not a good idea. Please don’t be disheartened. I hear that NUS FASS has a good literature course which you can always aim for (provided your A levels are good enough...). Mark Twain, one of the best writers ever, said never to let your schooling interfere with your education. If I were you, I'd try my best to handle (read: do well in) school in the most efficient way so I have time to do things that matter. Hope this helps. Jerrold Anyone have any thoughts on this? Am I right, or should PTC just take the plunge?
That day, I knew my life would change. If you’ve gone through national service, you would know how people going into it would have felt. The shuffling of feet, whispers telling their partners how much they were going to be missed - these I did not imagine. I was there. I dreaded it, and dragged my feet into the interchange. It was melodramatic. Just like that local movie, we took the ferry onto the island. Swore our lives into potentially fatal allegiance, clearly not knowing what was going to happen. We left the dining area, formed up in neat rows, and turned around to look at our loved ones waving back. Till now, everyone’s journey was the same, equally pathetic. But mine was about to be different. My group took a long detour around the area and proceeded into our cluster. I barely had time to note the large letter “T” hanging on the wall before we were screamed at to face the floor, push the Earth. This is it, this is what the military is. We were instructed to do many things which were simple, if only because it was simple to just follow instructions. I missed home immediately, but I thought I could quickly adapt. I was ready. Days later, I was told to go to the medical centre to take my height and weight. I took off my shoes and lifted my feet onto the machine. It spit out a piece of paper: ‘BMI : 27.1’ Unclear what’s going to happen, I waited for my name to be called. ‘As you are overweight, we have to remove you from BMT and recourse you. Here’s your status, PES D (temporary pes) and you will be put Out Of Training (OOT).’ I wouldn’t say I am a smart man, so I didn’t argue or ask much. It was abrupt. I returned and my Officer-Commanding spoke to the few of us at night. What he said still rings in my head: ‘You guys will be put out of BMT, and recourse into an obese training company. You guys are heavy and the pressure put on the knee will be intense as our training will be tough, and there will be a lot of training that includes running. To avoid getting you guys injured and having knee problems, we will put you into a programme that allows you to train more progressively. ‘ Stunned, I asked, ‘Sir, so what does the obese BMT do?’ ‘You will run every day for a few weeks to cut down weight so you can embark on more intense training’ I was stumped. That seemed no different from what we were already doing here. Being new to the Army I didn’t (dare) ask further. I packed my belongings again after taking everything out on the first day. My sergeant shook my hand and said ‘ORD LO’. What a day. I spent the next two weeks in the HQ, basically not doing anything but watering plants, playing table tennis and sleeping. Reporting to camp at 8, waiting for lunch at 12, dying to go back at 5. Some people loved it, I didn’t. The next Monday we received our posting orders - we were finally getting out of there! On mine, the letters “DVR” were printed. I was excited for a while, thinking that they somehow sent me to the divers. Maybe a heavier person dives faster. I was quite wrong. I made great friends during my driving course and got posted to Nee Soon Camp. There, days were long and nights were short. I learnt a great deal. But eventually I asked my Motor Transport Officer, the officer in charge, to send me back to BMT. Stunned, he asked why. ‘Because I want to be an inspiration to others, sir. To those preparing to enlist. I aspire to inspire.’ I think he laughed, but he was extremely efficient. By next month I was in an obese company. Those were the best days of my army life. I fought and worked hard, making sure that my performance would guarantee me a place in command school. I achieved the Platoon Best award. I treasured my remaining time with my BMT mates because I knew that after our final 24km we would all march down different, diverging paths. We tossed our caps and split our ways. A week later, the manpower department called me. They told me, me, that I was selected for OCS. But I needed to extend my service. I extended my service. OCS was difficult. I wasn’t a very fit and strong person despite my size. All I had was the determination to work hard. But I wasn’t someone who was outgoing and outspoken, the sort usually thought of as ‘leaders’. My OCS journey was a tad tougher and longer to me as compared to the rest. Having been hit by a knee injury in the early phase of my cadet term, trying to be physically capable as my stronger peers and trying to crack my brains on how to complete the detailed planning of a battle were serious obstacles for me. Still, I needed to complete this course. Every night, misery and worry hid behind my smile. Sometimes I would ask myself if it was worth all this trouble – why should I go through all these difficulty? Why not just serve these 2 years and end it quick? But I looked around me and I knew that, whatever difficulties I was facing, I wasn’t the only one. I made it to the 18th of April, commissioning day. Tossing my peak cap was a lot like tossing my jockey cap. There was an inexplicable euphoria accompanied by a deep-seated sadness, rooted in the knowledge that the band of brothers I fought with in OCS will be embarking onto different command lives very soon. I realized how cruel reality can be and how constant change can be. But I knew that we have to adapt to changes to be stronger. Now here I am - just disrupted my service to study - and I still feel that all that trouble was worth it. Enlisted, September 11, 2013. Removed from BMT 3 days later. Driving Course, November 2013. Recoursed BMT, February 21, 2014. Commissioned, April 18, 2015.I hope my story can inspire future batches. Because if we, this generation, don’t know why we must defend, then those after us have a thousand more reasons to argue why we don’t. To those who are facing difficulties and hardship, never, never, never ever give up. Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass, it’s about learning how to dance in the rain. Happy 50th birthday Singapore. - 2LT Yiliang
Say you’re playing basketball. You dribble past your defender into space. It’s a long way from the net, but you’re confident – you’ve been practicing for way too long. You take the shot, just as the defense scrambles to get in front of you. Too late. You timed it perfectly. The ball leaves your hand with enough backspin to make a table tennis player proud. It takes off at the optimum 45 degree angle, maximizing distance to power. Swish. 2 points for you. Back on defense. The guy who was just guarding you dribbles up court. Clumsily, he hangs around the edge of the3-point line. You stand alert, daring him to make his move. He puts up a half-hearted jab to your left. You don’t bite. Another jab, this time with as much persuasiveness as an insurance salesman trying to sell you keychains. You stand firm, glued on him. With some unease, he sizes up the basket. He puts up a shot. It is the ugliest thing you’ve ever seen. The ball groans as he chucks it forward from chest-height. The instant the ball leaves his brutish grip, your opponent spasmatically freezes into a poor excuse for a follow-through, as if he only then remembered his coach’s insistence on proper form. The ball crashes through the air with as much grace as a hand-grenade, clipping the front rim at an impossibly horizontal angle. The shot actually had top-spin. Which pushes the ball slightly forward as it rebounds high off the front rim, and falls square through the net. Swish. 3 points for him. For those slightly less familiar with basketball, or those yet to get what I’m driving at (pun not entirely unintended), allow me to put it simply: If you’re standing in the 2-point area, no matter good you are, you will never get 3 points. And if you’re shooting outside the 3-point line, no matter how bad you are, you will get 3 points if the shot falls. And for those unwilling to put 2 and 3 together to appreciate what this means for exams, let me say this: If you want an A, you have to do things which the rules say will give you an A. It does not matter how much (or how little) you work or even how good you are at the subject. If you want an A, do things which give you an A. Now you’re probably asking – how do I know what gives me an A? In case you haven’t realized, the entire education system is geared towards knocking this into your head. Model answers, ten year series, model students, marking rubrics: all these are really there to show, tell, plague and indoctrinate you to the path of the A grade. So the first step is not working hard at the subject – it is finding out where the 3-point line is drawn. What do you need for an A GP essay? Is it structure, language, examples, or evaluation? And lines are specific, not blur, so find out – what kind of structure? What kind of words and phrases? Must my examples be original, or does it suffice if I re-use that epithet on global warming killing us all that everyone uses? Do I need to be critical in my evaluation, or will a simple model essay regurgitation do the job? Or, for econs: Does it suffice if you write entirely L3 stuff? Or does the system require you to show that you do know the L1 stuff like the basic definitions? Must key words be there or do you get to creatively express yourself (read: no you don’t)? Do you really need to think, or are there freely available model answers to copy from, especially when there is sometimes simply no time to properly understand the subject? The biggest problem is idealism. We are brought up to think it is about hard work, doing things the ‘right’ way, acquiring skills over rote learning. Sounds great, but the system does not work that way. Take a look at the model essays you have. Do they really demonstrate curiosity, critical thinking, and subject mastery? Or are they masterclasses in grade-sniping worthy of Craig Harrison? The elements of an A answer are not obvious, but discernible, and are seldom about actual rather than apparent understanding. Why else the insistence on key words, key definitions, and fixed writing structures? Einstein said “if you can’t explain something simply, then you don’t understand it enough”. These key words and whatnot are in no way attempts to explain things simply. Don’t believe me? Try answering your next exam in simple language – stuff primary school students can understand. Say things like: demand is how much people want something and can pay for it; price elasticity of demand is how easily people can stop wanting something. Tell your GP tutor that issues like freedom of speech and human rights are context-dependent and capable of no easy answers; write your essays in a mature way which acknowledges both sides instead of distorting either one to force yourself to take a stand you don’t really comprehend. Let me know if you get anything above a C. Put up an A essay and it will get an A even if you had to memorise an entire book without understanding anything within it. Even if you’ve taken all allowable shortcuts and went for every tuition class conceivable. Conversely, put up a C essay and it will get a C even if you’ve studied hard, on your own, and without expending a cent of your parent’s money on dubious enrichment classes. That is how the system works. If you’ve been following me, you’re probably angry. You should be. Everyone is angry when they find out they’ve been lied to; that fairytales aren’t real. Schools are not like when Plato first invented them. They’re not about individual teacher-student guidance and achieving philosophical epiphany and epic meaning. They’re industrial plants necessary to produce people who will produce things. If you’re playing basketball, chances are you don’t give a dime whether your point guard understands quantum physics and how it may affect a basketball’s trajectory. You just want him to pass with speed, accuracy, precision – howsoever he does it. So no one really cares how you get an A as long as you do. Provided you don’t cheat – but cheating is tremendously difficult to define nowadays. Say you buy an essay online (google “buy essay online” – it’s more common than you think) and your school doesn’t realise. You get an A. Is that cheating? Say you didn’t buy it, but did lots of research and found a good one, which you promptly submitted. Is that wrong? It’s plagiarism, technically, but some of us no longer believe it’s cheating if you don’t get caught. It’s a two-way thing. Degrees now cost hundreds of thousands. You could have bought a house with that money. If you don’t get a proper degree, you’re sinking in all that for near zero returns on investment. It’s all about the bottom line, isn’t it? If you’re angry that’s good. And important. It means you’re smart. Smart enough to find the 3-point line, but also to know that the line is only there because we say so. Because the rules say anything within the line is only worth 2 points. But you get to decide otherwise. That doesn’t mean you can change the rules though. If you want to play the exam game, you have to play by the rules. Whatever you do, you’ll get the points they say you’ll get. But you can play another game – the game of being a good shot, for example. The game of learning and not exam-taking. It won’t be easy. The system naturally rewards those who live by it. If you want those rewards, you have to as well. It is an unfortunate incident of modern life that it is phenomenally difficult to abandon the system. If you’re in JC especially, you can’t really say, “I’m done with exams, now to real life”, even if that’s a good path for you. Have the pragmatism to know what you need for good grades, the intelligence to know what you need for a good life, and wisdom always to know the difference. Remember: If you’re standing in the 2-point area, no matter good you are, you will never get 3 points. If you want an A, you have to do things which the rules say will get you an A. Now you have the ball. What will you do?
“The teacher affects eternity. He can never tell when his influence will stop.” Over the years, I was fortunate to be under the guidance of a handful of people who taught me lessons that changed my life. From schoolteachers to private tutors, military instructors, and even friends, these people left such a great impact on me that they invariably changed the way I think and learn. Back in secondary school, English Langauge was a subject I struggled with. I found no joy in reading and had little to no interest in English classes, which spanned the longest period then. English lessons were a painful ordeal at worst and an extended recess at best. My mother enrolled me into English tuition and things took a turn from there. When I first entered his class, I was taken aback. Unlike typical school lessons, there were no flashy presentation slides, no shambolic mind maps nor endless grammar drills. Yet his classes sparked my interest in reading, writing, and falling in love with the language. It was not because he had an excellent teaching pedagogy – things were kept simple and minimalistic. Neither was it because he had ‘key methods’ to tackle exam questions. If at all, his classes at first glance were far from interesting. It was just chalk, board, and himself. What was in play and how did it have such profound implications for me? His passion. His passion for the subject was overwhelming and overwhelming. He spoke with zest and enthusiasm about a myriad of topics. The way he encouraged us to steer away from rote learning and foster curiosity, to ask ‘why things happen’, beyond knowing ‘how things happen’. He challenged us to think rather than to memorise. Over time, I began to love the subject and, more specifically, I began to love his classes. The best teachers don’t have the best teaching methods; they inspire you and make you love the subject. When we enter junior college, Economics is a subject almost entirely alien to us. The enthusiasm of studying a new subject vanished as quickly as it materialised. In fact, I vividly recall how I first struggled to understand the concept of price elasticity of demand and the punctuation of ceteris paribus in our essays. Achieving single digit scores for economics tests was commonplace and tutors never failed to hound their students for the need to evaluate their arguments. But what the heck is evaluate? Dark days shrouded upon us as we transitioned from microeconomics to macroeconomics without actually knowing what we’ve learnt for the former. Until my class had a new economics tutor who gave us a beacon of hope for a subject that no one really understood. Our new tutor, passionate about the subject, was eager to share the joy in learning economics. As a young college tutor, he was very much aware of the difficulties students faced in grasping economic concepts. He took time to devise a structure and technique to aid students in analysing and understanding them. His passion was not only for the activity of teaching, but also for the ends it serves. Such teachers have humility in knowing that they serve a purpose larger than themselves. "Those who love teaching teach others to love learning." Even outside formal academic education, the great teacher continues to inspire – this time in the domain of military training. “Lead by example”, “do the right things, even when no one is looking”, “integrity” and “care for soldiers”. These are some of the mantras that were drilled into us from the beginning of the officer cadet course. You might just roll your eyes and dismiss these as foolish ideals. Yet I’ve actually met someone who embodies all these values and never fail to show us that it can be done. His dedication, discipline and concern towards the platoon inspired many to strive towards achieving such ideals. Most will remember him as the instructor who gave the most terrifying ‘tekan’ sessions. But guess what? The same instructor, who everyone hated for giving us relentless and brutal punishments, became the same instructor who touched the hearts of most of his students. The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The great teacher inspires. You don’t have to be an excellent teacher to change the hearts and minds of others. The people whom I have shared above weren’t the best teachers. Yet they made the most impact on their students’ lives. They exhibited the same passion for the subjects they taught, unwavering dedication to help others understand what they teach, and genuine concern for the well-being of their students. Because of what they have done, they have provided an inspiration for their students and set an impetus for them to change for the better. The things they did were not superhuman feats but very much achievable by you and me. It is the genuine desire to impact others, and to help others achieve greater heights, which inspires. Many of us will definitely have someone who deeply inspired us because of certain things they have done. It will be my greatest wish to see more people taking the initiative to help one another grow both intellectually and emotionally, to fervently speak about their passions and to share lessons they have learned with others. The next time you meet your friends, try speaking about your passions, try sharing something new you’ve learned, or lend a helping hand to those in need. It is passion, dedication and compassion that inspires. It may not seem like much now, but these are the small things that change lives.
We’ve talked about it with relatives and friends, heard stories, and even watched a film on it. Amidst the elation and euphoria of post-graduation freedom, the thought of enlistment is both dreaded nightmare and inevitable reality. Many of us are unwilling to forfeit our short-lived freedom and most are unfamiliar with the army. So here’s a list of 11 things I learnt in BMT, which I hope provides a glimpse into the first stage of military life. 1. Expect homesickness. For many of us, this will be the first time we are away from our family or friends for this long. Gone are the days where we can leave our beds in an untidy mess and return to sleep having it done for us. Communal living also means you have to be considerate to your friends in the same bunk. No one likes a person who throws his trash everywhere. Homesickness is common and it's part of the adjustment process. I recommend bringing along pictures of your friends or loved ones. It helps. 2. Expect long days and short nights. I always tell people that "you never really know how long a day is until you enlist", and that's a truth. As a recruit, you're constantly working round the clock. The first activity starts at six in the morning (or earlier) and only ends around ten at night. After that it's a mass orgy in the shower to meet the lights-out time. I’ll always remember having to share a shower cubicle which three section mates to expedite the showering process just so we can get to bed on time. This cycle goes on pretty much for the two months in BMT and the only respite you will probably have is your seven hours of ‘mandatory uninterrupted rest’. Military time and civilian time seem to run on different schedules. A day will feel like a year in Tekong. That thought may stress you up initially, but you'll soon come to terms with it. 3. Be prepared to learn a new language. Army lingo is unfamiliar to most and punctuated with many acronyms. Probably because it simplifies communication between troops in wartime. "No go", "half section", "drop five", "tio stun". You probably don’t understand their meanings now but rest assured you will be a well-versed native speaker soon. Then there's "IA IA IA IA IA" and "arty arty arty”. There are some which don’t really make sense like "bua long long" which actually means “to take your own sweet time”. And finally, the two most hated and dreaded words in BMT: "force prep" and "stand by" (which is pronounced in the weirdest way possible). When you hear them...be prepared to face the floor. 4. Sometimes you just have to suck it up. More often than not, you're going to disagree with some instructions your commanders give, their lack of understanding or their unreasonable punishments. That's normal. Things don't always go our way. Sometimes we are just unaware of the rationale behind those instructions. Sometimes, it simply does not make sense but we have to do it anyway. Instead of bearing grudges, take this as a learning point. How are you going to give instructions so that your subordinates understand your intent? How are you going to treat those ranked below you? Some of you will eventually go into specialist or officer school to be trained as commanders. Observe the different styles of your commanders, learn what you think is good and discard what you think is undesirable. 5. You'll look ridiculous. You're bald. Get over it. 6. Be prepared to be pushed beyond your limits, both physically and mentally. The last time most of you ran was probably a good half a year ago. Your physical fitness has definitely plummeted and it's time to start the engines running again. Physical fitness aside, there is another aspect of fitness that we train for in the military: combat fitness, which is a rough mix of grit, attitude, skill, endurance, and morale. Soon enough, you'll be donning your SBO and carrying field packs for route marches. It's no easy task. The sudden heavy load on your back would push you to your physical as well as mental limits, especially when you go on longer distances. Digging shell scrapes will also challenge the limits of your mental resilience. It's a herculean task that I have trouble with even today. My only advice: wear gloves, secure your rifle, keep digging. 7. Holding weapons is not as cool as it looks. Seriously, you will know what I mean soon enough. The excitement fades away as quickly as it comes. ND/AD, IA, rifle cleaning, handling with care, sleeping on it during SITEST. Suddenly a rifle becomes the most sacred thing in your life. Cool? 8. There will be a point in time you'll want to sign on. Kudos to the SAF recruiters for this and I guarantee that you will experience this phase. I concede that the SAF scholarships are attractive but it comes with a hefty price tag - six years of commitment. There are cases of scholars regretting joining the organization, but cannot leave. It becomes, at best, a painful obligation. I am not against the idea of having a career in the military but a military life is not everyone's cup of tea. There are also cases of scholars uttering loving their career. Look beyond the prospects of having an overseas education funded, or signing on just to get out of a seemingly difficult army life (it’s not much better elsewhere) - wait a little longer to see if the military suits you before making the commitment. 9. Don't live your life in army. An advice from a good friend. You'll be spending five, sometimes six, days a week in the army. Everything that revolves around you is about the army. When you meet your friends, you're going to speak about army. This often bores the girls out (we're sorry). Do not lose yourself in this vortex. Continue to pursue your interests or hobbies even with the limited time you have. You've got Monday to Friday for army. That’s more than enough. 10. Black tape is the panacea for everything. Fixing torn pants, securing items, silencing someone, concealment, bandage, and markings. Just about any problems you face under the sun, black tape never disappoints. 11. You're going to miss this place. You surely will. Especially when (or because) it’s over. I fondly recall my time in BMT and they were one of my most memorable moments. My section mates connected well and although we were quite the mavericks, we had the most fun out of the rest. You're going to meet people who will be your close friends even after you pass out of BMT - friends and commanders alike. So there you go, 11 things I learned in BMT. Everyone will have different experiences and tell you different tales when they leave Tekong. There is a lot more you can learn, but I will leave that for you to discover yourself. In no time, you will be embarking on your baptism of fire - the 24km graduation march - and then you will have your share of experiences to brag about. All the best! -written for my juniors and friends enlisting in Feb and May 2015.
It’s been four years since I graduated from JC, and even longer since I last had to attend one of those “sex-ed” things. How things have changed. Now students have social media. It was very encouraging to read this elaborate piece written by my remote junior. If students standing up for what they believe in with reasoned, thoughtful responses is not a sign of our education system working, I don’t know what is. But Ms Tan might have stepped into a minefield. In her response she deals with topics almost as sensitive as her sex-ed class portrays ‘gals’ to be – sexism, homosexuality, religion. It is not a battle that can be won by way of Facebook Post. So I write in general support of her courage, and I hope to divert the discussion from unnecessary dangers. In short, she’s right – failed jokes are bad, enforcing views on others is bad, perpetuating gender stereotypes and rape culture is bad. Rape is bad. There is really no argument here. But to be fair, her complaints against Focus on the Family were based on a four hour workshop conducted (I presume) by one or a few employees of the organization. It may not be the best idea, from this experience, to demonize the FotF as a “global Christian ministry known for their socially conservative views and agenda”. I don’t think she intended this, but she implies that being (a) a Christian ministry and/or (b) conservative is wrong in itself. This is the stuff critics look for, misinterpret, and have a field day attacking you on. Perhaps we could just talk about the sex-ed class without saying anything about gender roles, homosexuality and religion. Can we? Let’s find out. On Sexism. Ms Tan's piece was great because she avoided the conventional “boys-are-better-than-girls” versus “girls-are-better-than-boys” abyss that such arguments often devolve into. Sexism exists regardless of gender, and she recognizes this well when she says this: Much as girls have been generalized and simplified in this booklet, so too have guys, and this is fair for neither gender. Well this makes me proud that I was from A13, merely 3 numbers away from her class A10. This gender-neutral analysis could have been emphasized when she continues with this: FotF would have you believe that guys are slaves to their hormones and therefore girls should take their unwanted attention in their stride…Certainly, we live in a male-dominated world, and for this reason, guys do tend to get away with more. Yet that they do get away with more does not mean that they should. FotF, however, seems to believe that anything a guy does is excusable just because he is a guy. Let’s not argue on whether we live in a male-dominated world. More importantly, the above seems, again unintendedly, to slip back into the “guys-against-girls” way of thinking. Why should a girl care about what a guy thinks in deciding what to wear? When we frame things that way, the answer is obviously “no, a girl should be free to dress as she wishes”. But let’s try gender-neutral framing here – Should a person care about what another person thinks in deciding what to wear? This makes the answer a little less obvious. Regardless of gender, thinking about others when attiring ourselves is social courtesy. There are nudists who think otherwise, but let’s just not. The point is that considering others’ impressions of us is a big reason why we even wear clothes at all in Sunny Singapore. That and the fines for public indecency. There must be some room to say that A shouldn’t dress this way for B’s sake. Plato said be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a difficult battle. We’re in this as humans first, guys and girls second, third, or maybe even fourth. So there are some things we should do for each other – not because guys have an obligation to respect girls and girls have an obligation to support guys, but because humans have an obligation to respect humans. The problem only arises when it is only a particular group of people must do this while others are allowed to do whatever they want. Discrimination makes things unfair. So Ms Tan gets it right when she points out that what her sex-ed class does wrong is to “belittle” girls while stoking guys’ egos. If that was really what FotF was trying to say, then they are wrong. But let’s not be too quick to say they were evil. I don’t think the FotF is out there to belittle women. There are enough people doing that as it is. What then could they have intended to achieve by “perpetuating the message that anything and everything guys do is excusable simply because it is wired into them”? Perhaps they weren’t trying to do that. After all I’d like to assume they meant well. That is not me saying that good intentions absolve them completely. Still, could they have in fact wanted to prevent, not perpetuate, rape? I think so. Suppose you bought a brand new iPhone 6. You like it a lot. You bring it downstairs for lunch. You order food. You leave the brand new iPhone 6, all 6.9mm of it, unattended on the table. Some misfit walks by and grabs it. It is your fault you lost the phone? No, because theft is theft. Even if you’ve left your revolutionary Retina display unattended. Theft is a crime. When the police catch the misfit, he’s not going walk free just because “you left it there”. Even if he proves that he’s a kleptomaniac who cannot help but steal things, he’s not wholly excusable. In fact if the police know he’s a compulsive thief he’s in for a bad time. But could you have played at least a tiny role in preventing the crime? I think so. Rape’s very different from theft. But I think the analogy holds. If we lived in a perfect world, you could leave your stunning iPhone 6 on the table and all misfits will control themselves because stealing is wrong. If we lived in a perfect world, you could wear whatever you wanted and never worry because everyone knows rape is wrong. Ms Tan is unassailable when she argues that girls should not have to bear the burden of guys’ inability to control themselves. She’s right that hormones excuse nothing. Indeed, I don’t think any accused rapist has ever succeeded on a “my hormones made me do it” defence – at least not in Singapore. But we live in an imperfect world. Things should not be this way, but as long as things are this way – as long as covering up prevents rape, then it makes sense to tell someone to do that – regardless of whether that person is male or female. It’s not a guy-girl thing. It’s crime prevention. So arguments against sexism shouldn’t be sexist. And maybe, just maybe, FotF was just trying to help. Still that doesn’t excuse them from… All the bad jokes. Ms Tan’s right when she points out that the “yes means no” and “no means yes” thing is potentially insulting. And calling girls ‘gals’ was a bad idea. But in the spirit of fairness, all of that sounds more like a case of an honest attempt at audience engagement gone horribly, horribly wrong. Let’s face it – young adults nowadays don’t like (or need) to be told what to do about sexuality. Many have defensible views on complex issues like homosexuality, relationships and the like formed from extensive self-reading and exploration across the internet. The last thing they want is being forced through four painful hours of some old-timer trying to tell them what they already know. That's why Ms Tan says that "using the four hour long workshop to once again preach the value of abstinence seems excessive and unnecessary". So if we were in FotF’s shoes, what would we have done? First order of business: reach out to these precocious ones. But what happens when you try too hard to make sex-ed interesting? Well, now we know: this. Don’t get me wrong. Genuinely trying to engage a disinterested audience doesn’t save you from perpetuating bad views. But it does make things a little more understandable. Perhaps as the organization appointed (and probably paid) to do this FotF had a responsibility play it a little smarter. Perhaps they should have ran it through a few actual young adults before they ran the workshop. Maybe they did exactly that in a few schools before this one, but the young adults they ran it through, being young adults, preferred doing their homework to complaining about something they’d really rather not be reminded of. We’ll never know. But what FotF has said so far is that the book was based on "well-researched material by various trusted family life and relationship experts". Vagueness aside, they may have a point. Suffice to say, let’s not judge them with the benefit of hindsight if all they were trying to do is make things a little more interesting. By all means they should have pitched their stereotypes a little lower on the scale of insultingitude. But what’s done is done, and I don’t think there’s enough in this to say that they were all-out promoting bigotry and rape culture. On religion and homosexuality…or not. Let’s deal with these ideas together because (a) they’re not meant to be dealt with together, and (b) this forces us not to dwell on these black holes of reason and emotion. Make no mistake, I am neither advocating Christianity nor non-Christianity. I am not Christian and am in no position to comment on whether Christians are necessarily conservative and anti-LGBTQ rights. I also say nothing on whether LGBTQ rights should be recognized or not recognized. To me both sides are equally wrong and right at the same time because I don’t have the slightest clue what causes homosexuality and what its impacts are or can be. And until science can indisputably prove some of this, matters of pure speculation can hold no substantial debate. What I do say is this: It is easy to get carried away when we unnecessarily focus on religion and homosexuality. Discussions lead nowhere and don’t cause much positive change. Instead they end in counter-name-calling all the way up the family tree. Ms Tan might have been right to say that “FotF has used sexuality education as an opportunity to further spread their own conservative, ‘God-ordained’ beliefs rather than to educate students on arguably more important things such as safe sex, sexual identity and shared and equal responsibility.” The point, however, is that religion is not the point. Regardless of race, language, or religion, everyone has sexuality. Perhaps we could go beyond saying “Christians are plainly conservative” or “Liberalism is blasphemy” and really just focus on the real issue here – are young adults being taught the right things? Don’t take it from me. MOE’s website states this: The MOE Sexuality Education helps students understand the physiological, social and emotional changes they experience as they mature, develop healthy and rewarding relationships, and make wise, informed and responsible decisions on sexuality matters. So this is the whole purpose FotF had to achieve. There is no need to say “FotF failed because they are spreading religious beliefs”. Religious or not religious, what matters is they help students do what they need to do. That’s it. In her zealous response, Ms Tan might have bitten off what she didn’t have to chew. This begs the question – what does helping students really mean? Here’s where Ms Tan’s arguments fit right in. If students are expected to make informed decisions, it would make sense to inform them. And not, as the FotF facilitator seems to have done, “shut down” someone who asked a genuine question or “dismissed anyone outside of his limited moral framework”. But in the spirit of fairness again, let’s consider why that was done. Plot twist – maybe they were trying to challenge students to think for themselves. Maybe that’s why they suppressed thought – precisely so someone would write an open letter and get the whole JC-sphere talking. Maybe, just maybe…not. I don’t think they would have put their reputation on the line for this. Remote possibilities aside, a more plausible scenario is that they honestly thought making responsible decisions was the key here. And what is “responsible”? This forces me to make a dangerous point – which is that the law as it is makes it an offence for “any male person” to commit “any act of gross indecency with another male person”. This is what it says. Check it out yourself if you want. Perhaps the law should not be like this. Perhaps it should. But, as things stand, this is the law - even if it has been said that it won’t be enforced. So whatever described above is illegal. Even if it should or shouldn’t be. Now, if you were a non-profit organization approved by the government to teach sexuality education in JCs islandwide, would you dare say something illegal right now is actually okay? It’s of course one thing to be advocating views in your personal right. We’ve fought for thousands of years to enshrine the right to be entitled to our views and to express them, and the battle isn’t over. It’s another thing to be advocating certain views when you’re representing the school, the education system, and possibly the entire government. Remember what the Health Promotion Board went through? Heads will roll, salaries will vanish. I wouldn’t be surprised if FotF was specifically instructed to make no comments on homosexuality and to hush-hush any related questions till the break. Lest they face the wrath of concerned parents, to say the least. What we can say though, is that if what Ms Tan describes is correct, then FotF did a very bad job of hush-hushing. I wasn’t there, but from what’s described it seemed like the facilitator carried himself with a holier-than-thou attitude and displayed as much intolerance to genuine questions from students as facilitatorly possible. Something which obviously didn’t help amidst bad jokes and insensitive stereotyping. As a final point – I’d just like to disagree that it’s the school’s fault for “indirectly participating” in this. No doubt many things are their fault. But I’d say they were entitled to think an MOE-approved group would do the job properly. At the end of the day, let’s look at things in as helpful a way as possible. I am pleasantly surprised that Ms Tan wrote such a cogent response to her sex-ed class. I for one could and would not have done that five years ago. With a few more years on my belt I felt obliged to add on what I could - that she troubles herself unnecessarily with ideas which detract from her main point. As I write this I know that someone somewhere, guy or girl, Christian or non-Christian, LGBTQ or non-LGBTQ, has taken offence at ideas she perhaps unintentionally raised in her criticism of FotF’s conduct. There will be people who misinterpret her words as a threat to their beliefs. Others will make personal attacks using words far stronger than “Liberal Woman”. But hey, the real problem is that our young adults aren’t being taught sex-ed properly. As fellow humans, maybe we should do something about it. Meanwhile, constructive discussion is always good - if not for its own sake, then at least because it helps students better understand these issues and make wise, informed and responsible decisions. The above is a thinly veiled attempt at making AQ writing seem practically useful. It is also a thinly veiled attempt to express some of the writer's personal (non)views. They do not represent owlcove. If you are minded to reply or criticise, even without reading the article in full, please be assured that you are entitled to do so.
It’s that time of the year again – that time when everyone starts caring about GP. Because if you fail it, you re-take the A-levels. Such joy. To deny Cambridge a little extra revenue, here’s ten common mistakes students make when writing, and how you could instantly improve your exam scores by fixing them. Or, if you’re the example kind of guy, we’ll be exploring how you could turn this: At the outset, it is crucial and perhaps pertinent to note the fact that, due to the presence of a variety of reasons behind why students tend to make a plethora of errors and indeed miscalculations in their writing efforts, such as unchecked misconceptions about writing left unrectified by their educational instructors, the average or mean standard of communication, written or otherwise, seems to have fallen to a level that is definitely worrying and truly alarming. Into this: Misconceptions about writing cause students to write badly. By the way, the first sentence is grammatically correct. I’ve checked. Thrice. Only, the first thing you’ll notice is how it’s… 1. Using empty words. There are about 100000 words in the English language (not including those Shakespeare made). Actually, there are probably more, but that doesn’t mean you have to use every single one. The Enemy: Glue words that have no meaning on their own. The point is that depending on the situation, some words are more equal than others. I’m not being wordist here, only - the right word at the right place is always better than a lawyer in an emergency room, or a librarian in an ice hockey rink. For you see, words like table and swim have meaning. When I say flying pink bananas, I make images of aerodynamic, discoloured fruit appear in your mind. These words, usually nouns, verbs and adjectives, are full. They’re the workhorses of the English language. But when I say “and” or “the”, or “those”, I’m pretty sure nothing appears in your head. If something does, I’d really like to hear from you. The Solution: Reduce and rephrase. These words are just there to hold all the other words together. They have no meaning in themselves. So the right thing to do is to avoid them where possible. I don’t mean stop using them completely, only that a sentence like: It was decided by Henry that he would go and swim. Could be better expressed as: Henry decided to swim. And while we’re here, I’d like to draw your attention to a particular class of empty words, which frequently occur if you’re… 2. Calling a spade a manual entrenchment establishment device. The Enemy: Euphemisms, Technicalities and Jargon. These are the words you use when you have no real point to make, can’t convince, so you confuse. Big as these words can get, you can’t hide behind syllables and letters. To any examiner’s trained, tired and cynical eye, such ‘waffling’ gets you nowhere. In fact, using a complex word out of its place may draw unwanted attention to the weaknesses in your writing. And big words often betray. Sometimes we’re not sure what they mean, and we use them to act smart. But only those who aren’t smart need to act like they are. For starters, here’re some greatly overused words in a hugely misused phrase: The advent of technology causes a plethora of issues and concerns. NEWFLASH: “Advent” really means arrival, and has nothing to do with development or growth. So strictly speaking, the advent of technology was around 500, 000 B.C., when we discovered fire and knives. Does your introduction still make sense? NEWFLASH II: “Plethora” really means an excessive amount of something. IT ISN'T A HIGH-CLASS SUBSTITUTE FOR “VARIETY”. Varieties are neutral. Plethoras are bad. So if you’re saying you have a plethora of reasons why I should believe you, you’re really saying I shouldn’t. The Solution: Stick with your trusty childhood friends. Words you learn are like friends you make. The earlier you get to know them, the more you can trust them. Soon you’ll learn that you pretty much stop making good friends once you’re over 18, but that’s a sad story for another sad day. Suffice to say, words like right, wrong, good, bad, because, and also are never gonna let you down. They’ll never turn around and tell you “you thought I was this? Ha! I am actually that!” When in doubt, saying: “The writer is wrong because he does not consider how things will play out in the long run”, may be better than saying “the writer is erroneous due to the simple reason that he omits to calculate the extended efficacies of these extraneous factors.” For more on why a plethora of complex words is the worst thing ever, see this article on why you should use simple words, and my very enthusiastic reply. Anyway, there are another group of words which you should entirely avoid. They typically appear when you’re... 3. Pointing out that what’s obvious is obviously obvious. The Enemy: “Clearly”, “definitely”, “truly”and other rhetorical fluff This clearly happens a lot and is definitely a mistake students frequently make which truly reduces their exam scores. If you’re with me on this, you’ll realise I could have omitted all those words in the above sentence, and it would actually be better. That’s because if something is so clear, such definite, or very true, it usually speaks for itself. You don’t have to emphasise that it’s clear. Doing so only makes the reader wonder why you’re pushing the point so much, and question if it’s as ‘clear’ as you’re making it out to be. In other words, overdoing it makes your sentence sound like salesman pitch, which doesn’t help if you’re trying to be reliable. The Solution: Avoid using these words unless you’re sure it helps. Take for example a common sentence where this mistake occurs: Project XYZ was a truly enriching experience and I definitely learnt a lot in the process. I’m not sure about you, but when I read this, I get the idea that whatever that project was really wasn’t very much, and you’re trying to make up for that using stronger words. Which are empty. So save yourself time and ink by simply saying this: Project XYZ was an enriching experience and I learnt a lot in the process. This sounds more confident, direct, and is more persuasive because it doesn’t seem like you’re hiding something. Now we’re done with individual words, it’s also a good idea to stop… 4. Using empty phrases. There are about 10 million phrases in the English language. Ok, no, but you get the point. Some phrases are less equal than others. The Enemy: Placeholders and Distancers Distancers isn’t actually a word, but I’m using it to refer to that class of phrases we use to bring something further from the reader. Instead of saying problems, we say “the presence of” problems. Instead of saying factors, we say “the existence of” factors. And instead of saying technology, we say “the advent of” technology. The Solution: Omit, omit, omit. Unless you’re really trying to highlight the mere presence of something as the key to whatever it is you’re trying to say, it’s likely you could just not write anything at all. A meaningless phrase that always appears is “the presence of a variety of reasons”. That says nothing. Better to simply state what those reasons are. Hence… Due to the presence of a variety of reasons, Singapore’s grass is growing. Among these reasons are strong sunlight and rain. Can be better expressed as Singapore’s grass is growing because of strong sunlight and frequent rain. Indeed, one problem related to empty phrases is… 5. Cruel, Heartless Objectification. It is very unfashionable now to be misogynistic, so we should generally avoid objectifying things. Even if we do, we should at least be aware. The Enemy: ‘-ions’, ‘-ments’, ‘-isms’ and other suffixes merely there to lengthen words. For those who don’t know, a suffix is something you attach to the end of the word, like “-ment” in “argument”. In the spirit of unnecessarily complicating things, we often subconsciously objectify verbs to make them sound nicer. Here are some examples: The realization that he was going to fail put him in a crippled state. His ideas possess a great degree of liberalism. The generation of ideas is a painful process every student goes through in the creation of projects. The agreement on the formalization of their relationship was decided between Mary and John. The Solution: Rephrase and Simplify. Look out for phrases that go “the (something) of”. In these cases, things which didn’t need to be objectified were mercilessly objectified, dressed up in bloat, and denied of their rights as individual words. For a fairer world, we should really be writing as such: Realising he was going to fail crippled him. His ideas are liberal. Every student generates ideas to create projects. Mary and John formalized their relationship. For best results, avoid using phrases like “the … of”, and start your sentences with nouns and verbs. In fact, doing so helps you avoid… 6. Ambiguity and vagueness. For the record, they’re different concepts altogether. The Enemy: Phrases with dual meanings, or overly general phrases Ambiguity arises when it isn’t clear whether something is this or that. Consider this phrase: "The shopkeeper had many tricks in store". We don’t know if the shopkeeper was particularly cunning, or recently restocked his magic shop. Vagueness is when something is too general to say anything important. For example: Various studies and numerous research methods have shown that too much homework is bad for health. Nice try there, but that puff of smoke known as “various studies and numerous research methods” isn’t going to convince anyone. In short, ambiguity and vagueness is for politicians and diplomats who have to comment without commenting and still appear smart. Not for essay writers trying to score points and convince. The Solution: Be Specific. Re-read your work, and get to the point. An essay is basically a set of directions pointing the reader toward the conclusion you want. You don’t want to leave him at a fork in a road. The only remedy to ambiguity is to directly avoid it altogether by re-drafting your sentences so no doubt remains about what you mean. Hence, try: The shopkeeper had an ingenious plan up his sleeve. Vagueness, on the other hand, can only be tackled when you’re sure of what you’re talking about. It’s always convenient to rely on “various reasons” when we can’t think of anything specific. But that really doesn’t help. The key is to know your stuff. So you could write something like: “A study of 100 students in the University of Fairytopia found that a majority of students given more than 10 kilograms of homework per week suffered from kidney illnesses later in life.” Also, throw away the word “various”. Stop using it. Lock it in your closet. Chain it up. And discard it into the nearest incinerator. Then spray your entire house with anti-Various. And while you’re trying to be specific, also make sure you’re not throwing out lots of… 7. Irrelevance and Redundancy. I know what you’re thinking. I just made that error myself because the word ‘redundant’ was redundant after I already used ‘irrelevant’. Right? Wrong. The difference between the two’s relevant here. Something’s relevant when it’s so closely connected to the point that it’s appropriate to discuss. Let’s make sure you get that. To be relevant, it must be: Related to the point Suitable to talk about Or, to make things very clear, relevant = connection + suitability. Why am I harping on this? Because what’s related isn’t always appropriate. Let’s say you’re writing an essay on the benefits of extreme sports on the economy. Stuff about extreme sports is probably related. But that doesn’t mean you have to list every extreme sport out there, or devote an entire paragraph into the origins and development of extreme ironing. Further, what’s relevant could still be redundant. Redundancy means something that’s not needed or superfluous. The word is needed. That means what you’re saying should be a necessity, like oxygen, water, and Wi-Fi. So ask yourself this: If I leave this word/phrase/sentence out, would my essay die? The Enemy: Putting stuff in just because, for word count, and to ensure the marker knows you have a great memory. And saying the same thing with different words, to make sure the marker knows your vocabulary is has more colour than Dennis Rodman’s hair. As in this paragraph: Extreme sports like mountain-climbing, ice-skating, mountain-skating, ice-climbing, roller-blading, snowboarding and competitive Youtubing are beneficial to the economy because they promote tourism, especially in countries like Switzerland, France, Okinawa and Lichtenstein. By the way, did you know that Everest is the tallest mountain in the world, and that no cats have made it to the top? Anyway, the point is that people travel to Nepal to climb, scale, surmount, and summit that mountain. That’s a lot of or, can I say, a plethora of, people, which stimulates the local economy. Here’s a more insidious example: Every player was mostly tired after the exhausting game. The better sentence is simply: "Everyone was tired after the game". See? Even the word “player” was redundant. The Solution: Don’t. Just don’t. Common sense tells us writing nothing should be infinitely easier than writing something. But after years and years of writing to hit word counts, we learn that words = reward. And that association’s really hard to break. But like world records, bad habits we get from the system are meant to be broken. To help you, here’s a simple thought process: 1 - Is this even remotely related to the issue? 2 - Only if Yes: should I write it? 3 - Only if Yes - do I really need this? 4 - If still Yes - Have I already said the same thing earlier? 5 - If very certain Yes, write and repeat. I’m not saying you have to consciously do this for every single thing, only that you should subconsciously do this for every single thing. And if something’s somewhat related to the main point, but not so much to the smaller point you’re currently discussing, consider leaving it for later. Or admit that it’s unrelated. On an unrelated note, you should also avoid… 8. Putting everything far, far away. This one’s a small problem run wild. The Enemy: The words “have” and “had”, amongst others For some reason, we like to needlessly put everything we say in past participle. As if doing so makes what we say authoritative. For example, I had wanted to write this entire paragraph having used unnecessary past participles in every sentence I had written, but I have decided only to do so in his sentence had. There’s really no reason for these words. In fact placing them in distances what you’re saying from the reader – first by pushing everything further into the past, and second by literally adding distance between the subject of the sentence and its point. Similarly for words like “could” and “would” compared to “can” and “will” The Solution: Whenever you write “had” or “have”, ask yourself whether the simple past tense would work is better. For the grammatically-challenged reader, this means asking if “I had wanted to run away” is worse or better than simply “I wanted to run away”. Or if “I would be interested in your proposal which could make us a lot of money” is better than “I am interested in your profitable proposal. The last pair of issues are related, and if you’re following me so far you’d have guessed as much, but your essay should never… 9. Have more qualifiers than the World Cup. Behold the mighty Clause. It knows when you are sleeping. It seeps into your words. Its cousin only works once a year, but it loves attention. When you’re not looking, it sneaks into your sentence. And multiplies. Clauses, of course, are the basic building blocks of sentences. Like phrases, only more technical. You don’t have to know them very well to know that this next sentence is hugely confusing: Primarily, at least from an economic perspective, and where Asian countries are concerned, cultural barriers, except those which are not firmly entrenched, are difficult to break through unless one makes a strong, determined effort, both consciously and subconsciously, to integrate himself into the community, provided this community accepts his entrance. The Enemy: Subordinate Clauses (basically, the stuff that usually goes between two commas or in brackets and can actually form separate sentences). Assuming you understood what I wrote above, you probably think I made sense. Only it took you so long to make sure you understood that you either gave up trying or hate me now. I hope it is self-evident why shortening that sentence would make it better. Each clause adds a little tidbit of information into fray, which is supposed to shape how the reader understands its main point. Almost literally, the reader must juggle every little bit while trying to stay focused on the main thread of the sentence, all the while keeping track of grammar. So every time you throw a clause into the mix, you’re asking the reader to juggle one more thing. If you’ve ever tried juggling, you’ll know that juggling one ball is easy, juggling two is slightly harder, and juggling three is [email protected]!#%. The Solution: Divide and Convince Unless you’re Dan Brown, you don’t want your reader working harder than you. So the right thing to do is to break them up into smaller, bite-sized chunks. And if some chunks can be combined into one, do that. I recommended a maximum of three clauses in any one sentence. Here’s how: Primarily, from an economic perspective, Asian cultural barriers are difficult to break through. Unless these barriers are not firmly entrenched, one has to consciously and subconsciously make a determined effort to integrate. Even then, the community must accept his entrance. For the grammar junkies (ie. None of you), here’s a detailed page on the wonders of Subordinate Clauses. Finally, if you’re cutting down on qualifiers, you should also be able to stop… 10. Dragging sentences on and on. The Enemy: Needlessly long sentences Long sentence bad. Short sentence good. I over-simplify. But school is about over-simplifying anyway. For some reason, students sometimes think writing long sentences is the best demonstration language ability. Perhaps because you’ve read academic articles comprising some of the longest beauties you’ve ever seen. Thing is, academic research articles aren’t always the hallmark of clarity in expression, because they’re commonly written to express very complex ideas to very complex people, by people whose main specialties are in scientific research rather than literature and communication. And trust me, the misconception that longer sentences = better work still exists in the mythical echelons of university writing. Of course if you’re really good enough, and you can successfully write in long, flowing sentences which best express your point (like Nobel writer Jose Saramago), then fine and good. But most of us aren’t Nobel writers and many of us will never be. As your sentences get longer, you find yourself losing track of grammar and forgetting what you were really trying to say anyway. Because you’re also trying to juggle lots of things when you’re doing it. The Solution: See #9 above. Or as a simple guide, when using a comma, always ask: Is this the 10th comma in this sentence? Could I use a full stop instead? Should I use a full stop instead? Do I really want to say this? And there you have it, the top ten errors you can rectify almost immediately. To summarise: Avoid words that are empty, vague, ambiguous, redundant, overly complex, and/or needlessly distance the point you’re making. Pay special attention to words like “advent”, “various”, “had”, “definitely”, “could”, and objectifications. Avoid phrases that are empty, crafted just because, meaningless, ambiguous, irrelevant, and/or overly qualify or lengthen a sentence. Special mention goes to phrases like “the <something> of”, and subordinate clauses. Finally, here’s one for the road. If you’ve been following me so far, you’d realize all of these errors can be avoided if we simply write simply, try not to act too smart and bite off more than we can handle, and actually think about the words and phrases we use. That’s really all there is to good writing – conscious effort coupled with an appreciation of what works well. If you know other mistakes students commonly make, share them in the comments. Till next time!
“It’s good that you’re going in. Just give them your two years and then you don’t have to worry about it anymore.” The bus was somewhere along some road in Pasir Ris. The exact location didn’t matter, although it was going to be a road I would love and hate depending on which side of the road I was on. It was the first time in years I was sitting on a commercial bus with my grandmother who, now in her seventies, was not very fond of walking. But she’d come along on this special occasion, and was speaking to me in Hokkien. I struggled to recall the last time I was on the road with her. Blurred scenes of a tour in Thailand, when I was 10. That was 8 years ago. And even then, was it really her? I recalled a cheerful, energetic woman who was picking up English from Channel 5 serials, who cooked up a storm every Chinese New Year to satisfy hundreds of guests. I remembered perfectly black hair. I wasn’t done counting all the silver strands on her head when the bus pulled into the terminal. I was to have one less thing to remember her by. I soon found myself aboard a ferry with her. What an adventure it must be for her. Except this time we weren’t going for any holiday. Do you know how black holes work? I don’t. But I’ve always imagined that at the heart of each one, there was something evil. Now I felt like I was on a high speed collision course with one of them. Every inch, every cell within me wanted so much to just…not go. How hard could it be? But I was already caught its gravitational field. I had been since I was born, male. “It’s not about what you leave behind, but what you will gain in the days ahead.” I was fond of such inspirational, meaningless generalities. Maybe it would calm a troubled spirit or two. But not mine. And how can it not be about what I’m leaving behind, when that is precisely the reason I was doing this? How can I forget the people I would swear to protect? It has always been, and will always be, about what we leave behind. Enter an auditorium and a sea of confused faces. A gas chamber of lambs awaiting an unknowable slaughter. I took my seat alongside two strangers. On my right was another boy. He was not like me. He was talking to a friend next to him. On my left, darting, unsure eyes were scanning the room. Painfully alone, our situation was the same. Was he looking for an escape? There is none, I told him telepathically. I wasn’t sure, but I imagined my parents were seated behind me, somewhere higher up in the auditorium. Watching me, watching my every move to assure themselves I was fine. Watching over me. With the loudest voice I could muster in that situation, I repeated: “I will preserve and protect (pause) the honour (pause) and independence of our country (pause) WITH MY LIFE! (emphasis added)” I was made to stand in a line next to hundreds of those like me, waiting for our families to pick us out. With each unfamiliar parent that passed I knew I was to have one minute less with them today and for the next two weeks. They found me, as they always do, and we proceeded to where we were to have lunch. I knew things would never be the same again. In school, I was always the last to finish my food, and my friends would always have to wait for me. My days in a uniformed group taught me how costly a weakness this was. And it was this knowledge, coupled with a frantic sense of loss and disorientation that drove me to wolf down all the food in front of me. Reluctance, on one hand, told me to eat slowly, to take my time and enjoy every minute of this final meal. But fear, on the other, reminded me of my weakness. Speed up or be left behind. My grandmother, as usual, coaxed me to slow down. I replied that I was fine, taking care not to look directly at her because I knew it would bring tears to my eyes immediately. I needed to prove that the food was good - perhaps even a reasonable substitute for years of home-cooked, hand-made affection. I needed to show that I was going to be able to cope. This was the last scene of the play, and I had to finish strong. I needed to be someone I was not ready to be. Then, loud and clear, 3 times, “All enlistees are to gather in the area to the left of the cookhouse immediately.” Yes, this was it. There was no doubt about it. I still hadn’t finished the food. I stood up and told them the only four words I could muster, “I have to go.” “It’s ok, take your time, finish the food first.” “No, I should just go.” As I took my place in the seventh column of the twenty or so neat rows that were beginning to form, I looked back at the cookhouse to see the grandstand of parents, siblings, girlfriends and grandmothers who had gathered on the side of the building, as near to us as they could. Everyone was smiling, waving enthusiastically as their sons, brothers, boyfriends and grandsons took their place in the kilt of our nation’s defence. Either I was the only one feeling as wretched as this, or everyone else was doing a much better job hiding their emotions. No wonder they say life is but a stage. It dawned on me that I wasn’t the only one going through this. Nor were the thousands of Singaporean sons who would change their addresses that day doing this alone. In reality, the entire family weathers this together. Mom does the laundry despite your increasing protests, Dad fetches you home whenever he’s free, your girlfriend keeps you sane on the weekends…when they called it national service, maybe they really meant to say that the entire nation serves together. I waved back, conjuring up a smile. I remember that scene. My parents, next to each other, mom on the left, dad on the right, with one arm around my mother. And my grandmother, standing on his right, looking at me with her usual serene expression. She wore a black shirt with a red floral pattern, along with straight, black long pants. It was her nicest and favourite shirt. Her hands were behind her back, giving her a look of authority and benevolence. And as I waved once again she smiled, and raised her right hand to complete the goodbye. Years later, this image still brings tears to my eyes. But the sadness in these tears has evaporated. Yes, it did happen. And it really hurt. I really did spend two years of my youth following orders and fearing punishment. The people I loved really did grow older. But the good things, they happened too. I saw for myself how and why easily things could go wrong for us. I saw the inner workings of the military machine that’s meant to ensure our sovereignty amidst a challenging global climate. I understood why there must always be rough men who keep vigil at night to protect the bedrock of our young nation. And most importantly, I saw their faces too, for I was momentarily one of them, and each one was as human, as brotherly or as fatherly as the next. A famous writer once said that perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but nothing left to take away. And boy do they take away from us many things. Some lose career opportunities, others can’t get to the schools they want, some break up with their girlfriends, almost everyone loses freedom. But that teaches us what’s really important. Because when you know you only have control of your mind and body for one and half days every week, everything unnecessary just falls away. Video game rankings, expensive clothes, even exam results – what we wouldn’t give to just spend time with the people we love. And at least for the first time in eighteen years I was doing something that actually mattered for someone who did exist. It stopped being just about me - my homework, my grades, my wants, my interests, my dreams, my aspirations. There were larger forces at work. In the middle of a training exercise I realised that if I messed things up someone could actually die. My BMT sergeant once told me that BMT is really meant to break you down – they reduce you to basic building blocks which can be repurposed into something useful. That stuck. It doesn't matter if you're a recruit known primarily by your 4D number, a trainee in command school or a soldier in a unit - when you're a 'lowly NSF' you feel inconsequential, like a tiny ball-bearing in the huge SAF machine. But there is comfort in the knowledge that this machine serves an important purpose, and every day we have peace, every night our families can go to sleep without wondering if an RPG will hit them as they snore, that is one day our efforts succeed. If two years from a generation of males can win a lifetime of peace for a nation, then it is a worthwhile, albeit very, very costly, sacrifice. That is why only pride remains in the tears that fall. It is the pride of telling Dad that the grenade you threw is the same one he threw thirty years ago. The pride of knowing that if something comes along which threatens to undermine what you stand for, you, alongside many others, can and will fight. It is the pride of looking at your pink IC and knowing you’ve earnt it, a pride only sweet because it used to be painfully bitter. It is the pride of having once wore green. To all the past, present and future soldiers of Singapore, Happy SAF day.