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?
William Shakespeare. His works are considered amongst the greatest pieces of English literature ever written. They’ve been translated into every spoken language there is, and performed in almost every auditorium, theatre, and classroom in the world. His pieces – Macbeth, Othello, Romeo and Juliet and many more – still serve as the inspiration and creative backdrop on which today’s stories are written. Yet if you ask anyone who has ever picked up one of his works, and you’ll realize that they are also amongst the most cryptic, hard to understand, and painfully slow moving stories to ever be published for mortal eyes. Almost every edition of his plays comes with explanatory notes and appendixes which actually outnumber the actual text at a ratio of about 4000 to 1. So how did someone who was so difficult to understand become so successful? We can’t quite deny that he was a great playwright and poet. But he would probably have failed all his English exams, too, because he had the habits of… 1. Not giving two cents about grammar, sentence structure and other established rules of the English language Consider this exchange by three witches right at the beginning of Macbeth: So erm…what’s a hurlyburly? Is "where the place" a typo or something? And who or what on earth is Graymalkin? And Paddock? Did Macbeth have a side hobby in F1 racing? I'm really confused now. In this short scene, Shakespeare manages to create words which don’t exist, break the conventions of grammar, and refer to unknown characters which were never properly introduced and will never again appear in the play. You know, if all of us had the luxury of being able to create words out of thin air just to say what we wanted to say, I’d expect essays to turn out something like this: Then again, who are we to say that he’s broken the rules anyway. After all, he’s Shakespeare. He practically wrote the rules. So it’s a little hard to say he didn’t follow them, but even if he did, he’d probably still not perform very well for his tests because he was also fond of… 2. Not being clear about what he means Shakespeare was either medieval England’s most accomplished tightrope walker or its most intelligent troll, because, even now, 500 years after his death, people are still arguing over what he meant. Now if you’ve ever taken an English class (yes you have), your teacher would probably have told you that you need to say clearly what you mean, instead of leaving it to the reader to second-guess what you’re trying to say. Shakespeare was probably on sick leave the day his English teacher taught this, because many of his stories have no clear ending. The literary community still doesn’t know if The Taming of the Shrew was ultimately a play sympathizing with the plight of women, or if it was just Shakespeare’s idea of an “in-your-face” to the women of his time. There are research papers being written and rewritten about it, but till this date no one is sure. It wouldn’t be so bad, though, if this uncertainty wasn’t over the MAIN THEME OF THE PLAY. It’s like he was working on the play’s ending but somehow got distracted and decided to, well, just leave it. Also, he probably missed that part where the teacher tells the class about the problems with… 3. Writing about dreams, magic and unicorns Admit it. Sometime when you were young and innocent, you wrote an epic and fantastical story about unicorns and rainbows (or castles, knights and magic swords depending on your gender), and justified everything with the words “and it was all just a dream”. You submitted it to your teacher thinking you’d probably do well and get a nice little sticker as a reward. But instead of that adhesive fix, all you got was “the real world isn’t made of dreams, little one.” Well, Shakespeare disagrees. In almost every play he has written, Shakespeare introduces us to a wonderful world of magic and mystery. There are fairies and witches and floating heads and magical reanimation potions, and some scholars even suggest that, if you look closely, you can find evidences for the Mayan apocalypse of 2012 and the Loch Ness monster (note: I made this part up). Perhaps the best example of his ultimate quest to refute every convention of composition-writing wisdom is when he decided to write a play called “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, which, incidentally, ends exactly with A FAIRY TELLING THE AUDIENCE THAT, IN THE END, IT WAS ALL A DREAM, or in other words, exactly what we were told not to do. Clearly, Shakespeare would have struggled to gain the favour of his teachers, and it was probably even more difficult because he was also fond of… 4. Having plots in which, basically, everyone dies. In fact, if you paid enough attention, you’d probably get the impression that Shakespeare was the medieval equivalent of a psychopathic sadist. That’s because whenever possible he had no use for a character any more, that character usually died. Some characters even appear and die in the same act, as if the only reason he created them in the first place was so that he could orchestrate that character’s undoing. And if that’s not enough, Shakespeare’s characters died in so many ways that his plays probably inspired final destination. But wait, what’s wrong with that? After all, everyone loves watching other people die right? There’s nothing wrong with appealing to popular taste. He was a playwright wasn’t he? Well, yes. But this also means his initial works probably sounded something like: It’s no wonder he was able to create such wonderful stories, because whenever he was done with one character, he could just conveniently kill him off and move on to bigger, better things. Add this together with how he would simply conjure up new words from nowhere, or misspell words and twist grammar to fit his favourite rhythm of iambic pentameter, and you’d realize that, honestly, it probably wasn’t very difficult for him to create something new. And here lies an interesting revelation – that when you’re already successful, you can do absolutely anything you want and people will still think it’s genius. And this brings me to the final point, not so much about why he’d fail as a literature student, but why, in fact, he could have been just slightly overrated. 5. Writing in language that’s difficult to understand and making people think that’s what works I’d first begin by qualifying that there is probably nothing wrong with this if you’re looking from the perspective of what was happening in the Elizabethan era when Shakespeare was alive. At a time when most people were too busy dying from the plague or paying taxes to knights in shining armour, the Shakespeare fan club would have comprised mostly rich and powerful aristocrats. And in that point of view, there’s nothing wrong with him taking the whole of three weeks just to describe a single scene of a play. Because what else would those rich royals have to do with their lives anyway? There was a time when it was considered good writing to make 42 allusions to 42 different things just to illustrate what you wanted to say more vividly and to make sure the reader knew just exactly how much of a literary powerhouse you were. I'm not quite sure we're still living in that time. Because, if you ask me, the best measure of good literature is not just how much it can say, but also how many people actually are enriched by it. What is the point of writing in beautifully verbose language and being able to employ over 9000 literary devices if at the end of the day, only about 5 people actually get it? In fact, Shakespeare’s works weren’t even recognized during his time. They only began to be popular and celebrated about 200 years after his death, because that was probably how long it took for people to understand just what on earth he was talking about. And if it wasn’t bad enough, people are actually getting inspired by his success and writing scores of 'beautiful literature' that only other people who actually specialize in decoding such 'beautiful literature' can understand. We start to think literature is when you don’t use words with less than five syllables and when you try your utmost best not to say directly what you mean. And when you read something like this and simply cannot understand what’s going on, instead of thinking how horrible this is, you start to think it’s because you are shallow and uneducated. While that – might – be true, it’s not always the case. That’s why no one thinks literature has any commercial value, because what we think is literature, as inspired it’s poster child William Shakespeare, really doesn’t have much of it. So, the next time your teacher penalizes you for not writing clearly, misspelling a word, or generally not caring about grammar and other established rules of the English language, find an extract from Shakespeare and show him that this is exactly what Shakespeare did. It might not do much, but at least you’ll feel better as you receiving an F for your assignment knowing how much of a literary genius you might actually be. Now the question is, if the best writer of all time would've failed his exams, does it mean he's actually a bad writer, or really that the exam formats are a little...Shakespearan?
Wait...what? To be honest, the word ‘academic’ doesn’t really go with the word ‘badass’. At least not in today’s world, where ‘academic’ is almost another word for nerdy, bespectacled, and sometimes Asian. Badass, on the other hand, is reserved for the select few whose pure existence just shouts awesome in your face. People like Kevin Garnett, Jackie Chan, and basically the entire cast of the Expendables. However, there exist a group of legendary individuals so devilishly brilliant and insanely intelligent that the combined numerical value of their IQs was probably larger than the amount of bullets fired in both episodes of the Expendables. Men who were just so amazing at subjects like philosophy, mathematics and everything they did they’re still dictating popular and academic culture today. Who were so smart their genius was badass – meaning that they had as much brains as Stallone has muscles. Amongst them are people who built the first ever schools (ok that might have been a mistake, in retrospect), the man who proved that the Earth went around the Sun, and, of course, the great and legendary writer who basically called political leaders pigs and got away with it. In honour of the men who lived in an age where thought was free, and helped keep things that way, here’s our tribute to the 5 most amazing academic badasses of all time, starting with… #1: Eric Arthur Blair a.k.a. George Orwell You might know this guy, because he was so superbly smart he managed to disguise an entire political rant as a children’s book so well they actually allowed it to be taught in schools. Now that is the highest level of censorship avoidance. Yes, I’m talking about the author of Animal Farm, which, published in 1945, was a story that basically lambasted the communist regime so strongly Stalin was probably busy applying cold water to his burnt areas after reading it. And Orwell did it without explicitly saying so, so they couldn’t quite arrest him for it without admitting they were guilty of everything he was calling them out for. Read: pure, absolute genius. Note: If you haven’t read that book, please take some time off this article to finish it before coming back. Some things are just more important than others. And if you’re reading this now, congrats on being slightly more equal than others, or, welcome back. Let’s get on with things… Before Orwell decided to systemically take apart the political applications of the USSR, he was born in India and attended school at Eton College, where he was more concerned with writing the college magazine than his useless grades. His boring and totally non-badass schooling out of the way, Orwell elected to join the Imperial Police, likely finding the name of that organisation something more worthy of his attention than something like Eton, which coincidentally is Note spelt backwards. Boring… He eventually became an Assistant District Superintendent due to his awesomeness, but was too pissed off with poverty to not do anything about it. So he set out to do battle against all the unfairness and injustice in society, because there was never any doubt he’d win. Now the problem was, in order to write a book on something, you pretty much need to know it well enough. And Orwell, clearly too amazing for something like poverty to ever touch, didn’t. So he decided to make poverty his best friend. He spent most of his days ‘tramping’, or in other words, dressing like a hobo and going around doing whatever a hobo does. He didn’t care about no middle-class expectations, he just did whatever he wanted. And that also included trying to get into prison in 1931, just to see what it was like. But they turned him down, possibly because they couldn’t find a jail cell big enough to house his gigantic…wit. And when he wasn’t busy being poor and doing other things that no one else who had a choice would choose to do, Orwell decided to fight in the Spanish Civil War in 1936. (Ok that too is something no one else would optionally do, at least not in today’s society where people are all trying to avoid national service.) So he arrived in the heart of the war saying, “I’ve come to fight against Fascism”, which, to me, is clearly more badass than totally running away and saying “I’ll be back”. If you think a writer and intellectual clearly was disadvantaged in a war involving things such as physical activity, then you’re wrong. There are accounts of Orwell chasing down another soldier with a bayonet and bombing out an enemy position. Stuff that Rambo does, basically. And how about the fact that he survived the war? Surely Orwell had no weakness. Unfortunately, at some point in time the Afterlife decided that Orwell was too awesome to not be part of it. So it began throwing tuberculosis at him in 1947 – lots of it. So much so that it actually started to, y’know, affect him. In that time, though, Orwell continued to do just whatever he wanted, finishing his masterpiece Nineteen Eighty Four, and got it published before the Afterlife finally won in 1949. For a typical person, writing while battling a life-threatening disease probably involves a lot more blood and snot than ink and paper. Orwell’s book, however, came to be one of the best literary works of ALL TIME. I’m not sure if you got that so I’ll say it again: ALL TIME, meaning in two thousand years when people are busy floating around on pure energy and playing Angry Birds on their iPhone 250s, his book is still going to be read, studied, and treated like the sacred piece of badassism it is. Note: If you haven’t read Nineteen Eighty Four, you know what to do. It was and still is a great pity to mankind that a flame of justice and a prolific mouthpiece of societal ills passed away at the age of 46. So Orwell spent his life fighting to preserve and promote justice. Now the next guy practically defined it, and his name was… #2: Plato – All Your Teachers’ Teacher. Plato lived in an era slightly distant from ours: 428-348 B.C., when the years were still counted backwards numerically. This means he didn’t have any of the technology we take for granted, including Google, Wikipedia, and public utilities. Keep that in mind as we move on to all the insane things he did. Like starting the one of the earliest known schools. Schools did exist before that, to be specific, but Plato’s Academy actually had things like walls, and, just so it could be that much more amazing, didn’t charge any fees whatsoever. How’s that for a business model eh, [insert unnamed commercialised school here]? In a sense, he’s responsible for the education we get to receive today (Yay?). That’s pretty amazing you know, since you generally don’t wake up one day and decide to change the lives of people two thousand years later. And when he wasn’t occupied with pre-emptively engineering untold misery for children aged 20 and under for millennia to come, Plato wrote a series of books and treatises on philosophy, in which he tried to tell others how to think so they could attain a little more of the genius he himself had. The Republic, as one of these works is known, sought to explore what justice was. It was likely the result of him sitting down one day and setting a question for himself to that read “Define justice [50m]”. So he produced 10 volumes to answer that question. Well, yea. He probably exceeded the word limit, but it’s safe to say he broke the marks ceiling too. I highly recommend you spend some time browsing through The Republic, but I won’t make it as compulsory, because of the potential medical and psychological implications of doing that. And yes, he used the word Republic way before it was cool. Now almost every single country in the world, including even the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (that’s North Korea btw), is ripping it off from him, probably as an attempt to suggest they are at least partly as just and badass as Plato was. Now you’re thinking that Plato was a skinny old man who sat on stone chairs and thought about the world, aren’t you? Wrong, because he was also a total jock at wrestling in his earlier years. He reputedly got his name from the word Platori, meaning broad, after his coach noticed how his muscles were almost as colossal as his brain. Rumours say he wrestled in the Isthmian games, which were like the Olympic games, only more badass because Plato was in them. I can’t stop myself from imagining that he’d be throwing the hurt on all his opponents while simultaneously deconstructing how weak the logos, ethos and pathos of their punches were. And what if I told you he was also the teacher of… #3: Aristotle – All Men by Nature Desire Knowledge. And Aristotle was the teacher of none other than Alexander the Great. I mean, if your student goes on to conquer pretty much the whole of Western Europe and goes down in history as abc THE GREAT, I guess you’re also pretty much worthy of the title abc the EVEN GREATER. I cannot even begin to describe how badass Aristotle was. So let me enlist the help of an academic paper, which suggested that Aristotle was probably the last person to know everything there was to be known in his own time. (Neill, Alex; Aaron Ridley, 1995) Even his name shouts awesome. I mean, why else would all those royals and nobles decide to call themselves the aristo-crats? Clearly they were all wannabes in Aristotle’s massive fanclub. Perhaps they believed associating themselves with the alpha and the omega that was Aristotle would lend some legitimacy to their rule. His contributions are listed to be in the fields of logic, biology, physics, metaphysics, geology, *stops to catch my breath, medicine, philosophy and history. That’s basically the equivalent of doing 8 degrees and getting First Class Honours in ALL OF THEM. Did I mention that one of them is medicine? Now think of the smartest, most intelligent person you know. You don’t have to personally know him, just anyone you know of. Got that? Was it Einstein, Hawking or Bill Gates? Wait…turns out IT DOESN’T MATTER, because Aristotle was totally smarter than all of them combined, so much so that Brian Magee, a British philosopher who studied at Oxford and Yale in the 1950s (that clearly makes him reliable doesn’t it?) sums it up by saying “it is doubtful whether any human being has ever known as much as he did.” His contributions are so limitless that for me to list them all here would be like trying to count the stars of badass in the infinite universe of Aristotle’s boundless mind – you take half of forever, and before you succeed you die of the sheer brilliance you subject yourself to. He was so badass he basically “left every future scientist and philosopher in his debt.” (Wiki) This means if Aristotle were still alive, he’d be richer than 5000% of the top 1% because every single scientist and philosopher since freaking 322 B.C. would be spending their lives paying dues to him. Scientists AND philosophers. That pretty much includes every smart guy in the world! To put things in perspective though, Aristotle did stay at the Academy for about twenty years, till he was 38, to do all that academic world changing he did. But he apparently got fed up with the administration (after Plato died and the whole Academy took a -10 to the Scale of Badass) and just left. Getting fed up with the administration? That’s a +1 to Badassery anyday! And by just leaving, I mean he went all the way to Asia Minor. Now recall that he lived in a time where the best mode of transportation was probably a chariot drawn by some distant descendant of Shadowfax. I can’t imagine that going to Asia involved anything less than a journey which Jules Verne would’ve been proud to document. Once there, Aristotle went back to his favourite pastime – doing just whatever he wanted and being awesome at it – so he went to an island called Lesbos (likely finding this island’s name worthy of further study) and researched zoology and botany. Because you don’t need prior experience in any subject if you’re Aristotle. He eventually started his own school, called the Lyceum, so he could share some of the intelligence that was clearly overflowing from his brain. In his later years though, Aristotle had accumulated so much amazing that his own student, Alexander the Great, began to dislike him for speaking out against his inhumane ways, and apparently started threatening Aristotle in letters. Totally uncool way to treat your teacher, if you ask me. So Aristotle did what any typical amazing academic genius would do when threatened by a tyrant King who was also 29 years younger – outlive his adversary. Alexander somehow died before Aristotle due to mysterious reasons. Conspiracy theories link Aristotle to Alexander’s death, but clearly even if this was true Aristotle was too amazing to leave behind any compelling evidence. He eventually went out the typical badass way – of natural causes whilst the entire of Athens was persecuting him for apparently not honouring the gods or something that obviously he was too incredible to do. He also said: “The worst form of inequality is to try to make unequal things equal”, which could’ve been his way of telling us “you all are obviously not equal to me, so don’t even try”. #4: Rene Descartes – I think, therefore I am. The next dude on our badass list is here because he flatly refused to believe anyone but himself and, as it turned out, was right. Cogito ergo sum, you might have heard before, or I think, therefore I am (one thousand times better than all of you combined). Besides having an infinitely awesome name that few people could pronounce right, Descartes was a French philosopher and all round amazing dude who lived circa 1650. Yup, still no Google. His claim to fame was being an absolute whiz in philosophy AND maths, something which honestly seems next to impossible nowadays, when Arts students are known for their difficulties with maths and Science students are known for their difficulties with Arts. Not only was he tremendous at both, he actually believed that metaphysics and science was the root of philosophy. Like, you actually become better at Arts when you’re better at Science. Wow! Clearly he wouldn’t have liked the dichotomy we’ve imposed between the two in recent times. Still, it’s amazing to think that the guy who famously said “except our own thoughts, nothing is absolutely within our power” also invented the Cartesian plane (you didn’t realise it was named after him did you? Neither did I). And because most academic badasses, as we have seen, typically also have side hobbies that involve physically kicking others’ butts, Descartes was a member of the Army of Nassau in 1618. Because he didn’t see much action, however, he spent his spare time studying maths. Eventually he decided that all the awesome in his mind was going nowhere if he didn’t tell others about it, so he starting writing treatises on emotion. Before he began, though, he made sure to tell the world that the stuff he wrote would be completely more monumental than everything that’s ever been written by saying that he would write on these issues “as if no one had written on these matters before”. This put him in conflict with other established academic badasses of the time, including Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and Hume – all of whom were contenders for a place in this article. That probably made Descartes pause for about 3 seconds before he deciding he totally didn’t care. Did I mention that his Meditations on First Philosophy continues to be a standard text in most philosophy courses? That was published in 1641. How many things have you done today that will be studied by everyone half a millennium later? In 1663 though, his badassery came into conflict with the church, and the Pope placed his works on the Index of Prohibited Books, which is generally where your books could end up if they cross an arbitrary line on the Scale of Badass. I’m not saying that the Pope was wrong, just that the act of placing his books on this index was perhaps misguided. Eventually, they realised how ingenious he was and started calling him “the Father of Modern Philosophy”. The thought that he’d fathered philosophy actually presents us the image that his wit was so amazing it did the job of a sperm… And since fathering stuff is clearly awesome in all senses of that metaphor, the next guy… #5: Galileo Galilei – The Man Who Could Look at Science and Say… Is just fascinating. Because he is known as the father of modern observational astronomy, modern physics, science, AND modern science. His extremely virile and therefore awesome brain fathered more sophisticated academic concepts than most males would father children, so don’t go comparing his brain to…any part of you at all. You might already know this, but Galileo was basically the dude who stepped up and said, “Hey guys, did anyone else notice the Earth revolves around the Sun?” But instead of standing in awe at the truth in that epiphany and celebrating him for the legend he was, the other people just started to laugh at him. Not that he gave a single beaver dam about it. He just went on to write a whole paper defending it. Sadly though, he didn’t actually manage to convince his time that he was right, because petty things like other people’s beliefs got in the way. But we know who’s right now, and he’s probably still laughing from the Afterlife about it. Now that is just a mind blasting fact. How on earth do you stand up and tell the entire world that it’s wrong? How do you tell scores and thousands of academics armed with their research and logic and degrees that you disagree with them and you’re right? Now typical people like you and I probably couldn’t, but not Galileo because he knew he was just too overflowingly brilliant to be wrong about anything. Eventually he, like fellow badass Descartes, got on the wrong side of the Pope’s books too for championing arguments which apparently made him “vehemently suspect of heresy”. Most of his works which revolved around the Earth revolving around the Sun got placed in the Index of Prohibited Books (which now seems like it should be renamed The List of Books You Should Totally Read). So they put him in house arrest and tried to force him to recant. In other words, they found him too imba and tried to nerf him. But did they succeed? Clearly not, because admitting your own mistake when everyone says you’re wrong was too mainstream for Galileo. In the peace and tranquillity of house arrest he produced one of his finest works, Mathematical Discourses Concerning Two New Sciences, where he basically invents Two New Sciences – known today as kinematics and materials science. While the other people in his life failed to get him, though, the forces of nature succeeded. By 1638 he was completely blind, presumably because he had seen so much more than a normal man could see in his lifetime, and died by 1642 due to heart issues and other petty things the Afterlife tried to nerf him with. Initially they wanted to give him the badass burial he deserved by putting him in a marble mausoleum, but because other people got in the way again, they decided that suspected heretic should be buried in a far less awesome room next to a novice’s chapel. Fortunately, they eventually realised how ridiculous this was and reinstated him to a proper place in 1737, after making a monument in his honour. Yay (slightly more modern) other people! I’d imagine two giant, ornate letters are inscribed on this monument: his totally badass initials GG, which is the only appropriate thing to say if you ever find yourself on the wrong side of this guy’s Gigantic Geni...Genius. There you have it, the Five Most Amazing Academic Badasses of All Time, in my humble opinion. I guarantee if you spent some time finding out more about what they all did and said and thought, you’d become a far greater person. And if you ever need to prove a point, pull out a quote from Aristotle, Plato, or our man GG, and you get what we call an insta-win. Trust me, I’ve done that in so many essays… if there’s one thing we can learn from these 5 amazing people, it’s that we can become infinitely more awesome than we think we are. These people were humans too, equal to us, no doubt far more equal than us as well. It’s not like they had two brains, you know, except they loved what they did, and persisted even when the world was against them. They loved it so much they studied it in their spare time, spent their entire lives on it, and made contributions are so legendary they’re still shaping society. On the other hand, modern society is preoccupied with looks, grades, bad dancing and other first world problems. We could spend our time exploring how amazing people like Orwell were, but we’d rather monitor the private lives of Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez. Uncool. If only Descartes was still alive, because I’d totally follow him on twitter. Thanks for reading. I’ll leave you with this footnote: The Criteria of Badass, based on what these five amazing academic badasses had in common, in case you want to try to become as awesome as them (in vain): 1. Have a badass name or give one to yourself. 2. Do whatever you want and do it amazing. 3. Have a side hobby in activities which involve establishing your unquestionable physical superiority over others, just in case they start to think you’re a nerd. 4. Don’t care about other people (if you know you’re right). 5. Do things which contribute to society and help other people even though technically you don’t care about them. Disclosure: A large proportion of facts and events in this article are referenced from Wikipedia. As such, it is about as reliable historically as Wikipedia is. There has also been a slight amount of embellishment and exaggeration in this article, in case you did not notice. Therefore, do take things here with a pinch of salt and don’t rely on it for any academic papers. Rely on what those guys above said instead, and you will go far.
You’re at the hospital with a rare illness. The doctor looks…confused. He opens his mouth to speak, only, instead of explaining your situation and prescribing pills, he starts introducing every possible drug on this planet: paracetamol, domperidone, piritone, and ten thousand other words you never knew existed. Some from the US, some European, still others from exotic countries like Korea, even Thailand. Beyond that, an entire apothecary of traditional Chinese medicine. Some drugs from established, transnational firms like GSK, Pfizer. Others from smaller companies known for their special 'boutique drugs'. You have to decide which one's for you. Because you, apparently, know yourself best. At 18 years old the typical student is faced with a similar if not more daunting decision. Unfortunately, where choosing universities is concerned, good ol’ trial and error just isn’t going to cut it. Because we know how absolutely overwhelming, costly, troublesome, annoying, and tiring uni apps can be, we’ve went ahead made the decision for you. Well, almost. Presenting owlcove’s guide to the uni-verse (uni...verse! haha!). Complete with real-life stories of university choices, experiences, and regrets aspirations. Read them, laugh at them, think about them, but at the end of the day, remember the decision is yours to make and yours alone. As with all decisions though, the first thing to understand is… What exactly are you deciding? A university represents different things for different people. If you want to take medicine, this choice could possibly decide the entire rest of your life. Someone inclined towards business may see a degree as a helpful yet optional stepping stone towards bigger dreams. For the aspiring accountant, a degree is mandatory. What you want will affect how you should decide. Other concerns like cost, emotional attachments, personal preferences, societal pressures, and even sheer impulse will inevitably factor in too. Beyond these personal and internal influences, external factors, how the university’s like, its faculty and teaching methods will clearly be important. This tangled matrix of differing and sometimes diverging influences doesn’t make it any easier to make such a tough decision. Luckily, all of this can be distilled, really, into one central aim - to match what you want and need with what the course is really like. More specifically, it’s about balancing the internal and external influences in a way which best suits your long-run practical, emotional, and educational interests. More into theoretical and thus boring exploration of decision-making later. First, the interesting part… What’s it like? I asked friends in a variety of universities, countries and courses two main questions: (1) Why did you choose what you chose? and (2) How’s it like? Their responses, which I have kept almost verbatim and supplemented with my own thoughts (in italics) at some points, were as follows: BTW: The following personal opinions may not be entirely reflective of the experience you will have and are not meant to speak for the respective schools either. These aren’t their actual names. Adam: Y2, male, Economics in London. No prizes for guessing which School: Choose the course you want before choosing the university. Certain courses like medicine, law, and dentistry have a limited list of recognized colleges you can apply to. For these courses studying overseas may affect your progression, but not necessarily, and it really depends. The main factors I considered to decide which school to go to were: UK versus US: There’s a lot to be said about the difference between the UK and US culture and experience, but I simply decided to go to the UK because I thought it suited me more. My parents were also inclined towards UK. Course quality: Specialty courses are also important because the same university can be really good in one subject but average in another. Simply because the university brand name sounds awesome doesn’t meant every faculty is equally good. City-life versus non-city life: The opposite of city in this case isn’t ‘rural’ because you won’t find most universities in villages or farms. A ‘city’ university is one that’s right in the middle of a big city like London, meaning you’ll be living next to financial and business districts. I preferred a city university because they generally offer more vibrancy, practical immersions and career exposure. A less city university is slightly more detached from the cruelty of the real world – the university usually constitutes the entire town. These universities, like Oxford and Cambridge, typical excel in academia and research. Costs: Living in the city can be really expensive though. Even if you have a scholarship, you may find yourself liquidity constrained in the short run (spoken like a true economist). Given how degrees are more and more like investments, it’s worth asking whether the costs are justified. And one last thing – I think applying early is really important. Actions do speak louder than words and few other things can prove your conviction to study that course in that university than sending in your application before everyone else. That doesn’t mean you rush through it though, only that you start working on it early. Jack: Y1, male, Law and Economics at NUS: Nothing really matters. What school you’re in isn’t anywhere as important as what you do there. But that assumes your school is of a decent standard, and may not be true for everyone – it wouldn’t work if you’re very reliant on school syllabi and structure. I knew I wasn’t. I’m a really bad person to ask, to be honest, because I didn’t really choose a university. I just went to one. Don’t follow my example. To me, since just about every course and university was equally exciting and equally useful, I figured I should just go to the most convenient one – the one I have a direct bus to from my house. Okay I exaggerate, but I really couldn’t justify going halfway across the globe for a degree either. Plus I knew I wouldn’t want to spend precious time of my youth restarting my life in a foreign country – I’d rather focus on doing more meaningful things (not that making foreign friends, washing your own clothes and cooking for yourself aren’t meaningful though – let’s just say I wanted to spend time on other things). And you’ll never ever get back 5 years of time not spent with family. There was also an internship I did sometime after A levels which showed me life as a lawyer could be interesting. I was really really lucky to get accepted the first time I applied to the school, and offered a scholarship too, so there really wasn’t any decision to make after that. Up till now I’m still not sure if I want to practice Law, but at least I know I wouldn’t hate it. I think quite some people in Law school are like me. I’d still advise you to go find out your options. At the very least I went for 2 university and scholarship talks. They were great because I was almost immediately turned off by every UK/US university there. I swear it’s me not them. So don’t think that information only helps you decide what’s right. Finding out what’s wrong is really useful too. I also applied to one extra university. That’s saying a lot, since I absolutely HATE applications. Truth be told, I found the SATS too troublesome to prepare for, which automatically ruled out all US unis. Convenient eh? Life as a law student is fun – the way marathons are fun. You keep running and running, it tires you out, sometimes every inch of your body wants to stop, but you somehow (have to) press on. Not everyone gets the top prizes at the end, but that really isn’t the point, and when it’s all memory you feel an indescribable sense of happiness – before you think about your next run. You’re pretty much working all the time, so much it starts to get hilarious. Like when you’re reading a page-long sentence from a case judgment from the 19th century and have no idea what it’s talking about. Or when you’re running through a list of 400 cases trying to recall what each one stands for. There’re really only two things you do in law school: 1. Read 2. Write. Those who do well will also 3. Think. It suits me because 1 and 2 are my hobbies. A typical week involves going for your standard lectures, tutorials and seminars. The main thing to note is that you have to prepare (read ahead) for them. It sounds hard, but when you realise reading on your own is really how you learn everything in uni, suddenly it seems a breeze because lecture or otherwise you’ll be doing it anyway. In fact if you’re well-disciplined and read diligently you don’t even have to go for (censored for public good). Tutors generally don’t assign any ‘homework’, except every now and then you get an assignment which basically is either an essay (you know what this is) or a hypothetical (they’ll tell you a story, and you have to argue whether there’s a legal issue there, and how it will likely be resolved by the court). And because it’s a professional course, there’s a lot of focus on practical writing. The stuff you do IS actually what you might do in your future job – research, office memos, mooting (or pretending you’re going to court). I don’t know about you, but after years of learning integration and differentiation and molecular structure for who knows why, this was a very welcome change. Of course there are always the more conceptual and less practically applicable mods, but it’s almost always a requirement of every academic course to have such content anyway. Steve: Y1, Business at NUS under the USP I chose business by elimination (and so did most people around me). I figured I needed to do something that involves working with or working on people - something people oriented, so I decided on business instead of things like engineering or econs. I think though for most people it’s because of the opportunities, or because you need a somewhat finance degree to go into banking related fields. I stayed in Singapore for studies because I’m not really convinced that overseas is superior. Feels the same to me. (Succinctly expressed, I asked no further questions.) As for how is business school like, I think people are very driven. They work hard to get their grades and build up their portfolios. People are generally smart, but more hardworking than the ‘genius’ kind who don’t work and still top the class. They’re also very pragmatic. The environment in general is very extroverted and outgoing, and there’s a lot of pride and showmanship around. That’s probably also because the more introverted people are sitting at home mugging their ass off (ie. accountants). So there’s quite a big divergence, but those who set the culture are party animals. To do well in Business school, although perhaps it’s true for other courses too, I think in general you need to be really versatile. You have to learn to work with people, speak up in class, plus be the mugger you probably were in JC. Time management would be useful if you don’t wanna sleep late, but I like to sleep late. Daily work really differs from week to week. Like if there’s a big presentation, we'll have to research and decide on a topic, take charge of sections, prepare slides, present and write reports. The whole process is about 2-3 weeks of gradual, spaced out work. OR 3 days of intensive last minute prep. It’s usually alright, but because we have 4-5 projects going on at once… If there isn’t a presentation, we won’t usually meet up to rehearse. Instead we’ll work through email and Google docs. Everyone loves Google docs these days For my scholar’s programme, in year 1 we take three 4 MC mods, 1.5 mods each sem. One writing mod and one quantitiative reasoning mod – that’s all on top of our usual degree mods. The 0.5 each sem comes from a year-long mod which is S/U so its kay. Both writing and quanti is damn heavy, especially writing. But it drills people to craft arguments in depth, and everyone feels that it’s very good although it is quite taxing and might pull down your grades. Then there’s the residential life part... which is quite chill. There’re no compulsory events or hall points. Everything is like do if you want to. It’s very student-initiated, and people just take turns to introduce activities they wanna do. There may be some peer pressure within the scholar’s programme, but I don’t really care about peer pressure. I guess people who are more competitive will be threatened since there’re lots of dean’s listers around, especially for FASS and Science - like every other person’s a Dlister (The Dean’s List is basically a list of the top 5-10% of students in the faculty by grades. You’ll learn about it soon enough if you’re entering a local university). Wright: Y1, Male, Law at a University College in London: (Because this was a verbose yet valuable piece, not surprisingly from a law student, I have refrained from editing it. I swear I only asked two questions.) Initially, my decision to study law was not founded out of passion, nor necessity, but out of a budding interest. I cannot say for sure that this interest was moulded and shaped by the expectations of present society, but I daresay that if I was born in any age, or any epoch where the legal service was perhaps not so relevant to Singapore, or the world, I would have chosen to do so regardless. I wasn't born with the concept of legal work burned into my head. Ambitions don't stay grounded, not do they remain uniform, they wax and wane, as feelings, and passion always do. I do not feel that failing to maintain a concept or clear idea of future profession somehow disqualifies you from said profession for lack of 'purity’. Such an antiquated understanding only persists in the minds of the deluded, for no one human is completely infallible. There were times I wanted to be a palaeontologist digging bones in Utah, a tribal chief, an oncologist in Mt. Alvernia Hospital... endless hopes and dreams and flitting fancies scurrying to and fro from many whispers of cloudlike realities. I love dreaming, but I became more grounded to reality. And professions, though excellent if compatible with interests, sadly serve first and foremost to bring home the bacon. Ever heard that having real passion in your work increases your creativity, productivity and your overall happiness? That is the ideal scenario, but most of the time it never materializes. Most of us go through life without ever reconciling our interests and our work, and it shows. The more fortunate of us have the choice either (1) to sacrifice our interests in the pursuit of profitable work, or (2) to forgo better paying work to pursue our dreams. Both choices have merits and shortcomings, but based on all the current self-help and feel good articles populating the internet, most people would be encouraged on a more 'moral' standpoint, to go with option 2. There is nothing wrong with that, and ultimately the choice is yours, for no one should be able to question your motivations, but for the sake of all your prospective law students, who keep feeling as if they have to come up with an excuse or impressive answer to shake the stigma of a money grubbing option 1, sometimes the best answer is the truth. The truth could be altruism, in that you wanted to help people through legal work - I know I did. Though people may argue that law is nothing about helping people, is it really fair to expect someone selecting a career choice to already know about the pitfalls and letdowns of real life work? It is a cruel reality and weird reasoning that individuals wanting to study law get discriminated for the shortcomings in the legal profession that they are somehow, inexplicably supposed to be aware of. No, altruism is indeed a very valid reason for going into any profession, even into the legal service, as if you want to help others, you want to help others, simple as that. Though altruism feels mundane, and maybe politically correct, remind yourself that the concept behind every profession is the same one: of service. Every profession carries an economic value and a moral worth, offering a service to others for a salary is the economic part, but in some professions, the moral aspect of their work is much more pronounced and noticeable than in others. It is lamentable that our society somehow equates a higher economic value of your job with a lower moral worth, while failing to understand that sometimes, choosing a high paying job is a very moral decision in itself. For those who see going into the legal profession as a sacrifice of your interests and dreams, it is true that forgoing some happiness for monetary gain is a loss, but it is noble in its own right - who wouldn't want their family, or their future spouse to have an easier time in the future? You work more so they may work less, they may live more comfortably, it is easier for them to shoulder future burdens. One sacrificing his own happiness for the sake of his family - if that is not selflessness at heart, I do not know what is. Legal work is tiring, and offers none of the exultation and nobility accorded to some other professions, but I have never felt the study of anything quite as rewarding. It is worth knowing that at least, in our current confused and tentative state, we can be sure that we are doing something relevant and helpful, and that reassurance counts. What is it like? Legal studies is like a cup of tea - how bitter or sweet it is depends on much effort you put in. You can do the bare minimum, or go the whole way. It is possible to get your second-upper just putting in the minimal effort, which will give you a pretty good and balanced sip of social life. However, the best teas are seldom the sweetest, and it is often those who put in effort that end up the most distinguished, as in every line of work or study. It's easy to say, don't study hard, study smart, but when you're tossed into a field of studies that you experience for the first time, it is really difficult to pick out what to study and what is studying smart. The only good thing is that everyone is reset to a level playing field - anyone can succeed, as by virtue of the entrance examinations, the basic skills are all present, but as far as terminologies and knowledge are concerned, everyone is on the same foot. Therefore as with all things, good things come to those who are disciplined, and it is often those who work the most bitterly that end up with the strongest aftertastes. And finally, don’t give up on your dream. From my own experience, even not getting an interview from NUS or SMU isn’t the end of the world. There are plenty of options in the UK, and the only significant thing you have to worry about other than the grades is probably the LNAT. The LNAT is a requirement to enter most UK Law schools, but it should not be anything more than just comprehension passages - by virtue of you wanting to study law, it tests you on nothing you should not already have - nothing legal in terminology but just general ability. That said, it can still be prepared for, and remember to be very discerning in your approach to questions - answering an LNAT MCQ question is not clear cut, often it is choosing which answer out of five is the least wrong, or the most right, never clearly wrong or right. The questions tax your vocabulary, sentence structure, and to some extent general knowledge. Remember that though you may be accepted into law school, you do not change. I did not become any less smart when I was rejected by Oxford, nor did I suddenly become smarter when UCL gave me their offer. It is all in the state of mind, and being discouraged is our only fallibility. I learnt that when I came over: that nothing has really changed about myself except my perspective. So don’t become discouraged, and in the lead up to your decision to enter law school, let no one question your decisions or motivations, they are your own. Theresa: Y3, female, medicine at NUS: I chose medicine because it’s meaningful and fun, and the academic rigour builds character. Being able to meet, diagnose and treat patients is an honour and privilege. The academics are very much self or senior directed. As seniors always say, you can study as much as you want or as little as you dare. You won't be judged. Until you get to the hospitals and maybe your tutors and the smart students might. There’s absolutely no homework for year 1 & 2. Just mug mug mug. Or play play play. Whichever you choose. Year 3 onwards is a different world. Be prepared to study round the clock and give up even more things. The medicine community is extremely tight. By third or fourth year everyone would know everyone by name. They’re lots of chances to get to know people within the faculty like during camps, plays, overseas service trips and others. In other words, any gossip spreads fast. Your social circle will be redefined. Most of your friends will know the same jargon as you. Then one day at a gathering of old friends you suddenly find yourself having to explain every word you say. Medicine is consuming. Keeping friends is challenging. Making time for family is a very very conscious effort. Difficult, but not impossible. One great thing is, the friendships you make in medicine are probably for life. Seniors are awesome and always ready to help. And one last thing: your journey DOES NOT end at getting in. The plane hasn't even taken off yet. You can maybe- just maybe - start flying after 5 years. (That’s when housemanship starts). Marissa: Y3, female, Business and Accountancy double degree at SMU. My degree choices were almost a no brainer for me. It was natural I took that path with my affinity for numbers. I’d grown up in a very ‘finance’ family and my exposure to and interest in it started since young. I applied to UCAS, NTU and SMU, and ultimately chose SMU because they gave me a good scholarship. SMU’s a bustling city campus. Going to school can feel like fashion show every day – so for the guys, SMU’s just what you’re looking for!!! It also means you get lots of good food choices, although mostly you’d eat at the koufu or kopitiam near campus since food can get a little pricey. The transition from JC to uni was probably much steeper than from secondary school to JC, even though people tell you uni’s a breeze – it really depends on what course you do, where you’re doing it, and most importantly how you’re doing it. Suddenly you have to do everything yourself – planning what mods to take (even compulsory mods are left for you to allocate, and you have to make sure you clear them properly), what to do, who to take with, how much to study, and so on. Basically you become your own admin office. The most adminish thing you do is bidding for modules, which usually means researching past year prices, looking for people to bid in with for modules with group projects, finding the right prof who suits both your learning style and your…ahem…grade aspirations. The social life in SMU is pretty happening too. They’re lots of cliques who study, drink and club together all the time. For a unique person like me who doesn’t really club, it can be an interesting dynamic to be part of. And then there’s the world famous Class Part system, which more or less means everyone has to speak up in every class. The weightage differs from mod to mod, prof to prof, but can go as high as 20% of the entire grade. There’ll be people who can somehow answer all the prof’s questions, people who can’t but keep talking anyway, people who answer a few and then go entirely quiet after hitting the daily quota, people who repeat, attack, criticize, capitalize on others’ points – let’s just say social tendencies get magnified. It’s a mercenary system, yes, but as long as we are content to live in a world where numbers and grades are sovereign it’s probably the best way to motivate otherwise quiet students to stand up, speak up, and be heard. It really works. Mark: Y1, male, Engineering at UC Berkeley. I’ve always wanted to study abroad. If you ask me, as long as you have the financial ability to do so, the experience and network is well worth the cost. I’ll be honest though: Berkeley wasn’t my first choice. But it’s the top public university in the world, an amazing school for engineering, and located right smack in Silicon Valley. Plus, you can’t go wrong with the weather in California. I’ve just completed my first semester, and time has flown by even beyond what I had been mentally prepared for. The academics are as rigorous as they say, the people as crazy (I blame all those…uh…substances), the environment as invigorating. It’s impossible not to get caught up in the startup fever gripping Silicon Valley, what with every other student an aspiring entrepreneur. The networking opportunities here are immense – who knows if you’ll meet the next Mark Zuckerberg? However, being in a huge public school comes with huge drawbacks. The competition is intense, perhaps even more so than private schools. (The conventional wisdom that acing academics abroad is easy doesn’t always hold true.) Resources are limited, and many programs are underfunded. Talk to any student here and they will rant about how hard it is to get into classes – I personally attended a Computer Science class last semester more than 1,000 strong, even larger than the capacity of the school’s largest lecture hall. Sadly, paying school fees several times what your peers pay still doesn’t guarantee you anything beyond (if you graduate, of course) a fancy degree from an overseas university. You actually need to put in effort to fully attain that fabled overseas experience. It is especially easy to get lost in the crowd with a student population as large as Berkeley’s 30,000 students – if you don’t bother expanding your social circle, no one is honestly going to care. In fact, no one is even going to know who you are. In other words, you’re on your own – fend for yourself. While other Singaporean students will unsurprisingly form your initial social circle – I’ve grown really close to my Singaporean batchmates – I feel you need to take the initiative to break out of your comfort zone and expand your social circle further. I mean, you didn’t fly halfway around to world just to meet Singaporeans, did you? Be warned though: it’s not going to be easy, particularly if you’ve already settled into familiarity. But no one said anything was going to be easy. That is, except some deluded friends who will insist that Asians are too smart for everyone else. Now that the interesting part is finally over... Let’s try to make sense of it all. We’ve seen perspectives from different people, pursuing different paths, in different places. While they disagree on certain points – some’ll tell you to go overseas no matter what; some have no idea why people go overseas – there’s really one thing that’s always the same: everyone has their own, often compelling, reasons for choosing what they did. You’d notice the factors that influence decisions recur – environment, experience, culture, costs, personal and parental preferences, school reputation. But if everyone considers the same things, then why doesn’t everyone make the same decision? Why, instead, do they differ so vastly? It’s because of how much weight each person places on the same factor. For a socialite, school culture can be the main influence behind a decision, but for the socially independent academic that’s the last thing he’ll care about. We’ve also seen how scholarships and costs can make a huge difference. In making your own decision, you’d have to know which factors you’d value the most, the ones which hold the most weight. Like Security Council members, these influences can rise up to veto and defeat your entire resolution. Hence, start by asking these members what they want. If costs are your primary concern, quickly rule out the schools you can’t afford. Then apply the second most important factor and rule more schools out. At this point, you don’t have to automatically eliminate schools which you may not get accepted for – never let the fear of rejection stop you from trying. Eventually, the schools remaining would start to seem about the same, and that’s when you really have to slow down and consciously consider the merits of each, and think about which merits you value more. Sometimes though, you still can’t figure out what’s right. That’s why the final decision is usually one of the heart more than the mind, a leap of faith where you know you’ve done all you could and hope you’ve made the right choice. And one last thing – don’t keep your options open for too long either. In the days and weeks you spend deliberating between uni A and uni B, precious early application time is slipping away. We often think so much about the opportunity costs of choosing A over B that we forget the costs of not choosing either. Hope this guide helps, and all the best for your applications :)
Before you skip the rest of the article and launch into a heated critique of how insensitive this is, let me first qualify that the haze was bad. There’s no doubt about that, and I’d really rather it didn’t happen. But now that the smoke’s a little thinner and more light’s coming through, perhaps it’s time to look on the brighter side of things, and focus on why the haze might also have been good for us, just as it was bad. I mean, for a country that typically enjoys a geographically inherited immunity from natural disasters, as well as relative political, economic and social stability, being confronted with a national crisis…still sucks, yes, but it’s also something we don’t usually get living in our supposedly ‘air-conditioned’ climate. It had the effect of bringing us closer together and uniting us in the common awareness of a shared experience. In other words, now I can pretty much talk to anyone on the street about the weather for once, and we can all have a good laugh about how bad it was. Maybe we’d share some jokes about the #sghaze. It’s as much of a great conversation opener which help forge national identity and culture. And what doesn’t kill you is supposed to make you stronger, right? In remembrance of perhaps one of the greatest creative periods we’ve had in Singapore, here’s a round-up of the good things the haze gave us, for once. Starting with… #6 – Bringing Out The Resourcefulness In Us The initial chaos that ensued during what can be seen as the “N95 panic” showed how clever Singaporeans can get in times of crisis. People started placing orders for the masks on Amazon and Groupon, and some (questionably) saw a business opportunity right there. I mean, people did so much of that private importing that the Business Times managed to run this hilarious article about it. (note: this link doesn’t go to the actual Business Times website, because they took it down from there. Credits still go to them). As for the rest of us who weren't as entreprising, we didn't quite sit quietly and wait for things to happen either. People took it upon themselves to share health advisories, read up about PSI and other indicators, and find alternatives to the N95 (see above). In fact, an independent effort known as the SG Haze Rescue was started for people to share resources and help those who needed it. We’re commonly known to be dependent and passive. Some have even said we're childish. How we reacted here proves we are not dumb nor incompetent. #5 – Raising Concern On The Environment The last time we heard about the PSI, it was last year during a way more tolerable haze outbreak. This time, however, things got so bad Singaporeans pretty much became environmental scientists overnight. People were so well-versed in air quality and standards that they actually called for the government to adjust them. If it wasn’t for the haze, some might still think the PSI had something to do with sunglasses and horsing around. And honestly, no one would really care about the Sumatran fires if this all hadn’t happened. I know I didn’t. While in the past it was an inconvenience at worst, this year's haze posed such serious health risks that the atmosphere (literally) moved from one of general apathy to fierce debates and even finger pointing on which companies and countries were responsible for all that burning. Now I wouldn’t say playing the blame game is good, but as the Singaporean mantra goes, better than nothing. Let’s just hope this enthusiasm doesn’t die along with the flames, and real progress will be made to prevent this from happening again. #4 – An Explosion Of Creative Expression When international polling body Gallup published survey results identifying Singaporeans as the most unhappy in the world, many were most unhappy about it. But the one thing we’d probably rank lower in than happiness is creativity. Not that we’re not creative, you know, except we seldom (get a chance to) showcase just how ingenious our right-brains are. It's like as the fog covered our nation, a lid was lifted on our creativity. Suddenly, everyone was busy making jokes, memes and witty comments about the haze, because it gave lots of people the avenues and motivations to do just that. To the organizations that are planning to rank Singapore 2nd last on some creativity index (you probably exist), watch this and see if you can still put Singapore at rock bottom: That’s one less unmet KPI for us to worry about, especially when firms too are putting out... #3 – Some More Creative Advertising (Finally) The advertising concepts used in Singapore have been re-used so many times most of us can actually recite how a typical advertisement unfolds. Ok here’s a random celebrity endorsing some product you actually need to be a doctor to properly endorse, oh, now they’re showing me the before pictures. I really can’t wait for the after… Thanks in part to the haze and in part to social media, though, companies decided that since everyone was so concerned with PSI and PM 2.5, they’d actually make ads that were already about what we were concerned with, for a change. And that gave us this: Disclosure: I did not receive any kind of incentive or reward from the above companies for posting this. I wish I did, but no. In either case, the haze also brought about... #2 – Greater Awareness Of Neighbourly Ties Shameless self-advertising for the meme I made aside, the haze did bring the two countries closer. Singaporeans became more aware and interested in not only the fires burning in Sumatra, but the poverty and perhaps exploitation that may be going on there that’s driving farmers to resort to such - infernal - tactics. You could say our ties have also been strained by cross-allegations and harsh remarks from various parties, but fighting brings people closer too, doesn’t it? Hopefully (and in fact most probably), both parties would be able to work together to solve what is actually a regional issue that's been left unsolved for some time now. And as an ex-History student, I’m inclined to add how this could pave the way for future collaboration and sow the seeds of harmony between the two countries by setting a plausible precedent for cooperation (that's how you write for History). Finally, the best thing the haze did for us was that it's over, at least for now, and... #1 – Breathing Clean Air Now Feels Amazing. It’s that feeling you get when exams are over, that kick of emotion I can only describe as SHIIIOOK SIA, that you could never feel if there weren’t these terrible things. Likewise, without the haze, we’d never be so happy it was over. It’s warped reasoning, yes, but that doesn’t stop it from being awesome. Because we've seen how bad it could get when a basic necessity such as air is deprived from us, we've learnt to cherish what we normally take for granted. And joy has never been as cheap as the free, PSI 17 air we have now. So yes, our good neighbor, I’m really thankful for all the clean air you’re supplying us! Now let's make sure those 'air suppliers' aren't all burnt down, okay? In the end, the cloud of smoke that blanketed Singapore did have a silver lining. As a people, we've gained not only a shared experience that unites us, but a whole range of photoshop, meme-making, article-writing, amazon-mask-hunting and N95 wearing skills. Not to mention a closer understanding of things like PSI and PM 2.5, which really do affect us. More importantly, as a population, we've grown to become more aware and informed on real and important issues including regional diplomacy and the environment. Should the haze come back, we'll be ready.
I was recently engaged in a conversation that reinforced the ugly glaring fact of Singapore's stifling culture, and all the people who have fallen prey, become dead, and are spreading the zombie virus. I forget it often because of the amazing environment I'm immersed in in school - people have started their own board game companies, national-scale NGOs and more; our debate and MUN teams clinch awards at international events even though we have no external coaches; we organise and start any club or event we want. Many of my friends outside school are doing what they love, whether it's financial consulting, game-coding or app-designing. They love what they learn and are forming opinions for themselves, rejecting some of what has been fed to them since young. I believe the stifling culture in Singapore will change with the young, because we haven't seen the struggles of the country like the previous generations have. We grew up with the gifts of education, full stomachs and a bed. See, Singapore was a third-world island with no resources or support, and we struggled, but soon found the formula for success, and triumphed. Since then, we've been on a roll, but the country is still clinging to this formula in desperation. It is never enough. A family-sized government flat in the suburbs can cost half a million dollars. A car is a couple hundred grand. And the older generations run on the fear that if we were to ever loosen our grip, we would plummet back to poverty, high unemployment, and struggles. They are too afraid to take a risk. After all, we already have the formula - why look for another one at the risk of plummeting? Maybe Singaporeans are blessed enough to have a foundation of relative material stability, security and educational access, but we're cursed when we are mentally bound by the culture and mindsets so prevalent now. I believe my generation will see that some things just aren't working like they used to anymore, and let in some fresh air. But we have to be brave enough to fight safe monotony. Do something we love and be great at it, instead of being content with secure mediocrity all our lives. This passion doesn't have to be the single focus from the start - you've got to have the money to pursue your passion sometimes - but we should never throw it away. Dive into whatever you feel passionate to build. I have extremely smart and talented friends who are utterly passionate about education and politics. They see the cogs in the machine that are now irrelevant, and are willing to invest their lives to change it. It's only when you do what you love that you will easily find the drive to be excellent. When I considered applying to Law schools instead of Literature courses, my mum said I was being ridiculous, I would be a terrible lawyer, and that I should stop trying to be someone I'm not. My mum took pure biology and pure chemistry in university when people felt higher education for girls was a waste of money. They said her course choice was silly, and that other than being a researcher, her career options were dead. Well, look at how far biochemistry and other related fields have come. Look at the companies that chase after her qualifications, and the places she travels to to give talks. "Do what you're passionate enough to become excellent at," she says, "and the jobs will come after you." Of course, another great hurdle is culture - mindsets about pursuing something that might not be the most lucrative or stable. This place is barren ground. But with time, water and stimuli, the fruits of passion and excellence can grow again. I believe Singaporean youths can grow up to become bolder people, people who take initiative and pursue their careers not only for material security, but also to live life. Unfortunately, we are still timid, aren't we? Playing it safe, letting the fear of authority form a path for us by eliminating doors, because that's the easy way. Letting others speak up in class because we fear getting something wrong or saying something dumb. Preferring to follow instructions, because thinking is hard. I hope enough of us will be willing to take the front seat. This article first appeared on my blog and has also been posted on The Online Citizen.
It’s been scientifically proven that guys like curves. By extension, girls do too, because it makes guys like them. But it’s not bodily curves, market demand curves or the curves on the Porsche 911 that we pray to. It’s the bell curve. Although it was in some sense a joke. It reveals the extent of control that this little statistical distribution has over our lives. For the uninitiated, the bell curve is something that determines your exam grades. Raw scores are plotted with reference to this curve, and the top percentages of students’ scores fetches an A grade, the next few percentages B, and so on. For those who are curious, you can find out more about the bell curve here. For obvious reasons we do not know exactly how it works (this article by the NUS Provost is the closest you’ll get), because for the examiners to reveal how the compute your scores would be like for the banks to tell you exactly how they’ve used the money you’re saving with them. You might not be happy that your 74% ends up fetching you the same grade as some else’s 60% But if there’s no statistically significant difference between your score and his, that’s what you’re gonna get. The bell curve is used because we need to separate the best students from the above average, the above average from the normal. And the way we do things in society, it’s by grades. No employer has the time to see that you’re the top 5%, which is clearly better than someone’s 10%. You’re both just gonna get an A, and be as good as each other. That saves time, that’s economic efficiency. Wait, doesn’t the bell curve help to separate students’ grades? Well yes, yes it does. It basically says that only the top, say, 25%, of students’ scores will get A, and the rest will get some lower grade, regardless of the actual score they get. So, in a test where 25% of students get 90, getting an 89 is gonna fetch you a B, or even an F, if everyone else gets 89.5. For the record, it’s not exactly a bad system. Because it works. People who score higher do deserve higher grades. And in practical applications the percentage cutoffs for each grade are carefully researched and set such that they are fair, and make clear distinctions between each band. So those situations above probably wouldn’t happen in reality. And between you and me, I honestly can’t think of a better way. So what is the problem? What is wrong when the bell curve decides our fate? When we pray for the odds to be in our favour as if we were going into an arena full of other students who can only survive by killing us? Aren’t we? The bell curve is something learning is not – a zero sum game. It is a situation whereby when someone scores higher than you and he gains a percentile, you move down a percentile. Someone else’s gain is necessarily your loss. And conversely when someone else loses, you gain. The bell curve says we can’t all be right at the same time. It says that if you know something, then someone else shouldn’t. Because it makes knowledge seem like a zero sum game. The bell curve says you don’t have to work hard to score as high as you can. You just need to score better than everyone else. You might do that by studying harder than everyone else, but you could also do that by making sure everyone else studies less than you. It says that if you’re the best, then you’re getting your A and you should be proud that you’ve outdone everyone else. Don’t bother bettering yourself anymore. But the thing is, just because you’re the best doesn’t mean you’re good. We never got anywhere by being content with being the best, because great innovations and products simply don’t have anything to compare with. If everyone thought that way, the telephone itself would’ve been merely a more reliable and accurate telegraph. The light bulb would've been a lamp running on liquid uranium. They tell us that we shouldn’t be too obsessed with comparing our scores with others. That top scorers should not be identified and we should all focus on being the best that we can be. But the system just does not reward such behavior. Whether we like it or not, our scores will be compared, if not by us, by the very examiners who base our performance on a statistical distribution. So we become selfish. We don’t share what we know. We hide our knowledge from each other. Students charge peers money to tutor them. Because everything I do to help someone also makes my own life harder, so why should I do it? And we take this mentality with us into the world. Office politics, fight for promotions, climb over each other’s backs to get into that position that only 25% of executives can get. In a way, the bell curve mirrors the corporate world and it does its function of preparing us for that cruel, dog eat dog world out there. Or does it itself create that kind of selfish society we live in? Sharing knowledge with others is not wrong, because them knowing something does not make me any less intelligent. What is wrong is the selfishness we are condoning and teaching to the next generation. It might be a necessary evil, but it’s also evil that’s making it necessary. The bell curve is here to stay, because employers need it. But maybe, just maybe, we can all succeed, together. Or maybe I’m just the bottom 25% who is ‘less right’ than everyone else. Cover image by ameblo.jp
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!
You know, besides actually studying for it? So there’s this colossal exam that’s coming up, and it means half of the world to you, because the other half technically doesn’t exist now that you’ve got an exam to take and the world pretty much stops spinning. You’re all prepped up, having poured in 20 hours per day cramming all that academic information into your suddenly curious mind. And you’re ready. Or so you think, because on the day of the exam your old friend Sleep calls in and demands you repay his debt. Feeling slightly dizzy and yet strangely euphoric, you step into the exam hall, not realizing you haven’t actually brought your pencil case today – you left it on your study table as you hurried out after some final readings. The next thing you know, you’re running around begging others to lend you their stuff, and in all of this fluster all that important information you saved in your head as last-minute short term memory starts leaking out. Things are not going well, and from your pedestal of confidence and preparation you fall into the mud pit also known as panic and stress – and you have no idea how to deal with it because you thought you’d be absolutely prepared by now. And it all goes downhill from there. All because you forgot to bring your pencil case... Of all the reasons why people don’t do as well as they should for their exams, some are way more ridiculous than others. It’s one thing to fail because you genuinely didn’t care about studying, but it’s a terrific pity if you’ve put in all that effort, but didn’t realise that dealing with exams involved more than just mugging, including… #1 – Taking care of the small details This is one thing we’re all horrible at, because most of us lead lives in which these apparently inconsequential things are all taken care of for us – by our parents, maids, teachers, admin staff, so on. So much so that when the time comes for us to tackle the demon that is exams ourselves, we don’t realise how much they really matter. So the pen is mightier than the sword. And you wouldn’t want to bring a rusty sword into battle, would you? The quality of the pen you use can affect your performance, especially for exams that require lots of writing (read: History). You never ever want to just use that pen that’s somehow always been in your pencil case for the exam. Most people will buy new ones, but even then it is infinitely wiser to consciously choose what kind of pen will suit you best. Some people prefer ink pens and the rough feedback they give when writing. Others prefer ballpoints and their smooth, spherical splendour. Some go with 0.5s because their handwriting is typically atrocious, while others prefer 0.7s because their words are usually too small. It is as crucial to know which ones suit you best as it is to know which key words will answer which questions well. The same applies to almost every other piece of battle gear you will need in your quest for marks. Your jacket to prevent you from shivering so much you can’t write as fast. Your water bottle to prevent you from dehydration and losing focus (it’s been scientifically proven that adequate hydration improves concentration.) You never, ever want to feel uncomfortable during your exams, so make sure all these things are well sorted out. And who could ever, ever forget that amazing thing known as the ENTRY PROOF? Which does have a purpose, but seems like it was initiated as a practical joke to be played on every single student because… Moral of the story? Bring.TheDayum.Entry.Proof. Now that you’ve got all those external details settled, it’s time to prepare yourself within, starting with… #2 - Developing A Pre-exam Ritual Before you put on feathered Indian hats and dance in honour of the bell curve gods, let me explain that a pre-exam ritual simply means a set of actions you go through to get yourself into that entire ‘groove’ of exam conquestery. And trust me, you need as much groove and mojo as you can get when you’re talking about exams. Doing this is similar to the fixed routines that many professional athletes go through before the big day to remind their bodies to transition into fight mode. People are known to sleep with their baseball bats, cut their fingernails, compulsively eat chicken before their games, and do all sorts of wacky stuff. One NFL defender was so desperate to get into gear he habitually requested his coach to bestow upon him nothing else but a slap right across the face as part of his preparation. So if you want to score your As as consistently as an NBA player scores his free throws, then go on and start thinking of something you can do that’ll help you get into that familiar flow of focus you’ll need to tackle your exams with confidence. And within this ritual, you might want to include some… #3 - Power Posing I know this sounds like you need to have as much muscle as Terry Crews to pull off, but power posing has, fortunately, nothing to do with manhunt. In fact, it’s championed by a female psychologist, who believes that our body language can and will influence our minds. In her illuminating TED-talk which you should totally watch (especially from 10:00 onwards), Amy Cuddy explains a few experiments she conducted and how posing in various ‘high power’ positions actually can increase your testosterone and decrease your cortisol levels. Before you start thinking about how this can be helpful for…other areas…know that testosterone is commonly associated with confidence and power (sorry ladies), while cortisol is known to cause stress. It’s sort of self-deception and mind control, but whatever works works. And as amazing writer Neil Gaiman said, the way to believe you can to do things that seem impossible is simply to pretend that you’re someone who can. And if playing pretend doesn’t quite calm you enough, then… #4 – Use Totems To Help You The number of potentially Indian references here are actually quite amusing. Perhaps they were really on to something with their cave drawings and spiritual beliefs. But Native American culture aside, this idea was totally taken from Inception. For those who haven’t watched the show, other than the fact that you absolutely need to watch it (make it the first on your ‘Things To Do After Exams’ list), a totem is a physical object the characters carried around and used to remind them of what’s real and what’s not. In other words, physical objects can help you cling on to the desperate reality of your situation, before you get carried away into the word of mental blocks and hysteria the moment you look at the question paper and realise you’ve spotted the wrong ones. The trick is to make your totem something that can actually be brought into the exam hall – something like a country eraser that reminds you of home, or a special pen that a friend gave you. What I personally used was a jacket. And when you start to feel like you’re slipping away, just reach out, physically and metaphorically, for that object, and hopefully it’ll help you with a little course correction. In fact, it doesn’t even have to be a physical object. We all have that friend or teacher who uses the word ‘actually’ or ‘basically’ in their presentation so many times we start trying to count the total number of times it occurs. Actually, what happens here is basically that they are actually using these filler words that basically fit in anywhere to actually bring them back to what they’re basically trying to say. Humans are creatures of habit, and being able to fall back on something habitual to us helps to re-orientate, familiarize, and make us comfortable with the current situation. Now that you’re all prepped up, externally and internally, one last thing you might not realise could help you with your exams is… #5 – Other People Surprised? It’s actually no secret that people who do well in exams typically do well as a class. So how is this possible when exams seem like an absolute zero sum game? That’s because contrary to popular belief championed by the concept of the bell curve, other people can help you do well for your exams, even in the last minute preparations you’re doing. Honestly speaking, this entire site was founded on the idea that working together is the way to go, and although it is possible to tackle the monstrous exams alone, studying and learning is often more effective in groups. This is particularly true for the few days and weeks leading up to the major exams, because everyone you know will be extremely concerned and busy with preparing for them, so much so that by the time it’s five minutes before the test, many people will be almost overflowing with the knowledge they’ve tried to cram into their minds. And that is the best time to go and benefit from some of that excess capacity. I kid you not when I say a significant portion of the marks I got in exams are thanks to some of these last minute interactions with friends – when I walked up to this guy and he was all like ‘hey did you study this specific part about this little concept that I think is really important?” Moral of the story: Work with other people. Not during the exam, because that’s cheating, but before the exam, cos that’s totally allowed. And of course, when you receive you should also give, and I’ve also done my fair share of last minute enlightenment. When everyone graciously shares knowledge, everyone benefits. Therefore, you should really share this article with all your friends right now. The button’s right below…that shiny red one there…see it? Yup that one! Go on, click it! Wouldn’t hurt y’know… Last but not least, good luck for your exams. Because none of the above will count if you’re totally unlucky anyway. Have more great exam techniques? Share them in the comments below!