Q5. ‘For the majority of people, the Arts are irrelevant to their daily lives.’ How true is this of your society?

Question analysis

  • Topic: How the Arts are perceived in your society.
  • Controversy: When is something “relevant” to your daily life? Note that relevance is not the same as whether something is good or bad. It may be relevant because…
    • It’s a problem that plagues you no matter where you turn
    • It’s directly applicable to whatever you’re doing
    • It’s a hot talking point
  • Context: Your society. Interestingly, the question already sets some guidelines. You are to consider “the majority of people” in your society. Hence, any assessment of extent that uses only the “majority/minority” critical thinking tool won’t get you too far.

You are expected to…

Answer the question in a way that goes beyond the majority/minority distinction. If you’ve been practising for questions on the Arts, this question should evoke a sense of déjà vu. To stand out in a sea of regurgitated scripts, let’s examine the idea of a majority.

The majority isn’t a faceless blob of humanity. It has back stories and explanations. So instead of taking the easy way out and writing in broad assertions, recognise this complexity.

Statistics are a useful entry point for complexity. Don’t content yourself with dishing out number after number. Explain a little more. What is the source of that statistic? Is it reliable? We know that 99% agreement in polls is a high percentage, but what is your base sample? Is it biased? Unleash your inner sceptic.

Maybe an example will help. This extract is from an opinion piece published in The Straits Times. It analyses the results of a public transport satisfaction survey conducted by Singapore’s Land Transport Authority. (Read the full article here.)

Yet, the public transport satisfaction survey which the Land Transport Authority commissions yearly seems to suggest a high level of satisfaction (over 90 per cent).

Last year, the poll found that satisfaction with rail improved by about four percentage points – reversing a four-year decline.

A couple of things to note about the survey. First, it was done in October, the least eventful quarter for disruptions last year. It was also just before the spate of incidents in the first quarter of this year.

Second, a score of above six (out of 10) qualifies as “satisfied”. Attributes like safety garnered relatively high scores, but others such as waiting time, reliability and travel time garnered less than seven points.

So, satisfaction is not an absolute measure. Nor is it static. But the poll is nonetheless a useful tool in gauging whether sentiment has improved or not year to year.

The parts in bold introduce complexity. Instead of a too-neat figure of 90%, we have a nuanced analysis of why that figure might have come about. Whatever your stand, this can work to your advantage. If you argue that people are largely discontented with public transport, these points would show how present measures of satisfaction are poor representations of the actual view from the ground. If you argue that people are largely satisfied by public transport standards, pointing out some limitations (“Granted, the survey was done during a relatively disruption-free period.”) shows that you are fair-minded. And that makes your script all the more believable.

Back to the question on the Arts. Credible statistics on the Singapore arts scene can be gleaned from surveys like the National Arts Council’s National Population Survey on the Arts. Publications like this offer rich pickings for both detractors and advocates. While attendance figures might be rosy, “A Chingay attendee does not an artsgoer make“. On the other hand, low absolute participation numbers in arts-related activities might not be so depressing if you consider the progress made over the years (see pages 56-57 in particular).

Q3. ‘Gambling on sport undermines its spirit and should be banned.’ How realistic is this position?

(2014 A Level question)

Question analysis

  • Topic: Gambling on sport.
    • You might need basic statistics. Looking at some reports might help.
    • Knowing the existing status of gambling on sport in whichever country you’re analysing will prevent “uh-oh” moments. Where is it legal or illegal to gamble on sport? How regulated is the industry now?
  • Controversy:
    • First, the relationship between gambling and sport. Does gambling on sport undermine its spirit? (Underlying question: what is the spirit of sport?) If yes, should gambling on sport be banned because it undermines the spirit of sport? If no, should it be banned nonetheless?
    • Second, the “realistic” part. How realistic is it to suppose that gambling on sport undermines its spirit? How realistic is it to think that gambling should be banned? To assess whether something’s realistic, we could look at yardsticks such as technical feasibility, lead time to implementation, and cost/benefit analysis.
  • Context: Open.

You are expected to…

  • Unpack “spirit of sport” in a way that helps you write your essay. Be selective. Not all aspects you think of will make the cut. “Global solidarity” probably won’t. You need to choose definitions that you can use to support or refute the stand that gambling undermines the spirit of sport. (Hint: what is the spirit of gambling? How does it match up to the spirit of sport?)
  • Consider the position of different stakeholders. Who’s doing the banning? Who would think that gambling on sport undermines its spirit? Who would lose out/benefit from a ban on sports-related gambling? (Where does betting revenue go)?


I suspect that there won’t be much difficulty arguing for whether gambling on sport should be banned. Ideas relating to the feasibility of a ban and political appetite to enforce one come to mind. So the next part instead explores the link between gambling and the spirit of sport. Here are two contrasting views.

Considered in the abstract, it appears highly desirable to ban gambling on sport because it defiles the pure ideals of sport. Gambling and sport embody contradictory values. In gambling, only the outcome matters. Triumphs and defeats collapse into statistics that determine how winnings are to be parcelled out. In sport – or at least in an idealised version of it – the process matters too. To athlete and spectator alike, each victory and defeat carries its own unique meaning. Sebastien Vettel was booed at the 2013 Italian Grand Prix because he made winning look too easy; Roger Federer was praised at Wimbledon 2015 because he made defeat dignified. At this fundamental level gambling and sport cannot be reconciled, making it incongruous and insulting to permit gambling on sport.

It may even be necessary to ban gambling on sport to avoid corroding sport from the inside-out. It would be naive to suppose that wagering is confined to notorious and nefarious segments of society. Its participants and effects are much closer than we think. Match-fixing is a particular related ill that cuts close to home. When individuals are not content to leave the outcome of sport of chance and interfere by exploiting knowledge and connections, fair play goes out the window.

But even as we complain that gambling sullies the grand ideals of sport, we must not forget that the narrative of sport is itself no fairy tale. It would then be inaccurate to categorically assert that gambling on sport truly undermines its spirit. Away from the glamour of the podium finish, we confront sport’s gritty reality. Individuals may play not to put trophies in cabinets but food on the table. Jesse Owens, dominant at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, returned home to race horses. “People said it was degrading for an Olympic champion to run against a horse,” Owens said, “but what was I supposed to do? I had four gold medals, but you can’t eat four gold medals.” And who is to say that sport is not itself a gamble? It may be the greatest wager of all, for athletes are often dicing with death. F1 racing has its special perils. Within a year we lost Jules Bianchi and Denis Welch, men divided by nationality but united in betting against death and losing. Pole vaulters defy gravity with their acrobatic grace. In doing so they stake their lives on skill with a huge dose of chance. For as Olympic pole vault gold medallist Steve Hooker once said, taking off a mere twenty centimeters too close or too far is not only a foul but also possibly career-ending. An appetite for risk and the belief that the next time will be your lucky break are traits equally strong in gamblers and athletes. Seen in this light, gambling does not undermine the spirit of sport as much as reflect it through a glass darkly.


Instant insight

Loaded words run rife in passages. Ideas such as “responsible”, “fair”, and “reasonable” lend themselves to multiple meanings. (Check this out for an excellent dissection of fairness – “Fair Play: Whose criteria, and who decides?”) Often, the author explores only one of them. Take the idea and run with it.

You can begin by questioning the interpretation that the author chooses. Is it the most appropriate one in the given context? Take “tired” for instance. The author’s point might be that individuals no longer discourage discourteous online discourse because they’re emotionally tired: They’re just too exhausted by it all to care. But this may not hold true in your society, which is perhaps plagued by a different sort of tiredness. Maybe it’s just plain old mental tiredness after a long day’s work. Society’s inertia would then be rooted in less deep-seated or “serious” a cause.

You might also try giving substance to a sketchily-defined concept that the author alludes to. “Reasonableness” is a classic. It’s been bandied about so often that nearly everyone has a pet definition. Decision-making that’s arbitrary may be unreasonable to me, but you might find unreasonable only decisions made without deliberation. Instead of allowing the author’s arguments (and yours) to perplex your reader because you are divided by a common language, clarify! Not to mention that you’ll gain more marks because you’re engaging with the text and offering new ideas. Depth and definition – now that’s bound to make your reader wake up.

Examples for impact

Ever felt that your essay seems brief and over-generalised? Re-framing your examples may help you avoid prose that sounds more at home in a bullet-point list or research brief.

Re-framing examples may be as simple as using the active instead of passive voice. Compare “It was decided that the streets would be patrolled regularly by the police” with “The Mayor decided on regular police patrols” . The former is good if you’re aiming for a neutral tone, by directing attention away from who did the deciding. (It’s also a lifesaver if you’ve forgotten who, exactly, made the decision.) But the latter is more relatable because there’s a named individual.

Examples can also be re-framed by changing the level of generality:

  • Food is awesome.
  • Desserts are awesome.
  • Yogurt parfait, bananas and cream, and strawberry pie are awesome.

A more essay-appropriate example:

  • Most states backed the proposed reform.
  • The proposed reform found strong support in most states, including California and New York.

Why be specific? It shows that you know your work. It paints pictures in the reader’s mind that cannot easily be forgotten. It “humanises” prose that might otherwise be clinical. Most importantly, it doesn’t take much extra effort.

Fake it till you make it

Don’t immediately shy away from questions with “difficult” topics. You may know more than you think. If not, you can sometimes bluff your way through. Here’s an example.

‘True democracy is not just about having the right to vote.’ Do you agree?

Ask yourself questions. Your answers may yield enough material to write a full essay. It’s perfectly fine to ask “common sense” questions and give boring but sensible answers. It’s General Paper.


Q: What is the relationship between voting and democracy?
A: The centrepiece of democracy is a legitimate, elected government, and citizens exercising their right to vote is necessary to achieve this. But is it sufficient? This goes towards answering the equivalent question “Can democracy be reduced to a mere right to vote?” Or does it transcend the right to vote? (Not useful for a paragraph, but maybe for understanding the question.)


Q. What is democracy to me?
A. Participatory politics. (Paragraph – True democracy transcends a mere right to vote, instead encompassing the process of participatory politics for which informed voting is the goal.)


Q. What do we commonly associate with/assume about democracy?
A: Majority rule/the minority yielding to the view of the majority. But what about voting systems in which getting the majority of votes doesn’t translate to getting the majority of seats? Is the outcome representative of the majority view? (This paragraph may be difficult to write with no idea of how votes translate into Parliamentary seats – slate voting, first-past-the-post, etc. Never mind. Move on to consider easier options.)


Q: When will I consider my right to vote a meaningful one?


A1: When I know my vote counts. What if there are dead people who are not removed from the rolls (phantom voters)? How about if vote buying and distortion of electoral boundaries by incumbents is rampant (“gerrymandering”)? So effectiveness of casting your vote is key. (Paragraph – A mere right to vote is not reflective of true democracy when the effectiveness of voting is diluted by unfair practices.)


A2: When there are meaningful options on the ballot paper. There actually has to be a choice – consider that North Korea has elections –  and preferably between candidates who represent the people. (Paragraph – The right to vote without appropriate candidates to vote for is hardly meaningful in itself.)


Q. When is the right to vote not considered meaningful?
A. When the right is forced on you. You may simply vote for the sake of voting if it’s mandatory. (Paragraph – The right to vote enforced through compulsion goes against the grain of true democracy. People go through the motions without using their brains. Not good.)


Q: Who would want to assert that true democracy is just about having the right to vote?
A: Entities that will benefit from this. We are all selfish. Who benefits?Whomever is tasked with safeguarding and promoting democracy. (Paragraph – Some governments tout democracy as consisting of purely the right to vote, to allow their achievement of this baseline to elevate them to the ranks of “politically advanced” countries.) At a deeper level, is the use of a special “developing country” brand of democracy / double standards helpful?


It is highly likely that you will not have exciting examples if you’re bluffing your way through. But while you may not get excellent marks for examples, it may be better than tackling a question full of traps, or going head-to-head with students who have prepared well for certain topics like technology and the media.

The logic of comprehension passages

Modus tollens is an argument form that’s used in comprehension passages more often than you’d think. It looks like this:

  1. If p then q
  2. Not q
  3. > Therefore not p

It works on the basis of necessary and sufficient conditions. P is a sufficient condition for q (if p occurs, then q will occur), and q is a necessary condition for p (p cannot occur without q).

Take a look at the following excerpt from TPJC’s 2014 Prelim paper. Can you identify the propositions and conclusion?

Furthermore, if we consider the proposition that human rights have the capacity to protect us against the state, we must also take into account the fact that they are fundamentally created and enforced by states. In many parts of the world today, human rights simply do not exist because the state is weak or collapsed, rendered so by authoritarian rule or ineffective governance. In the case of the former, many think that once tyranny is demolished, human rights will emerge naturally from the rubble. Along these lines, it may be consoling to believe that the horrendous cruelty in Syria could be stopped by deposing the dictator and ending the war. But rights are constructs of civilization, not a natural human condition. In fact, if the President of Syria were toppled at this point, the most likely result would be a country stuck in a condition of chronic war. In other cases where the government has lost control or credibility, no rule of law prevails in daily life. In these circumstances, even the Prime Minister is not safe from kidnap by armed gangs, as the case has been in Libya.

One argument from the passage, deconstructed:

  1. If rights are a natural human condition, then human rights will emerge naturally once tyranny is demolished.
  2. Human rights do not emerge naturally once tyranny is demolished.
  3. > Rights are not a natural human condition.

Proposition 1 and the conclusion (3) can be found directly from the passage (parts underlined and in bold):

… many think that once tyranny is demolished, human rights will emerge naturally from the rubble. Along these lines, it may be consoling to believe that the horrendous cruelty in Syria could be stopped by deposing the dictator and ending the war. But rights are constructs of civilization, not a natural human condition. In fact, if the President of Syria were toppled at this point, the most likely result would be a country stuck in a condition of chronic war. In other cases where the government has lost control or credibility, no rule of law prevails in daily life. In these circumstances, even the Prime Minister is not safe from kidnap by armed gangs, as the case has been in Libya.

What about proposition 2? Instead of being explicitly written, it is to be deduced from the various examples. By raising the example of Libya and hypothetical example of Syria, the author is demonstrating how human rights do not emerge naturally once tyranny goes away.

Understanding the reasoning behind the modus tollens argument form helps structure your answer to this comprehension question (and other similar ones):

How does the author illustrate his claim that rights are ‘constructs of civilisation, not a natural human condition’ (line 30)? Use your own words as far as possible. [2]

Quite logically, we find that the author raises examples of failed dictatorships to show that human rights, law and order have to be instituted. They do not arise automatically from a vacuum of authority, as would be the case if they were an intrinsic part of our nature reasserting itself.


No example? No worries

Well, not always. There are multiple ways to show that you are insightful and well-read. One of them is referencing ideas that have relevance beyond your immediate point.

You can never go wrong with things like human nature (in explaining why people are compelled to act the way they do) and its established theories (remember Maslow?). But let’s look at something else that’s equally multi-purpose today: the Anna Karenina principle.

Jared Diamond explains this principle nicely in the first few paragraphs of Chapter 9 of Guns, Germs and Steel:

Domesticable animals are all alike; every undomesticable animal is undomesticable in its own way.

If you think you’ve already read something like that before, you’re right. Just make a few changes, and you have the famous first sentence of Tolstoy’s great novel Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” By that sentence, Tolstoy meant that, in order to be happy, a marriage must succeed in many different respects: sexual attraction, agreement about money, child discipline, religion, in-laws, and other vital issues. Failure in any one of those essential respects can doom a marriage even if it has all the other ingredients needed for happiness.

This principle can be extended to understanding much else about life besides marriage. We tend to seek easy, single-factor explanations of success.   For most important things, though, success actually requires avoiding many separate possible causes of failure. The Anna Karenina principle explains a feature of animal domestication that had heavy consequences for human history – namely, that so many seemingly suitable big wild mammal species, such as zebras and peccaries, have never been domesticated and that the successful domesticates were almost exclusively Eurasian.

The bits in green are highly adaptable. This explanation can equally be invoked when discussing failure of innovations and startups (a serendipitous confluence of delivering the right product/service to the right people at the right time), public management and yes, its original application of families.

If you’d like to reference a source of more venerable vintage, Aristotle said in Nicomachean Ethics: “For men are good in but one way, but bad in many.”

Use such principles to lend credence to a logic-based argument that lacks examples, or to craft “multi-layered” examples that have their own substantiation. It’s convenient, really: explain principle, mention source, link to example/point and you’re done.