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

(This post by Mr Steven Ooi first appeared here on Domain of Singapore Tutoring Experts on 26 December 2012.)

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

So, while the question “Is General Paper that bad?” may have led some students to my blog, I have not yet had a chance to answer that question. Now I will, and my answer is: What a strange question! General Paper is in truth a wonderful subject. It is the only subject you will ever do that allows you to read about, think about, talk about, and write about anything on Earth (and beyond) that interests, excites or fascinates you. Do you like pop music? There are essay questions about contemporary music. Are you into sports? There are questions about sports, too. Are you concerned about how Facebook is actually destroying social skills? Well, there was an A-level question in 2010 about the negative effects of technology on the skill levels of people.

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

Therefore to excel in GP (and indeed in life), you need first and foremost to be open to learning about anything and everything, in particular the major human concerns that affect us all: society, politics, economics and business, history, science and technology, the arts and culture, the environment, globalisation and more. The sad truth is that even though Singapore is one of the most wired and globalised countries in the world, many of our youth resemble the frog at the bottom of the well, which is a Chinese idiom used to describe a person who is ignorant about the wider world. I have met many, many Singaporean youths who say they don’t care about politics or history or the arts. I have hardly ever met a Singaporean youth who could name the Prime Minister of our nearest neighbour, Malaysia (he’s Mr Najib Razak, by the way). If you think politics, history or the arts do not concern you, think again. Politics is a game that grown-ups play for power, advantage and influence, and when you are in JC, you are already two-thirds of the way to becoming a grown-up. Whether you run in elections for not, you will have to engage with politics in one form or another one day, including office politics. You need to gain some understanding of this game grown-ups play. What is more, the politics of government shapes the future of your country and the world, and therefore your future and your children’s future. To be apathetic towards politics is to be indifferent towards your own future, and that of your children.

Therefore open your mind and seek to become a truly educated person. Indeed that is the noble goal of GP: to make you a truly educated person. A person is not truly educated unless he or she has at least a basic knowledge and understanding of all the major human concerns. No matter if one holds a PhD in molecular biology: if he is ignorant of politics (“Hong Kong is an independent country”), the arts (“Julius Caesar? Did he invent the Caesar salad?”) or history (“The Renaissance? That was after World War I right?”), he is not a truly educated person. These great human concerns and events shape the world, shape humanity and share a rich interrelationship with one another. Indeed I believe the true power of knowledge is unlocked when one discovers the interrelationships and connections between disparate areas of knowledge. What made Steve Jobs so successful was that he and his people brought art, science and many other things together in their products. He once said, “Part of what made the Macintosh great was that the people working on it were musicians and poets and artists and zoologists and historians who also happened to be the best computer scientists in the world.”

So go out there and read newspaper articles about anything and everything. Explore all the different sections of the newspaper and don’t just stick to one or two. By all means read what you enjoy, but also push yourself to read what you don’t enjoy or even what you hate to read. After you learn more about a certain topic, you might find that it’s actually quite interesting. You can also learn by searching the Internet for the background on various topics or watching a documentary on TV or on Youtube. And if you want to truly excel in GP, you will need to go beyond knowledge: you need to attain understanding of how this world works. It is thinking and engagement that will get you there.

And then you will be a truly educated person.

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


The writer graduated from the National University of Singapore with a First Class Honours degree in English Language and was awarded the Minerva Prize for Best Student in the English Language. He has been a full-time tutor in General Paper and English for over ten years and is also a former journalist.

Visit his blog at

Copyright Steven Ooi 2012


Tips for Poor Essay Writers - Part I

Tips for Poor Essay Writers - Part II

Writing An Exciting Introduction