General Paper 2018: A Post-Mortem

Another year of GP-grind is over and the general consensus has been that both Papers 1 and 2 were ‘ok’ except for the slightly surprising Application Question.

Once again, my students who sat for the A Levels 2018 hail from different JCs. Several students had been under my tutelage since Primary 5--that’s practically half their young lives! Hence, it goes without saying that this bunch is particularly dear to me.

I will miss many of the unique personalities who spent Thursday nights and Saturday afternoons with me, especially the vibrant few who gave me acutely perceptive essays and evaluations. It’s been a wonderful run with this lot. I know each has been invested in his or her learning and worked hard to see improvements, even at the Prelim exams. 

Weighing in on Paper 1 

Paper 1 was a fair paper offering a good range of topics and themes for candidates to choose from.

The more accessible questions are Q 1, 2, 5, 7 and 9. 

The key to acing the GP essay is in the candidate’s evaluation and analysis of criteria and issues related to the question asked. Hence, those who merely listed factors and/or went about essay topics in a 'pros and cons' manner would have presented limited arguments. These scripts would not score well in their content.

​​​​The following made their maiden appearances this year:

Q3. In an age of rapid technological advancement, is a single career for life realistic?

While technology is a favourite and popular topic for exam-setters and students alike, this year, the link to the idea of a single career is new.

  • Candidates must address the notion of ‘realistic’--for instance, practical/ feasible in sustaining themselves and family.
  • Candidates must also be mindful to link their reasons for or against the viability of a single career to the rapid technological advancement.

  • One possible argument is: rapid technological advancement would include advancements in artificial intelligence which has--and will continue to--replaced the need for human skills. A single career is not realistic since individuals need to adapt to the needs of the job market and AI competencies.

Q6. Do handicrafts still have value when machine-produced goods are readily available?

A narrower topic than the more oft-asked questions surrounding traditions, culture and traditional skills.

  • Students must be sure about what constitutes handicraft before embarking on this essay. Handicraft comprises the elements of traditional skills engaging the hands [as opposed to being produced by machines in a factory], and the making of decorative domestic objects. The key notion of ‘handmade’ is important. It is not craft per se but these two ideas can overlap in limited situations.
  • Value should also be addressed--valuable to whom, and in what way?

Q9. Is pressure a motivating force or a cause for unhappiness?

The question presents ‘pressure’ as a new version of its more popular cousin ‘competition’.

  • Again, candidates must be careful not to conflate competition with pressure. Pressure is a by-product or effect of competition. Pressure can come in the form of persuasion, coercion or intimidation; some thrive under pressure while others crack. Much depends on an individual’s make up.
  • This is more an ‘extent’ question since pressure is not absolutely motivational nor a cause for unhappiness. 

Weighing in on Paper 2, the Application Question

Paper 2 comprised a single passage on millennials across ‘rich worlds’ failing to voteMost found the Comprehension Short Questions and Summary manageable. The ‘curveball’ was the Application Question which, according to feedback from several of our students and other sources, is framed as follows:

Application Question

The author argues that “Whilst they are most interested in issues and causes that they are given credit for, are better educated than past generations, are more likely to go on a protest or to become vegetarian, and are less keen on drugs and alcohol, millennials seldom establish the habits that inclined their parents to vote.”

To what extent do you agree with the author’s view, based on the experiences of you and your peers in your society.

The unusual wording of the AQ stumped students momentarily. For the first time at GP, the AQ was framed around a quote instead of the usual requirement of students picking arguments from the passage to evaluate their relevance and applicability to their society.

However, once they got past the initial bafflement, students knew to respond to the AQ by evaluating their agreement or disagreement to the quoted assertion, and citing at least one other argument from the passage to support their evaluations.

Some learning points from the experience:

  • Keep calm and adapt. Examination questions can--and often do-- veer away from ‘tried and tested’ modes of enquiry. The aim is to not panic but focus on task fulfilment.
  • Go back to the basics by applying techniques learnt. Regardless of the way the Application Question is posed, the basic objective remains unequivocal: students must answer the question. Those who remember the point of an AQ will know to address the viability and relevance of the author’s arguments, and know that they must evaluate with relevant evidence-- it is insufficient to merely state points.

One of the key questions that my students asked me was whether they were right to quote and address another of the writer’s arguments beyond the sentence quoted in the question.

My personal take is that students should indeed bring in another point from the passage rather than solely address the point(s) quoted in the question. Otherwise, is it no different from a run-of-the-mill discursive essay question framed around a quote? After all, the difference between an AQ and an essay question is that the former requires students to apply the writer’s arguments to their social circumstances. The key qualifier is that the additional quote or argument introduced in their AQ response must be relevant to the issue(s) raised in the statement quoted in the question.

In fact, the statement cited tweaked the focus of the AQ to something more manageable for students [by itemising the key issues they should address] since a standard AQ would have been on the voting habits and behaviour of millennials, which some candidates might have found to be more challenging.

This year, the AQ cued students on addressing certain issues more specifically. Good scripts should evaluate these issues, citing independent evidence and, where possible, bring in additional points of the author’s from the passage. Any links made to voting habits is a plus.

The following is a possible approach to answering the AQ:

First, students can address the first issue quoted in the question: millennials being ‘most interested in issues and causes that they are given credit for’.

1) Evaluation: Millennials’ actions are driven by credit or acknowledgement received, as opposed to genuine empathy or belief in the cause/issue. This suggests that millennials are reward-focussed and hence, lacking sincerity.

2) Intuitively, this seems relevant and applicable to SG because:

  • millennials grew up in an environment that included community service as part of the school curriculum--CIP (Community Involvement Programme), present day VIA (Values in Action Programme). While the aim of CIP was to build social cohesion and inculcate civic responsibility in pupils, it was a compulsory programme and students ended up performing these duties for credits and to fulfill the requisite hours of service, rather than for a genuine interest to the causes.
  • a survey by World Vision Singapore in 2015 found that young Singaporeans believe it is important to help the less fortunate, but few translate this belief into action, mainly due to a lack of time and money. 

3) However, students can qualify their agreement, citing the growing trend of numerous Singaporean millennials who are harnessing the power of the Web and social media to make a difference.

  • Haze-hero, Jeremy Chua Facebook page calling for people to donate their excess masks and mobilised hundreds of volunteers to distribute masks to the needy.
  • Conjunct Consulting, founded by millennials, is touted as Asia’s first pro-bono consulting firm for non-profit organisations and social enterprises. 
  • Arrow Circle Right
    Youth for Ecology — a group of youths who were stirred into action by the debate over the White Paper on Population.

Related Pages
General Paper 2017: A Post-Mortem
General Paper 2019: A Post-Mortem


Second, students can address the next assertion that millennials are “better educated than past generations, are more likely to go on a protest or to become vegetarian, and are less keen on drugs and alcohol.”

1) Evaluation: It is true that because they are better informed and knowledgeable, millennials tend to pick and choose their causes and interests according to personal preferences and interests.

  • This individualising of causes and beliefs is further explained as a habit and lifestyle mindset developed in millennials--as reflected in the author’s argument in para 4 “Millennials are accustomed to tailoring their world to their preferences, such as customising the music they listen to and the news they consume. A system that demands they vote for an all-or-nothing bundle of election promises looks uninviting by comparison.”
  • Students can explain how this statement is true given the widespread use of curated playlists on the likes of Spotify and movie viewing habits on streaming platforms based on their selections rather than going to the movie theatres to watch a feature film.  
  • Arrow Circle Right
    Hence, it is natural and understandable that this habit and mindset of customisation and individualisation carries over to voting behaviour. 

2) Students can then cross reference the author’s argument in para 8 on how political commitment can be built in school. He asserts that “teenagers who experienced democracy first-hand during their studies are more likely to vote afterwards...Yet, schools and governments, wary of accusations of politicising the classroom, may shy away from such programmes” that involve open discussions and debates.

  • This is true of the SG education programmes which tend to be deeply academics-, and hence, grades-focussed. Rare is the school that discusses political issues openly given the time-constraints, and heavily academic and assessment-based curricula.

Finally, students can take on the point that millennials “seldom establish the habits that inclined their parents to vote.”

1) The author further attributes [para 3, lines 30-32] parents’ committed actions to their attachment to their communities.

2) Evaluation: This sense of rootedness makes the older generation more concerned and involved with how their homes and communities are run. Conversely, millennials are marrying and having families much later on in live, with some choosing never to settle down in the conventional/traditional way their parents did.

3) This is true in SG as evidenced by falling birthrates and more single women. This is mainly attributable to females receiving equal opportunities and access to education and careers, and compounded by the rising costs of living which makes financially supporting a family more difficult than in the past generations.

Fewer births but more singles-- ”...more Singapore women are in tertiary educational institutions than men... Getting married is no longer a necessity," said Professor Jean Yeung, director of the Centre for Family and Population Research. Other reasons include long work hours, the high cost of living and a relatively long wait for Housing Board flats, said experts.

Note that:

  1. Given the 30 minutes assigned for the AQ, students should look at handling 2 out of the 3 above points of argument.

  2. By limiting or qualifying agreement of relevance of the authors' arguments, a candidate fulfils the 'extent' or 'how far do you agree' aspect of the question.

Our J1 students have already started preparing hard for General Paper 2019. We take a break from lessons until January 2019. I look forward to more intellectual sparring and argumentation with my students in the new year!

~Contributed by Geraldine Chew [Ms] 14 November 2018