What would spur you to encourage a student to take the Honours track?

A student asked:

I’m currently in my Third Year of Study in the Arts and Social Sciences. Right now, it’s hard not to think about pursuing the Honours track.

I know asking if I should take the Honours track may be hard to answer because circumstances will vary, so I will phrase my question as such: As someone who has went through the system, what would spur you to encourage a student to take the honours track?

I’ll start by talking about who shouldn’t pursue Honours. If all these intellectual/academic stuff is not your cup of tea, then you shouldn’t pursue the Honours track. I want to be clear that I’m not saying that you’re not good enough for it or that you’re bad/lousy. No, not at all. We all have different strengths.

If academic pursuits is not your strength, you’re better off using the time developing something else that is your strength. We all have different interests and passions. Some enjoy reading, some hate reading. Some love spending hours researching in the library or connecting different ideas together, some others don’t enjoy it as much and try to avoid such conversations or tasks like that.

If you don’t like these kinds of intellectual pursuits, then don’t pursue the Honours track. You’re better off using your time to develop your strengths that lie in other areas. And that’s perfectly ok. We are all very different people, each with our own unique strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes. We can do certain things better than other people. And many of these things don’t require Honours, nor does Honours add value to them.

What would spur me to encourage a student to do Honours? If I know the student has the potential to grow and develop further because of the challenge brought about by the Honours programme, I will insist that the student go through it. Because this would be a match of a person meant for such a programme, and the programme actually having an effect on that person. What kind of student would that be? Well, one who does have an inclination towards such academic/intellectual things. Not everyone can think critically or write profoundly. If a person can do that kind of stuff somewhat decently, I think they should not give up on the opportunity for Honours to shape and cultivate their minds further.

You know how we feel sad when a budding young athlete or musician can’t do sports/music because of an injury or disease? That sadness comes from the fact that we recognise that that potential to go so far in life can never be realised. I feel the same when I see high calibre students with a passion for intellectual/academic stuff not pursue Honours.

I know some of us might feel fatigued and want to give up because it’s the middle of semester. That’s normal. Struggling is also normal. It’s something we do when we are growing and developing as persons. It’s normal to feel like it’s time to give up or graduate early.

So think about where your interests lies, and whether you actually like academic/intellectual pursuits. If you do, stay and do the Honours year so that you can realise your potential to go further in that direction. Otherwise, don’t waste your time. If you don’t like these things, the Honours programme won’t have much of an effect on you because you won’t really be investing as much time and energy as you should to grow and develop.

What are some challenges you have faced in online teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic and how did you go around these challenges?


I was recently interviewed for receiving the NUS FASS Faculty Teaching Excellence Award for AY2019/2020. One of the interview questions was: 

Tell me the differences between conducting physical classes and online classes. What are some challenges you have faced in online teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic and how did you go around these challenges?

My lectures are all online in the form of pre-recorded videos. But one thing the COVID-19 pandemic did was that it forced me to shift my physical tutorials onto Zoom. I experimented a little with conducting Zoom tutorials last semester (AY2019/2020 Sem II), and I have to personally admit that it was quite a traumatising experience due to a variety of problems: (1) technical problems where students got disconnected and I had to manually add them back into the breakout room (something which I could not do if I was too busy attending to a particular breakout room; (2) students learn and complete various learning activities at vastly different speeds; and then there’s the problem where (3) students didn’t dare or didn’t want to interact with each other online, thereby resulting in getting very little done.

These three problems made a huge impact on me last semester, and I spent the entire summer break re-thinking my whole approach to conducting tutorials.

The first major revamp that I did was to change the tutorial participation grading rubric. Tutorial participation this semester is not graded based on how much you contribute to the discussion, but on how much you help your fellow group mates or seek help from your fellow group mates. From my traumatic experience of Zoom tutorials last semester, I realised that this was necessary otherwise the fast learners would complete all the learning exercises on their own and not try to engage in any discussion with their group mates. So this new grading rubric for tutorial participation would motivate them to apply their learning in the process of peer teaching. And at the same time, incentivise weaker students or struggling students to actively seek help from their group members since they can also score marks in that way.

And we require each group to record their breakout room discussion and upload it to Luminus where we would quickly review the videos after class to see who’s been helping or seeking help. The reason for recording the discussions was motivated by my undergraduate Teaching Assistants, many of whom complained that in their own experience with Zoom tutorials, their discussions groups would return to silence the moment the lecturer or tutor left the breakout room. So this was done to ensure that students would actively help or seek help from each other regardless of whether or not the tutor was present in the breakout room.

And since many local students tend to be shy in speaking up, we always begin the discussion group activities with an ice-breaker warm up, just to get them talking about their week and form a connection, a bond, with one another. This helps to warm them up enough to engage each other cordially for the rest of the discussions.

The second major revamp was to create a very detailed and structured Google Docs worksheet for every discussion group, laying out every single task that they had to do, whether it was a technical task, or an open-ended discussion about the ethics of a certain decision. This allows each group to progress in the various learning activities at their own pace without requiring the tutor to round up the entire class to brief them on the next task, which was the format we used in physical tutorials. And of course, for the fastest groups, we always have an additional question to provoke them to think further about the issue at hand. This is meant to keep them engaged throughout tutorial time, and to match their level of learning with something more challenging for them. In a certain, each discussion group gets a very customised learning experience within their breakout rooms.

This has many benefits. First, it lightens the burden of the tutor from having to brief and explain many things to the class. Each group can read the instructions on their own, and if they are unsure, they can clarify amongst themselves (which would give them marks for tutorial participation for helping each other). And only when they realise that they are still unsure, can they then seek the help of the tutor. What this does is that it allows the tutor more space to handle students with technical problems (without worrying about holding up the class), and it also gives the tutor peace of mind to attend to the weaker groups.

Furthermore, each tutorial class has its own Telegram chat group. This functions as the back channel for tutorials. In the event a student has Internet problems, the student can notify us through that group chat. And we can send the student a landline telephone number to call to connect to the Zoom server and thus join our discussions. It also allows us to send tutorial materials that students can easily check back any time during and after the tutorial. And if the tutor is in a breakout room, students from other breakout rooms can post specific questions to the tutor who will then decide whether to visit that breakout room or if it’s a simple question, answer it via text on Telegram.

These two revamps are massive, and they have been highly effective in overcoming the challenges of teaching online.

What is your teaching philosophy? What are some lessons you have gained as an educator?

I was recently interviewed for receiving the NUS FASS Faculty Teaching Excellence Award for AY2019/2020. One of the interview questions was:

What is your teaching philosophy? What are some lessons you have gained as an educator?

Here’s my answer:

My teaching philosophy is influenced heavily by the teachers I had growing up. I had teachers who looked out for the last, the lost, and the least, and they put in so much effort to ensure that the weaker students would not get left behind. And I have had the personal experience of having good teachers who, with their patience, nurturing qualities, and clear explanations, allowed me to go very far in my learning. My own life would have been very different if I had did not have the fortune of encountering them.

And so in many ways, my teaching philosophy is influenced by that, and I enjoy spending time with my students to help them learn better, and to help clear up whatever confusions that they have about their learning

The most profound lessons I gained as an educator were during my time as a Teaching Assistant for interdisciplinary modules. It was shocking to see the amount of fear and anxiety students had when it came to a discipline outside their major. Their fears were fuelled by the fact that it was a discipline alien to them. But at the heart of the fears and anxieties was the fear of failure.

And it occurred to me that so many of our university students have never experienced failure before in their lives. They succeeded in every major exam by pursuing what they can score well in. And so when an alien subject — which they have no confidence or experience in — is forced upon them, suddenly, they are faced with the prospects of failure.

And time and time again, I have seen how that fear of failure kept getting in the way of their learning. I encountered many students who were reluctant to internalise their learning because they were afraid of saying or writing the wrong thing. And so there’s this tendency to stick to model answers, to replicate and modify examples. They never really gave themselves a chance to try to express what they learnt in their own words.

There are many other examples I could cite of fear getting in the way of their learning. Suffice to say, these experiences shaped my approach to teaching. That if I want students to learn well, then I need to help mitigate the single biggest impediment to their learning, which is their fear and anxiety.

This insight comes from my own personal experience in learning. Years ago, I used to have a terrible command of the Chinese language. But I needed to work in China for a couple of weeks. I could not speak well, and I could not write well either. So I signed up for adult business Chinese classes. The teacher told me that since we only had a week before I had to fly, the focus would be on empowerment and making me confident. Lessons were less about grammar and vocabulary. She was perceptive and she saw that my struggle with the language was my lack of confidence in speaking, and in some aspects, anxieties in speaking in Mandarin. I was sceptical about it, but she did a surprisingly fantastic job at building confidence in me. I survived my work trip in China, and my command of the Chinese language improved vastly since then.

This made me realise just how far students can go in their learning once the impediment of fear and anxiety are alleviated. And so I provide a variety of support systems in my teaching to help alleviate that fear, such as the Telegram Helpline where they can always seek help when they’re stuck. In addition, I engage them with humour, and other fun activities as a way of alleviating the fear of failure so that they can focus their minds on the task at hand.

I also put them through simulated scenarios in a safe environment where they can and will have to fail and learn to evaluate and recover from those simulated failures. It is my hope that through these experiences, they realise that failing isn’t as bad as it seems, and so they feel more empowered by these experiences to take risks and learn better.

How do I get better grades in school?

A student wrote to me with this question:

How do I get better grades in school?

First of all, it’s important to recognise that it’s not about the amount of effort you put into studying that ensure you get better grades. You need to study smart and work smart. Studying hard and working hard will be very futile if you lack good learning methods.

In my four years teaching in NUS I often see students referring to learning resources and blindly trying to replicate the structure/form in order to answer an assignment. Students think that when they do this, they can’t go wrong if they model their answer off it. Of course in my module, students freak out when they discover they can’t do this.

And in fact, you should never do this. When you try to replicate the structure of an answer or lift lines from a lecture slide to answer a question, you are undermining the learning process. There is no real engagement with the question or the content. So you’re not really internalising what you are learning, and so the learning is superficial: it doesn’t go to the level where you can really link it to other issues or reach the level of creative mastery where you can take the knowledge to make something new.

A good way of gauging how well you understand something you’re taught is to always ask yourself how it is relevant to other things out in the world or how you can use that knowledge to do something (yes even seemingly “useless” knowledge that’s abstract from real life!). If you can’t see the link or can’t find the link, you haven’t understood it well enough to know how it extends beyond the classroom. I know students struggle with this and they would like their lecturers to show them how, but sometimes when we do, we’re met with scepticism. The problem resides with the learner. The learner hasn’t internalised and mastered the learning to see the relation for themselves.

An A grade is supposed to mean that you have mastered your learning well. So use this as a way of gauging how well you’ve mastered the content/skills. Because if you have reached this level of mastery, you can be confident that you are heading in the right direction towards an A.

Now, one other thing I noticed is that many students these are very impatient when it comes to assignments. They want to get over and done with it, and some of them are so immature that they resent their lecturers for making them work longer than they want to. Especially at University level, a lot of high quality work can only be produced after long hours of reading, thinking, and writing. Some people like to boast being able to write 3000 words in a short span of time. It reveals a grave lack of thought on the subject. To be clear, I’m not saying that if you spend a week on an assignment, you’ll get an A. What I’m saying is if you spend more time on it, your thoughts will mature and deepen beyond the mere superficialities. I mean… If something is so obvious and easy to answer at University, do you think we would be spending hours of our lives working on it? When we invite you to share in our experience through the various learning activities, we want you to develop a better grasp of the subtle complexities underlying the issues.

So if you do want to score well, you need to discuss more, read more, and think more. Rushed work usually results in poor work and a poor grade.

How essential is it to graduate with an Honours degree?

A student wrote to me, asking:

I am torn about doing Honours, as personally, I don’t really have a passionate thesis to work on, and I am the kind of person who values work experience more than academic learning. However, I hear that there are repercussions if one does not do Honours, that it would affect one’s employability, salary and progression issues which I personally thought were secondary to my life goals. But I would like to hear your opinion as well before making a decision. How essential is it to graduate with an Honours degree?

A Bachelors with Honours is essential if you are thinking of joining the public sector because they do care about it very much, but it’s not the end of the world if you don’t have Honours. I have a friend who’s very assertive, and she got a very good civil service job without Honours. She only has a B.A. (Philosophy), no Honours.

No one in the private sector actually cares about your degree or whether you had honours. If the job requires a degree, it’s only because having that piece of paper says that you can endure the hard work of university life and will be able to endure the hard work of working life. I know this because I have another friend who’s the head of HR in a huge MNC. All this comes from her, not from me. She also had no Honours, just a B.A. (Philosophy).

The degree only matters for your first job, and maybe the second one if you didn’t achieve much for the first. After that, no one cares what you studied or whether you had Honours. They’ll be looking at what you’ve achieved in your previous jobs. Once again, in terms of progression, it doesn’t matter.

Salary is based on how well you are able to negotiate salary with the hiring manager. It’s more people skills than it is paper qualification. Of course, in the public sector, there are salary ceilings based on a combination of paper qualification and work experience. But if you a degree holder, these things won’t affect you very much. It’s really more about the people skills, like the skill of negotiation, rather than paper qualification that matters. Just so you know the same assertive friend who used to work in the civil service without Honours is able to negotiate a $6-8k/month salary in all her jobs in the private sector. So it’s really the people skills that determines your salary.

Now suppose you want to graduate with Honours. The question now is whether to do Honours by research (thesis) or by coursework (modules). I will say that thesis is very essential if you want to do graduate school in the future, or any job that involves research. Because doing the Honours thesis is a process where you pick up a lot of research methodologies and where you learn how to critically evaluate the things you research. The reality is that if you want to do any job really well, this is a very good skill to have regardless of where you intend to go. There are many jobs – including admin support jobs – where tasks given to you require some degree of research. Having the experience of doing research will help you greatly because you would have the experience and know-how to begin. I know some people who struggle to do their work in the working world because they lack such research experience. They don’t know how to begin Googling for relevant information, or how to sift through the information for what’s relevant. Some don’t even know how to deal with website analytics reports or survey data. If you did thesis, you would have learnt how to execute such tasks with great academic rigour, and be able to provide solid analysis that will impress your bosses.

If you didn’t do thesis or don’t want to do thesis, it’s not the end of the world. You can learn it on your own. That said, you won’t learn it as well outside of a thesis programme because you won’t be challenged as hard when learning such things on your own.

At the end of the day, the final product of a thesis is not the dissertation that you submit. No, you are the final product. You come out a more matured person from the process. I wrote a lot more about this matter, and you can read more about it here: https://i.am.jyhsim.com/2020/06/11/whats-the-difference-between-choosing-to-do-a-thesis-and-choosing-to-do-modules-for-honours-which-one-is-better/

As for a thesis topic that you’re passionate in, you have to read widely and talk to your profs to find a topic that will be of interest to you. You won’t know what to write or what to be passionate about until you do this preliminary groundwork. If you like, I wrote a response to a similar Q&A here: https://i.am.jyhsim.com/2020/06/11/im-thinking-of-doing-thesis-but-im-not-sure-how-to-get-started/

Do you think doing Honours is necessary?

A student wrote to me with the following question:

I am currently a social work major who went through the diploma education in engineering before university. I am torn about doing Honours. Personally, I don’t really have a passionate thesis to work on and I am a person who values working experience more than academic learning. However, the common concerns I hear from people on the repercussions of not doing Honours typically relate to employability, salary and progression issues which I personally thought were secondary to my life goals. But I would like to hear your opinion as well before making a decision. Do you think doing Honours is necessary?

A Bachelors with Honours is essential if you are thinking of joining the public sector because they do care about it very much, but it’s not the end of the world if you don’t have Honours. I have a friend who’s very assertive, and she got a very good civil service job without Honours. She only has a B.A. (Philosophy).

No one in the private sector actually cares about your degree or whether you had honours. If the job requires a degree, it’s only because having that piece of paper says that you can endure the hard work of university life and will be able to endure the hard work of working life. I know this because I have another friend who’s the head of HR in a huge MNC. All this comes from her, not from me. She also had no Honours, just a B.A. (Philosophy).

The degree only matters for your first job, and maybe the second one if you didn’t achieve much for the first. After that, no one cares what you studied or whether you had Honours. They’ll be looking at what you’ve achieved in your previous jobs. Once again, in terms of progression, it doesn’t matter.

Salary is based on how well you are able to negotiate salary with the hiring manager. It’s more people skills than it is paper qualification. Of course, in the public sector, there are salary ceilings based on a combination of paper qualification and work experience. But if you a degree holder, these things won’t affect you very much. It’s really more about the people skills, like the skill of negotiation, rather than paper qualification that matters. Just so you know the same assertive friend who used to work in the civil service without Honours is able to negotiate a $6-8k/month salary in all her jobs in the private sector. So it’s really the people skills that determines your salary.

Now suppose you want to graduate with Honours. The question now is whether to do Honours by research (thesis) or by coursework (modules). I will say that thesis is very essential if you want to do graduate school in the future, or any job that involves research. Because doing the Honours thesis is a process where you pick up a lot of research methodologies and where you learn how to critically evaluate the things you research. The reality is that if you want to do any job really well, this is a very good skill to have regardless of where you intend to go. There are many jobs – including admin support jobs – where tasks given to you require some degree of research. Having the experience of doing research will help you greatly because you would have the experience and know-how to begin. I know some people who struggle to do their work in the working world because they lack such research experience. They don’t know how to begin Googling for relevant information, or how to sift through the information for what’s relevant. Some don’t even know how to deal with website analytics reports or survey data. If you did thesis, you would have learnt how to execute such tasks with great academic rigour, and be able to provide solid analysis that will impress your bosses.

If you didn’t do thesis or don’t want to do thesis, it’s not the end of the world. You can learn it on your own. That said, you won’t learn it as well outside of a thesis programme because you won’t be challenged as hard when learning such things on your own.

How much would peer review affect one’s own final grade?

A student asked me:

How much would peer review affect one’s own final grade?

I can’t say this for all modules because different lecturers have different policies. Some might drop a grade or two, some might choose to give a zero for the whole project.

In the case of GET1050, the worst case scenario is that you’ll get zero marks for the group project component, which is 35% of the total grade. That can drop a student from a B to a D, or a C to an F.

Many students think that they can hide and get away with not doing work, but they don’t realise just how transparent they are. My TAs and I are constantly monitoring our students so we already know who’s slacking before peer evaluation results come out. Also, it’s very obvious who didn’t contribute in the group because the social dynamics will be different compared to people/groups who contribute their utmost.

So what I’m saying is, we don’t just rely on peer evaluation reports to penalise slackers, because some people are very petty in how they evaluate their peers. So to ensure that we are fair, we make the effort to gather and corroborate evidence from a variety of sources.

I’ll just add one more point. You’ve probably heard of the phrase “6 degrees of separation.” Because of my social/professional network, I am 2 degrees away from Lee Hsien Loong, Obama, Clinton, and Putin. It scares me to think just how far away (or rather, how near) I am from these people.

If you know me personally, that puts you at 3 degrees away from them. Why am I saying this? The world is small. Singapore is even smaller. If I can notice slackers in a class of 800 students, what more the professors in other modules? What you do with your assignments and your projects don’t escape our attention. It goes beyond just grades. We know people who hire people, and those people do come to us asking us what we think of you. As a compulsory module, HR people do come to me to ask about my former students when they apply for internships/jobs. I have been fighting strongly to give my highest recommendations to students who have been great team players in their groups; and I have been very honest in telling these HR people about students who demonstrated horrible personal/work attitudes in the group project and in this course overall.

So the repercussions of how good/bad you are in your group go way beyond your grades. So do remember this well. Be good to your group mates and work hard. We are training you to learn how to work in teams and manage people of different personalities and working styles. It’s something you’ll have to do in the working world, so use this opportunity of group work to develop these important people skills. It’ll go a very long way in helping you after you graduate.

Is it true that it’s easier to score an A for some modules?

A student asked:

Is it true that it’s easier to score an A for some modules?

There’s no such thing as an easy A module because the number of As are determined by a quota in NUS (this is what people famously refer to as being at the mercy of the “bell curve”). There are quotas to the number of As, Bs, and Cs we can give. But I can’t tell you the quotas. That is confidential.

If a module is very easy to score, then the quota on As will determine that only the best of the best will get the As, and everyone else will get Bs and Cs even though they may have done very well in terms of absolute marks.

This is why there’s no such thing as a module that’s easy to score in university.

There’s this idea circulating among students that smart people don’t have to struggle to earn their As. It’s important to remember that some seniors want their juniors to regard them highly based on this belief, and so they will brag about how a module is easy for them to score without needing to struggle or needing to work hard. It makes them look very impressive, and people who take the module but end up struggling will look up to them for having done it so effortlessly.

Or in some rare cases, the student found it easy because it was something that s/he is already very good at, and so found no need to spend any effort.

So please do yourself a favour. Don’t believe any senior who tells you that a module is easy to score an A. They’re not telling you the truth about how hard they work behind the scenes.

I want to also comment about the belief that being good at something means not having to struggle. This is a false belief, and it has been very detrimental to many students’ esteems as they struggle in their studies (which is actually quite normal). Many students end up going away with the idea that they are very bad at it. I want you to know that struggling is normal. You struggle because you are growing and developing intellectually. And that is a good thing.

Will I be losing out if I don’t go on the Student Exchange Programme (SEP)?

A student asked:

Will I be losing out if I don’t go on the Student Exchange Programme (SEP)? I’m think that I’ll lose out by not getting the full university experience and also losing out by not looking as good as my peers in the eyes of future employers.

No, you won’t lose out at all. I didn’t go for SEP (student exchange programme), and I certainly didn’t lose out on anything.

SEP won’t help you gain any significant advantage when applying for jobs. The whole point of SEP is for you to have a full cultural immersion by interacting with the locals there. Once you are deeply soaked into their way of life, culture, language, you begin to better understand their system of values, ways of thinking about things, and gain better insight into their own way of life.

With such an understanding, you’ll be able to compare and contrast that with your own experience growing up and studying in Singapore (or wherever it is that you came from).

This is useful for helping you to appreciate the good points in both cultures, but also provide you with a basis to identify shortcomings in your own culture and start thinking about the values and assumptions that you’ve taken for granted all your life. E.g. Is it really important to be so focused on studies? Country X doesn’t do it that way.

But don’t just end with the conclusion that, “Country X is better because it’s less stressful.” That is a very superficial comparison. Ask yourself: Why is it that Country X can afford to be less competitive compared to Singapore?

Do the same for every other thing that you find is different in that country and keep asking yourself these questions. You’ll grow more matured in your thinking and appreciation of the pros and cons of each country’s policy, culture, and more.

Did you notice that it’s possible to still acquire this experience without going for an exchange programme? So the SEP is a nice to have. It’s certainly not a must-do.

SEP won’t really give you a significant advantage when looking for employment, unless you use the SEP to build up strong social networks. Otherwise, it doesn’t do much.

If you want to gain an advantage when looking for employment, you should be focusing on developing your people skills: how to interact with strangers, how to speak confidently to other people, how to promote/market yourself, how to work in a team, or how to lead and manage a team without having to play dirty politics, etc. These things will give you an advantage that will take you very very far.

So, you won’t lose out on anything if you don’t go on the student exchange programme. There are alternative ways to acquire cultural immersion and comparison without doing an exchange. And it’s really the people skills that matter in giving you an advantage.

What Students Have Said About GET1050 Computational Reasoning

Even though last semester ended in May, I’m still receiving many personal messages and letters from students thanking me for teaching them GET1050 Computational Reasoning. I thought it’ll be good to archive some of them here as a memento of the amazing time I had teaching the AY2019/2020 Sem II cohort. (They’re the best cohort I’ve taught thus far)

Relevance of GET1050 to Internship and Work

It has been really wonderful learning VBA from the module in particular. I couldn't imagine that I'll be learning programming in FASS. At least now with basic VBA skills in my belt, I hope for more useful things to come! Perhaps one thing of interest to you: I'm currently interning in the oil and gas sector. One of my tasks was to prioritize a list of interests for the firm, which was compiled in a spreadsheet. Evidently it'll be exhaustive to go thru each interest one by one (there was a lot). So my bosses would like me to justify how I'd prioritize it. This is similar to the optimisation exercises we went through in the module. I'd like to believe that they allow me to have a thinking framework in place for these kinds of tasks.

It has been really wonderful learning VBA from the module in particular. I couldn’t imagine that I’ll be learning programming in FASS. At least now with basic VBA skills in my belt, I hope for more useful things to come! Perhaps one thing of interest to you: I’m currently interning in the oil and gas sector. One of my tasks was to prioritize a list of
interests for the firm, which was compiled in a spreadsheet. Evidently it’ll be exhaustive to go thru each interest one by one (there was a lot). So my bosses would like me to justify how I’d prioritize it. This is similar to the optimisation
exercises we went through in the module. I’d like to believe that they allow me to have a thinking framework in place for these kinds of tasks.

Hi Jonathan! Just wanted to drop a message saying that I cannot believe I am facing people in internship that didnt even quantify their parameters and had to go through mini GET on what is best and how do we define best and what are the proxy measures we are doing. Can definitely see the application of GET again cause it felt like I was transported back into your class of discussions

Hi Jonathan! Just wanted to drop a message saying that I cannot believe I am facing people in internship that didnt even quantify their parameters and had to go through mini GET on what is best and how do we define best and what are the proxy measures we are doing. Can definitely see the application of GET again cause it felt like I was transported back into your class of discussions

Hope that you are doing well : ) Hope this isn't too random haha but I wanted to send you an appreciation email for making GET1050 so fun and enriching! I learnt a lot from your lectures and tutorials and enjoyed them very much. They were really insightful as well! I really appreciated your encouragement during the vba consultation too. Thanks to excel I managed to get an internship this break and gained more confidence in learning other tech skills xD Thank you so much for going out of your way to help us, creating such a fun learning environment and challenging us to think. This mod was my favourite one this semester! Stay safe and take care and hope to see you around in school!!

Hope that you are doing well : ) Hope this isn’t too random haha but I wanted to send you an appreciation email for making GET1050 so fun and enriching! I learnt a lot from your lectures and tutorials and enjoyed them very much. They were really insightful as well! I really appreciated your encouragement during the vba consultation too. Thanks to excel I managed to get an internship this break and gained more confidence in learning other tech skills xD Thank you so much for going out of your way to help us, creating such a fun learning environment and challenging us to think. This mod was my favourite one this semester! Stay safe and take care and hope to see you around in school!!

hey prof!! how has this cb been for you? :) hope youre doing well HAHA i got my first job this vacation and my boss gave me this huge excel data set and asked me to categorise the data and all thank God i took GET1050 be i managed to use pivot table and filter function to get the data that my boss wanted and it took me less than 5min, my boss was so impressed HAHAH thank you prof!! hope this little news will bring you some happiness this gloomy cb :)

hey prof!! how has this cb (circuit breaker/lockdown) been for you? :) hope youre doing well HAHA i got my first job this vacation and my
boss gave me this huge excel data set and asked me to categorise the data and all thank God i took GET1050 be i managed to use pivot table and filter function to get the data that my boss wanted and it took me less than 5min,
my boss was so impressed HAHAH thank you prof!! hope this little news will bring you some happiness this gloomy cb :)

I was your student of your mod last sem. Just want to share a story with you haha! I did horribly for your module due to the lack of time in the school semester. I got a 8/8- even when i contributed a big portion of project works that scored decently well. As a result, i decided to prioritize other mods, neglecting VBA which was the latter portion of the module. During the CB, i decided to pick up VBA, and went through some of the notes you had and youtube. This helped me to secure a banking internship in a tough period, during the interviews, the head mentioned that she wanted someone to automate excel, and I listed some of the examples i saw on youtube, impressing her. Fast forward 2 weeks into my internship, other than small projects, i just created a excel sheet to automate manual intranet web queries and print them(For compliance against terrorism etc, intranet will show whether company suspicious or not) for my team! Saving my teammates 30 mins-ish a day.

I was your student of your mod last sem. Just want to share a story with you haha! I did horribly for your module due to the lack of time in the school semester. I got a 8/8- even when i contributed a big portion of project works that scored decently well. As a result, i decided to prioritize other mods, neglecting VBA which was the latter portion of the module. During the CB, i decided to pick up VBA, and went through some of the notes you had and youtube. This helped me to secure a banking internship in a tough period, during the interviews, the head mentioned that she wanted someone to
automate excel, and I listed some of the examples i saw on youtube, impressing her. Fast forward 2 weeks into my internship, other than small projects, i just created a excel sheet to automate manual intranet web queries and print them(For compliance against terrorism etc, intranet will show whether company suspicious or not) for my team! Saving my teammates 30 mins-ish a day.


GET1050 is Empowering!

hi mr sim, hope you're doing well! just wanted to let you know that i've taken up an online programming course and so many of the concepts that they're teaching were covered in get1050! for eg i just wrote a code in c using the greedy rule to solve a question. so really thank you for the past semester in this module, it's taught me to think about computing in a way that makes it much easier for me to write codes now!

hi mr sim, hope you’re doing well! just wanted to let you know that i’ve taken up an online programming course and so many of the concepts that they’re teaching were covered in get1050! for eg i just wrote a code in c using the greedy rule to solve a question. so really thank you for the past semester in this module, it’s taught me to think about computing in a way that makes it much easier for me to write codes now!

However, I wanna let you know that the course you conducted, was really REALLY helpful for me. Acting as a bridge that guides us into the unknown, I actually FEEL REALLY EMPOWERED to take a new coding module, and refine my skills in excel. And this is really thanks to you. You gave me the room to leverage on my instinctive ability to reason and plan, to complete the complexities of the tasks of excel. For that, I am deeply grateful.

However, I wanna let you know that the course you conducted, was really REALLY helpful for me. Acting as a bridge that guides us into the unknown, I actually FEEL REALLY EMPOWERED to take a new coding module, and refine my skills in excel. And this is really thanks to you. You gave me the room to leverage on my instinctive ability to reason and plan, to complete the complexities of the tasks of excel. For that, I am deeply grateful.

Hi Mr Sim!!! (This is quite late) I just want to let you are an amazing prof and Thank you for doing some an amazing job in GET1050. Although it's only my first Y1, I can say this is probably my most favourite mod because of that way you deliver the teaching materials! (And partly cuz I got a high grade in it HAHAHA) It has also sparked within me an interest of coding and I have been doing the CS50 module to widen my knowledge of coding. I'm alr building my own homepage WOW As a FASS student, I didn't expect to have such knowledge within my academic life and I really thank you for introducing it to me and the other students! ALSOOO, I've been reading your Tellonym and your replies have been eye-opening and refreshing. Thanks for sharing your opinions and inspiring your students (especially FASS students)

Hi Mr Sim!!! (This is quite late) I just want to let you are an amazing prof and Thank you for doing some an amazing job in GET1050. Although it’s only my first Y1, I can say this is probably my most favourite mod because of that way you deliver the teaching materials! (And partly cuz I got a high grade in it HAHAHA) It has also sparked within me an interest of coding and I have been doing the CS50 module to widen my knowledge of coding. I’m alr building my own homepage WOW As a FASS student, I didn’t expect to have such knowledge within my academic life and I really thank you for introducing it to me and the other students! ALSOOO, I’ve been reading your Tellonym and your replies have been eye-opening and refreshing. Thanks for sharing your opinions and inspiring your students (especially FASS students)

Beyond thanking you for the obviously tremendous amount of effort and humour that you put in this mod in order to make it bearable, enjoyable, and educational; I would like to thank you for giving me a good springboard into this world of data science and computing. After seeing the value of computing knowledge and thinking from this module, I recently took up a certified business analytics course and intend to do CS50 in due time as well. I also intend to strengthen my understanding of VBA (ps. do you have any recommendations of where I can do this other than Linkedln Learning? Philo mod recommendations also please thanks haha I haven't taken intro to Philo but I would love to learn how to think better) I am very proud to tell you that I got an A for this module. I had at the very start told you that I was scared of this module and prepared to SU it (and got scolded by you haha). I am hence extremely proud of not only the grade, but the effort me and my team put into this module and the learnings we got as a result; but also that I have a good grade to show you to thank you for your dedication and kindness.

Beyond thanking you for the obviously tremendous amount of effort and humour that you put in this mod in order to make it bearable, enjoyable, and educational; I would like to thank you for giving me a good springboard into this world of data science and computing. After seeing the value of computing knowledge and thinking from this module, I recently took up a certified business analytics course and intend to do CS50 in due time as well. I also intend to strengthen my understanding of VBA (ps. do you have any recommendations of where I can do this other than Linkedln Learning? Philo mod recommendations also please thanks haha I haven’t taken intro to Philo but I would love to
learn how to think better) I am very proud to tell you that I got an A for this module. I had at the very start told you that I was scared of this module and prepared to SU it (and got scolded by you haha). I am hence extremely proud of not only the grade, but the effort me and my team put into this module and the learnings we got as a result; but also that I have a good grade to show you to thank you for your dedication and kindness.


GET1050 is Awesome!

Heelllo Jonathan!! Sending this a bit late but, I just wanted to say thank youuu. I personally had an amazing GET1050 learning experience the past sem! Thanks for creating such a comfortable learning environment for asking questions and putting in so much effort to make learning so enjoyable!! (PARDON this not so look-a-like drawinggg HAHA)

Heelllo Jonathan!! Sending this a bit late but, I just wanted to say thank youuu. I personally had an amazing GET1050 learning experience the past sem! Thanks for creating such a comfortable learning environment for asking questions and putting in so much effort to make learning so enjoyable!! (PARDON this not so look-a-like drawinggg HAHA)

Thank YOU for all your hardwork and love you have for your students:")) your dedication to this mod is amazing!!! :")) Rest well!!!!

Thank YOU for all your hardwork and love you have for your students:”)) your dedication to this mod is amazing!!! :”)) Rest well!!!!

I am a student from your GET1050 course. Though this email may be a little late, given that the module ended quite some time ago, the semester has finally concluded but I wish to extend my gratitude to you for having been such a passionate professor and I have genuinely learned much from your course. I really appreciate that you explain every single concept down to the last detail with so much enthusiasm. The amount of effort you and your GET1050 TAs is truly unimaginable, but I am very thankful for all of it! Thank you for building my foundation for EXCEL well and I can't wait to learn more tricks and codes! : D Thank you Jonathan once again :-), take care and rest well this summer!

I am a student from your GET1050 course. Though this email may be a little late, given that the module ended quite some time ago, the semester has finally concluded but I wish to extend my gratitude to you for having been such a passionate professor and I have genuinely learned much from your course. I really appreciate that you explain every single concept down to the last detail with so much enthusiasm. The amount of effort you and your GET1050 TAs
is truly unimaginable, but I am very thankful for all of it! Thank you for building my foundation for EXCEL well and I can’t wait to learn more tricks and codes! : D Thank you Jonathan once again :-), take care and rest well this summer!

hi prof! I wanted to say thank you for interacting with your students and spending your time to engage us in our growth :-) hope u r doing well in this season!!! :-))

hi prof! I wanted to say thank you for interacting with your students and spending your time to engage us in our growth :-) hope u r doing well in this season!!! :-))

Dear Mr Sim, now that the mod is about to be over i just want to say a huge thank you to you- for your patience in coaching us, checking up on us whenever u can, and just being such a great prof. I am very lucky to have taken this mod under you, and i thank you so much for all the knowledge you have imparted to us. Ive started to be able to see proxy measures, interpretive gaps havjng to be filled in etc in my daily life as well. I hope you take good care of yourself, dont overtire yourself please! As your student, it is my pleasure and honour to call you my professor

Dear Mr Sim, now that the mod is about to be over i just want to say a huge thank you to you- for your patience in coaching us, checking up on us whenever u can, and just being such a great prof. I am very lucky to have taken this mod under you, and i thank you so much for all the knowledge you have imparted to us. Ive started to be able to see proxy measures, interpretive gaps havjng to be filled in etc in my daily life as well. I hope you take good care of yourself, dont overtire yourself please! As your student, it is my pleasure and honour to call you my professor.

Next, I want to sincerely thank you for being such a genuine and hardworking educator. In my entire education career as a student, I have only met one or two teachers who were always going the extra mile in getting to know their students and preparing their lessons in a way that students will truly enjoy and learn useful things they will take away with them for the rest of their lives. When I first entered university, I thought that the lecturers , in general , would be less enthusiastic about getting to know students or even teaching the content they do, as the material they teach would undoubtedly be repetitive on their end, and the opportunities they have to interact with students are less, considering the lecture group sizes and the number of classes they have with students. It was surprising when you went out of your way to get us email short introductions to you before our very first class, you did not have to, but you chose to do it. I honestly think that shows how much you care about your students and am touched to have an educator like you. This is just one of the many things, coupled with the crazy amount of effort you put into creating funny names in assignments and easter eggs for us to find when doing the assignments, that left me speechless. Your passion for teaching is admirable and shines through.

Next, I want to sincerely thank you for being such a genuine and hardworking educator. In my entire education career as a student, I have only met one or two teachers who were always going the extra mile in getting to know their students and preparing their lessons in a way that students will truly enjoy and learn useful things they will take away with them for the rest of their lives. When I first entered university, I thought that the lecturers , in general , would be less enthusiastic about getting to know students or even teaching the content they do, as the material they teach
would undoubtedly be repetitive on their end, and the opportunities they have to interact with students are less, considering the lecture group sizes and the number of classes they have with students. It was surprising when you went out of your way to get us email short introductions to you before our very first class, you did not have to, but you chose to do it. I honestly think that shows how much you care about your students and am touched to have an educator like you. This is just one of the many things, coupled with the crazy amount of effort you put into creating funny names in assignments and easter eggs for us to find when doing the assignments, that left me speechless. Your passion for teaching is admirable and shines through.

Thank you so much for all you've done for us, Prof. Our group and all your other students are extremely grateful to you. We all enjoyed your whacky, hilarious lectures and will remember them for years to come. See you soon, Prof. Wishing you continued good health

Thank you so much for all you’ve done for us, Prof. Our group and all your other students are extremely grateful to you. We all enjoyed your whacky, hilarious lectures and will remember them for years to come. See you soon, Prof. Wishing you continued good health

How do you respond to annoying relatives who look down on you when you tell them you’re studying in the Arts and Social Sciences?

A student wrote to me, asking:

How do you respond to annoying relatives who look down on you when you tell them you’re studying in the Arts and Social Sciences? I’m so annoyed!

Here is some advice that will give you the satisfaction of winning, but there is a high risk that you’ll get permanently banned from their homes and lives. If you happily desire this outcome, you can try this:

(1) Ask what he/she studied back in school.

(2) Next, ask why he/she isn’t even successful in life, or haven’t been promoted, or still stagnating at work, or haven’t made it rich, or haven’t made a difference in this world.

(3) Once he/she is stunned by the question, recite any one of the following quotable quotes:

  • “As a dog returns to his own vomit, so a fool repeats his folly” (Proverbs 26:11, if you wish to cast upon them a sacred BUUUURRRN!!!)

    OR:
  • “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.” (Albert Einstein, supposedly)

(4) Enjoy watching them catch fire. LOL :D

Otherwise, if you so desire to maintain harmonious relations with them, I recommend following the advice I wrote here:

What do I say to people who ask me, “What do you want to do in the future?”

How does one become an undergraduate Research Assistant?

A student asked:

How does one become an undergraduate Research Assistant? It feels like many professors want students with prior research experience or at least some relevant experience. I’m not sure what I have to offer other than the same skills that every other student have.

It’s not always true that profs want students with prior research/relevant experience. What’s more important is that you are willing to work hard for it, and you are willing to learn. Minimally, you should have the following:

  • Good relations with the prof whom you wish to work with
  • Same interest in the prof’s area of research
  • Willing to learn new things beyond your existing skill sets
  • Willing to work very hard even if the tasks are boring (a lot of research tasks are boring mundane tasks)
  • And if you were the prof’s student, at least an A for that module.

Personally, I prefer working with people who are more proactive in updating me or finding additional things to do. Because I tend to be very busy with my own work, and don’t always have time to think about what work to assign. I believe many other professors also value this quality (it’s also a very good quality to have for the working world – your superiors will also be too busy with their work, so they would appreciate this kind of proactiveness).

If you believe you have these, go and talk to the prof about it. But be warned that not all profs have a budget to hire RAs. So even if you are good, and the prof wants you, he may not have the funds available to take you on board. In some cases, some students are sooooooo outstanding, the prof may be willing to recommend you to another prof to be an RA.

There are other research institutions outside NUS with profs from the arts and social sciences. Don’t be afraid to cast your net wider beyond NUS.

How should I make use of my Unrestricted Electives (UE) requirement? Is it worthwhile to pursue a Minor, or should I instead use the time to explore modules from different faculties?

A student asked this question:

How should I make use of my Unrestricted Electives (UE) requirement? Is it worthwhile to pursue a Minor, or should I instead use the time to explore modules from different faculties?

My personal take is that you should only do a minor if you yourself have an interest or passion in it. Otherwise, don’t bother.

When I was an undergraduate student, I used the UE slots to take modules from other faculties, mainly from engineering, computing and the sciences. I’m very grateful I did that because that gave me enough conceptual resources that allowed me to talk and work with engineers in my first job, and later on with academics from STEM majors (and even edit books for them because I knew enough to learn more on my own).

I worked in another university before coming to NUS. And one thing that struck me was the strong culture of learning they had there. I was very amazed to see science and engineering majors so passionate about the humanities, and conversely, humanities students so passionate about learning different things in the sciences. I remembered talking to some humanities undergraduates there and they were determined to take the engineering core mathematics module and PWN (defeat) the engineering majors in their own game.

Here in NUS, we don’t seem to have this culture, or at least I haven’t met students like that. But I do wish students here were more courageous and willing to try and conquer topics beyond their comfort zones, and see it as a healthy challenge to grow and develop yourself.

When you try to do things like this, you are training yourself for the working world, because you are learning to get used to taking on any task that gets thrown at you. You become more resilient.

I spoke to my peers (FASS alumni), and they said that in the course of their working lives, they have been made to do things at work they never thought they had to do when they were students. Things like writing code, develop business plans, etc. Oftentimes, we will have to do this not because we want to, but because we have not much of a choice (it’s assigned to us). So take it in good stride and learn to explore beyond your comfort zone. It’ll be good for you in the long term.

My Experiences in Using the Telegram Messaging App as a Teaching Tool

In this article, I wish to reflect on my experience using the messaging app, Telegram, as a teaching tool. I will begin on the motivations for adopting Telegram, and then proceed to discuss how I carried out the use of Telegram in my teaching, and my observations of how students responded to it.

In the past 3.5 years of teaching here in NUS, I have learnt through my conversations with many local students that so many students perceive barriers to various modes of consultation that are typically available to them. These obstacles revolve around fear and issues of ‘face.’

In public settings, like asking questions in class or on the online forums, students are afraid of making a fool of themselves by asking a “stupid” question in front of everyone else, or at least saying the wrong thing, and risk the embarrassment of being corrected in front of everyone. In other words, they fear losing ‘face’ by asking questions in a public setting.

On that same line of thought, there is also a fear that speaking out or asking certain questions can make one stand out so much that it creates pressure on the student to maintain that expectation or risk losing ‘face.’

Three years ago, I commended a student for her excellent writing on the online forums. After class, she approached me saying how she wished I did not do that as it had “revealed her true abilities” to the rest of the class. As it is, the forums were already very stressful as she did not want to stand out from the crowd, nor did she want to embarrass herself by saying anything wrong. But now that she had been “outed” by me as having excellent writing, she now has to deal with the added stress of maintaining the same standards. In a competitive culture, many students perceive this as a bad thing, because they worry that doing so would mean having to work extra hard to maintain that reputation. Failing to meet that public expectation, would result in a huge loss of ‘face.’

And while our local students prefer to seek help in a more private setting (face-to-face consults or e-mail), there is still an obstacle that puts them off: they perceive these modes of consultations as too formal, and they feel that this apparent “formality” requires them to prepare well beforehand so that they do not waste the teacher’s time, or to say or do something that will cause them to look bad before the instructor.

This became very apparent to me two years ago when I had to tutor a module on computational thinking to FASS undergraduate students. Because the nature of the subject was so alien to these students, many of them simply did not know how to articulate their questions. The ones who asked for consultations (or e-mailed me for help) knew how to articulate their questions, or at least questions on issues they were clear about. But it was apparent to me that many students did not understand. They wanted help, but they were too afraid to ask. And when I asked what kept them from seeking consultations with me, they said that they wanted to get everything in order, that they wanted to compile a list of questions before approaching me. They thought that it would be a waste of my time and that it would be embarrassing to reveal how much they did not understand.

This was the same answer I got from many students. And because they struggled on such a fundamental level, they could not achieve the level of preparedness they wanted before they saw it fit to arrange for a consultation, or even draft an e-mail with their questions. In other words, the formality of a face-to-face consultation, or even a private e-mail was an obstacle for students to seek help even when they urgently needed it. The fear of losing ‘face’ was just too great.

To summarise: many local students feel that the act of asking questions or seeking help is an act that risks losing ‘face,’ or tarnishing their reputation before their peers or teachers.

When I was tasked to develop and teach a new compulsory module for FASS students – GET1050 “Computational Reasoning” (which was, once again, an area alien to most FASS students) – I remembered the experiences and conversations I had with my former students, many of whom felt that questioning was a terrifying act of risking one’s ‘face.’

I decided to experiment with setting up a Helpline chat group on Telegram, a popular instant messaging app that allows for the creation of large chat groups. The helpline would serve several functions: (1) it would be an informal setting and to some extent, an almost anonymous platform where students can ask questions without drawing too much embarrassment to themselves; (2) if students were afraid to post questions on the helpline, they can still reach out to me privately on Telegram; (3) since the module is a blended-learning course, Telegram was the one platform that allowed me to engage and interact with my students on a regular basis (especially for students who are not in my tutorial groups); (4) the platform is the ideal means for cultivating a safe and positive learning culture where students should not feel afraid to seek help; and (5) the instant communication allows me to converse with students so as to help those struggling to articulate their questions.

I have since used Telegram for two semesters with great success. Here, I’d like to document what I did and several observations I made:

In the first two weeks, Telegram was rather quiet. There were not many queries. That was because students were still exploring and wondering what sorts of questions they could safely ask on the platform. The first couple of questions were sent privately to me on Telegram, and I made it a point to post the Q&A to the Helpline, even though students may have felt that the question was silly, pointless, or irrelevant. Nonetheless, I did it anyway because it served two purposes: (1) it allowed me to share the knowledge as I believed that there were other students with similar questions; and (2) it was a way of educating the cohort about the kinds of questions they could ask, and I wanted them to know that they can always expect a safe environment where I would answer them without judgement.

Every few days, I would also post light-hearted remarks and other jokes, or joke around with students on the Helpline. This was my way of interacting with students and building rapport with them. After all, I don’t have the luxury of interacting with all the students in a lecture setting (all my lectures are in the form of videos online). I also made a point to involve my TAs in the chat. They would help to answer queries, and occasionally post light-hearted content. This was my way of reinforcing the idea that this is an informal setting, a safe environment where we can learn together and be silly together. That this helpline was a community of learning.

As the weeks went by, not only were there more students joining the Helpline, but there were also more students daring to ask questions publicly on the chat group. I believe the interactions that my TAs and I carried out in the first few weeks of the semester were very critical in establishing that trust in students, that they could trust us enough to ask questions without fear.

And what was most amazing, was that by the time we got to Recess Week, there was a sense that the community on the Helpline had grown and matured. There were moments where I would inform the Helpline that I’m too busy to respond to queries. Not long after, I’ll find students rising up to the occasion, and answering queries from their peers. The same happens when students ask questions very late into the night.

So not only is there an increased sense of trust and respect for all on the Helpline, but I believe that students have begun to feel safe to seek help and to help others on such a platform. That is, of course, once the culture and environment has been set right at the start, and continually maintained.

In both semesters, the feedback from students have been incredible positive about the use of Telegram. Here I’d like to conclude with an excerpt of a reflection that a student wrote that best summarises how the use of Telegram and the Helpline played a critical role role in helping students grow comfortable with seeking help:

“My main learning point is summarized by the phrase: ‘No one can push you if you don’t want to push yourself; we all grow through struggles’. Having a good attitude towards learning is important. I particularly got this takeaway because this module is by-far the most encouraging, most-interaction (during tutorial) and most interesting module I took . The instructor and my TAs from tutorial class are really encouraging and I like how they always assure us that they are very willing to help us as long as we seek help. It really motivates me to want to do well for this module since I know that I am equipped with all the resources that I need and in addition, I have approachable people that I can turn to when I need help. However this also means that it is a test of self-discipline as we take charge of our own learning progress. If I choose not to help myself, then I will not learn to the best of my ability no matter how encouraging the instructors and TAs are. This module made me realized that I cannot have excuses to justify as to why I didn’t do well for this module because I can no longer say that I find it hard to seek help/the professors are not approachable, thus a good learning attitude is important.”

What can students learn from Philosophy?

A student asked:

What can students learn from Philosophy? It seems like a really interesting topic but many students outside that major will say things like: “They ask questions about why is the sky blue? Why does god exist?” Are these speculations true? Is it possible to give a brief overview on what does NUS Philosophy teach? I’m genuinely very curious and interested to know more about this!

Here’s my reply:

It’s important to understand the history of academia. Philosophy is the mother of all subjects. Before you had the natural and social sciences, there was only philosophy. So the people who explored the workings of the world were also the same people who explored ideas and concepts. Hence you had questions like, “Why is the sky blue?”, which in our modern context would be regarded more of a science question.

Questions like “Why does god exists?” are important to philosophers because of the implications if a god exists. Here’s a simple scenario: If god exists, then perhaps there is meaning and purpose independent of my own decisions, and thus I have to discover what those are. But if god doesn’t exist, then meaning and purpose do not come from outside me, but are chosen by me. In which case, it is not about discovery, but making a resolution about what matters. There are what we call, normative implications, i.e. it affects how we should live.

Philosophy is the love of (philo) wisdom (sophia). But what is wisdom? It’s the ability to make right judgements for yourself. Academic philosophy doesn’t train you in wisdom, but gives you a lot of resources to develop wisdom yourself. What do I mean? Well, for starters, you learn how to think and justify in a sound, logical manner. Sadly, not everyone who can think can actually think in a sound logical way. And I can tell you, from grading so many assignments, that a lot of our FASS students cannot reason in a sound logical way. And if you can’t do that well, you are way more prone to making mistakes in your thinking, in your own judgement and evaluation of yourself, people, and things.

I personally think the value of philosophy is in its ability to liberate your mind by exposing you to possibilities you never even thought possible about things (e.g. multiple opposing but valid schools of thinking about what is right and wrong, or thinking about what makes something scientific or not-scientific). And for that matter, liberation of your mind by thinking about higher-order things (e.g. the philosophy of social science will talk about meta-level problems in the social sciences). These things will not only blow your mind, but give you very profound insights into issues that few people in those areas think about. It gives you an edge because you get a perspective that makes you painfully aware that everything is premised on conceptual flaws, and so you learn to assess things more critically. The methods you acquire along the way will also teach you how to reframe problems. Reframing is only possible with higher-order (meta-level) thinking.

You may not appreciate it now, but a lot of issues that senior-management have to deal with are philosophical problems. I know this because I used to interact (in my previous job) with top academics in the sciences and ambassadors/policy-makers/economists from around the world. The problems become very philosophical in nature because you need to define the problems before you can work out the objectives and the corresponding strategies that help to address the problem. At a senior level, the problems are conceptual in nature (e.g. If you are Provost or Dean – What is the purpose of the university?; or if you are the Minister of Health – What is the purpose of healthcare?)

It feels like we all can be philosophers and engage in such deep discussions, but I can tell you that there’s a stark difference between amateurs who like philosophy versus people trained in philosophy. These amateurs only know how to regurgitate ideas by philosophers or have superficial discussions about those ideas. But they don’t know how to even begin with dissecting these ideas or creating new ones (or even seeing the subtle nuances between different but similar ideas). A training in philosophy will teach you the fundamentals to do all that.

I know it can be scary since it’s probably alien to you, but we can’t always live in fear. Give it a try and challenge yourself. My journey in philosophy has been amazing, and I am sure it will be just as incredible for you too. :)

Why are Singaporean students so silent in the classroom? And what can we do about it?

One of the amazing things about being both a teacher and a student for almost two years is that it has given me a privileged perspective to understand why students behave the way they do in class.

This became very apparent to me when I discuss issues with my teaching colleagues: when we’re so busy teaching or preparing for class, it’s so easy to forget how a student would perceive the things we do or say, or the reasons for certain behaviours.

One unique insight I gained from this privileged position of being simultaneously teacher-and-student, is the underlying cultural motivations for why students hold back from fully engaging in class. They do this by either remaining silent, not participating in any activity, or if they do, they would moderate and reduce the quality of their work/performance.

This presents a great challenge, at least here in Singapore, to efforts in engaging students in the classroom, or even in any attempts at successful student-teacher partnerships (a kind of pedagogical approach where students are not regarded merely as consumers of a lesson, but as co-creators who partake in the design and even teaching of the lesson itself).

Unlike the successful experiences reported by many teachers in the West, students here in Singapore appear to be quieter, and less participative. Many typically describe local students as passive or even conformist. But these do not get to the heart of why students behave this way.

Looking back at my own student experience, and from speaking personally to my students, I have come to realise that much of the lack of participation stem from issues surrounding the notion of “face” or pride/reputation. Singaporean students generally do not participate in class discussions or engage in teacher-student partnerships for the following reasons:

(1) Students are afraid that speaking up or volunteering might cause embarrassment to their peers, thereby making them “lose face.” Volunteering for something, or speaking out (especially if one speaks well) can make one appear outstanding. But at the same time, it creates a stark contrast with other students, thereby making them look bad by comparison. Those who volunteer or participate are usually labelled by their peers as “market spoilers” (i.e. those who raise the bar) or “extras.”

(2) Students are also afraid that speaking up or volunteering with the teacher may cause their peers to resent them, thereby leading to negative social consequences outside of class. It’s one thing to embarrass one’s peers by volunteering or participating in class. But it is another issue altogether if one does so repeatedly. Not only is the student repeatedly causing one’s peers to “lose face,” but the student is seen as someone who has raised the bar so much, that that student is showing off his/her abilities. This leads to a lot of resentment from one’s peers. Such students tend to receive harsh labels like “show off” or “smart aleck,” and be treated badly by their peers outside of class.

(3) Yet another motivation for silence or not volunteering is the fear that once one has done so, one has revealed one’s “true abilities” to one’s peers. It is worth noting that the phrase, “true abilities,” was mentioned multiple times by a few of my students when they explained reasons for disliking participation in class/online forum.

The fear of revealing one’s true abilities can come in two forms: (a) One is worse than one’s peers, in which case, revealing one’s ability causes one to immediately “lose face” and to embarrass one’s self in front of others. A more severe form being that one is afraid to discover that one is bad as a consequence of speaking out or volunteering, thereby “losing face” just by attempting.

(b) One is better than one’s peers, in which case, one now has to grapple with the stress of maintaining one’s reputation of having such a high ability, and not lose out to others (which would be highly embarrassing). This is driven largely by a desire for self-preservation. By not revealing one’s high ability, one does not draw attention from potential enemies, and can continue leisurely learning at one’s own pace without having to compete with someone else and risk losing.

These are the three key motivations for students remaining silent and not participating in class or for any extra activities organised by the teacher, including student-teacher partnerships.

Of course, a silent classroom is never tolerated, and there will always be moments where students are made to speak up or present. Here, the same motivations are manifested differently, and this is something we need to be aware of, especially when we involve students to present in front of class, or in any efforts at student-teacher partnerships.

As the lack of participation is motivated by issues of “face,” forced participation similarly compels students to reduce the quality of their work (or at least their outward performance) when they are required to present to the rest of the class. Again, this is to avoid embarrassing one’s peers, or to avoid being labeled as a show off and sanctioned by one’s peers, and also to avoid revealing one’s true abilities (especially if one has higher abilities). The way students do this is that they will use the first forced participant as the benchmark and mimic the quality of the materials and level of showmanship.

Of course, there will be students who are ignorant or do not abide by these rules at all. One good thing about this is that in doing so, hey help to reveal the dynamics of the benchmarking efforts that the others had been doing. Throughout my years as a student, whenever someone outperforms beyond the tacit benchmark, I often hear others complaining along the lines of: “If I knew he/she was going to present like this, I would have done more.” Such admissions of “would have done more,” are admissions of how one had scaled back in one’s work, indicative of a deliberate lowering of quality.

Clearly, for there to be any successful and unmoderated participation, especially with regards to student-teacher partnerships, more must be done in order to overcome such barriers. The teacher cannot just rely on the usual enthusiastic students who volunteer. There are students who are enthusiastic but have no regard for issues of “face,” and there are also enthusiastic students who are inhibited by their worries of “face.”

One thing I’ve learnt from my own discussions with students is that the teacher is an important facilitator in this regard, one who has the power to shape an environment: from a hostile and competitive environment to one that is friendly and relaxed.

The more friendly, uncompetitive, and relaxed the class environment is, the less worried students are about losing “face” or embarrassing themselves (and others) in class. Of course, the teacher does not have complete control over the classroom atmosphere. The presence of intimidating or highly competitive students can still cause other students to worry.

Since becoming aware of these motivations, I have made extra efforts in ensuring that the environment is as friendly and relaxed as possible, so that students are least worried about “face” and embarrassment in a classroom setting. One thing I’ve done and found much success with is introducing the element of role playing in class. When students are given roles to perform, they are given the opportunity to step out of who they are, to become someone else for a moment. That someone else (the assigned role) is then allowed to make embarrassing mistakes and even to embarrass others (involved in the role play), without consequence to one’s own personality and identity or social sanction. Role playing liberates students from concerns about “face” and allows them to engage each other in an uninhibited manner.

More importantly, role playing is a form of play, an uncompetitive play that by itself makes the environment less competitive and hostile, thereby creating a fun and relaxed environment in which students can engage, participate, and forge bonds with each other and with the teacher. This encourages students to take on an increased role in their involvement in class, and encourages them to take on an increased stake in their own learning in the classroom.

A Meaningful Reflection Paper

The best moments in my teaching career come from reading meaningful reflection papers. This semester one student’s paper resonated very strongly with me. I’m so heartened that she has gained so much from my classes.

Here’s what she wrote:

Screen Shot 2018-07-11 at 5.14.16 PM

“What did I learn?” is a phrase that I would often avoid asking or answering in my life. The fact that I might not really know or not knowing what I don’t know makes me feel uncomfortable and ashamed. However, knowing that we are the only species that ask questions, I am now changing my opinion and instead[, I now] ask questions every time I feel comfortable about a situation. The fear of feeling ashamed should not be the blocking stone to knowing more about myself and the world. The desire to be right could be the driving force in life, nonetheless, it is sometimes a double-edged sword that blocks us [from moving] forward in knowing more about the world. Asking good questions, identifying confirmation bias, disconfirmation, etc., mastering all these cocneptual tools require continuous training and practising. An active learning environment is important for questioning [in order for it] to become an active habit. Life changes when we step out from our comfort zone.

I think there’s something from this reflection that’s worth learning and remembering.

2014 Year-End Review (Part 1) – A Gap Year of Exploration

Wow… Time really flies, perhaps faster than ever before. It’s hard to believe that a year has passed because I still have very vivid memories of all the events that happened in the past year (and even further back in time).

I’ll have to say that the year 2014 has been the most challenging year ever. Yet, despite all these challenges and occasional set-backs, I feel like I’ve grown a lot, and gained a lot of insights. And to top that off, I’ve met a lot of profoundly inspiring and amazing people, many of whom have restored my faith in humanity, and given me new lenses with which to see the world.

It’s amazing!

In order to make sense of 2014, I really should talk about it in the context of 2013, only because 2013 was the year that I made a few major decisions on what to do with my life, and it’s only in 2014 that many of these decisions began to unfold in interesting ways.

(I realised, having written so much, that it would be unrealistic to cram all my year-end reviews in a single post. So I’ll split it into several parts. Here’s Part 1…)

 

A Gap Year of Exploration

At the end of my undergraduate life, I decided to take a gap year from study, so that I could take a step back to explore my options and discover what I might want to do with my life.

I was quite burnt out in my final year of university, to the extent that I didn’t want to go through the ordeal of writing papers night after night. It seems that the experience was so bad that it has developed in me, a small yet powerful dread of writing, to the extent that I don’t enjoy writing very much. In the past, I could just sit in front of the keyboard and words would flow from my mind through my fingers onto the screen. But now, I’m always confronted with a dread and a kind of mental block. Words don’t flow so easily, and it takes me some time to settle down and calm my mind to overcome that psychological obstacle.

Much as I love academic philosophy, I always had this nagging feeling that I might not want to pursue this, or at least not in the way that I encountered it in my undergraduate life. I love the learning, I love reading, I love the process of growth, but I just do not enjoy the painful process of writing academic papers. (But as I slowly come to realise: three positives versus one negative, maybe that’s not too bad? There is no career that is 100% enjoyable, is there? Well, that’s something I still need to discover for myself)

So, instead of plunging myself into graduate school like many of my peers. I figured it would be better to try other things. But I had a lot of reluctance because I couldn’t seem to find a first job that really interested me. Moreover, I was quite afraid that I’d end up doing mindless, meaningless tasks, no more than a cog in the machine.

That all changed one day when I met a professor for lunch one day. (Some introduction to the professor:) This was Prof. Lo Yuet Keung from the NUS Chinese Department. I never thought I would sit in for a class taught in Mandarin, but I did back when I was in my first year (2009). It was the only Chinese philo module that was offered at that time. Though I didn’t understand Chinese very well, I was blown-away by what I could understand. But most of all, Prof. Lo made a very deep and profound impression on me. He was the first person I encountered whom you could call a junzi (君子 gentleman). I looked at him and told myself: this is the type of awesome person I’d like to be. I wanted to study Chinese philosophy the way he did, to be transformed by the wisdom of the ancient philosophers, as he was.

Anyway, many years later, I was very touched to find out from a friend that Prof. Lo remembers me (even though I never interacted with him during or after class in any of his modules). So I decided to drop him an e-mail, asking if it were possible to have lunch. And we did. It was by far, the most life-changing lunch appointment ever. I shared with him my hesitations on applying for a job, and told him that maybe I should take up a course or some certification class. In reply, he said something that changed my reality for the better:

Prof. Lo said: “Why bother paying money to learn a skill, when you can be paid to learn?” He went on to elaborate that I should perceive each and every job as a course in itself. Lessons and insights to acquire every step of the way (and you get paid as well – a double bonus!).

That changed the way I looked at the world, and it helped me with my search. With great confidence, I set out to apply. I eventually landed with a job at an electronics company, handling both the marketing of electronics and training the people who used it. It was a lot of fun.

Half a year later, I got a call from Nanyang Technological University (NTU). They heard that I was looking for a research-related job, and they offered me a position to co-develop a course on Chinese philosophy with the Dean of the College, who was also quite a big name in the field of Chinese philosophy. It was an opportunity too good to miss. And I figured this would be ideal, as it might help me to decide whether or not I should pursue academia as a career.

I said yes, and it was by far the best decision of my life.

It’s been 10 months since I joined NTU. There’s been many challenges and difficult moments. But every step of the way has been meaningful, and it’s been great.

The greatest highlight of my time in NTU was to be involved in a project exploring ways to overcome the East-West barrier, how Chinese philosophy might help to enrich complexity thinking in the sciences (and social sciences), and how the two might just be related to each other. As part of this project, we organised two surveying workshops and invited several prominent researchers, directors of research institutes, and top public servants from around the world. It was amazing sitting in the midst of great and brilliant people.

This very experience gave me two very deep and profound realisations: (1) Firstly, it made me realise that my training in academic philosophy was insufficient in enabling me to comment on policy issues or matters of current affairs. I could listen and critique the ideas of others, but I’ve been unable to formulate anything positive on my part. This has been important to me as I’ve always aspired to be a public intellectual, using my philosophical skills to comment or critique pressing issues of society, or provide ideas, solutions or insights into certain matters. I always felt a sense of this inability, and in some ways, I’ve struggled with trying to write about such matters. But it was during those discussions that this inability became strongly apparent. Here I was, struggling with my training, knowledge, skills, and insights, yet what could I say? I could only speak theoretically (and naively even) about ideals, and I was unable to translate or connect it back to real events or issues. It was a challenge.

(2) Secondly, I came to the realisation that when you study philosophy along with several other disciplines, you will gain very interesting insights that you would not have acquired simply from the study of philosophy alone, or even from a mere interdisciplinary study of philosophy with one other discipline. No, it’s not just about one or two disciplines coming together. It is about bringing several disciplines together like a complete package (e.g. studying these disciplines together at the same time on a particular issue: philosophy, economics, politics, sociology, history). It is through this approach, that one could see certain issues very differently.

These two insights have changed my priorities and objectives. While I would still like to pursue a PhD in Philosophy, I would nonetheless like to branch out and study something else, maybe related to philosophy, but also related to other disciplines, as a good stepping stone in enabling me to address the two realisations above. I’m applying now for a Masters programme. But I’ll say more later once I’m done writing the proposal. What I can say now is that I’m going to take a rather unconventional route, but it seems that this choice will open more doors for me, and lead me to far greater growth.

With 2014 coming to an end, I realised I exceeded the time frame I gave myself when I took the gap year. I expected myself to have started graduate studies by now, or at least to move on to begin building my career.

For a while, I felt rather guilty, but recently, a very brilliant person commented that we all have cycles of activity and cycles of recuperation. Rather than to be worried about not being in the active cycle, I should instead focus (and not feel guilty) about my recuperation period, to recover and prepare myself intellectually, psychologically, and emotionally for all the great challenges and obstacles that will come my way once I begin graduate studies.

There should always be progress, but progress is to be made in the context of cycles of activity and recuperation. When such cycles are disrupted in the name of “progress”, it is not progress but haste. And it is in haste that we lose all insights and direction, and it is because of haste that we tire easily and burn ourselves much sooner than we expect.

In that case, I look forward to prepare myself slowly yet steadily for the changes to come next year.

With a new year starting, I think I now have a sense of what I’d like to pursue, at least over the next few years. In so many ways, I’m glad I didn’t simply rush into graduate school. I wouldn’t have had so many opportunities and life-changing insights. In 2013, I struggled so much trying to find some solution as to what to do next with my life, and thankfully, in 2014, I think I found the answer.

It has been a good year.

A hot cup of toffee nut latte on a cold rainy day

I love how Christmas is coming. Every year Starbucks will offer its special Christmas brew. I look forward to it every year.

A cup of toffee nut latte with its fragrant smell and taste brings me so much happiness. And especially on a cold rainy day, this drink is the perfect beverage to compliment the lovely chilly weather. MMMmmm…

I’ll be honest and say that I don’t particularly like the drink so much anymore now. I guess as one grows with age, one outgrows one’s liking for sweet drinks.

So why do I still drink it? Mainly, for the nostalgia, but also as an annual reminder for what it now represents.

This was the drink that has accompanied me for so many cold and rainy nights back in my undergraduate days, where at the end of the semester (well, at the end of every Semester 1) I’d spend several, almost-consecutive nights in a row, working overnight on campus to write papers after papers, until the sun rose at about 6+am (no kidding!).

It was the drink that in many ways, stayed beside me, sitting with me, keeping me up, keeping me going. The fact that it was a seasonal brew made it all the more special. It also, in a way, gave me something to look forward to at the time when assignments are aplenty, and where stress is high.

Now that I have graduated and don’t need undergo such academic toiling, this drink brings me lovely memories of the those times where I stayed up to write papers. While in some ways, I hated the experience, I still loved it for the kind of peace and quiet that I enjoyed. There’s something really wonderful about sitting in a dim room in the middle of the night, with a small desk lamp over your head, with another one or two other students working in the study room. Maybe it’s the combination of the lack of sleep, stress and the caffeine, but the experience of solitude as you think and write is magical… But I digress.

More significantly, this drink stands as a symbol of the silent companion who stands by your side, cheering you, giving you (mental) strength to keep going, to keep thinking, to keep writing. That you’re never alone even as you’re writing at 4am in the middle of the night, where everyone else is asleep.

That companion, who transforms and gives new meaning and understanding to the experience of the toil and suffering of work; transforming toil into toil-AND-pleasure, adding an element of joy – sips of joy full of flavour, stimulating your senses as if setting off a series of fireworks in your mind – with every small sip I took, as I wrote my papers with frustration.

Toil transformed into toil-and-pleasure.

It is a hopeful drink. It serves as a reminder of those moments, and how I overcame those moments year after year till graduation, with this simple seasonal drink.

To drink it once again, today, on a cold rainy day in December. A timely reminder. A comforting thought. A heartening sip.

The Consummation and End of My Undergraduate Life (and What is to Come)

I’ve finally graduated!

After four exhausting years of toil, of literally blood (having gone to the hospital thrice and getting needles injected all over my body), sweat, and coffee, I’ve survived university and graduated!

Well, as some of you know, I’ve been pretty busy  finishing my Honours Thesis in my last and final semester.

My thesis was entitled, “Notions of Harmony in Classical Chinese Thought.” In it, I set out to investigate and reconstruct all the various notions of harmony that could be found in the Analects, Mozi, Daodejing, Mencius, Zhuangzi, and the Xunzi. The problem with much of the scholarship on harmony is that scholars have often assumed harmony to be more or less the same idea across thinkers throughout Chinese history. My project was to demonstrate that this is not so. (If you are interested in reading it, please leave me a comment, and I’ll e-mail it to you!)

The final week before the Thesis submission deadline was extremely stressful as I was up almost every night until 3-4am trying my best to edit and polish up the paper.

Friday, 26 April 2013 was the thesis submission deadline and thankfully, I managed to finish my thesis by then.

That day was, for me, a very momentous occasion – it was the big day where after one entire year of researching and writing, the time has finally come for the paper to be printed and submitted! Wow… You know, I never thought it would ever have been possible to write such a lengthy paper. My thesis was approximately 12000 words, and it consisted of 42 pages! That’s right! 42! The number, the answer to life, the universe, and everything!

Somehow, the entire day felt like a momentous victory! I met a friend at the library who was more than happy to help me photograph the momentous occasion while I printed my thesis:

Waiting anxiously for my thesis to be printed - all 41 pages of it!
Waiting anxiously for my thesis to be printed – all 41 pages of it!

 

Proudly displaying the printed thesis! Notice the disheveled hair from the many overnight editing/writing marathons.
Proudly displaying the printed thesis! Notice the disheveled hair from the many overnight editing/writing marathons.

 

The finished product: complete with binding!

The finished product: complete with binding!

 

It was somewhat unfortunate that I didn’t have the time to bind my paper into a hardcover book (which was the tradition for submitting theses). Oh well, I didn’t have the luxury of time to do it. But that’s ok. Hardcover isn’t a submission requirement.

With the Honours Thesis out of the way, I felt a huge burden lifted from my shoulders.

But I could not heave a sigh of relief yet as I still had exams to study and sit for. And so, after a day of rest, it was back to the books.

Unfortunately, the exams didn’t end on a very happy note. My last exam was an engineering module (for the life of me, I still don’t understand why on earth did I decide to do an engineering module). It wasn’t an introductory module either (I really have no idea why I put myself through such pains). Anyway, it was the last exam of my undergraduate life, but the paper was so difficult, I was faced with a very real possibility of failing the paper. I counted the marks of the questions where I think I would have gotten right, and I only had just enough to pass. If bell-curve moderation was not in my favour, there was the very very real possibility that I would have failed this paper, and worse of all, I would have to repeat a semester. Gosh… It was a very horrible feeling to have while walking out of the exam hall.

But no matter. A few days after that traumatic experience of the final exam, I was out of the country for a holiday to Penang (I’ll write more about it later). Then it was off to Kuala Lumpur to run some errands and enjoy a bit of holiday by the side. The Girlfriend’s grandmother came down to Singapore some time back and discovered the wonders of the Internet, specifically YouTube, and she wanted to have this amazing Internet in her home. So I volunteered to go down to KL and help buy and set up a computer and an Internet connection. And after Kuala Lumpur, I was off to Bangkok. These three places were amazing in their own way, and I think I’ve grown and learnt a lot while I was there. (But I’ll keep all those thoughts for another blog entry here).

Let me just fast forward by about 2 months to the last seven days leading up to my graduation ceremony.

Gosh… It was quite an exciting week! I was given the opportunity to present a section of my Honours Thesis at an international philosophy conference. It was the 2013 Joint Meeting of the Society of Asian Comparative Philosophy (SACP) and the Australasia Society of Asian Comparative Philosophy (ASACP).

Name tag for the conference. It's such an honour and privilege for an undergraduate/fresh graduate like me to be present wearing this name tag amidst a crowd of about a hundred professors and PhD students all over the world, and to present a paper just like them!
Name tag for the conference. It’s such an honour and privilege for an undergraduate/fresh graduate like me to be present wearing this name tag amidst a crowd of about a hundred professors and PhD students all over the world, and to present a paper just like them!

 

Not only was I busy helping out with some of the logistic matters, I was also rushing to edit and present my paper for the event. It had been two months since I last wrote papers. It felt good to be writing a paper once again. I had a cup of coffee by my side, soft piano music playing in the background, and I was all ready to write my paper all the way into the midst of the night. So for three consecutive nights, there I was sitting before my computer, typing away until 3am. It was tiring, but it felt so good to be engaging in this paper writing ritual. There’s something so comforting and wonderful about the experience.

Monday, 8 July 2013. At last, it was the day of the Conference. I had to present my paper on the first day, in the afternoon before many academics, some of whom were really really BIG names in the area of Chinese Philosophy. It was intimidating, but nonetheless, a huge honour!

The paper I presented was entitled, “Reconciling Culinary and Musical Models in Classical Chinese Thought.” There’s been some sort of academic debate where there is disagreement as to whether the culinary and musical models of harmony have merged into a single unified notion or remain as two separate models in classical Chinese thought. In my paper, I attempted to present a new way of looking at the relation of the two models and how they can be reconciled together into a single theory despite remaining as two separate yet distinct models.

Did you notice the Dao (道) on my laptop? It's a MacBook Air. I took a piece of card and cut out the Chinese character and pasted it over the Apple logo. It's perfect for a Chinese philosophy conference!
Did you notice the Dao (道) on my laptop? It’s a MacBook Air. I took a piece of card and cut out the Chinese character and pasted it over the Apple logo. It’s perfect for a Chinese philosophy conference!

 

The cup of coffee on the left was meant to keep me going throughout my paper presentation. I was running on only three hours of sleep.
The cup of coffee on the left was meant to keep me going throughout my paper presentation. I was running on only three hours of sleep.

 

It turns out that my paper presentation was a huge success! Everybody present enjoyed it and they found the contents very interesting!

The biggest WOW experienced I had was during another panel’s Q&A session. One professor (Prof. Alan K. L. Chan), who is quite a big name in Chinese philosophy replied my question saying that he actually had read my Honours Thesis during his flight to Singapore, and he found it (to quote him), “an enjoyable read” and that it “was very interesting.” Immediately after that, the people sitting on my left and right turned to me asking if I could send my thesis to them.

WOW! If writing an Honours Thesis is meant to make one feel honoured, I think it’s working! I felt so honoured at that moment. Wow…

Anyway, the conference was really amazing. I had the chance to meet so many amazing people. It was also pretty amazing to finally see the faces of people whose books and papers I’ve read and cited in my papers. To be standing amongst the greats in Chinese philosophy from around the world… Woah… All I can say is that it was very inspiring and really awesome to see a bunch of people who are just so passionate about what they’re doing. It was lovely.

The conference went on for three whole days! On the fourth day, Thursday, 11 July 2013, it was finally the day of my graduation ceremony!

Four years of hard work has finally led up to this epic moment:

Notice the Chinese calligraphy necktie?
Notice the Chinese calligraphy necktie?

 

Let me now present you with the fruit of my labour – the fruit that took four years of coffee, blood and sweat (no tears thankfully):

OMG!!! First Class Honours!!! I never thought that this day would have been possible!
OMG!!! First Class Honours!!! I never thought that this day would have been possible!

 

You know, it’s crazy… Ever since my first year in university, I never thought that it would be possible for me – a person who came from the science stream and who initially majored in Computer Engineering – to be able to get this.

But with lots of hard work and the encouragement and support from The Girlfriend, the wonderful professors in the NUS Philosophy Department, and all my other friends both online and offline, I was able to endure and persevere all the way till the end.

So what’s next? Well, if you asked me this question two months ago, I would have only been able to shrug my shoulders and sheepishly reply, “I don’t know.”

But since last month, I’ve slowly come to realise that my true calling is in academia, and especially in (Chinese) Philosophy. In the past months, I’ve been looking through job ads after job ads, and I was never really interested in what was on offer. The greatest tragedy perhaps, was the constant thought of never having to pursue philosophy once again. Every time I contemplated that thought, a part of me dies. It was painful.

It was only at a recent farewell party for a professor that I realised that I should do whatever I can to pursue philosophy. There and then, we were having a fantastic time discussing philosophical issues. My heart was on fire once again after quite a period of dreaded boredom. The pursuit of wisdom has left me thirsting yet for more.

The pursuit of philosophy is an arduous process. It is mentally and even physically exhausting staying up late just to research, think, and write. But it is a process that I value so greatly. These four years of my philosophical pursuits have transformed me in many wonderful ways. And I wish to continue to be transformed, and shaped by the pursuit of wisdom, just as how it has transformed and shaped the professors in the Philosophy Department here in NUS. I’ve interacted with many of them, and all I can say is that I feel like I’ve been interacting with wise exemplary sages.

I want to be as wise and awe-inspiring as they are, and continue to pass on this most splendid and awesome tradition.

But in the mean time, I’ll take a year’s break from study to work. I intend to focus on publishing at least one paper in an academic journal. That would help me get a better chance of securing full funding for a PhD scholarship. And by next year, I shall be off to some other country to pursue my studies in Chinese Philosophy.

It looks like I have a really exciting life waiting for me in the years to come. I look forward to that as I take life one step at a time.