General Paper 2019: A Post-Mortem

Our GP 2019 cohort came from diverse JCs. Each had areas that needed work, be they content development or vocabulary and linguistic intricacies; but work they did! It has been a rewarding year with the graduating class who have each worked hard and made improvements over the months leading up to the exams.  

Most thought both Papers 1 and 2 were manageable except for a couple of more challenging CSQ [comprehension Short Answer Questions].

Weighing in on Paper 1

Answer one question. Answers should be between 500 and 800 words in length.

  1. How far should countries have relations with others whose human rights record is poor?
  2. To what extent should income equality be a goal in your society?
  3. ‘Science is the only answer to global hunger’. Discuss.
  4. Consider the view that social media has more influence than politicians.
  5. To what extent is artificial intelligence replacing the role of humans?
  6. ‘A leader’s responsibility should always be to his or her own country, not other nations.’ Discuss.
  7. ‘Religion is an important part of the lives of young people today.’ Consider whether this is true in your society.
  8. Does violence in the visual media portray reality or encourage the unacceptable?
  9. Is globalisation to be welcomed or feared today?
  10. Should both parents take equal responsibility for raising their children? List Element
  11. Assess the importance of food within Singaporean culture.
  12. Can fiction teach us anything meaningful about the real world?

Paper 1 2019 was another fair paper offering a good range of topics and themes for candidates to choose from. The key to acing the GP essay is in the candidate’s evaluation and analysis of criteria and issues related to the question asked. 

Hence, those who merely listed factors, and/or went about essay topics in a ‘pros and cons’ manner, would have presented limited arguments. These scripts would not score well in their content; neither would scripts that presented example-driven arguments.

The more popular questions, according to an online poll which candidates took were (in order): 5, 9, 4, 12, 11. 

This year, I thought to review the questions based on the topics that are more popular with candidates.


                                       Weighing in on Paper 2, the Application Question

The two passages offer contrasting views on the topic of zoos. According to feedback from several of our students and other sources, the AQ asks:

Waldorf argues that zoos should be closed down, while Morgan argues the necessity of zoos. How far can you agree with the observations made by these two authors for you and your society? [10]

At the coarsest granularity, the authors’ theses read as follows:

Walford: In principle, zoos deprive animals of their natural habitats and instincts for human pleasure. In practice, animals in zoos suffer from poor living conditions. Hence, zoos are unethical and should not be allowed to exist any longer.

Morgan: In principle, zoos begin from a human concern for animal welfare and serve scientific purposes. In practice, animals in zoos are safe and populations can recover. Hence, zoos are important and have an important ecological role.

What is interesting about this pair of passages is that the authors engage each other head-on. It is not a situation where, for example, A writes from a philosophical standpoint why something is justified or unjustifiable, and B writes from a practical standpoint why, in reality, that something is not all good or not all bad. In those cases, it is easy to evaluate each author on their own merits, and it is easy to achieve a balanced AQ by assembling a coherent picture out of the pieces picked up from both passages.

Here, however, we have to be decisive about things: 


    In principle, do we think zoos are really about human enjoyment, or human education? We can’t have it both ways. We can’t argue that zoos are fundamentally premised upon both entertaining and educating humans at once.


    In practice, do we think zoos actually mistreat animals, or are the animals better off than they would otherwise be? We can’t have it both ways. We can’t argue that zoos turn out to both do more harm than good and more good than harm.


    And, ultimately, do we think zoos are intolerable or indispensable? Or… do our answers to the first two questions leave us somewhere in between?  

The following is a possible approach to handling the AQ:

Walford posits that zoos, and their practice of “capturing, incarcerating, and displaying animals” (paragraph 1) for “the amusement of our species” (paragraph 4), are by their very nature exploitative and for that reason wrong. It is true that zoos are only profitable insofar as they are attractive to paying customers, and thus prioritise the enjoyment of the human spectator over the well-being of the animal spectacle. Intelligent animals like dolphins and chimpanzees find themselves forced to do an endless series of tacky tricks or lose their meal of the day, while deeply emotive animals like elephants and horses are prodded and stabbed into submission so that they would docilely carry zoogoers on their backs for the rest of their life. As Jenny Gray, CEO of Zoos Victoria (Australia), writes in her book The Challenges of Compassionate Conservation, “Unfortunately the bulk of zoos in existence today still fall short of meeting the requirements of ethical operations. At best, 3% of zoos are striving to meet ethical standards, with perhaps only a handful meeting all the requirements.” The reality is, in running a profit-driven enterprise, animal welfare is neither the starting point nor an overriding concern at any point in the process. Consider the Singapore Zoo. In 2018, it announced that its elephants would no longer perform stunts like balancing on logs; instead, the public would watch as they play with so-called “enrichment toys”, which require them to solve puzzles, navigate courses, and engage in fulfilling and naturalistic tasks. From one perspective, this is an improvement – one that recognises and provides for the complex emotional needs of a complex emotional organism. From another, it is but a tokenistic adjustment – the underlying fact remains that the elephants are being exploited by humans, for humans, providing a modicum of voyeuristic amusement at the expense of the elephants’ liberties. As far as Walford is concerned, they are still reduced to “exhibits” (paragraph 4), and I agree that as long as the underlying power asymmetry stays intact, it is hard to exonerate what zoos are doing to the lives under their charge for the sake of selfish gain. Zoo animals turn out to be no different from the exotica collected by emperors or the beasts forced to duke to the death in the Colosseum. Thus, Walford is correct to characterise zoos as answering mainly to humankind’s demand for entertainment, as well as to criticise them for their consequent exploitation of animals.


Next, it is instructive to consider Morgan’s insistence that the nature of zoos lies instead in humanity’s “increasing interest in the natural world” (paragraph 1). Although he has severely underestimated how far the “ideal of pure science” has had to “compromise with financial realities” (paragraph 1) in accepting paying spectators, it remains the case that zoological parks and societies were conceived in an earnest attempt at engaging with our fellow members of the animal kingdom, and their existence demonstrates the plausibility of such an agenda. In fact, the two roles that Morgan believes zoos still fulfil – protecting the Earth’s biodiversity through their “worldwide collaborative nature” and “captive breeding programmes” (paragraph 4), and providing the public with a “wealth of information” (paragraph 5)– still live on in some form. There remain institutions that are committed to learning about animals and, by extension, how to co-exist sustainably with animals. For example, the Phoenix Zoo was created as a non-profit charity organisation that provides experiences that motivate people to care for the natural world. To that end, it offers guided tours on a daily basis that cover a range of conservation-related topics and even physically teach participants how caretakers tend to the animals behind the scenes. Even if the visitors are not, in Morgan’s words, “galvanised to take action” (paragraph 5) to the extent of becoming zoologists and zookeepers themselves, they learn to appreciate animals as well as acknowledge their complex needs. This has an unquantifiable but undeniable effect on how responsibly visitors go on to live their lives. The Phoenix Zoo was also responsible for a breeding-and-reintroduction programme that birthed more than 200 calves from just 9 Arabian Oryx, a species which then had no surviving members in the wild. The same two goals are represented in Singapore as well. Wildlife Reserves Singapore, which manages the local Zoo, Bird Park, Night Safari, and River Safari, was successfully accredited by both the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria and the Zoo and Aquarium Association of Australasia in 2018 for not only its world-class standards in animal care but also its broader commitment to conservation and education. Our Zoo provides guided tours for pre-schoolers and adults alike, and has also been involved in conservation projects to save threatened species like the Southeast Asian primates, songbirds, hornbills, and freshwater turtles. Thus, it is not inherently and irreparably the case that zoos are premised on providing pleasure to humans at the animals’ expense – they may still serve the ideals of conservation and education.