Youth versus Experience

Commonwealth Essay Competition senior category 2015 (Gold)


“Today’s the eighty-fourth day with an empty net,” the old man Santiago sighed. “Perhaps the luck of my boat has worn off.”

Under the setting sun, Santiago and Manolin shared a wordless moment. To the casual observer, it was a scene of perfect tranquility - an old man and his apprentice winding down on the beach after a day of hard work, their boat gently bobbing beside a weathered dock, an empty fishing net crumpled and cast carelessly on the sand. The romanticism of the moment, however, was lost on Santiago and Manolin.

“Santiago,” Manolin finally said. “Why don’t I take your boat and go out to sea tomorrow? Maybe I’ll bring fresh luck.” Rubbing his sore knees, Santiago considered the boy’s offer. He had his reservations, but nodded nonetheless. “Remember what I’ve taught you,” he said.

Manolin set out early the next morning, vowing to break his respected mentor’s unlucky streak and return with a large catch of fish to provide for his family. He sailed far out to sea, right where he knew the old man wanted him to be. Along the way, he diligently followed the instructions of the old man, hearing his gentle, deep voice in his head. Manolin danced about, aligning the sails, rowing the oars, and setting the bait like clockwork, as the waves beat rhythmically against the hull of the boat.

The youthful boy did not have much experience with la mar, but he had treasured whatever few
journeys he’d been on, making the most of every opportunity to learn about sailing a boat and the
behaviour of the hundreds of varieties of fishes at sea. Recently, he had begun taking on more responsibilities on deck, exploring new ways of overcoming the myriad of problems faced whilst fishing. Santiago would often smile and shake his head at the eagerness of his apprentice to experiment. “Old ways are the best,” Santiago would remark.

Under the watchful eyes of Manolin, the green projecting lines by the side of the boat dipped, in a tell-tale sign of a fish on the hook. “Ay dios mío! Santiago would never believe this!” Manolin thought aloud, as he scrambled to his feet abruptly and lunged for the fishing line. His heart thumped hard — in his inexperience, he began to worry that he would not be able to secure the fish.

But this was no time to be worried. Lifting the line off the stick and yanking it, Manolin discovered with excitement and trepidation that the marlin was much heavier than he had expected. The marlin must have felt it, because it veered off south-west, further out towards sea. Leaning back against the pulling force of the fish, Manolin almost lost his balance as the the fish surged forward with defiant strength. Adrenaline pumping through his veins, Manolin began considering his options. Obviously, yanking the marlin into the boat would be out of the question, given its extraordinary weight and size. Let the fish tug the boat along until it tired out? Perhaps, but who knew how long that would take, and if he would have even the strength to outlast the fish? Besides, by then he would be stranded far out at sea. Manolin chewed his lower lip nervously and tightened his grip on the fishing rod. No, he decided, there was no choice but to kill the marlin as soon as possible.

Wracking his brains for a solution, a memory surfaced. Years ago, his parents had told him the tale of a boy who protected his village from swordfish attacks by planting banana trunks by the coast. As the tide came in and brought the swordfish to the shore, the swordfish’s bills would be firmly
wedged in the trunks, allowing the villagers to kill the swordfishes easily. Scrambling for the
carving knife, Manolin cut a wooden cargo box into a long plank of wood, and attached two sardines to the plank via his fishing lines. Lowering the plank into the water, Manolin hurriedly lashed thick ropes to secure the plank onto the boat’s hull. Sure enough, it was not long before the tug on the marlin loosened, and the huge marlin rose close to the surface at breakneck speed, attracted by the sardine bait. Manolin grabbed his harpoon hard enough that his knuckles turned bone-white. A flash of a long spear-like snout; soaring waves that rocked the boat soundly; a worryingly loud thud against the boat — and the marlin was trapped. Manolin desperately grabbed the edges of Santiago’s boat as the humongous marlin thrashed about, its dorsal fins thwacking hard against the bottom of his boat.

The rocking subsidised momentarily, and Manolin saw a quick flash in the water as the marlin’s head peeked out beside the boat - it must have broken the wooden plank and gotten free! Manolin gulped as he let go of the boat and slammed his harpoon down in the water with all the strength of his two arms. His heart beat painfully fast and he panted with the exertion as he saw his harpoon lodged between the blazing, bright eyes of the marlin.

Almost immediately, the marlin’s tail shot up, splashing salty, bitter seawater onto him. Manolin gritted his teeth and refused to give in, continuing to drive in the harpoon with all his might. It took ten long seconds of struggling before the fish’s thrashing began to subside, and the choppy waters began to calm. Manolin let loose a sigh of relief he was not aware he had been holding. He had done it!

Under the cruel midday sun, Manolin lashed the marlin, through its gills and out of its mouth,
preparing to head back to port. His hand instinctively reached to pull out the harpoon stuck in the
marlin, but quickly stopped himself when he saw blood oozing out of the marlin’s wound, forming
a cloud of bright red in the otherwise clear blue waters. He jolted up and scanned the horizon for fins that would indicate incoming sharks — he had heard stories of the incredible noses sharks possessed, and of how they would mercilessly chase after fishing boats, attracted by the smell of a wounded fish. Arms still aching from the struggle with the marlin just minutes ago, and with no weapons by his side, Manolin was not sure he would be able to fend off an army of the ocean’s most feared predator.

Knowing that removing the harpoon would cause more bleeding and attract the sharks, Manolin left it wedged in the marlin. Yet, he knew that if nothing was done, it would only be a matter of time before the sharks would catch up to him. With this thought in mind, Manolin set out on a new project to give himself time to escape the jaws of imminent danger. If he were able to leave another blood scent, then hopefully, the sharks would leave him and his fish alone. Energised by the hope of escape, he rapidly began scooping the bloody water around the marlin into an empty barrel, and attached the remaining pieces of his bait around the barrel. Then, throwing an inflated life vest over the barrel, he tossed it overboard, and begun rowing away. An hour later, fins appeared around the bright yellow life vest, but by then, he was already far away, and well out of the reach of the sharks.

Satisfied, Manolin headed back towards the port with renewed strength. Occasionally, he would rub his eyes, and look over his shoulder at the marlin, half-expecting it to disappear in his disbelief. It was well over two hours before he arrived, his arms sore, his eyelids heavy. Fishermen, seeing the huge marlin at his side, gathered, pointed and shouted at the docks. Manolin squinted, and spotted Santiago in the crowd. He leapt up and waved with youthful vigour. 

To what extent is science the solution to environmental problems?

 The pursuit of scientific knowledge has benefited mankind in many ways. Science and its applications have helped us combat the multitude of problems facing our world, and many believe that science is the solution to any future challenges we may face. Our longer lifespans, ever-expanding knowledge of diseases and how to treat them, and a growing convenience in our lives all lends credence to such a belief. Thus, it should only stand to reason that environmental problems – which are illnesses plaguing nature – are simply impermanent challenges facing man, which would soon submit to the successes of the scientific world. Yet, such reason fails upon closer examination of the issue at hand; we should not be as optimistic as scientists and technocrats would like us to be. Instead, it is perversely more likely that environmental problems are here to stay. Science cannot be depended upon as the solution to these problems – at best, science and technology can only offer short-term methods to alleviate their symptoms.
Science has removed many of mankind’s stumbling blocks in the past, and it may seem likely that science will pull off such miracles again vis-à-vis the environment. After all, environmental problems do not seem to be radically different in nature from previous problems. Furthermore, the fact that scientific discoveries rely on empirical evidence and reliable results also lends credence to the belief that science and its application, technology, is a dependable source of solutions to the difficulties we encounter. Vaccines, derived from medical science, have conquered smallpox and the German measles; the Green Revolution, stemming from soil science, allowed Mankind to escape the Malthusian theories of global famine. There seems to be no reason, then, not to believe that in time, science will offer us solutions to the problems of global warming, pollution, and a loss of biodiversity. Already, scientists have been able to make some progress on recovering the genetic makeup of certain extinct species, opening up possibilities of bringing them back from the abyss of extinction.
In addition, science appears to be the most viable solution Man currently has to combat the overwhelming burdens of environmental degradation. Science has saved us where all else has failed, precisely because understanding the laws of nature and manipulating them allows us to replicate previous successes. The atomic bomb, created out of theories of nuclear fission, brought Japan to its knees and World War II to a close. This saved thousands of lives from a prolonged war, where all diplomatic attempts had failed. This situation is not unlike that of environmental degradation. In a time when we are warring against the forces of nature, and all attempts to reach peaceful understandings at Copenhagen and Rio de Janeiro have failed, the world waits with bated breath for scientists to make a breathtaking entry and save the world.
As much as we wish that the above arguments hold true, the reality is that science is merely an option to alleviate particular symptoms of environmental problems, and cannot be treated as a panacea. The precedents of disease and famine were localised, having singular or few root causes. In comparison, the magnitude and intensity with which environmental problems plague us are incomparably large. Global warming, as its name suggests, involves a global phenomenon by which entire regions experience rising temperatures, accompanied by rising sea levels. Pollution, as seen in the Pacific Garbage Patch, is the result of excessive consumption and insufficient responsibility taken for waste disposal. As such, the root of environmental problems can be distilled into excessive human consumption, with a disregard for the consequences. This differentiates such environmental issues from the Malthusian famines, which are naturally occuring phenomenon. However, human beings’ unique thirst for consumer goods, and the attendant ability to supply these goods, leads us to conclude that science will be ineffectual in addressing the root cause of the problem. At best, even if scientific discoveries could aid the creation of a piece of technology capable of nullifying the effects of human overconsumption on the environment, it would not convince people to understand the error in their ways. In fact, it is likely to spur further consumption and leave people dependent on the existing technology to prevent the devastation of nature. Hence, science is unable to address the root cause of environmental degradation, and cannot be considered to be its solution.
Even when considering the possible merits of science in alleviating the symptoms of environmental problems, it is worthwhile to note that protecting the environment is a time-sensitive issue that requires quick, if not immediate, responses. While the technology developed off scientific theories may be dependable and reliable, another drawback is that much time is needed for the technology to be designed, built and then tested for possible side-effects. At the same time, we are in a race to preserve the environment as it is. We have lost 17% of the Amazon Forest, the world’s last pharmacopoeia, in the last fifty years, and this number will grow to a shocking 65% by 2030. Hundreds of trees are felled in forests all around the world as minutes tick, representing the loss of habitats for wild species. Subsequently, entire ecosystems will be thrown off balance, as the world waits for a way to scientific breakthrough. Meanwhile, the continuation of manufacturing plants spewing toxic chemicals into the air, slash and burn techniques employed on the forests of Indonesia, and practices encouraging overfishing continue apace with scientific efforts to pull together a response. In this situation, it is difficult to forsee science as the answer to a problem as pressing as those of the environment.
As a corollary, it is important to acknowledge that the possibility of science making a globally applicable breakthrough is predicated on a best case scenario in which people worldwide will be amenable to introducing the new, critical technologies into their lives. More often than not, other possible conflicting interests, be they political or economic in nature, may hinder our decision-making. For instance, Germany recently announced new energy plans, with the end goal of powering 60% of the country’s needs with renewable energy. The burden of such high energy prices fell on the companies in heavy industry, leading to companies pulling out of Germany to set up shop elsewhere in search for other countries with comparatively lax energy pricing which allow for lower costs of operations. RAND Corporation also released a report, saying that the cost of China replacing half its coal-fired generations would be US$184 billion. Most countries, if not all, would shy away from taking up such heavy responsibilities. Therefore, even when the benefit of the doubt has been given, there is no confirmation that the answers which science provides will be ones which politicians and the common man would like to hear. Hypothetically speaking, even if scientific discoveries had the potential to radically affect the quandary described the environment, there is no guarantee that they will be used in a world which prioritises economic growth and political strength over all else.

Unfortunately, it seems that science has run into a wall which it cannot break through. The sheer commitment required to develop a scientific response to environmental degradation, and then implement it worldwide, seems daunting. It seems that the best mankind can do is to hope that scientific discovery can help stall for time by alleviating the symptoms of environmental problems, while the world’s leaders wrangle out an agreement which could potentially deal with the issue at hand.

Is Gender Equality Ever Possible?

Today, the majority of countries acknowledge that ensuring gender equality is not just an axiomatically humanistic objective, but is also a purpose that spells profits and economic growth for them. Hence, modern societies identify gender equality as a desirable objective to strive towards. The assumption that gender equality is currently lacking can be affirmed by general observations of the world – female genital mutilation still occurs, and the persistent abuse of women in many countries shows that women are not being given due respect as a form of gender equity. However, recent trends and precedents show that imbalances between the genders are being corrected. Hence, gender equality is plausible and will likely occur, even if it takes an extended time.
The most intuitive reason behind the inequality of the genders is the biological difference between men and women – the inherently greater physical strength men possess has meant that many women have historically been treated as the weaker gender, both literally and figuratively. Hence, they are viewed as the gender with less significance and importance. The biological differences between the genders cannot be resolved, so it is claimed that gender equality can never be achieved. However, the issue of equality between the genders is analogous to the issue of equality between the races – instead of striving to homogenise the human population, we should instead strive for equity in the treatment of differing social groups. Therefore, the objective should be to grant each gender equal agency, and ensure all have equal means to obtain what they deserve as human beings. For all intents and purposes, the muscular advantage men also have means less and less in today’s society. Advancements in technology have largely leveled the capabilities of men and women today, vis-à-vis the military conquests and agricultural economies which men had the clear advantage in. Hence, what both genders today can achieve is largely independent of the physical strength advantage men possess. On this front, gender equality has indeed been achieved.

In ancient civilisations such as the Chinese, Japanese and even the United States, females were seen as the inferior sex. Their cultural roles as homemakers and the primary individual in the household caring for the children have long been entrenched, up until today. Cultural norms dictate that they should be subservient to men, and not enjoy the same rights and liberties as men do – in Saudi Arabia, there is overwhelming social pressure against female drivers, and all females must be accompanied by a male adult whenever they step out of their doors. Hence, it may seem as if this cultural rift between the two genders prevents women from ever being equal to men. However, there has been progress made over the years, demonstrating a trend which heads towards eventual equality between the genders. In the 1960s, women in the USA spent about ten hours on childcare, forty hours on housework and ten hours on paid work weekly, while men spent forty hours on paid work and ten hours on housework and childcare combined. Now, women’s paid hours have tripled, and the time they spend on household chores has halved – comparatively, men’s hours spent on childcare tripled and their involvement in household chores has doubled. This balancing act has been incrementally advanced due to improvements in household technology, such as the advent of the washing machine, dishwasher and the microwave, which liberated women from spending countless hours on household chores. At the same time, these technologies made housework more palatable for men, reducing gender disparity in household involvement. Increasingly, fathers see their significant, unique role in the upbringing of their children, and societies acknowledge this. This can be seen in the growing trend of granting men paternal leave – Norway grants all men non-transferable twelve weeks of paternity leave. These are optimistic trends, as they point towards growing equality with regards to the cultural expectations of each sex.

Skeptics also argue that women often face an unfavourable pay gap as compared to their male counterparts, and are often forced to sacrifice the work-life balance when they have children. Such an occurrence is worrying, because financial independence represents power and capability in our materialistic world. Hence, the numbers suggest an unstable power asymmetry between the genders in our society. Despite this claim, there are reasonable explanations for the imbalance – the discrepancy is due to a lower proportion of women working, leading to lower average income. If the metric was instead a skill-for-skill, hour-for-hour measurement of income, on average women now earn 98 cents for each dollar a man earns. This is huge leap from the past, when working women were frowned upon. Hence, the problem nowadays is no longer a lack of recognition of the female workforce’s contributions, but rather a disproportionate number of women choosing to sacrifice the work-life balance upon having children. In this regard, there is good reason to believe that the situation will improve. Women today enjoy greater liberty over their career and life decisions, by initiating the breaking up of traditional work-hours – from nine to six. Until recently, this rigid schedule employed women had to abide by discriminated against women who played a significant role in raising their children – they were forced to choose between their jobs and the need to bring up their children, and many chose the latter. Since the 1990s, women have been campaigning for more flexible working schedules that revolve around their responsibilities at home, with increasing frequency. Hilary Clinton, the USA’s ex-Secretary of State was insistent on working at home, after she had dinner with her family, and Sheryl Sandberg, current Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, goes home for dinner daily at 5.30pm. These successful individuals have begun to break down traditional workdays’ rigidity, so that working adults, male and female alike, no longer have to treat family commitments and working commitments as mutually exclusive options. As a result, both genders have increased capabilities to pursue an even work-life balance, so women no longer have to bear the brunt of childcare, a burden which has typically caused them to sacrifice their financial independence. This in turn would lead to more capable individuals, especially women, who can choose to further their careers and contend with men for the top managerial and executive positions at the workplace. With these highly feasible changes at the workplace, some of which have already been set into motion, it is not difficult to envision a future when gender equality is indeed an achievable aim.

Ultimately, the world has been moving towards the point where the arbitrary occurrence of gender is no longer an obstacle to what any individual can achieve, and will likely continue down this route. The impatient, hastily drawn conclusion that attempts to manage gender equality have not borne any fruit is parochial, as it fails to acknowledge the considerable progress societies have made so far. Admittedly, more needs to be done to bolster the fight against gender inequality, but there is reason to be optimistic that this goal will be achieved eventually. In essence, gender equality is indeed possible.

Higher education is no longer necessary for success. Do you agree?

In the past, those who obtained higher education were often associated with a high standard of living and prestigious social status. The chance to attend university was viewed as a necessary milestone in life if one wanted to achieve success financially — graduates proudly displayed their degrees on job applications and interviews. However, attitudes towards higher education today have turned, in light of growing discontentment with graduates being unable to find well-paying jobs despite their good qualifications. Furthermore, many point towards powerful, successful individuals like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Li Ka Shing, who seem to have made it in life without higher education, or even walked away from it. In spite of such claims, for a majority of people, higher education undoubtedly remains key to achieving success. Not only are degrees badges of acquired skill, they are sometimes even status symbols. In addition, the experience of going through higher education often proves to be greatly important if one seeks a successful career.

It is easy to see why there has been increasing optimism of attaining success through means other than higher education. First, the rapid growth of online courses such as Coursera and Phoenix University have led to the argument that the advent of the Internet has made it such that individuals no longer need higher education to obtain the skills they require for their jobs. Second, people often lament that despite obtaining degrees, they are unable to find work, and cannot pay off college debts they have accumulated. Third, mass media platforms have recently painted pictures of how individuals like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg reached the very peak of what it means to be “successful”, without ever needing the support of higher education. This leads to the claim that higher education has lost its ability to deliver some measures of success. These three arguments present the case that higher education is no longer necessary for success. 

However, it is overly assertive to claim that the skills that people learn from university education are irrelevant, even with the aid of the Internet. Instead, it is more reasonable to believe that higher education provides greater opportunities for learning. Though it may be possible to obtain the same access to information, it is only at universities that individuals of similar interests are able to gather in a classroom, exchange thoughts and ideas with each other, and learn under the tutelage of professors at the forefronts of their fields. Comparatively, those who do not attend higher education do not have that same opportunity to ask peers or professors for help when they run into problems understanding the content taught. Especially for specialised fields like biotechnology and law, the skills and knowledge necessary for the future remain largely accessible only to those who have undergone higher education. From this, it is clear that university graduates have greater propensity to gain skills and knowledge than non-graduates.

In addition, the university degree itself is a badge of acquired skill, reassuring employers that these employees have learnt the content, and are able to handle the work assigned to them. This means that graduates are more likely to be hired than non-graduates, which often translates into higher salaries. From April to June 2013, graduates were more likely to be employed than non-graduates in the UK, and non-graduates aged 21 to 30 have consistently higher unemployment rates than their peers who are more qualified. This directly responds to the claim that graduates remain likely to face unemployment woes despite their good academic qualifications. Furthermore, the trust that employers have in graduates’ ability to perform better often translates into greater financial remuneration. Today, bachelor’s degree holders can expect median lifetime earnings of about US$2.3 million, as compared to US$1.3 million for workers with just a high school diploma. Ultimately, higher education does in fact bring about greater financial success for graduates. 

It is also fallacious to argue that higher education has stopped being a necessary part to being successful just because there have been exceptions to it. Not only were Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates intellectual geniuses and visionaries who had foreseen and grasped business opportunities, they were born into circumstances which ultimately facilitated their success. Courses offered at universities could not offer advice to these entrepreneurs embarking as pioneers of a new field. On the other hand, an overwhelming proportion of individuals do not enjoy the same kind of privilege, be it financial or intellectual. Hence, for most, the likely route to success is higher education, which sets them apart from other job applicants. 
In fact, for most occupations excluding degree-blind jobs such as entrepreneurship and advertising, higher education plays an integral role in assimilating graduates into their future workplaces. Upon entering the workplace, university graduates depend upon the ties they had developed to help them along, and this often stems from their higher education experience. For example, specialists often depend on the referrals of other doctors to obtain a base of patients. In such a situation, getting to know others who are in the field is incredibly important for one’s career advancement prospects. Thus, higher education is not just about the content and skills involved, but also the relationships graduates develop with each other. The social advantage that higher education offers hence allows graduates to get a leg up over non-graduates.

In essence, higher education remains necessary for success.. This is not to say that all graduates are necessarily more successful than all non-graduates, because of the multitude of factors involved. However, university graduates do indeed benefit greatly from higher education, a crucial factor contributing to being successful. Not only does the content of such courses remain highly relevant to the industry, the degree that graduates gain and the experiences they obtained gives an indisputable advantage over non-graduates. In fact, governments’ continued spending on higher education — America spends 2.7% of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on higher education — only serves as a testament to its importance. 

Is the modern world too reliant on technology?

The extensive and rapid growth of the world has been largely attributed to the technology developed by engineers, scientists and architects. In the past, the Industrial Revolution in the UK had helped to develop it into a sprawling city with the newest technology, improving the quality of living of its citizens in the long run. Today, with the rise of globalisation, the frequency of technology booms has increased greatly. However, recent failures involving technology has raised the question of the modern world being too reliant on technology. Indeed, it seems as if the world has become overly dependent on technology, such that people become unable to complete certain tasks in the case of mechanical failure, or become overly addicted to the use of computers, phones and tablets. Further, there is the question of important tasks and ethical decisions being delegated to technological devices as substitutes. 

Some argue that there is no problem with tasks being done by machines and computer programs, because it relieves us of some degree of effort and helps to complete such tasks more efficaciously. This allows for people to use more time and effort on other tasks, or even to take a rest, improving their quality of living. However, such an analysis would hold only in an ideal world without mechanical failures and mistakes. Often, technology being marketed and used does serve its purposes, but when it malfunctions or fails due to a variety of reasons, it can often lead to catastrophic consequences. The problem underlying this is that people today have begun to assume that technology has help them to do their jobs, leading to a decreased focus on honing skills to do those jobs themselves. A key example is that of the aviation industry. As a result of complex algorithms and computer programming, most planes have in-built autopilot sequences that help to relieve a pilot from flying the plane by himself, save taking off and landing. However, this has led to an overwhelming assumption that this has meant pilots have reduced duties, so pilots practice less, are less alert on the flight, and reports have shown that this causes their skills to atrophy. This was exemplified in the high-profile Air France crash in 2009, in which the Airbus A330’s autopilot malfunctioned upon hitting a storm at a high altitude. The pilot, who had not been paying attention, failed to regain control of the plane, leading to the death of all 228 people on board. On board a flight, it is the key responsibility of the pilot to ensure the safety of his or her passengers. In this case, the pilot had delegated his job to the autopilot function, which could potential harm or kill others in a malfunction. In the same way, a misplaced dependency on technology could possibly constitute a harm to others — it is clear that people have indeed become overly reliant on technology.

Some go on to contest that technology could reduce errors in human judgement, helping to increase the accuracy of decision-making. This would purportedly result in fewer mistakes made, increasing efficiency and productivity. On the other hand, proponents of such a view fail to take into account that there are simply some tasks which must be made by humans alone, and should not be delegated to artificial intelligences. Such tasks often involve moral decisions to be made, in which the judgement of a human who possesses emotions and morality on top of just rationality is highly valued. For instance, the use of drones directed by artificial intelligence has raised huge questions of whether such computer programs which are cold and unfeeling should be allowed to make major decisions such as whether to take the life of another human. Often, situations that occur in reality are complex, with many competing interests and considerations. Computer programs and technology fail at taking into account these complexities, making decisions that may not seem moral to the average reasonable person. For example, in a terrorist hostage situation, a computer program might implement a utilitarian calculus, deciding that it is more rational to obliterate the site using missiles and bombs, at the cost of the innocent hostages. However, a general in the army may disagree, because he recognises the significance of saving those innocents, even though it might mean having to negotiate or make concessions. In such an instance, it is difficult, or even unjustified to allow technology to replace such decision-making. The current use of such means as ways to make decisions shows the world’s excessive reliance on technology. 

Beyond this, an obsession with the capabilities of technology can lead to detriments, because people begin to lose sight of the original intention of the technology. This goes counter to the ability of technology to relieve people of certain tasks and make them more efficient. Many individuals are constantly glued to their mobile phones and computers, spending countless hours whiling their time on surfing the internet, chatting to friends or playing games. For example, in the UK, consumers of digital media spend an average of nine hours a day on their digital products. This takes away time from their work, school life and other interests they may have. As a result, they become less efficient in making good use of their time, instead becoming unproductive. Such excessive use of technology turns out to be counterproductive to its original goal of encouraging efficiency. Hence, when this occurs, people can be said to be too reliant on technology. 

In essence, the world has become too reliant on technology, evidenced by individuals’ reduced ability to perform tasks on their own under the aid of technology — when the technology fails, they become incompetent at solving the problems on their own. This is especially problematic, because it is difficult to tell when the technological device is likely to malfunction. Further, the reliance of technology has spread to areas of decision-making that should be limited to humans, reflecting a dangerous trust in technology to help us make important social decisions. These reflect the fact that technology has the potential to cause harm, especially when people become careless and too unassuming. However, this is not to say that we should stop using new technologies, because they do present a host of benefits, but that we should not completely relinquish the need for humans to be proficient at performing certain tasks on their own, even when technology could possibly be a complete substitute for their function. 

How far is it important for people to be aware of current events in countries other than their own?

The interaction between countries, in this day and age, is never static and unchanging — countries are constantly scurrying to build diplomatic, economic and military relations with one another. This is because governments recognise that events within one nation can inadvertently lead to other events elsewhere, so they have an interest in influencing events in other nations to their own benefit. Similarly, individuals can be influenced by events in other nations, and being aware of such events can be helpful. At the same time, it should be noted that not every event affects the individual, which would mean that knowledge about them is relatively unimportant. With this in mind, it is important for people to be aware of current events in countries other than their own, insofar as these events interests them, be it because it affects them, because they are able to influence and change such trends, or because information about that event brings them intellectual stimulation.

Some claim that events occurring outside the country in which one resides are not important to the individual, because he is not directly involved in the event. If the person was not directly involved, they claim, then there is no benefit in him knowing about the event because such knowledge does not impact him in any way. However, such a view is parochial and does not consider the fact that events in other countries can affect people directly. Recent cases of fruit contamination in the United States and melamine contamination of milk in China have caused an uproar, precisely because these products are exported to other nations for consumption. The question implicitly assumes that people living in a country should be aware of events occurring within the country they reside in. This is often the mindset that is adopted, because events within the country are more likely to affect us, in that such events hint to us potential gains and losses we may experience. For example, it is regarded as important for people to know about governmental policy in their own country, because such policies are directly tailored towards them and would necessarily affect them. However, as Thomas Friedman, American author, put it, the world has become “a global village”. It follows that it is indeed important for individuals to know of events outside just their geographical surroundings, because the increasingly interconnected world means that events in a single country can in fact affect those living elsewhere. Information about a lack of control over oil production by OPEC would warn Singaporeans of impending price hikes at petrol stations, simply because Singaporeans do not live in a bubble, disconnected from the rest of the world. In essence, many current events outside of the geographical boundaries of an individual can have an impact on his or her behaviour — it is thus important to hold a wealth of knowledge of such events.

Others may then argue that even if some events may affect one’s life, these are far and few between — the majority of events occurring abroad are completely unrelated to one’s life. Such claims disregard the fact that information can affect individuals’ actions, which in turn affect current events or set off new ones. People make decisions based on the knowledge they have, not just from the experiences they themselves have garnered, but also from the information they have about events they may not have experienced themselves. Thus, the knowledge of events elsewhere changes the way people respond to their everyday lives. This was exemplified in the aftermath of the collapse of Rana Plaza in Dhaka. As a result of this, the problem of poorly constructed garment factories and poor working conditions for workers came to light. As a result, many individuals boycotted brands which used employed such garment factories, leading to large-scale improvements in the enforcement of rules and regulations. With such cases, individuals need to know of the event before they can pledge support for a certain cause. This can be further extended to completely live-changing decisions being made. For example, during the Arab Spring, Tunisia’s citizens rose up in protests against their governments. Information about this event eventually reached the people in neighbouring countries such as Egypt and Libya, who were experiencing similar oppression from their dictatorial governments. As a result, the information about the initial uprising in Tunisia gave people in Egypt and Libya the inspiration to do the same, rising up to challenge their governments for greater liberties. In this instance, information is important to these individuals because it gave them hope, motivating them to make life-changing decisions they previously did not have the courage to undertake. The amalgamation of many people making similar decisions change current events or trends completely. Clearly, keeping up to date on information in another country can affect one’s life markedly, making such information important.

In addition to this, some individuals feel a sense of intellectual stimulation from certain new events, which may or may not be within the country these people live in. For instance, many individuals in Singapore caught onto the killing of Michael Brown in Singapore, not because police brutality or trigger-happy policemen are problems in the country, but because these events trigger a sense of moral outrage in many. For such individuals, who constantly seek to question social structures and better understand the environment around us, knowledge of current events is never divided according to geographical distances, but according to specific issues and areas of interest. Such knowledge scratches an intellectual itch, by informing them of the developments in societies across the globe. Further, such information helps them better understand the world better, and to reconsider the positions they have on issues like economic policy and international relations. These non cost-benefit analyses are ends in themselves for some individuals. Therefore, insofar as certain events and issues in other nations help to stimulate individuals to rethink their stance on the world, it is important for people to be aware of these events.

Ironically, it is difficult to discern and differentiate events which are relevant from events which are not without first being aware of both. This is because there are events which may only lead to direct consequences to an individual later on, and so people can only decide that knowledge of a particular event was important to them in retrospect. For instance, knowledge of the disease Ebola is largely irrelevant to most individuals living in Singapore now, as the disease has not spread to the country. However, given that there may be possibilities of this happening in the future, one cannot objectively decide that knowledge of how the disease spreads and how to cure it is completely irrelevant and unimportant to Singaporeans. 

In essence, current events in other nations are important to know about only if they affect the person or interests him as a sentient and intellectual being. However, one must be careful not to claim that any particular news event as being important for everyone to know about, because relevance is subjective — every individual is different and are affected to different degrees by the same event. Hence, while it is important for people to know about only certain types of news events, it is best that each and every individual keeps abreast with current events in countries other than their own.

Commentary on "The Staid Young"

Link to article:

  The writer’s arguments are valid, and are largely applicable to Singapore’s society. Many countries have introduced, if they have not already in the past, tougher measures to police youth’s disruptive behaviour in order to curb such violent acts. At the same time, the standard of education for many youths have increased, inculcating important values and providing youths with information, while acting as a deterrent against dropping out from school. In addition, parents have increasingly become nurturing parties that help to bring up their children with better moral values and learning attitudes. All these phenomenon have been relevant and apparent in Singapore as well, making the passage very applicable to our society.

The author finds that the tougher policing in many societies, including Britain’s, has curbed many illegal acts that teenagers of the past had used to indulge in, such as the consumption of alcohol. Hefty fines and “ferocious policing” have helped to catch and punish such teenagers, along with the stores that abet their illegal acts. According to the author, such policies double up as deterrent measures as well, to prevent such crimes in the future. This argument is valid, because an increased policing is a measure that increases state resources dedicated to dealing with crime and illegal youthful indulgences. Naturally, this would lead to a reduction in the crime rate, because there is more manpower and effort directed towards solving the problem, giving law enforcements the necessary resources to identify such activities. In doing so, we direct citizens, especially youths in this case, away from immoral acts and encourage them to pick up better habits instead. This argument is relevant to Singapore as well, though the context may be different. Singapore has long had a reputation for tough crime-fighting policies, and so there has never been much destructive behaviour in the country. Its recent prosecution of “Sticker Lady” Samantha Ang for pasting stickers on traffic lights and lamp-posts only goes to show the continuation behind Singapore’s tough stance on crime. Effectively, Singapore enjoys low crime rate, even for juveniles, showing that there might possibly be a link between having tough policies and better behaviour in youths. This resounds with the claim of the author.

The author also explains that the increased standard of education, and subsequently its cost, has made youths more staid and strait-laced. On one hand, the education in and of itself has taught youths morals and information they require to excel in school and in life. On the other hand, the “new premium on education”, such as increasingly expensive university tuition fees, has given youths a stronger reason not to neglect their studies. This is a valid argument that is also very applicable to Singapore. For many, a good education represents an opportunity to succeed later in life. With the necessary skills and knowledge, students will be better equipped to deal with challenges, and have the necessary qualifications. This hope acts as a source of motivation for youths to study hard, and keep on track. This argument is especially relevant in Singapore, which mostly follows a meritocratic system — the standard of education one receives usually determines how successful one is later on in life. Hence, a huge majority of students are often serious about their work, and put in much effort into preparing for their exams, such as the GCSE O Level and A level examinations. Clearly, the rise in standard of education has encouraged more youths to be more hardworking and determined to succeed in school.

Another reason brought up by the author is that parents now positively influence their children. First, the fact that many young people still live with their parents means that they are more restrained. Second, youths are now brought up with more attention, care and strictness, as parents become increasingly determined to help their children succeed, by helping their children in any way they can, as compared to the arguably more laid-back style of parenting seen in the past. This leads to youths being more hardworking and strait-laced, having been encouraged to study hard by their parents, and inculcated with stronger moral values. This is a valid argument — parents are often a strong source of influence for their children, which means that more time spent with their children can be expected to lead to children that have better learning attitudes and a stronger moral compass. In Singapore, though many parents may be working in the day and do not take care of their children during that time, they often send their children to childcare centres during that time, and catch up with their children in the evenings to help them with schoolwork. Many Singaporean parents have also been credited with being “kiasu”, or being afraid that their child may lose out to others in school, or in life ten years down the road — this turns out with them being very strict with their child’s behaviour at home. All of this reflects the degree of care and concern they have for their children’s future education and occupation. This comes in stark contrast with parents of the past, who would often leave their children to their own devices, expecting them to pick up the necessary skills on their own. In essence, the increased parental influence in the lives of their children motivates the latter to work harder and strive to do better in the things they do, picking up better moral values along the way.

In conclusion, it is largely true today, especially in Singapore, that young people nowadays are hardworking, serious about their work, and have good moral values. The three main reasons for this, as the author states — namely tough laws and policies, increased standards of education and heightened parental influence — are indeed very valid explanations for this phenomenon, and they are very applicable to the Singaporean context. Ultimately, I agree with the author on his point of view on young people today. 

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Hi guys, I'm a student in Singapore, and this are some thoughts and essays I have written over the years.