2023 General Paper (GP) A-Level Essay Questions and Commentary

Just got the list of questions for this year’s A-Level GP exam from my students!

2023 A-Level Essay Questions (Paper 1)

1. How realistic is it for countries to implement a national minimum wage for all their workers?

2. ‘Fossil fuels should no longer have a part in the production of energy.’ Discuss.

3. Consider the view that spending money on space travel cannot be justified in today’s world.

4. Consider the argument that there should be no censorship of the arts in modern society.

5. ‘People who undertake voluntary work do so more for their own benefit than for the benefit of others.’ Discuss.

6. Assess the extent to which all people in your society have the opportunity to achieve their full potential.

7. ‘The quality of human interaction is diminished by modern communication devices.’ How far do you agree?

8. To what extent are festivals and national holidays effective in promoting unity in your society?

9. ‘Regret for past actions is vital for progress.’ What is your view?

10. Evaluate the claim that sports personalities make good role models for young people.

11. Assess the view that accurate translation between languages is always necessary.

12. ‘Young people want to change the world because they do not know it is impossible.’ How far do you agree?


Every year, a substantial number of students fail their A-Level GP exam because they are unprepared for it. Some of these students will make the excuse that the paper was especially difficult or that the questions were especially surprising. I have even heard this excuse from the owner of one large tuition centre chain! Alas, these are all poor excuses. Every GP paper that I’ve seen for the last twenty years have been completely doable with the 2-year curriculum that we follow.

The examination is not the problem. The problem lies with the way students prepare for and approach the examination. From my conversations with private candidates who finally come to me for help with GP the second time around (retaking their A-Level exam), a few common themes have emerged.

(Note: These are the pitfalls that these students fell into before, not after, they come to me for help. They failed the last time because they received poor help or no help at all.)

Misguided question analysis: missing the forest for the trees!

They learnt question analysis techniques that appeared useful but actually harmed them on the day of the examination. In many cases, the techniques they employed encouraged them to take an overly pedantic approach towards examining the questions. Many such students focus excessively on matters like “question type”, on identifying “double-barrelled” questions, and on ensuring that they identify all of the “question requirements”. These are strictures invented by overzealous teachers, a bunch of unqualified undergraduate tutors and overweening tuition centres. They encourage students to apply formulaic approaches that dull the mind and blunt their analysis. Such students end up missing the forest for the trees. From my experience, this is one of the biggest reasons why students do poorly even in spite of substantial effort and a good grasp of the English language. Unfortunately, many such students are lulled into a false sense of security by the good grades they get in school, grades that do not always reflect the reality that Cambridge is more concerned about substance than pedantry.

To be clear, we do cover question analysis techniques as well. The key difference is that the techniques I teach are always rooted in a discussion of the real-world context and designed to actually help students make sense of a question rather than follow a set of arbitrary rules. (Some examples of this below.)

Inflexibility in brainstorming: no good points to write!

A lot of students are simply hopeless at brainstorming, not because they do not know anything, but because they limit their brainstorming to one or two topics per question. Those who do so inevitably find themselves without a sufficient number of points and examples. This is, again, the unfortunate result of a certain pedantry that is characteristic of the Singapore education system and reflected by an obsession with “doing” practice papers (the doing of practice papers has extremely limited pedagogical value since a practice paper is designed to assess, not teach).

Conversely, if students are willing to abandon their preconceived notions about the exam and see the world as I teach it through essential concepts, enduring contentions and interdisciplinary case studies, they will very quickly see that many questions are completely doable, even with just two years of our classes. Quite unfortunately, many students insist on either relying completely on themselves (a recipe for disaster at their age) or on the cram-school style classes they get at various tuition establishments, where the goal is to do as many questions as possible rather than to achieve any kind of meaningful preparation. If this is you, I humbly suggest that you might be better off joining my classes now rather than after you discover that you have to retake your entire A-Level examination because you failed your GP paper.

Trying to spot questions and taking a one-topic approach

Every year, I tell students that I do not and will not spot questions for them. This is not because I am bad at spotting questions nor is it because I am afraid to stand behind the questions that I spot. Rather, it is because the entire premise of spotting questions is flawed. The premise underpinning this entire endeavour is that questions are always about specific topics. For instance, some will say, “this is a politics question” or “this is a technology question”. And when there are no environment questions, as appeared to be the case on the surface for the past few years, they say, “there is no environment question”. But this entire one-topic approach is fundamentally flawed. Cambridge essay questions are never only about one topic and there is often room to discuss topics that one can draw connections to after examining the question more thoroughly, using the approaches that I teach.

This year, there were again many questions seemed to only be about one thing, but that actually touch on many other issues as well. For instance, space travel is not merely about the topic, “Space”, or the topic, “Science and Technology”. It is also about inequality, the environment, ethics, international relations, and even politics! Unfortunately, many students arbitrarily limit their essays because they take the one-topic approach that question spotting is based on. They then lament that “the topics I studied for didn’t come out” and that there were no media or politics questions this year. But that is complete nonsense. These students were simply poorly taught. This is precisely why question spotting is such an odious practice. Put simply, question spotting teaches students to impose arbitrary limits on how they can apply their knowledge. It tells them that other things that they have learnt, on other topics, are not related to the question at hand. The end result is that these students endure a disproportionate amount of suffering for what is really the result of poor guidance.

This temptation to spot questions is so great that every year without fail, students and parents ask me what questions I think will “come out this year”. Alas, the results of even trying are so perverse that I refuse to engage in this odious practice myself. Does this then mean that my students fare worse? By no means! On the contrary, they perform far better because they are trained to try and apply all of the essential concepts, enduring contentions and interdisciplinary case studies that we learn in class to each and every question. And every year, the end result is stunningly positive. Using only what I have taught in class, students are able to answer at least 8 out of 12 questions in any given year. To me, this is what it means to prepare students for an examination. Question spotting is a cop-out, the refuge of laziness and ineptitude. Students must be prepared for all possibilities or they are not prepared at all.

Too much rote memory: memorising points and examples is a recipe for disaster!

Virtually every student who sits for the A-Level GP exam would have done some form of preparation beforehand. Unfortunately, while most students are quite industrious, too many of them focus their efforts on memorising points and examples just as they do for Biology, Physics or Chemistry. Come examination day, they tend to find that a lot of the points and examples they memorised cannot be applied. (They then complain that the paper is difficult. It is not; they are simply ill-prepared.) In other cases, students emerge feeling confident, but it often turns out that they applied their points and examples wrongly. The outcome is what can only be described as a bitter tragedy and an unmitigated disaster. The high number of students having to retake their A-Level examinations because they failed their GP paper is testament to the perils of such stubbornness. All this pain could have been avoided if only students directed their energies towards learning essential concepts, enduring contentions and interdisciplinary case studies.

Memorising points and examples is a recipe for disaster because the GP exam is fundamentally different from the Biology, Physics or Chemistry exam. Cambridge examiners have said time and again that the GP exam is not a test of knowledge. It is a test of a student’s ability to develop arguments systematically, support these arguments with compelling evidence, consider opposing points of view, engage in nuanced analysis and evaluation, write clearly and coherently, and most importantly, persuade and convince.

On top of that, every A-Level examination paper is unique. Every essay question is unique. Cambridge never repeats questions. A student can memorise all of the points and examples for the last 10 years’ worth of questions and he will still fail the examination if he adopts this strategy. Given the heavy emphasis today on genuine understanding, critical thinking and clear communication, it is no surprise that students who only know how to regurgitate points and examples fare poorly.

Instead, what students need to learn is how to develop their own points and draw on their pool of knowledge to craft their own examples. They learn these skills most effectively by exploring concepts, debates over contentious issues, and through interesting case studies. They remember these ideas and learn how to apply them best when they finally accept that the GP examination cannot be defeated through rote memory.


  1. How realistic is it for countries to implement a national minimum wage for all their workers?

Although we do not believe in spotting topics, we often come quite close to it (unintentionally). In the second last week of our classes, we discussed minimum wage as a policy option. We considered some of the arguments for and against the minimum wage, looked at some of the positions taken on this issue by different prominent figures in Singapore, and discussed the political, economic, and moral dimensions of this contentious issue. We also looked at how Singapore addresses this problem through redistributive policies (such as GST vouchers) and through its progressive wage model.

Apart from that particular class, we have also covered the following applicable concepts over the past two years: meritocracy, political polarisation, inequality, robotic automation and artificial intelligence, ethics and morality, human rights, corruption and fraud, offshoring and outsourcing, reshoring, international trade, immigration, monopsony, gig economy, anti-competitive business practices, corporate social responsibility, labour unions and labour rights.

Over the course of the two years, we also examined the socio-economic context within the following countries: US, China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Singapore. We looked at issues like inflation, rising property prices, youth unemployment, meritocratic ideals, income inequality, ageing population, debt crisis, and a looming growing property bubble.

Some might object that some of these concepts and case studies are not relevant to the question. That is simply not true. An argument can be made using each and every one of them. We train our students to draw these connections and provide many examples every week.

Interestingly, a number of students suggested on Reddit that this year’s A-Level paper did not contain any politics questions. It always perplexes me when students make such comments. Whether or not to implement a national minimum wage is a deeply contested political question in virtually every country currently suffering from high levels of inequality. To say that politics is irrelevant is like saying that only the economists get to decide whether or not a country should have a minimum wage. Then again, having been brought up in technocratic Singapore, it is little wonder that students might think that way. Alas, this also means that the education system has failed them.

  1. ‘Fossil fuels should no longer have a part in the production of energy.’ Discuss.

Again, although we do not spot topics, we covered two case studies (COP26 and nuclear power) that were directly pertinent to this question in the week leading up to the exam. This was, again, purely coincidental. Apart from those two case studies, we covered a number of related concepts and case studies over the past two years.

Relevant concepts and contentions: tragedy of the commons and the problem of securing international cooperation, inequality and the ways in which it is perpetuated even through green policies, democracy and the problem of ensuring that successive governments keep commitments made in previous ones, balance of power issues and the opportunism of emerging great powers like China in support green policies, lobbying and the influence of the energy industry, technological ingenuity and the possibilities it can unleash, individual responsibility for making greener choices, greenwashing by an assortment of businesses (including the oil and gas industry), green activism (or alarmism) and its limits, technological determinism and path dependence, techno-optimism and faith in technological developments, the potentially devastating consequences of climate change, and finally, the concept of the tipping point or the point of no return.

Relevant case studies: COP26, nuclear power, 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, climate geoengineering, Mahsa Amini protests in Iran, China-Taiwan conflict, assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, electric vehicles, Israel-Palestinian conflict

Once again, a number of students avoided this question because they considered it a “Geography” question. At the same time, a number of Geography students chose to attempt this question using their (limited) knowledge of Geography. This is doubly tragic.

First, the question is not merely about how long we have until our fossil fuels run out, about detailing the consequences of climate change, or about explaining how alternative sources of energy work.

This question is also about:

  • considering the feasibility of all these different options (there’s a whole debate to be had about whether or not we can actually switch to renewable sources),
  • examining the trade-offs (solar power takes up arable land, wind power kills birds and destroys the scenery, nuclear power produces highly dangerous waste and run the risk of melting down),
  • looking at why different countries remain dependent on fossil fuels (for reasons that appear foolish now, Germany deepened its commitment to obtaining natural gas for Russia for years until the war with Ukraine broke out),
  • considering whether the result would be greater inequality (the poor suffer more when energy prices go up),
  • about questions of international cooperation and enforcement (how do you get impoverished countries to give up fossil fuels when they remain the cheapest options, if not through financing provided by other developed countries?),
  • and about techno-optimism and hype (the very idea of doing away completely with fossil fuels right now is sheer fantasy).

More can also be said about the role that businesses play in lobbying against efforts to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, about the concept of the tipping point or the point of no return, and finally about

Second, the subject known as “Geography” is not as limited in scope as these students think. Many of what I’ve mentioned is covered by Geography courses in university.

In other words, the non-Geography students who skipped this question because it was a Geography question were just as wrong as the Geography students who did this question because they thought it was only about Geography.

But perhaps the most perplexing remark I’ve heard about this question is this: “if you do not compare past and present in every paragraph, your content score will be capped at 18 marks”. (18 marks for content is around 50%) In other words, if you do not follow some inane made-up rule, you cannot get anything above a D. Notwithstanding the fact that Cambridge has never laid down such rules, the reasoning that leads one to such a conclusion is so flawed I can only pity the student who believes it unquestioningly.

This claim that one must compare past and present is made on the basis of nothing more than the question’s use of the phrase, “no longer”. The seemingly inevitable conclusion then is that one must go beyond merely making arguments for and against the use of fossil fuels in energy production today, one must also argue that fossil fuels used to be the dominant source of energy but should no longer be used today (and one must perform this comparison in every paragraph). Unfortunately, this then turns every paragraph into a convoluted exercise in stating the obvious. Such an essay would almost certainly be a shallow, lacking in substance, and far more likely to result in a failing grade.

Quite unfortunately, this is not the first time I’ve seen students engage in pointless pedantry and formalism. It is sad enough when students fail. But to fail because you dutifully applied nonsense; that is simply tragic.

  1. Consider the view that spending money on space travel cannot be justified in today’s world.

When a student does not study for the exam and does poorly for it, he has only himself to blame. But who does one blame when he studies for a topic, then refuses to do the very question that is related to that topic? This year, a number of students lamented the absence of “Science and Technology” questions (presumably because they studied very hard for this particular topic). This was very puzzling. Is not space travel precisely about science and technology? Or must a question contain the words “science” and “technology” to be considered a “Science and Technology” question? Surely not! In this case, it is clear that excessive pedantry and formalism has blinded poorly trained students from seeing the obvious.

A better approach would be to treat this as an interdisciplinary question involving a discussion of not only science and technology, but also issues of inequality, democracy and climate change.

Relevant concepts and contentions: dual-use nature of technologies, techno-optimism and the belief that advances in technologies will always produce positive results, technological determinism and the belief that technologies follow a predetermined trajectory of their own, tragedy of the commons and the problem of governing access to shared resources, sovereignty, international relations, corporate social responsibility, anticompetitive business practices, lobbying and regulatory capture, income and wealth inequality within and between nations, climate change and escapism, philanthropy and democratic control.

  1. Consider the argument that there should be no censorship of the arts in modern society.

The term “the arts” can be interpreted broadly to include all three types of arts: visual arts (photography, painting and sculpting), literary arts (prose, drama and poetry), and the performing arts (dance, music and theatre). The term “censorship” is pretty straightforward. In this context, the censorship of the arts is the suppression of artistic self-expression and criticism. The issues raised here are issues that students ought to have discussed when exploring topics like politics and media.

Relevant concepts: freedom of speech, censorship, authoritarianism, democracy, human rights, media, subjectivity in art, racial and religious tolerance, hate speech and the assassin’s veto.

There is no need to make too much of the term “modern society”. The term “modern” is itself deeply contested and this essay is not the place to discuss what counts as modern and what does not. Obviously, examples should not be taken from the medieval period, but this does not mean that examples dating slightly further back, say to 1990s, cannot be used. What matters is that these examples remain relevant today and are relevant to the point being made.

Some students suggested that this is an absolute question and that the only possible position to take here is to disagree. This is complete nonsense. The only reason for saying so is if there are no rational grounds for agreeing with the view that there should be no censorship of the arts. But there are. In fact, to write a balanced essay, one must consider those very views. I sometimes wonder where these students get these ridiculous notions from and who has been teaching them all these absurd rules. The view that there should never be any censorship of the arts is, in fact, a reasonable view with many strong arguments for it. To reject it out of hand is an act of sheer ignorance. It is this ignorance that makes it highly probable that such a student would have missed the opportunity to consider some of these arguments. For instance, one argument for never engaging in censorship is that censorship is far more likely than not to be abused by those in power for their own gain. Since there is no way to ensure that acts of censorship are always only done for the good of all, it is better not to censor the arts at all.

  1. ‘People who undertake voluntary work do so more for their own benefit than for the benefit of others.’ Discuss.

We discussed this topic in our classes on philanthropy (particularly the philanthropy of Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg) and on the question of altruism, kin selection and reciprocity. In one of these classes, we considered the argument that evolution can explain altruistic behaviour. In particular, we looked at the idea of kin selection, the idea that people engage in self-sacrificial behaviour because it benefits one’s kin, allowing one’s genes to survive through relatives. We also examined the notion of reciprocity, which is the simple idea that humans understand that cooperative behaviour enables them to increase their odds of survival as a group.

In our discussion of religion, we also examined how religiosity is strongly correlated with volunteer work, looking at the evidence in the United States and the United Kingdom. We discussed some of the reasons why this might be so, and considered the role that religious beliefs play in motivating people to put others first. We also considered some possible objections to the evidence presented.

Finally, in our discussion of quiet quitting, we considered the question of whether workers should go above and beyond the call of duty or whether it was justifiable to only what they were paid to do.

This question was not very popular, either because students were not exposed to these ideas or because they were unable to draw connections to them. Those that did do this question run the risk of misinterpreting the question. To be clear, the question is not about whether people should be altruistic when they undertake voluntary work. The question is whether they are altruistic. This means that students must engage with the idea of altruism and the arguments associated with it.

What students most certainly should not do is split hairs over the term “voluntary work” and waste time agonising over it. The term “voluntary work” can be taken to refer broadly to any kind of work that people do voluntarily. This includes volunteer work as well as work that they do voluntarily rather than because they are paid to or legally obligated to. There is no need to clearly distinguish volunteer work from voluntary work, and most certainly no need to exclude all forms of volunteer work from the essay simply because the question uses the term “voluntary work”. To do so would be to make yourself a victim of your own mindless pedantry and sophisticated ignorance.