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In Singapore, students and parents upset over ‘morbid’ O-level Chinese listening comprehension passage

August 14, 2023

Original Article:

A listening comprehension passage for a national examination has drawn criticism from students and parents for being morbid and inappropriate.

Students who sat the GCE O-level Chinese listening comprehension exam on Tuesday listened to a story about a hospital that recorded mysterious deaths every Friday from the same bed. Unable to find a logical reason for the deaths, a doctor hid in the ward one Friday, only to find the cleaner unplugging the patient’s life support system from that particular bed to power his vacuum cleaner.

The listening comprehension is a component that assesses students’ listening and comprehension skills and contributes to 10 per cent of the total score in the O-level mother tongue examination.

Online fact-checking site Snopes debunked this story as a “greatly embellished” tale that first hit the Internet in 1996.

Bonnie, a 16-year-old student who had taken the paper, felt that the passage was not written in a serious manner despite it being a serious issue. 

“When I first heard it, I was shocked that it was in a (legitimate) exam. Also, the whole class burst into laughter even though it was an exam. Other classes had the same reaction,” said the student, who gave only her first name.

“If my family was in the hospital or something, (I don’t know) how I would’ve felt… so it’s understandable that (some students) would’ve been affected (by this passage),” she said.

Another student, who declined to be named, said that she kept thinking of the story even after the exam had ended. She recalled that at the end of the passage, many students in her classroom were giggling and it made her feel uneasy.

“I found it hard to focus on the questions after hearing the story,” she added.

When contacted, the student’s mother said that she was concerned about her daughter’s well-being.

“I cannot understand why they would include such a morbid passage in a national exam,” the mother said.

“It certainly made my daughter feel uneasy that people had died in a hospital over sheer negligence. Yet, such a tale is being told as a joke, an exam passage that promotes apathy or indifference,” she added.

Students have also taken to online platforms such as Reddit to voice their unease over the passage.

“I can’t believe this was in LC (listening comprehension),” said TikTok user Youveryslay.

Another TikTok user commented: “(The) Story (doesn’t) even make sense, why is the cleaner unplugging the (life-support machine) at the same exact bed every Friday?”

When contacted, a counselling psychologist said students in such situations may find such stories more distressing because they are in an examination setting.

“We will have to consider that students might already be anxious or nervous coming into an exam room,” said Ms Padma Jairam.

“As such, when they listen to a distressing story like this, their response comes from what could already be a lower threshold for tolerance.”

Having been a secondary school teacher before, Ms Padma said that there usually is a guideline to keep exam content as neutral as possible so as not to trigger distress or place unnecessary strain on students’ emotional state.

If students get distressed after listening to a disturbing passage, they should be allowed some time to calm down so that they can still perform to their best abilities, Ms Padma suggested.

The Singapore Examination and Assessment Board said that the passage selected and questions set were based on “age-appropriateness, deeper learning points and alignment to the examination syllabus”.


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