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Singapore Government

The First Session of the 53rd Graduation Ceremony

The First Session of the 53rd Graduation Ceremony

Good morning everyone,

I could hardly recognise all of you. I have been to Singapore Polytechnic many times, and today is the first time I see all of you so dressed up. Before I begin my speech, I would just like to invite all graduands to stand up. At every graduation event I attend, I always invite the graduands to stand up to show their acknowledgement for all that their teachers and parents have done for them. I think you will agree with me that if it was not for them, you would not be proudly donning your graduation gown right now. So please, give a big round of applause for your parents and teachers to show your appreciation!

Today, on this happy occasion, I would just like to share two stories with you. In the last three weeks, I have been visiting a couple of schools and talking to students around your age. I asked them three questions. The first question was, ‘What would you like to be?’ The second question was ‘What do you think is the most important factor to you achieving what you want to be?’ And the third question was ‘What is the greatest obstacle or hindrance that would stop you from achieving your dream listed in the first question’.

Almost all of them, without fail, answered the first question very decisively and proudly. Many of them said they wanted to be doctors, lawyers, engineers, artists, bankers, and so on. I was very proud of them. And the second question, as to what they think is the most important factor that would enable them to succeed. Out of the 500 answers that I had, about 490 of them said that it all depended on their discipline and determination. It is all about their talent and hard work. They are very confident of themselves, and justifiably so. As for answers to the third question, many of them noted that if they slacked or were lazy, they could not achieve their dreams.

From the answers I received, I have reasons to be both happy and sad. I’m very happy and proud that our students are so confident and that after ten to twelve years of education, they feel that they can go forth and conquer the world. For that, I am very proud. But at the same time, I have a bit of a doubt as to whether they also appreciate that their success in life will also depend very much on the opportunities available in the society. As I look around the rest of the world today, I cannot help but wonder what I strange place we are in, and how abnormal our situation is today.

Today, if you are a graduate from one of the European countries, there is a one in four chance that you will be unemployed. Graduates there do not think about moving on to the university. Their primary concern is to look for a job. And if I recall my own experience 25 years ago, sitting at your position today, I think my concerns would be quite similar to some of the young European graduates today. At that point in time, if someone offered me a pensionable service, and said that they would employ me for life, I would gladly take it up and deeply bow down and thank them.

Today, a quarter century later, our society has changed. Many of us, if not all of us, will be able to go forth and conquer the world. All of us should have no fear that you will not be able to have a job. But you should have no fear, not because of your own capabilities and talent- that is important. You also do not need to fear so much today, because in general, we have sufficient job opportunities for all of you. And for those who want to further your education, you too will have the opportunities. But I hope that as you pursue your dreams in life, you will remember that your success in life depends not just on your individual talent and hard work. Your success depends on the opportunities that this society has given to you. And in turn, one day, when you are successful, that you too would help to create more opportunities for the next generation of Singaporeans to succeed.

We are all here today because of the hard work of our forefathers. They have paid it forward for us to enjoy the facilities, harmony, peace and security. It is hence incumbent on us, to also pay it forward for the next generation, so that our children and grandchildren will be able to enjoy success and opportunities. This is also for us to build an inclusive society, that is not just about everyone striving for their own individual success. Many of you in time to come, will be called upon to do something for this society and nation that we so love. Many of you might also be called to set aside your individual aspirations and to serve the greater good. I hope that you will rise to the occasion when the opportunity comes to serve a higher calling. If you do, we can be assured that for generations to come, many more Singaporeans can enjoy the opportunities we are enjoying now.

The second story that I would like to share with you, has to do with what you want to do with the rest of your life. I know that many of you would like to get a degree, and then go on to get a good job. The question is; what are you pursuing through that degree of yours? I will share with you my story from 25 years ago, as I was graduating from my junior college after taking my ‘A’ levels. I was deciding what course to do. Should I do Mathematics, which I was not bad at, and it fitted me because I did not want to study too hard? Should I do Economics, which I was very interested in, and was told I would not have to study too hard for the examinations? Or should I do Engineering, like many of my peers wanted to do?

I went for a scholarship interview because my family was not able to provide me with the funds for a university education, and definitely not in an overseas university. After many rounds of conversations with my seniors about what subjects I should take, I came to a conclusion- regardless of what you do, it is not the subject that matters, nor is it the science or math that matters most. Instead, one of my wise seniors told me that what matters most, is the training of the mind and the ability to grasp at an issue, ask the correct questions, dissect the problem and find the solutions. All this is done not just individually, but to build teams to work together from different backgrounds with different perspectives. Perhaps, that is more important than all the academic subjects I had Iearnt in school. And if I reflect back on my experiences and that of my sister, I think I would fully agree with that.

My sister graduated with an accounting degree from NTU. She went on to become an accountant. After two to three years of work, she told me that her greatest takeaway from university was not the accounting subject matter that she learnt. But instead, it was the teamwork and the ability to dissect the problem and to train her mind. If I look back on my own experiences of the past 25 years of my working life, indeed that is the same conclusion I have. I studied Economics and I did not study very hard for my exams. When I was studying Economics, I read all sorts of things from Social Sciences, to Biology, Physics, Game theory and so on. All these subjects at that point of time had nothing to do with the Economics I was studying. But all these subjects added to the cross-fertilisation of ideas that I had, such that when I came out to work, I was able to call upon that training and discipline of my mind, beyond the Economic subject and theories that I was taught.

So I will encourage you, that as you go on to further your studies or to work first before embarking on future studies, to remember that it is not the degree, diploma or subject matter that is most important. Life is a continuing journey of learning. For us to do well for ourselves, for our families and our society, we must have the discipline and determination to keep learning and challenging ourselves to explore new knowledge domains, to find out perspectives that are counter to our own, and to challenge ourselves to think critically. And perhaps, that is more important than the subjects you have learnt in SP. The soft skills in life have to be acquired and continuously refreshed. If not, even with the best degree from the best universities in the world, we may find ourselves obsolete one day. Many of the things we can do today will be overtaken by technology and robots tomorrow.
Our challenge today is very different from our parents. My mother was a machine operator. She learnt one skill and kept her job for 25 years. I am quite sure that for your generation, if you only learn one set of skill, you will not be able to hold your job for 25 years. Today, many jobs no longer lasts that long. Our challenge now is to make sure we have the ability to learn and think on our feet. If we can acquire all these soft skills, I am very confident that you will go on to do great things for yourselves, your parents and our society.

On this note, I wish you all the very best on your onward journey. Today is just a milestone in your lifelong journey, to continue to learn and serve our nation and a higher calling. Today is not the end of your learning journey. I hope that as you go on in life, you will always remember these two stories I have shared today. The first is that while we are very confident that success comes with our hard work, success also comes with the opportunities that made possible with our society. And because society depends on these opportunities, it is incumbent on us to remember Spiderman’s dictum, ‘with great power comes great responsibility’. For all you who have great knowledge and skills, comes great responsibility not just for yourselves and your families, but also for our society.

I also hope you will remember what I have gone through, so that you will continue to strive to improve yourselves, not just individually, but as a member of Team Singapore, so that we as a nation can continue to strive to achieve even greater heights for successive generations of Singaporeans to realize their dreams just as you have.

I wish you all the very best and I hope you continue to upkeep the proud tradition of Singapore Poly who has always produced leaders in every field. Leaders who are not only knowledgeable, but leaders with compassion to care for their fellowmen and leaders who care about the future of our country.

Thank you very much.

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