Valediction, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy – July 6, 2017
1. A very good evening, Dr. Noeleen Heyzer, NUS Trustee; Mr. Ravi Menon, Managing Director, Monetary Authority of Singapore; distinguished guests; fellow graduates; ladies and gentlemen.
Transformation in the University
2. Transformation is one of those four-syllables, grand-sounding jargon which might, at first mention, appear to mean very little. The mission of this university, and I quote, is “to transform the way people think and do things through education, research, and service”. And therefore, when we first matriculated, the idea of transforming, in just a few, short years, may have sounded like an exaggeration.
3. Yet, our personal experiences are the best evidence of our transformations, and I suppose there are at least three ways through which we have transformed. First, mastering skills and knowledge to be a better policymaker or a more proficient computer engineer. Second, forging lifelong friendships with those seated by our sides tonight. And perhaps, more fundamentally, the university has transformed us, to be less conceited, and to be more restrained.
4. I look back five years ago, entering NUS as an arrogant freshman, always too eager to show off, too eager to criticise. This journey, however, was about moving beyond the self, and then learning more about ourselves. Group work can be frustrating – once, in a condescending manner, I rudely blurted out “Are you sure the few of you can produce quality work?” – but we now realise that truly collaborative work brings about the most meaning. Some of us dreaded class participation, others – like me – always too eager to shoot our hands up to argue and to impress, but we now know that the best perspectives come not just from those who are most articulate or those who are most well-informed, and instead the best perspectives emerge when diverse views are put together.
5. Now, five years on, I know – especially in all of your company this evening – I am by no means the most accomplished, the most experienced, or the most brilliant. So I won’t spout platitudes or even attempt to give advice. Instead, I am humbled to share what I think should be our collective aspirations, to put ourselves in the service of others.
Transformation in Singapore and the World
6. Because, as we ourselves transform, this notion of service is especially important, in a world that, itself, is undergoing profound transformation. Beyond the 24-hour news cycle, of a media addicted to violence and conflict and sensationalism (and these days, even tweets), there has been tremendous global progress. For the computing graduates: Billions worldwide now have access to information and communication technology, opening opportunities for computing industries and computer engineering. For the public policy graduates: Since 1990, the global poverty rate has gone down from 35 per cent to 10.7 per cent.
7. But this progress cannot be taken for granted. Advanced technologies may improve productivity, but the threat of job obsolescence prompts us to be more adept. Extreme poverty has gone down, but a 10.7 per cent poverty rate means about 700 million in the world still live on less than $1.90 a day.
8. There is no doubt, that responding to these transformations can be daunting. What can I do about automation and artificial intelligence and the loss of jobs? What can we do about poverty and inequality and injustice? To that, I say: “Did the university not prepare us for these challenges? In fact, if we do not rise up to these challenges, what good is a university degree for?” In these endeavours to better the lives of others, we will fail. We will feel overwhelmed. And we will feel helpless, in the face of seemingly insurmountable problems. But how we respond – how we put into practice what we have learnt – will empower us to shape broader transformations.
9. Shaping these transformations starts with small contributions. Already, many of you are involved in our communities, trying to bring about change in little, progressive ways: Volunteering at charities, being cognisant of socio-political developments, and injecting social causes into our own work. The accumulation of these small changes, over time, will lead to further progress, as our work continues into the future.
Transformation for the Future
10. And as we step into this future, we do so with confidence, because we are anchored not just by what the computing or public policy degrees represent – not the grades, not the honours, but the knowledge, the skills, and a commitment not to be complacent – but we are also anchored by the people who have transformed us, and who have transformed with us.
11. First, our professors, and – equally important – the academic and administrative teams in our schools, for being our pillars of support. Today, we honour them with our words of gratitude. Tomorrow, we do them proud by putting their imparted wisdom and expertise into practice.
12. Second, our classmates and friends – of diverse nationalities and backgrounds – who have been generous with your perspectives, contributions, and, above all, your friendships.
13. And last but not least, our family members, who have been with us every step of the way. These few lines will do no justice to the many sacrifices my parents, our parents, have made: Thank you, and I love you very much. And if you would indulge me, just these two lines, to my grandmother: “妈妈, 多谢您多年的栽培; 我会继续努力”.
14. American actor Matthew McConaughey, when he won his Oscar award in 2014, talked about his personal hero. He said, and I quote: “Every day, every week, every month, and every year of my life, my hero is always 10 years away. I am never going to be my hero … And that is just fine with me because that keeps me with somebody to keep on chasing”. For us, the class of 2017, NUS has transformed us to be ready for the workplace, and for the community. Above all, we remember that we transform not just to better ourselves, to chase that hero 10 years away, but also to better the lives of people around the world. And their progress – not ours alone – will be the best proof of our personal transformations.
15. Remember: Never, ever stop transforming, and never, ever stop chasing that hero. Goodnight, and thank you very much.
Here’s a side-by-side comparison of my first and final drafts (click the image for the PDF):