Yale-NUS College Graduation Ceremony Speech 2021

Graduands, Parents, and the Yale-NUS community.

Thank you, President Tan Tai Yong and Yale-NUS, for your kind invitation to speak at your Graduation event.

To the Class of 2021, my heartiest congratulations on your graduation.

Some say that a person is at their peak at the age of 44. They are old enough to have gained some wisdom but yet young enough to enjoy health, vitality and the energy to get things done. I am 44 now, and I am grateful to be here today to speak to you, because after this, it’s all downhill.

While I am at the apex of my hereafter declining powers, let me share what I think are the four things that will determine your success after university.

The first thing that will determine your success after graduation is the kampung of experience that brought you here. Yes, kampung, as in the Malay word for village.

Your time at Yale-NUS and your liberal arts education are to be treasured. Those studying for professional degrees right after junior college and high school miss something and perhaps they don’t even know they do, until later in life.

Before I read law at SMU, I majored in history at NUS and I am forever grateful that I did. I suppose reading history had practical value in teaching me analytical skills. But beyond the practical, learning the liberal arts helped me understand people better and to grow as a person, before learning a profession. Would I have taken law as my first degree if I had attained better ‘A’ level results? Perhaps. But this has also showed me how perceived failures in life can eventually enrich and reward.

The second thing that will determine your success after college will be your personal relationships.

Hopefully, you have friends and family who will, from a place of love, tell you the truth about yourself, whether directly or indirectly.

As you set out to change the world, your sincere family and friends will be a critical ballast that will help you to distinguish and check between being righteous as opposed to being self-righteous.

I’ve been fortunate to have had that ballast and I wish it for you, too.

Your third influence on success will be your attitude and your adaptability.

You are entering a world where a lot of people talk but fewer listen. Not that people have changed. There was never a time when things were easier. There were no “good ol’ days”. Make sure you communicate well, and that includes paying attention to what is said to you. The ecosystem of interaction and communication has fundamentally altered with social media. But real work and real conversations ultimately always drive the agenda. It is not enough to write well – you must be able to persuade. Human-to-human interactions and how you can adjust and adapt to differing situations will make a key difference to your future employability and to how you can help your organisation succeed.

Don’t be a difficult person in the guise of wanting to be seen as hardworking. Disavow being self-centred and selfish, and avoid having as your real purpose the climbing of the greasy pole. It’s slippery for a reason. Everyone can see through such a person.

At all times, be clear-minded. Attitude counts, always has.

As for your experience of graduating in this time of Covid – don’t resent it. Accept it and turn it to your advantage in some way.

That brings me to the fourth influence on your success after graduation. And that is Luck.

Call it kismet, fate, destiny, the luck of the draw or just plain life. Your success depends on things which you have no control over, such as whether you get a good boss who cares about your development or a poor boss who cares only how useful you are as a cog in the machine. But that is a reality of life you will have to negotiate.

The opportunities and obstacles that come your way will be unpredictable.

I did not plan to be Secretary-General of the Workers’ Party, nor did I scheme and plot my way to be Leader of the Opposition. Neither was it my life’s goal to be sued jointly and severally for $33 million dollars. I have taken it as it comes and I intend to, as the cliché goes, keep calm and carry on. I encourage you to do so, too.

So, the four things that will determine your success are your experiences, your relationships, your attitude and yes, your luck.

But here’s the plot twist. What does success mean to you?

Only you can decide that, but have an open mind. Your aim should always be to produce excellence, whether you decide on alternate paths of charitable, NGO work or whether you are in a small enterprise, a start-up or a multinational corporation. Or even if you decide to give tuition to kids, be a homemaker, or do what some others may see as routine work. Look first for fulfilment. That sense of fulfilment counts for a lot and is important for your mental wellbeing. It is only with fulfilment that you will be truly able to make your best contribution to society.

Do constantly self-reflect and ask yourself what difference are you making.

With that, let me wish you the best in your upward trajectory in life. You still have some years before you hit the age of 44.

Thank you.

17 May 2021

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