ADDRESS BY MINISTER FOR CULTURE, COMMUNITY & YOUTH, AND SECOND MINISTER FOR LAW EDWIN TONG SC AT SUSS CONVOCATION CLASS OF 2021 (SESSION 1), 5 OCT 2021
President Halimah Yacob, Patron of SUSS
Mr Stephen Lee, Chancellor of SUSS
Mr Richard Eu, Pro-Chancellor of SUSS
Mrs Mildred Tan, Chairman of SUSS Board of Trustees
Professor Cheong Hee Kiat, President of SUSS
Professor Robbie Goh, Provost of SUSS
Professor Leslie Chew SC, Dean of SUSS School of Law
Associate Professor Calvin Chan, Director of SUSS Office of Graduate Studies
Ms Agnes Kwang, Registrar of SUSS
Deans, faculty members
Graduands, family members, friends
Ladies and gentlemen
- Good morning to all of you.
- Thank you very much for inviting me here today to share in this very happy occasion, and to be a part of today’s convocation. The fact that we are able to be gathered here today to commemorate this occasion, is itself a blessing.
- It is a tremendous honour for me to be here today, to celebrate a very important life milestone for each of you.
- I am sure that all of you have been eagerly looking forward to today. All of you have spent the final phases of your studies, and finally, graduating in the middle of the pandemic.
- Usually, in a graduation or convocation speech, I would say that we need to hit the ground running after you graduate. But all of you have already been doing that – juggling studies with family and other jobs that you had to take on. The experience in getting through to today, will stand you in tremendously good stead.
- Delivering a speech at a convocation ceremony is a great responsibility. So, I spent some time over the last couple of weeks thinking about what I should say to a group of graduates who already have a lot of life and work experience. I thought I would draw inspiration from my own convocation. It was about 30 years ago, and I looked up some old photographs to see whether I could remind myself what I was told when I was in your position. Then I realised that, actually, I had completely no recollection of the event, and that, after today, you probably will have no recollection of what I am saying either. So, I decided that I will keep it short, borrow what Professor Cheong has said, and just make three points.
Never stop learning
- My first point is similar to what Professor Cheong said earlier - never stop learning. You are graduating today, after many years of formal education, balanced with life experiences, work experiences, and much hard work. But I would say – please do not see this as the end of the learning journey.
- In fact, if you know the SUSS core values, it reminds us: “We advocate the Spirit of Learning by creating enriching learning experiences. To us, learning is a lifelong pursuit of knowledge…” Indeed, that is really very true.
- I left university many years ago, spent many years in private practice as a lawyer, and the last three years, I have spent serving the government. What I learnt in school was really just the foundation, the beginning, to tell me how and where I could look for information if I needed to. But the application, the experience, and having the courage or conviction to know that this is the right thing to do, all came from part of the learning journey - developed through experience and a lot of hard work when I started my working career. I think it will be the same for many of you.
- As you leave formal education and venture into the next stage of your lives, I would encourage you to remember those SUSS core values, and to keep on having this thirst and hunger for knowledge - to always want to know more. Some of you who have kids, they always ask why. I think that applies to us as well – always ask why. It is not just about books and academic learning. It is not just about content and knowledge. I would suggest that you go well beyond that. Broaden your horizons, deepen your experiences with new challenges. Don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone to do something different. Learn to do new things, test new ideas, expand boundaries, push the envelope, and be bold and courageous in what you take on. Because, as Professor Cheong said earlier, the world is changing - that is the only constant, and we all have to be adaptable. We must be prepared to be doing different things at different stages of our career and of our lives.
- This also applied to me some time ago, and I will just share one story with you.
- Some time after the last General Election, Prime Minister called me and said he wanted me to take over the chairmanship of the Chinese Community Liaison Group, so I took it on. Some of you would know that this is a group that was set up by the government to build relations with the Chinese community. We have a similar one for the Malay and Indian communities as well. The task for me was to foster deeper relations with almost every aspect of the Chinese community - Chinese clan associations, Chinese temples, Chinese arts, culture, literary works, even getais – basically everything that is Chinese.
- Those who know me would know that I didn’t do well in Chinese in school. I came from St Joseph’s Institution – I think that alone says something. I grew up in an English-speaking family. My parents came from Malaysia, and in their time, they studied Malay as a second language. They couldn't speak Mandarin. Similarly, I didn't speak Mandarin at home. I think I fell off my chair, or maybe froze in my tracks, when I was confronted with that challenge. I think a few of my colleagues in Cabinet also gave me a couple of funny stares, when that was announced.
- To be honest, I struggled a lot with the speeches, meetings, understanding dialects, and some of the customs to be observed when you attend rituals at temples. But it was something that I had to do for me to be able to build these relations. It was something I had to do and embrace.
- It took me sometimes double, triple, maybe even four times as much time to prepare for an event, to make a speech or to simply be accustomed to what a particular event was about at a temple or a function.
- But it did force me to learn a lot more Chinese, push me out of my comfort zone, and do my own research. And I got to understand a lot more about our roots, our heritage, and our culture.
- Now, one year on, I feel that I have benefitted. I know a lot more about where I came from, and what the significant moments and events in the Chinese calendar are. Some say I now speak Chinese better, but maybe they are just being nice to me. Certainly, I hope that I have made some contributions to the process and to the community – that is my story.
- I believe that all of you, with your background, and your experience that you already have – you have a greater capacity than you sometimes give yourselves credit for, to be in a different environment and to do something completely different. So, don’t be afraid to try.
Fail at something
13. This brings me to my second point – be prepared to fail.
14. It sometimes sounds controversial, but I do think that it is important to have the experience of failing at something, because this then means that you are stretching yourselves, venturing out of the tried and tested. If you keep doing something that is tried and tested, something you know, it is not going to push you out of that bubble or comfort zone
- It is important to know what the feeling of disappointment, of what failure, feels like, so that you can push yourself on from there.
- I have always been told, “success is good”. We all believe that. But don’t neglect failure, because failure is not on the opposite side of success. Failure is part of the journey to success.
15. At the end of the day, it is the resilience to learn from failures, to try something, fail, pick yourself up, dust yourself down, push on, and carry on.
16. To quote the great Winston Churchill, previously Prime Minister of Britain, “Success is the ability to go from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm.” I think that is something that we can bear in mind and be prepared to do - something that is different, that might open you up to failure. But that is really something that is just one step on the path to success.
Be people for others
17. The third point I will make is that inasmuch as you find success, also remember to be a person for others.
18. There is a huge village around you. You know the old African saying that it takes a village to raise a child? You are not children, but the same principle applies. As SUSS’ vision is to be a “leading university for social good”, its programmes focus on the social sciences, including non-profit management, social work, early childhood education, and the first batch of LL.B. today. These are all very important social tools. The more we are able to push the boundaries in these areas, to think about others first, in these segments, in these sectors, the more Singapore will benefit. Not just today, but for the generations that will come after us - our children and their children as well.
19. I think all of you will agree, sitting here today, that all of us are immensely blessed and privileged to have received an education, a first-class education. We are all blessed with skills, perhaps each different from one another, which we can use to help others.
- Let me steal a line from a popular Marvel story. I am sure you have heard of Spiderman. Those of you who remember the story will remember that there was a young Peter Parker - he was living with his Uncle Ben and Aunt May.
- His Uncle Ben was shot by some robbers and eventually passed on. But before he did, he realised that the young Peter Parker was blessed with some special powers - I don't know whether it is a blessing or a curse, but Peter had special powers. When he realised that, he reminded Peter, “With great power comes great responsibility.”
- Although it is from a Marvel story, a little bit of fantasy, I think it rings true, because education is that great power. I hope all of you will remember to use your “great power” to help others, especially the last, the least, and the lost. They do not have the same opportunities that many of us in this room have. It is up to us to make sure that at least the starting point is the same for everyone in society. If each of us can do a little bit of that, I think Singapore will be far more inclusive, and a lot more of a cohesive society, for us, and the generations to come after.
20. It is a little bit of a cliché, but giving is indeed receiving.
- For the many law graduates today, I just want to share one more experience. I spent 25 years in legal practice, and in my time, I did some pro bono work. This gave me a greater sense of fulfillment - not because they can pay well, but precisely because they can’t pay you a cent, that makes it special. Till today, I am blessed to be in touch with some of the people I came across in my pro bono work - some are clients. At least one of them has gone on to do very well. He has turned the corner. And now I see this person contributing to society in his own way – in time, in effort, and on occasion, financially as well. He has benefitted from the system, and he is now putting back something into the system. I encourage all of you to think about that. Because all of us who have been helped in some way, blessed and touched in some way, should really pay it forward.
21. Finally, as you venture into this next phase, all of you will have something else to get on to – maybe a new job, a continuation of what you have been doing, or a new project. But remember the ties that bind are the ties that will see you through life - the family, friends around you, the very many classmates and friends you have made as you went through this course, the relations and bonds formed over the last few years.
- No amount of success or honour will matter very much if you can’t share it with loved ones around you. So remember, in this busy time in the middle of the pandemic, it is tough and strenuous on everyone, but remember to spare a moment to look after the village around you. That is very important.
22. In closing, let me say that, from today onwards, you will be moving on to a new chapter in your life. You are the author of your own book of life. How that chapter will read, and what happens thereafter, depends very much on all of you. But as I said earlier, don’t forget that the foundation of a good successful ending and outcome is often laid at the start, much earlier on, in the opening chapters. So, remember to pay it forward as well.