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Speech by Mr Jeffrey Lam at the SUSS Convocation 2019

Speech By Mr Jeffrey Lam, Acting President, ST Engineering Aerospace Ltd, at SUSS Convocation 2019, Session 4, Thursday, 10 October 2019, The Grand Hall, Level 4

Chancellor Stephen Lee, board members and distinguished  faculty of SUSS,  honoured  guests, friends of SUSS, parents, and most of all, graduating students. Good afternoon.  

It is truly an honour for me to be here today. Almost 25 years ago, when I was as impressionable, impatient and ageless as you are today, I could never have imagined that I would have the chance to speak to you today from the podium. At the young age that I was, possibility thinking was a difficult possibility. Similarly, my guess is that many of you would not today think that you will in future take leadership positions in society. It is not just a possibility, but also a very good probability that as graduating students from SUSS, you will be our future leaders in universities, in businesses, and in governments. I encourage you to take the long‐term view and entertain possibility thinking as you step out of SUSS today. Only then, can you dream the dreams that you should, make the difference that you could, and live the lives that you are meant to.  

Some weeks ago, your administration asked me for my CV which Professor Samir just read out, and I thought since this is a convocation ceremony, and especially with the multitude of PhDs sitting beside me right now, I would have to list all the degrees and qualifications that I have ever gotten in my life – my only claim to fame almost 25 years ago when I first graduated. I am indeed turning 50 very soon. So hopefully that means I do have a few words of wisdom to share with you. 

So, coming back to your qualifications. While you will now hang on to the degree certificates that you have spent years working towards as your highest achievements today, you will at some point in the future realise that no one is going to care about what degree you have, what  GPA  you  achieved, what  CCA  you  excelled  in  and  even  where you went  to school.  Because the things that will make a difference in your future journey are usually the things that have little to do with your formal education.  

Just last week, the President of Technical University of Dresden in the former East Germany, one of Germany’s top 10 universities, visited  my  company.  At one point during our collaboration discussion, he asked me what my educational background was. When I told him that I studied aerospace engineering and French literature, he asked me why French literature. I was stumped for a moment, because in my impetuous youth, I just did what I enjoyed doing. Perhaps I enjoyed getting “distracted” by French literature, philosophy, sociology and history, thinking  that I might be able to make a  living off my aerospace engineering degree. And because I was stumped, I gave him the most unintellectual answer one could possibly think of, and in the most Singaporean context – “for fun”. I think his opinion of me dropped to the bottom of the ocean immediately after that. The truth is, I have perhaps used only a little of the knowledge I gained in school. What I am saying is that the things that will make you successful, and the things that will distinguish you from the rest of the pack will more likely be other things, such as your attitude, your adaptability and your work ethics. These traits have made a key difference for me, and I hope they will for you too. 

So what is attitude? Attitude is possibility thinking. Do you believe that what you want to do is possible, or at least not impossible? Don’t set your own limits. Let others set for you limits, and then go and prove them wrong. No one ends up accomplishing something that he did not believe he could or want to achieve. If Thomas Edison did not want to find the magic formula to the light bulb after 1,000 attempts, or he did not believe that he could – we might still be using candlelight to light up the world today. How did Thomas Edison reply when a reporter asked him “How did you feel about failing 1,000 times?” Anyone wants to guess what he said? He said “I did not fail 1,000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps”. 

Second. You must learn to be Adaptable. There is never a “right fit” or a “perfect fit”.  Something happens because we make it so. I may not be good at something, but that does not mean that I cannot strive to do well in it. More often than not, it is about us adapting ourselves to different needs and situations. It could be learning a new skill, taking on a new challenge, or simply accepting a bad situation and trying to make the best of it. You are going to find yourselves in many situations working with people  of different  backgrounds  and  inclinations, working to changing expectations of your superiors, and responding to dynamic external conditions. If you think school was rough, things will get even rougher. How you react and what you do will determine how successful you will be. 

Finally – Work Ethics. The best idea without good execution will go nowhere. The best plan without discipline and hard work will not see its best possible outcome. Very often, this is what makes the big difference between success and failure. And remember what Thomas Edison said about failure? The word is not in his vocabulary. He also said that “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration”. There is simply no substitute for hard work.  

From a national perspective, we would love to see those of you who graduate today to stay in science and engineering for the rest of your lives. Because the truth is that Singapore does not have enough scientists and engineers to power the economy. At the same time, do not let your formation limit you. Do not let circumstances set boundaries for what you can and cannot do. The future is yours alone to create. In times when you might feel like you are a failure, remember that you are only one if you let yourself be. And in moments when you feel like you are at the top of the world, remember also that these moments are made possible because of the people around you who continue to support you. 

Your parents have invested heavily in you, not just in financial terms, but literally with their blood, sweat and tears. As a parent of 3 children, I am happily making those heavy investments today. Remember to honour them in the work that you do and the values that you display. You also bear the goodwill of your professors and lecturers who have so invested their knowledge and time, and who have only the best hopes and wishes for you and your future. Do not forget that many in society are not as fortunate as you are, and do your part to help them level up.   

You are at the threshold of an exciting journey. This is a moment truly worth celebrating. I want to take this opportunity to give you my best wishes for a most exciting and enriching journey ahead. 

Congratulations once again! 

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