FRIDAY, 27 MAY 2011 (Session 12)

Members of the Board of Governors

Mr Tan Hang Cheong,
Principal, Singapore Polytechnic

Parents and graduands

Ladies and gentlemen


    ood morning to all of you. It gives me great pleasure to join you here today at the 51st Graduation Ceremony of the Singapore Polytechnic in celebration of the achievement of an important juncture in your life. It is a real honour and privilege for me to be able to share this very significant moment in time with you. As you bid farewell to three years of academic studies, you will be embarking on the next phase of your journey, whether it is continuing your studies, entering the workforce, or for the gentlemen, serving your national duty. It is stating the obvious that there’s an exciting world out there. It is exciting because it is a fast changing world, it will be eventful and there will be surprises. Change holds for us many unknowns and uncertainties. However on the flipside of uncertainty is opportunity.

  1. Over the past ten years alone, we have witnessed the world rocked by a series of world changing events with sweeping implications – the “9-11” attacks, 2003 SARS outbreak, 2008 financial crisis; even today, we are watching the eurozone debt crisis unfold and mitigating the fallout from the recent disasters in Japan. But with each of these events, the world rebounds stronger. New systems and processes are put in place and economic development hits new highs.

  2. What are the underlying dynamics and drivers for seemingly endless cycles of growth going around us? You could attribute this to globalization. You say the last 40 years of relative peace around the world made a lot of difference. I personally think that a major factor is the population size on earth today. The world’s population is now more than 6.8 billion and continues to grow by 83 million people per year. During the last half-century, the world’s population more than doubled. Between 1960 and 2010, the world population rose from 3 billion to 6.8 billion. In other words, there has been more growth in population in the last fifty years than the previous 1 million years that humans have existed. Currently the rate of population increase is 1.2% per year, which means the planet’s human population is on a trajectory to double again in 58 years. It is likely that within the lifetime especially of the graduants in this room today, they will live to see earth’s population hitting 9 or 10 billion.

  3. No, I am not going to launch into a thesis on how the world needs to control birth rates. It is probably too late for that. But the numbers are also very much driven by increasing lifespans of humans. As populations increase, there is a natural tendency to concentrate in urban centres. It is more efficient to support large populations of people when they are concentrated together. And being closer together they are also more productive economically as it is easier to organize factories, markets, schools, etc, and hence people are more capable and will earn more. Hence faster than the increase in pure population numbers, is the increase in middle class especially in developing economies. In China, they expect another 350m people to shift to urban centres in the next 20 years. Just for China alone, they expect to find over 200 cities having populations of 1 million and above. Today in the whole of Europe, only 35 cities have populations above 1 mil. New crowds will inexorably translate into new pressures and new demands on infrastructure and resources. They also estimate that the world will run out of oil in 39 yrs. In my opinion it is not likely that food prices will ever drop nor will property prices in the long term.

  4. So there will be increase in consumption and competition for resources, but I like to point out again that where there are challenges, there will be opportunities. There will be more uncertainty, challenges and change in Singapore and especially this region in the next 30 yrs of your life, compared with the last 30yrs since I graduated from the School of Mechanical Engineering here at Singapore Polytechnic. Challenges and change bring opportunities. But these opportunities will not go to everyone.
    It is my belief these opportunities will go mainly to those who can bring new services, products and solutions to an increasingly crowded and competitive world. In other words, opportunities will go mainly to those who can innovate.  It is my belief that the best opportunities will not necessarily go the smartest who brings in the best scores in exams. I don’t think opportunities will go to people who just work hard.

  5. More than ever before, we will need new solutions to feed and power the world. We need better solutions to house and move people around. We will need more effective solutions for curing the sick and coping with aging populations. There will be new markets for many things and services. There will be new demands for more services and products.

  6. So it is not surprising that somehow the growth of innovation moves in tandem with population growths. The first infant steps man took in technology – fire, the wheel, the use of metals and pottery – took thousands of years to complete and proliferate. Yet in the past 100 years, we witnessed the discovery of silicon electronics, wireless communications, nuclear power, DNA, launch of space flight and the rise of the World Wide Web. In the last 20 yrs alone, there has been several IT revolutions, and Moore’s Law gives you an idea of what I am talking about.

  7. So what exactly is innovation? Innovation is not just inventions or new businesses alone.  It is not something that is the reserve of Einsteins, or Steve Jobs or people with PhDs only. Innovation is about new processes, new products, or service that is used by people, by the public and preferably by society.

  8. Allow me to share with you the story of how innovation can take place.  In October 4 of 1957, the Russian satellite Sputnik has just been launched. Two young scientists from the Applied Physics Lab in the US were sitting at the coffeetable having an informal conversation over lunch with their colleagues when one of them had the thought that it might be possible to listen in to the transmissions of the satellite. So back in their office, they rigged up some equipment to do so and before long, they were actually receiving the “Bleeps” of the transmission. Soon after, they realized that there is irregularity in the frequency of bleeps. Through more discussions with their colleagues, the duo hit upon the idea that due to the Doppler effect, they could determine the distance of  the satellite from their receiver. With some supercomputing aid, they are able to determine the location of the satellite moving around the orbit of the earth. A couple of weeks later, their boss asked if they could do the reverse – determine the location of an object on earth if the position of the satellite is known? They thought about it, ran some numbers and said “Yeah, it’d be easier actually”. Their boss asked them to work on the project with the intended application being used to track submarines in the middle of the oceans. And there you have it, the GPS is born. And all this is done on the sidelines of their actual jobscope!

  9. There are three key aspects of innovation which I’d like to share with you. Firstly, before innovation can take place, one has to have the relevant competencies, skills and knowledge to take advantages of these capabilities. You have to constantly keep up-to-date with the latest trends, thoughts and new market directions to ensure that you are not left behind in the avalanche of information available. Secondly, connections matter. The ability to access the right networks will result in constructive, quality conversations on building and developing the ideas. Lastly, you must have the drive and desire to bring the innovation to fruition.

  10. Today, you will step out of this auditorium as alumni of Singapore Polytechnic and into a new chapter in your life. As you grow and mature, you will encounter new challenges and changes, whether individually, or collectively as a society or even nation. I urge you to seize the moment by taking an active role by riding the waves of opportunities and shaping your own future and not to be a bystander. As I leave you with these thoughts, please accept my congratulations on your graduation and best wishes on your future endeavors.