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SPEECH BY MR TAN BOON HUI
DIRECTOR
SINGAPORE ART MUSEUM
AT THE 52nd GRADUATION CEREMONY
FRIDAY, 25 MAY 2012 (SESSION 12)

Associate Professor Dr Muhammad Faishal Bin Ibrahim, Member, Board of Governors, Singapore Polytechnic

Deputy Principal Tan Peng Hun

Directors,

Parents and Graduates ,

Good morning ! It is my privilege and honour to be standing here with you today on the cusp of what is probably the most exciting and defining moment of your life.

First, the good news, You made it. You made it through the examinations, through the procession of themed dinner and dances, through endless ECAs, sports days, valentine days where you blew your allowance on expensive roses and bouquets. Now the bad news, as the late Karen Carpenter crooned, ‘We’ve only just begun… to live’.

In commencement speeches, the speaker is usually older, which I am, he or she is expected to be wiser, which I am not, and who is encouraged to be deadly serious, which I find a challenge. Nevertheless, I am used to making myself do things that I do not like but are good for me and hopefully, other people, so I will try.

Not because I have the magic formula by virtue of me graduating almost two decades earlier, but rather that one should always share one’s past headaches with others, there is nothing like distributing the pain around your friends to make one feel better.

You will leave this institution and the security of your friends and teachers whose schedules and curriculums shaped your daily routine the last few years. Where you choose to walk after you leave this hall is entirely up to you, but it may be useful to refer to a few maps along the way. Even better when other travelers before you have scribbled notes on the margins and pointed out quicksand, potholes and other pitfalls.

Firstly, do nothing without passion. Especially work.
Your destiny is your own and no one else can shape it for you.

Let’s take a quiz.
Which famous historical figure was a war hero, loved by millions, known to not have a meal until his staff started on theirs, as well as being a professed vegetarian because he was against the killing and torture of animals, a decorated war hero. This lovely individual became the person became Adolf Hitler, who caused the deaths of millions in WW1, despite his kindness to animals.

Question 2.
Which famous historical figure was born in a poverty stricken family, to a woman who had 8 kids already, three who were deaf, two who were blind, one mentally retarded, and she had syphilis?

This unfortunate child became the musical genius we know as Beethoven.

The case of Hitler and Beethoven prove that we are not necessarily the product of the cards that life deals us. Your passion and your work is one of the most important ways to rise above any hardships that life delivers.

Wanting money and high income is not passion, rather passion gets you the money! Do not mistake the two. The world has enough poor little rich boys and girls without you adding to it. When I came to NUS in 1989, it was either Law school or the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. The former would have been the easier road, it was a professional degree and I would have had my career planned out. The arts faculty was a tougher sell, not a specialist degree in a technical sense and I knew that I was not cut out to be a teacher, one of the most obvious career choices then. But my heart was not in law and I choose instead to read the arts. I would probably have been a passable law graduate but I instead became a A student in the arts. And I was happy.

Secondly, you will now have to make choices in your life. Do make your choices. Any choice is better than no choice. Pay attention to what the universe throws up.
When you make a choice, don’t worry about what you missed in choosing an option. That’s water under the bridge. Worry about the roads that open up as a result of your very choice. Prior to university, I was only one of two students from a neighbourhood JC, Jurong JC, who by sheer luck and a very determined teacher and principal, had the opportunity to read S paper Literature. Hence I came to NUS always intending to study literature. Instead I ended up after the first lecture with Geography and Sociology. They were what struck an emotional chord at that time and I went after it with dogged determination. Not studying literature, I found other ways to indulge my love of reading. I ended up auditioning on a whim for a role in a play that was being submitted for the then NUS Drama Competition called ‘Beauty and Braces’. Owing to the lack of competition I found myself winning one of the two Best Actor Awards. That led to my joining the newly established NUS Theatre as well as Campus Concerts. I should highlight that I had never acted or been in front of a stage before. But it was so much fun and I made so many friends as a result of those times that I still cherish dearly today. That stint in turn led to collaborations in other theatre productions beyond the University with Action Theatre, The Necessary Stage and TheatreWorks. The world as it seemed opened up with that initial decision to take the plunge.

When the universe shows you things, pay attention, it may reveal other stars in the galaxy you never knew existed.

Thirdly, be curious about things you do not know about. Be curious about everything.

Read the newspapers, watch the news, surf the internet, start a blog, join an email list. I am constantly surprised by the number of young graduates who come to interview with me who cannot tell the difference between Osama and Obama. A curiosity about the world is a sign of your hunger to learn. Know what is happening around you.
It could make or break your interview! Your diploma gets you into the interview room, your capacity for learning gets you the job.

Fourthly, master the art of good conversation. It’s harder than you think. Just look at the news clips of Singaporeans trying to give a sound bite for the camera. For one, if you do not read the papers, you will have nothing to talk about. All successful men and women can converse about topics beyond the name of Paris Hilton’s Chihuahua. Read the yearly budget debates in Parliament. It is surprisingly juicy and you will learn more about how major decisions are made and sold to the public than you can learn in any marketing text.

Fifth, volunteer your time. Volunteering gives you purpose by letting do something that has absolutely no material reward attached to it other than personal fulfillment. Every potential billionaire needs a cause to live for and spend money on. Start early.

Finally, love the arts, support it. You will feel better. I promise. When we think of every great civilization, be it Egypt, Greece, Rome or Tang China, we remember its art and architecture. Does anyone remember how the Romans earned their keep? By our art we will be known. So Singapore needs to ensure its legacy by nurturing the arts. Go to the museum, watch a play or film, see a dance. Constant exposure to the arts enlarges your mind and pushes you to think in ways you never could before.

We recently exhibited this particular work called V by the Chinese artist Li Hui. It’s an artwork that does not exist when it is not on show, it’s literally made up of smoke and mirrors or rather one mirror. This is an example of how art can force you to see the world and what is possible beyond what sitting in meetings or even reading books can achieve. When you say I do not understand this art, what you are saying is that your mind is being taken to areas you have not been and you are having problems digesting it. That is good, that means you are alive. If you only experience art that you understand and like, then you have not learnt anything. It’s exactly like life.

Once again I congratulate you on making it this far, there will be more mountains to climb and that’s good cause the only other way is down and it’s a long way down. It only leaves me to say, go forth and conquer.

Thank you and enjoy the climb.