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Speech by Mr Tan Chong Meng
SPEECH BY MR TAN CHONG MENG
GROUP CEO PSA INTERNATIONAL
AT THE POLYTECHNIC'S 54TH GRADUATION CEREMONY
THURSDAY, 22 MAY 2014 (SESSION 2)
Mr Tan Choon Shian, Principal & CEO, distinguished guests,
graduating class of 2014, family & friends,
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This is a crowning moment. You have worked hard to get here, made your parents proud, and deserve all the podium attention that you are about to
receive. By this evening, there will be hundreds of Facebook and Instagram posts, and I'm sure a fair share of celebrations. Congratulations!
When I first agreed to give this talk, my first thought was to share some advice that will help new job entrants achieve early success and fast track
your careers......in other words, how to be a great corporate warrior and have a winning career. After all, I have worked for 30 years, lived in 5
different countries, will celebrate my 30th wedding anniversary this year, raised 3 children, have a gazillion airmiles and currently have
the privilege of running a global company with operations in 25 locations and 30000 people. I thought those credentials should be interesting...!
So I tested this on 2 of my children, aged 26 and 24, new corporate warriors. They didn't like it. I said, 'then what?' They suggested that I speak
about work-life balance.
Now that's a tough topic. I first wondered why they suggested it, and subsequently learnt that it is indeed among the top concerns of new job seekers.
When I started work in 1983 in the Ministry of National Development, Public Works Dept as an airconditioning engineer, I don't remember Work-Life
balance being an issue. Becos' No-Work meant No-Life, so No-Choice. But it doesn't mean the struggle did not exist. I remember a particular moment on
28 November 1992, and I was 32, and a budding Oil Trading Manager with Shell by then. That was the day my 3rd son was born, and I was in
hospital beside my wife, doing my work, and urging her to get it over with, so I could get on the next plane. She did her part, and I took off the next
day, leaving wife and new son in hospital, 2 other kids at home. I will never forget the look in my wife's face, and she has never allowed me to forget
So, it does catch up with us eventually, but I still wondered....why is it a bother even for those who have not started working? I decided to find
out first hand. I asked for a dialogue with six of our poly graduates with between 1 to 5 years work experience at my company, PSA, the oldest is 28. 3
married, one engaged, and on the way. Several of them had to do shift work, meant multiple nights a week. The discussion was......enlightening!
Generally: Our young colleagues look forward to doing work that utilise their learning and talents, which match their interests, and also desire a
career that gives learning and progression. I was pleased to learn that most were forward looking, and had a sense of where they wanted to be in 5/10
yrs or by the milestone ages of 30 or 40.
As for life, they wanted to have more flexibility for leisure pursuits (including at least 1 overseas holiday a year), and spend time with family and
friends and other important matters. For those on shift work, they have learnt to adjust their routines, and sometimes even their friends' routines to
make it work.
Most were realistic and realise that work-life balance does not just mean more life and less work. There is also an appreciation of the nature of
our globalised economy, and how the prevalence of technology has made us always connected in this digital age (with smartphones and other mobile devices),
and that the line between work and personal lives has become increasingly blurred compared to decades ago when there was more separation between work and
- So, can you have it all ie a successful career as well as life balance? Can we have both? Hilary Clinton said, "Don't confuse having a career with
having a life." Is that true? I don't see her as an authority on the subject. Confucius said, "Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day
in your life". True? Or is it....love the job you choose? Will you wife agree? And Alain de Botton, Swiss-British philosopher/writer, who wrote the book
'Architecture of Happiness', said, "There is no such thing as work-life balance. Everything worth fighting for unbalances your life". Perhaps he is
right!...His quote gathered the most "Likes" on the work-life balance web-page I checked.
Let me share my own take on the subject. I will address a few Myths, Realities and share also some tips, based on my imperfect experiences.
Myth number 1: We all agree that there is a work-life balance issue and we mean the same thing. The reality is, as surveys would show, and remember
Hilary Clinton's quote, that we don't all agree and we don't mean the same thing. It is actually something quite wobbly and takes different forms when seen
under different lights. As such, very difficult to have a sensible discussion. Great for philosophers, but a tough one for us engineers. We want good
problem statements, sound process and rock solid predictability of outcomes. What did the 6 ex-poly graduates say?
When in poly, between classes, can go for movie. Once you start work, such freedom is surrendered. For sure....the company surrenders a pay check to you
No work after 5pm. Unhappy when boss continues talking after 5pm, and he has a happy hour date with friends.
Would not like to take work home.
At least 1 holiday a year, preferably 2.
I think getting a grip on this reality is fundamental. Start with recognising it as a potential issue, and try to establish what it means to you.
My first tip: Talk to a senior, and try work-life harmony.....a different paradigm, as opposed to work vs life in a balance. Since work and life must
co-exist, could their respective goals be inter-woven, rather than being seen as trade-offs.
You have to know yourself, your goals, expectations and dreams. Before you set off, you can point your compass right, and decide how fast and how far you
want to go, who you will journey with, while taking in the scenery and avoiding burn-out. It's complex, but with good self-awareness, it's possible. Hence
my tip: Talk to a senior, a coach. Bear in mind that the right harmony is a moving target, so do this often enough.
· Myth number 2: Government and corporations will solve this issue for us. The reality is: That's not going to happen. Yes, maybe you can go to the
office in jeans and t-shirt on dress-down Fridays, maybe there's a child care centre in the office, but government and companies are inherently juggling so
many priorities for the greater good, like growth, productivity, talent development and commercial profitability, so work-life balance is an enabler rather
than their goal.
And there is also the reality that certain jobs and career choices are fundamentally incompatible with being meaningfully engaged on a day-to-day basis
with a young family. It is tough...many of you have seen your parents having to cope with it, so it is real.
My second tip: By all means take all that corporations can offer, but have your own game plan, be nimble, be pragmatic. Without your own plan, believe me,
it is so easy to get sucked into situations where we work to chase a package, to buy the things that we do not need, to impress the people we may not like.
Nigel Marsh, the author of the book, "Fat, Forty and Fired" said this, "It's up to us individuals to take control and responsibility for the types of lives
we want to lead. It you don't design your life, then someone else may just design it for you, and you may not like their idea of balance". But I also
emphasise, be nimble, be pragmatic. Thomas Edison said, "Opportunity is missed by most people, because it is dressed up in overalls and looks like work".
We live in an imperfect world, be nimble, don't miss out.
· Myth number 3: It's about what we do. I want to do (a), then (b), then (c), etc, etc. People talk about quality time, and they start to plan a bunch
of activities. For me, my lesson in life that, it is matters more how we feel, than what we do. That's the reality. Life is a composition of memories, and
memories that are etched by feelings are deeper than those otherwise. For instance, I remember my first graduation very vividly in the Singapore Conference
Hall, because of the feelings of novelty and exuberance, but I cannot remember my second graduation well. And our ex-poly colleagues are not complaining
about missing out on a movie every now and then, rather they were voicing the feeling of the loss of freedom.
My third tip: Remember to celebrate the special achievements and moments. When I was growing up, taking a picture was a deliberate and suspenseful process,
with delayed gratification. You take the picture, and after a few weeks, when the pictures come back from the Photo Studio, you discover that you blinked!
And the moment is gone. Pictures were also expensive. In fact, today, I have only 2 pictures of my childhood before I turned 16, one when I was a baby, and
another with my younger brother in our garden.
Today, ...well you know better than I do. Millions every minute. Then we post them. Then we Like them. We seem to like everything! Not sure sometimes what
feels truly special anymore. There is no chapter and verse, only a ramble of happenings. And the next day, it starts again.
While we are talking about feelings, there is a old saying, apparently a Japanese one, and I certainly you can see it deep in the Japanese social psyche,
that "at the end of one's life, all that matters is the pride your children feel when they speak your name".
What they feel...! What will they remember? It will be a composition of who you are, what you did in society, what you did with them, and how you made them
feel as your children....
So to summarise, about work-life balance:
Reality #1: We don't all mean the same thing. Figure out what it means to you, shaped by your goals and aspirations. Try work-life harmony, get a coach
if you can.
Reality #2: Corporations wouldn't solve it for you. Take charge, have a game plan, but be nimble, and be pragmatic. We live in an imperfect world.
Reality #3: Life is not just about what you've done, it is about how you make people feel. Celebrate the special achievements and moments with others.
Make them count. I am not the best role model on work-life balance by conventional definition, but I do sincerely hope my children will have good reasons
to feel proud of me.
This is a good place to end my talk. I wish you all the best as you step into your bright and unfolding future. Perhaps someday you too will find that of
the challenges that come your way, it is work-life balance that is the most elusive, a life-long quest, one that I'm sure you are going to give a really
good try. Well, good luck.