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Speech by Mr Lawrence Wong


Mr Tan Choon Shian, Principal and CEO of Singapore Polytechnic
Members of Singapore Polytechnic Board of Governors,
Distinguished Guests,
Parents and Graduands,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

  1. I am very happy to join you this morning at Singapore Polytechnic’s 55th Graduation Ceremony.

  2. Today marks an important milestone for our graduands. So let me start by congratulating all of you on this achievement! 

  3. I also want to recognise the family members, friends and SP staff who have played an important role in your journey. So, can I ask all graduands to please join me in giving a round of applause to the staff of SP and to all the parents and loved ones seated here today.

  4. Every graduation ceremony is special, but this year’s graduation has extra significance because it’s also the year of our Golden Jubilee.  So all of you have the distinction of being our Jubilee Graduates.

  5. As we celebrate your graduation, and Singapore’s 50th birthday this year, it’s important to look back and remember how we got to where we are today. 

  6. I’m sure all of the graduands would have parents or grand-parents from the Pioneer Generation. If you’ve not done so before, I encourage you to spend time with them, and ask them what life was like in Singapore when they were growing up.  Many of them have lived through much more difficult times in the 50s and 60s, and they have seen dramatic improvements in their way of life over the decades.

  7. This was certainly the case for my own family. My grandparents and my mother grew up in Kampong Amber – it was a Malay kampong along Amber road.  My grandfather was a fisherman with 7 children. They survived the War and the Japanese Occupation. But their idyllic environment was shattered in 1964 with the outbreak of racial riots.  The whole family was worried about their safety. So the children moved out and found a place to rent and stay in Geylang.

  8. Later, my mum got married and my parents got their HDB flat in Marine Parade in the early 70s. It cost them a princely sum of $30k.  I know some of you think it’s cheap compared to prices today.  But remember, my mum only earned $400/month as a teacher then, and my dad's income was still not stable.  Today, the starting pay of a teacher is much higher, and median household incomes are around $8000/month.

  9. At that time, the CPF system was also not well developed.  So out of their monthly income of $400, my parents had to support a mortgage of $300/month in cash. In other words, a significant part of their earnings went to the home mortgage.

  10. This is no longer the case today. If and when you find a life partner and want to purchase a HDB flat, you can get a HDB loan and pay most of the monthly instalments through your CPF.  The cash payment you have to make is usually quite small. 

  11. We sometimes have the impression that life in the past was easier, with cheaper prices and lower cost of living.  But the reality is that life was much harder then.  This was the case for my parents, and I’m sure for many of your parents and grandparents as well. 

  12. My parents had to scrimp and save every dollar just to make ends meet.  Growing up in the 70s, I remember how my mum tightly managed the household finances. She economized on all aspects. We didn't go for overseas holidays and we didn't eat out very much. My mum would go to the market for cheap fresh food and cook the dishes at home (it was 20 cents for kang kong and spinach – which is what I grew up eating a lot of, and still enjoy today!)

  13. The same can be said of education opportunities.  My parents are not university graduates. In fact, none of their siblings (i.e. my aunties and uncles) went to university.  But all parents understand the importance of education, and want their children to do better than them.  And that’s partly why we’ve seen a remarkable transformation in educational standards within a generation.

  14. In the 60s, barely half of the students in Singapore managed to progress on to secondary school.  So if you look at those above 55 today, half of them have no more than primary education.

  15. Today, virtually every young Singaporean completes primary school.  More than 95% of every cohort will go on to pursue a post-secondary or tertiary education. 

  16. Our success in education is a remarkable transformation.  You can see similar changes in other developed countries, but usually over several generations. In Singapore, this change has taken place in just one single generation.

  17. Some people feel that the changes are happening too quickly, and creating too much stress. From time to time, you hear people reminiscing about the past, and saying how things were not as competitive or stressful back then. I understand the sentiments.  But I doubt that rewinding the clock to the past is the solution. 

  18. To put it in perspective, if you were born in 1960 (around your parents’ time), by sheer luck of the draw, about half of you in this room would not be here today.  You would only have a primary education.  You would have gone to work right after school, doing a labour-intensive job, with not very high wages. 

  19. But because you were born later in a different Singapore, all of you had the chance to get a good foundation in school, and now to complete a first-class polytechnic education.  You have the competencies and skills to excel in the workplace, and many of you will also have the opportunity to further your education in a university. 

  20. I’ve highlighted several stories from the past, so that we better appreciate what our parents and grandparents had to go through.  We need to know the past to understand where we are today. 

  21. But we can’t build the future on the past.  We have to learn from the experiences that we’ve been through, and find our own way forward in a new world.

  22. So what are some of the things we need to prepare for the future?  Let me offer two suggestions.

  23. First, learning is a lifelong journey.  It does not stop after your graduation, or even after you complete your university degree.

  24. Ironically because of our success in education, people sometimes feel that there are high-stakes involved in progression through the system.  But in fact, all that you have accomplished here in the polytechnic, or later in university, is just the beginning of a much longer, and far more important, journey of lifelong learning. 

  25. This journey will be unpredictable.  They will be setbacks along the way. Sometimes, I hear young people tell me that they must go to a particular university, or they must study a specific course, and then secure a certain job so that they can succeed.  But there is no such thing as a guaranteed path of success in life. 

  26. You are bound to face obstacles and surprises. Things will not always go your way, and you may well fail from time to time.  So what’s important is your attitude and mindset.  Do not crumble at the first sign of problems, or blame others when things go wrong.  Learn to take setbacks in stride, and learn to bounce back from the mistakes and failures that are bound to happen to life. 

  27. That’s also the spirit in our Team Singapore athletes.  And I’m glad that we have many SP students and alumni who will be representing Singapore at the coming SEA Games. Amongst them is Naresh Kunasegaran (Ku-na-se-garan), a graduand in the Diploma in Accountancy who will be competing in the Rugby 7-a-side event at the Games.

  28. As Naresh will tell you, it has not always been smooth sailing for him.  Finding the right balance between his academic and training commitment is a huge challenge. And with the SEA Games coming up, he has to train almost every day of the week while preparing for his final year in SP.  

  29. For Naresh, this is a sacrifice he chose to make.  To him, it is beyond just winning a gold medal.  It’s about wearing the Singapore jersey, giving his best, and putting his body on the line together with his team-mates.

  30. And that’s precisely what we hope to see in each and every one of you – that positive attitude toward learning and excelling in whatever you choose to do. 

  31. In fact, we are just 18 days from the SEA Games. All our athletes are now training hard in this final stretch. So I hope all of you will bring your family and friends to the Games, and cheer on our athletes! 

  32. Finally, in whatever you do, remember that there is much more to life than just pursuing our own individual goals.  At the end of the day, we will not be remembered by our personal achievements – how well we’ve done in our careers, or how much wealth we’ve accumulated in our lifetimes. Instead, what’s important is how we care for one another, and how we make a difference in the lives of the people around us.

  33. And I am glad to see that students at SP do not just excel as individuals, but also have a heart for the community.

  34. For example, one of our graduates today is Amanda Chia who is getting a Diploma in Nutrition, Health and Wellness.  Amanda has combined her academic interest with involvement in the community.  So she has actively taken part in programmes for senior citizens and blood donation drives. 

  35. Amanda also volunteers with the Singapore Association for the Deaf.  She set up the SP Sign Language Club to offer sign language lessons, organise community service programmes and stage performances outside the campus. The club’s membership has grown to more than 100 members, with the aim of creating a more inclusive society for the hearing impaired.

  36. Amanda’s story is an inspiring one. So I’m glad that SP has chosen to award her the Toh Chin Chye Gold Medal in recognition of her academic and service excellence, and I think she fully deserves the accolade.

  37. Tan Fong Xin is another graduand with a big heart for the community. She regularly volunteers with the Singapore Heart Foundation to reach out to the elderly living in rental flats.  She has served as a Youth Community Leader at SP, and has championed many community service projects. For example, she initiated Project St Luke’s to serve and plan activities for the elderly in St Luke’s Eldercare Centre. She also led a year-long project at the Movement for the Intellectually Disabled of Singapore (MINDS), helping the beneficiaries there acquire social skills.

  38. Today, Fong Xin continues to be passionate about serving the community and has joined the Youth Corps.  The Youth Corps is a new programme that my Ministry has set up to provide more opportunities for young people like yourselves – studying in tertiary institutions as well as young working adults – to initiate and lead meaningful community projects in Singapore and overseas.  So do sign up and help to build a better world, and a better Singapore.

  39. Our founding fathers and pioneers worked hard together and helped to build modern Singapore.  Today, you and I are able to enjoy the fruits of their labour. But we must also uphold the legacy and spirit of our pioneers, and strive to build an even better Singapore that the one we inherited. 

  40. Nobody can say for sure what the future will bring for Singapore. But I can assure you that every one of you has a role to play in shaping Singapore to be our home.  And I am confident that the knowledge, skills and values that you’ve picked up from your time at SP will enable you to contribute something worthwhile to this process.  With that, let me congratulate all of you once again on your graduation. I wish you every happiness and success in your future endeavours. Thank you.   

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