Good afternoon Mr. Tan Choon Shian, CEO & Principal of Singapore Polytechnic,
distinguished guests, parents, lecturers and staff of the Singapore Polytechnic,
and of course you the Graduates of 2017.
- It is truly an honour to be here today in your company. My congratulations, not just to you the students, but equally to the parents of the students. If you are anything like my parents, you must be heaving a sigh of relief.
- I graduated with Honours from university, but I never went to my graduation ceremony. Why? I felt, since I had spent precious little time in university while I was supposed to be there, it just didn't seem right for me to turn up at my graduation. I also had the distinct impression that some of my lecturers would be looking for me. I feared it was not so much to congratulate me but to enquire as to where I had been for 4 years.
- The truth of the matter is, very early on in my first year, I got myself a part-time job with the Walt Disney Company. No, it was not on account of my grades, but more so because I happened to have a friend who was working there and they needed some assistance. I jumped at the opportunity. And with one good piece of work leading to another, I ended up working for them on virtually a full-time basis. I turned up in school for the exams, and graduated, not because I am prodigious by any yardstick, but due to the good graces of my friends who helped me tremendously when the examination periods would come around. More on the value of friendship later.
- So today, if you don’t mind, I am going to enjoy your graduation ceremony. It is the closest I have been in 20 years to my own. Naturally, I did not mention this to the kind people at your Business School, just in case they revoked their possibly misplaced invite.
- Lightheartedness aside, an invitation like this gets one thinking, reflecting on yesterday and projecting into tomorrow. So what has been on my mind?
- 3 things. 1) That you’re stepping into a brave new world. 2) You may be living in the best and worst of times. And 3) The importance of you remembering your humanity in the age of IT.
Let’s start with the first thing, “You’re stepping into a brave new world.”
- 20 years ago, when I was in and around your age, the general belief I developed listening to the older folks around me, was that the best opportunities were behind me.
- Property had seen its "heyday" with people lamenting how they could and should have bought a property in the 60s when it was so much cheaper. Retailer fondly recalled how they made a killing up to the early eighties on the back of American GIs stopping over in Singapore. Tour guides spoke about how the Japanese tourist were no longer coming to Singapore in droves and those who were, were not as forthcoming with their generous tips and how tourism in Singapore had become a sunset industry.
- This was the vibe I got after the late 1980s downturn and before the 1997 financial crisis which was just getting started.
- While I was already with the Walt Disney Company, and enjoying myself flying all across Asia from Japan to Indonesia, optimism is not how I would describe the mood around me. Opportunities did not seem to be aplenty.
- And then everything changed, as along came the Internet heralding a truly brave new world. Yes, the tech bubble did burst in the early 2000s, but the foundation for web 2.0 had solidly been laid.
- Today, 20 years later, we are firmly in the midst of the 4th industrial revolution. In layman terms it’s web 3.0 and the start of the age of artificial intelligence, robotics and automation, or AIRA as I like to call it.
Which brings us to my second point, “You may be living in the best and worst of times.”
- Technology has come to the fore as an enabler. It has created new opportunities for economic gain. Social media has given people a voice they never had. It has dramatically changed the social and political landscape.
- Low cost air travel has made the world accessible to an unprecedented number of people. Ever so often, the cost of flying from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur, or even further afield, is cheaper than the cost of taking a taxi from Changi to Tuas.
- Virtual reality is about to change the dynamics of what it means to travel, all over again. Soon enough virtual reality will allow us to be in a venue like this auditorium, without all of us being physically in this auditorium. Many of you, the graduates of today, will attend your childrens' graduation without being in the same physical proximity.
- Along with some of the best things will inevitably come some of the worst. We’ve been seeing it daily for some time now, both near and afar. Daily skirmishes and inhumane images being sent virally around the world as they happen. Institutions are falling apart, in many cases by their own failure to live up to their promises. We see it politically with what is unfolding in the US, and it is threatening to spill over into Europe. The family unit too is under threat with escalating divorce rates and people in physical proximity with one another but in their own digital worlds. The institution of education, as well as the educated too is being questioned, with a certificate no longer being taken as a guarantee of knowledge and/or competency.
- Automation is picking up speed. Robotics has captured the public’s imagination, and Artificial Intelligence is the buzzword of 2017 and proving that it is an idea whose time has come. In the last 2 years alone A.I. has gone from "no way" to "oh no” because the mist has cleared on the path and it is clearer how jobs will be displaced.
- While the fear is real, we’ve been through these concerns before. In 1810, with 1 billion people, 84% of the global workforce was in agricultural related jobs. Today it's less than 1% and we are feeding 7.5 billions people. So what happened to the jobs that were consigned to the dustbins of history? New jobs came up in their place.
- Organisations today advertise jobs for Growth Hackers, Customer Success Agents and of course Data Scientists. These are not new names for old jobs. They are new jobs that require multidisciplinary expertise that just did not exist in one person alone. The word disruption has replaced the word change, because change happens too slowly. We speak of a new normal because business as usual has become a synonym for obsolescence.
- These are interesting times that you are venturing outwards into. And in the midst of these interesting times lie the greatest opportunities the world might have ever seen. Business models are being innovated, startups are competing tooth and nail to survive and new possibilities are only restricted by a lack of imagination.
- Indeed the best and worst of times historically have depended entirely on what we make of them. This is not just the challenge you and I face, it is the same challenge for us all. The Steve Jobs of the world are being made to look by the Elon Musks of the world like prologues to Chapter 1. Science fiction has transformed into science reality with solar energy, electric vehicles, self-driving cars, super efficient and fast train transportation, humanity seeking to colonise Mars and devices being embedded directly into our brain’s neural network to effectively turn us into cyborgs. And what I’ve just quoted is the ongoing work of just one man.
- It would not be outlandish to expect a world in 10 years that is exponentially different from the 200 that came before it. Such is the pace of what Ray Kurzwel calls, the law of accelerating returns. Exciting times indeed for a fresh graduate such as yourself.
Which brings me to, my third and final point, “Remembering your humanity in the age of IT.”
- In a super-fast paced transactionary world where relationships will tend to be only as firm as the shelf-life of the deal itself, let us not forget that humanity matters. That we are in a privileged position as a species on the planet. That we’ve evolved to the highest rung of the value chain and have the ability to shape not just the future of this planet but soon enough the future of our closest neighbour. That while we wield this power in our hand the values that make us human should matter more than ever.
- Allow me to put how important this is into context. In 1996 IBM’s Deep Blue beat the world champion Garry Kasparov in a game of chess. In 2011 IBM’s Watson comprehensively beat Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings the all-time winner of a game called Jeopardy. And last year, in 2016 Google owned Deepmind’s AlphaGo defeated the legendary Lee Sedol in a game of Go. These were games of logic, language and intuition respectively. And it wasn’t just Kasparov, Rutter, Jenkins and Sedol who lost. It was you and I who lost too, as they were representing us as member of the human species. So interesting, as artificial intelligence rises and beats us at our own games, it will forces us as human beings to rediscover what it means to be humanity.
- And this might just be the best thing that can happen, because it will make us realise that kindness, compassion, courtesy, gratitude and the other fine things that make us human, do actually matter. That the genuine acknowledgement of our commonality and the difference of our ethnicity are to be treasured. That the bonds of friendships you have created here, just as I did, that helped me get through university, matter.
- That the fact you are here places you in a very small and privileged minority of people on this planet. And by virtue of that we all have a responsibility to go out there and make the best contribution we can make. So that humbly is my final of my 3 points. Please remember your humanity in the age of IT.
- With that, this is my parting wish for you as your commence your journey beyond the gates of Singapore Polytechnic. The following was my wish for my brother and his wife on the day they got married and it is also my wish for you. The words thus far have been mine, but the following are from the great Bob Dylan, who deservedly received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016.
“May God bless and keep you always
May your wishes all come true
May you always do for others
And let others do for you
May you build a ladder to the stars
And climb on every rung
And may you stay forever young”
- Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for listening. Class of 2017, congratulations once again. “And may you stay forever young.”