Mr Soh Wai Wah, Principal & CEO of Singapore Polytechnic,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is indeed a great honour for me to address you at this 57th SP Graduation Ceremony. This graduation ceremony celebrates not only the well deserved achievements by our graduands, faculty and SP management, but it is also a significant milestone marking the 60th anniversary of the School of EEE. My heartiest congratulations! As your fellow alumnus 34 years ago since 1983, I have three realizations which I wish to share with our graduands today. My three realizations are: 1) Discovery of my priceless treasure, 2) Innovate with immediate tasks at hand, and 3) Having a mentor-in-life.
My first realization: Discovery of my priceless treasure.
The British poet Lord Byron wrote: “The days of our youth are the days of our glory.” When I graduated from SP EEE 34 years ago, I aspired to continue training myself. I chose a difficult path by giving myself a grand challenge to partially self-finance my overseas studies. Looking back, this period was extremely rewarding for me, and a defining phase of my life. After graduation and National Service, I worked as an electronic technician in Electrolux for 8 months. With this, I saved S$5000 as a small supplement to my plans for overseas studies.
Then, I left for the United States for undergraduate and graduate studies under a part-time work-study arrangement. It was extremely tough going; working 20-40 hours with several jobs outside of classroom. Working in a school cafeteria, I chose to work in back-kitchen roles where I could earn a quarter (25 cents) per hour more than a front counter role. A fast-moving conveyor belt brought in randomly stacked trays of dishes and waste food. I had to wash off food remains and separate dishes quickly into washing machines. I remembered how I was splashed with food waste from head to toe as trays were conveyed in at a fast and furious pace. Then, at end of each day, I had to reach deep into washer waste collectors to dig out smelly waste food which remained stubbornly stuck on the walls of the washer collectors.
Besides the cafeteria, I worked as a waiter in a Chinese restaurant in the evenings. I always ensured that everything was cleaned and in order before I left the restaurant to return to the university’s computer lab to work on my school assignments. To conserve spending, I had to stay in a rented apartment infested with roaches – and cockroaches are my most feared creatures on earth! Spending most of my time inside campus facilities to save on heating or air-conditioning costs, I remembered vividly how I would run back from campus to my rented apartment in dark snowy nights. With these inner struggles, I forged my foundation which surprisingly led me to good student jobs like being the first Head Teaching Assistant in UT Austin. Those were my fondest memories as a student after SP. It was the most defining period of my life where I discovered my priceless treasure – I can overcome adversities.
Through overcoming each difficult challenge, I called forth dormant potentials within myself which I was not aware of. I polished my character – determined to be more humble, more compassionate, more empathetic, more determined, more seeking. This has served as my foundation for living an unregretful youth after SP. This foundation of overcoming my own weaknesses through challenges is my priceless treasure. Each of us will travel down our own chosen path. But whichever path each of us may take, develop your priceless treasure within yourself and be courageous to take on new challenges.
My second realization: Innovate with immediate tasks at hand.
I am currently leading digital transformation for retail banking, private and wealth management in Technology and Operations at Standard Chartered Bank. When I graduated from SP, did I envisage my current role upon graduation? Did I aspire to be an IBM Chief Technology Officer and an IBM Distinguished Engineer? Of course, the answer is obviously no. So, how did I land myself into a role which I enjoy working in?
My mentor-in-life, Mr. Daisaku Ikeda, shared this with me: “If you cannot cross a river ten feet wide, how can you cross one that is a hundred or two hundred feet wide?” So, I throw myself whole heartedly into innovating with immediate initiatives at-hand, no matter how insignificant. I must have the capabilities to cross ten feet before tackling several hundred feet. Do I have a solution to improve each immediate task with better and cheaper means? What technologies can I apply or learn? By incrementally developing new innovations with small steps, over time, I was able to develop a more realistic roadmap of innovations towards grand challenges. With each incremental small step, I enjoyed learning new skills, developed a sense of fulfilment and achievement, and gradually discovered my strengths and passions.
How have I progressed since SP? I was first an electronic technician. Then, I joined ISS of NUS after my return from USA in 1991/1992. In ISS, I worked on applied research to find solutions with detecting clone phone usages, optimizing port operations, optimizing scheduling of exam schedules. I taught new skills in artificial intelligence and object orientation. Then, I was a principal technical leader for a first locally developed fighter craft simulator, with integrated software, electronics and mechanical designs. I was then recruited into a local leading bank to help the Group CIO transformed the bank, where I had innovate around transforming legacy systems into service oriented designs amidst conservatives. After the Bank, I was recruited into a very good local chain of clinics to lead patient-centric care innovations, which eventually led me to help the Chairman and CEO to start a new start-up.
As you can imagine, I stretched myself to develop business skills of a startup and speaking to investors. This was outside my comfort zone, since I was a techkie all along. My major turning point came when I was head hunted into IBM where I stayed for more than 16 years. IBM was one of the best companies to work for globally. I like one of IBM’s values: Innovation that Matters for the Company and for the World. In IBM, I had many opportunities to challenge old and new thinking, develop and innovate with best of the best technologies and people globally. Beyond typical solution design and implementation in IT, as IBM ASEAN CTO, I picked up new areas like nano technology, service science, cognitive computing, cloud, analytics, smarter cities, Internet of Things, and more. I went on to lead complex transformational journeys with overseas corporations and governments. I was deeply honoured to become the first IBM Distinguished Engineer in Asia Pacific and in Singapore.
Now in Standard Chartered, together with my colleagues, we need to digitally transform operational processes, existing legacy systems, agile culture, customer experiences and journeys. I like what we are doing now in Standard Chartered Bank – becoming a digital bank with a human touch.
Now, in retrospect, all those opportunities which I had worked on in the past 20 over years were digital transformational initiatives. However, 20 years ago there was no job role called “Head of Digital Transformation”. In fact, new job roles were constantly created in the past 20 over years. Then, why are digital transformation and digitization of industries so critical now? Digitization was important even 20 years ago, wasn’t it? Yes, the difference, however, is that unlike the past, many factors are driving the importance of digitization now. Compared to a few years ago, we are now witnessing waves of disruptive technologies; not just one wave at a time but multiple waves sweeping in concurrently – cloud, analytics, security, revival of Artificial Intelligence after AI Winter, Internet of Things, and social business. Data are being generated at astronomical rate. Consumers are also very technologically savvy. Disruptive technologies are easily accessible at reasonably low cost. Understanding of both business and disruptive technologies are becoming more crucial now to better serve our clients. In fact, I would like to assert that we are now entering into a new era for human-computer collaborations. With such developments, do I even know what new skillsets were needed back then?
No. Instead, I believe that I took every opportunity enthusiastically to innovate with immediate tasks at hand, learn how to team with and lead global teams. During this journey of enjoying successes and failures, I discovered my strengths and passions. As I innovated with each opportunity, better and greater opportunities opened up. I was also very fortunate to have managers, friends and a mentor who coached and guided me. I would encourage you to innovate with every opportunity at hand, no matter how insignificant they may seem, while leapfrogging into the future with joy.
My third realization: Having a mentor-in-life.
It is my greatest fortune and priceless treasure to have Mr. Daisaku Ikeda as my mentor-in-life. While my passion is engineering and IT, areas that seem cold and logical, I was actually searching for meaning in life and for humanistic application of engineering and IT. I got my answers when I read an encouragement from my mentor-in-life, Mr. Daisaku Ikeda, “For what purpose do you cultivate wisdom? May you always ask yourself this question? Only labour and devotion to one’s mission gives life its worth.” It was through Mr. Ikeda that I am able to find my direction and lead value-creative activities. I am enjoying myself. I am transforming tribulations into sources of joys and forever advancing forward in challenging myself. Mr. Ikeda not only pointed me in the right direction, but also helped me discover myself. Having a wise mentor is my greatest treasure in life.
Finally, I would like to end with an encouragement once shared with me by my mentor, Mr. Ikeda that Shakespeare wrote:
"All the World’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;"
Shakespeare likened life as a drama on a stage. I will leave you with these questions: “As a writer and an audience, how would you like your life drama to be written? How would you like your entrances and exits to be?”
It has been my great honour to return to my alma mater today to celebrate your accomplishments and the 60th anniversary of SP School of EEE. I wish you greatest joys and successes in all endeavours. Thank you very much.