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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,
Excellencies and Distinguished Guests,
Parents and Graduands,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

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

  2. Today marks an important milestone for all our graduands. So let me start by congratulating all of you on your achievements! Let’s give a big round of applause to all of them. Well done!  

  3. I should in particular highlight the award recipients. There’s also a big sign as I was walking up with all the star performers. And I was very glad to see that all of them come from a very diverse range of backgrounds – very different schools. And it shows that SP remains a very open and inclusive system where students from all backgrounds can come here and excel in SP. I was particularly happy to see students from SOTA and Sports School who are amongst the star performers. SOTA and Sports School are specialised institutions under my Ministry so I am glad that our graduates are doing well. And I must make a special mention of my fellow TK alumni because I am from Tanjong Technical then, now Tanjong Katong Secondary, and I saw more than a few TK students who are among your star performers as well. So to all the TK alumni, well done!

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

  5. Every graduation ceremony is special, but this year’s graduation has extra significance because this year is the year of our Golden Jubilee.  So all of you here have the distinction of being our Jubilee graduands.

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

  7. I’m sure all of the graduands would have parents or grandparents who are from the Pioneer Generation. So if you parents are not old enough, 65 and above, I am sure your grandparents are – by default they would be. And if you’ve not done so before, I encourage you to talk to them, spend time with them, and ask them what life was like in Singapore when they were growing up.  Many of them would have lived through much more difficult times during our formative years in the 50s and 60s, and they would have seen dramatic improvements in their way of life over the decades.

  8. And this was certainly the case for my own family. On my dad’s side, I had very few relatives because my dad came from China when he was a young boy, pretty much on his own with his father, so I had few relatives on my dad’s side. But on my mum’s side, my grandparents and my mother and her siblings grew up in Kampong Amber – it’s a Malay kampong along Amber road.  If you don’t know where kampong Amber is, think of Parkway Parade and then go up around the corner where the circus is, that’s Amber Road, and that’s where kampong Amber used to be. No longer kampong now – it’s all built up. But in those days, it was right by the seaside and there was a Malay kampong there. My grandfather was a fisherman. He had seven children and my mum was one of them. It was peaceful, it was idyllic, until 1964 when the racial riots broke out in Singapore.  That was when they felt a threat to their safety, they were very worried, and some of the family members decided to move out and they rented a place in Geylang to stay for a while.

  9. Later, my mum got married and my parents got their first HDB flat in Marine Parade where I grew up. This was in the early 70s. To buy their HDB flat 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 a month at that time as a teacher then, and my dad's income was still not stable, as he just came from China - a new immigrant, foreign worker at that time.  Today, it is very different. The starting salary of a teacher is much higher and median household incomes are around $8000 a month. It is a world of difference.

  10. At that time, the CPF system was also not well developed.  So out of their monthly income of around $400 a month, my parents had to support a mortgage of about $300 a month. Imagine, three-quarters of their monthly income had to be paid out in cash to service the mortgage and the remaining amount to go from day-to-day bringing up two children.

  11. And again, this is no longer the case. If and when you decide to marry and settle down and you want to purchase a HDB flat, you can do so, and you can get a HDB loan and most of the monthly instalments will be paid through your CPF.  The cash payment you have to make from your monthly income is very small – it’s probably less than 10 per cent. So the rest of your income can be your take home pay for you because most of your monthly mortgage is paid through CPF. Imagine in my parents’ time, 75 per cent of their income had to be paid for mortgage servicing. Today, less that 10 per cent, or maybe five per cent.

  12. So we sometimes have the impression that life in the past was easier, we had cheaper prices and lower cost of living.  But the reality is that life was much pretty hard then.  And this was the case for my parents. I’m sure it was the case for many of your parents and grandparents and for many of you who were in the pioneer generation here today.

  13. My parents had to scrimp and save every dollar just to make ends meet given the financial situation.  So, growing up in the 70s, I remember how my mum would tightly manage our household finances. She would economise on all aspects. So, we didn't get the chance to go for overseas holidays. We would instead take vacations out at the beach which was nearby to us. We didn't get a chance to eat out very much. She would go marketing every weekend, she would choose the cheapest but good food, fresh food and then she would cook at home. I remember her saying 20 cents for kang kong and 20 cents for spinach. At one time I had the cheek to ask her how come we are always eating the same food all the time and she said you should be thankful that you have rice to eat. That was how may of our pioneers remember growing up. That’s how I remember growing up in the 70s in Singapore and you can see what a dramatic transformation it has been, over just 30 years, 40 years.

  14. And the same can be said of education opportunities as well.  My parents are not university graduates. In fact, none of their brothers and sisters went to university.  But in Singapore all parents understand the importance of education, and they want their children to do better than them.  And that’s partly why we’ve seen a remarkable transformation in our educational standards over the years.

  15. In the 60s, barely half the students in Singapore managed to progress on to secondary school.  So if you look at anyone who is aged above 55 years old today, around half of them would have no more than primary education. My parents were lucky, they had secondary education but my aunties and uncles, many of them didn’t complete primary school.

  16. Today, virtually every young Singaporean completes primary school.  And more than 95% of every cohort would go on to pursue post-secondary education in a tertiary institution, whether it’s ITE, polytechnic or university.  

  17. So this is a remarkable transformation in education.  Other countries have seen something like this happen to them as well, but it typically happens over several generations. But in Singapore, this change has taken place in just one generation.

  18. As a result, some people feel that the changes are happening too quickly, it’s creating too much competition, too much stress. And from time to time, you hear people reminiscing about the past, where they think life was easier, not so competitive, not so stressful. And I understand the sentiments.  But I don’t think that we can rewind the clock to the past and find a solution there.  

  19. To put it in perspective, if you all of our graduates here were born in 1960, by sheer luck of the draw, about half of you would not be here today.  You would only have a primary education.  You would have gone to work right after school, and you would be doing a rather labour-intensive job, with not very high wages.  And you’d be stuck with that probably for the rest of your life.

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

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

  22. But we can’t build the future on the past.  We can’t just replicate the past. We have to learn from what we have gone through, the experiences before, and find our own way forward in the future.

  23. So what are some of the things we need to prepare for in a new world, when we face an unknown future?  I will offer two suggestions.

  24. First, the importance of having this mindset that learning is a lifelong journey.  Leaning does not stop at your graduation today. It does not stop even after you have gotten your university degree.

  25. Ironically because of our success in education, many people feel that there are high-stakes in the education system. Progressing through the system is of utmost importance so we put a lot of emphasis in the education system, in schools, polytechnics, universities.  But in fact, all that one achieves here in the polytechnic, or in a university, is just the beginning of a much longer, and far more important, journey of lifelong learning.  

  26. What happens in your first 16 to 18 years of education is only part of a much longer journey of lifelong learning and that’s why we are talking about SkillsFuture now. This journey of lifelong learning will be unpredictable.  There will be setbacks along the way. And sometimes, I hear young people tell me that they must go to a particular university, they must do a particular course in the university, and then go on to secure a certain job in order to succeed.  So they are very fixed but really there is no such thing as a guaranteed path of success in life.  I know that when I was your age I didn’t know what I wanted to do in life, I didn’t know whether I wanted to go to university or not, I didn’t know what course I wanted to take in university. I would never have predicted that I would be standing here today.

  27. So it is good to have aspirations but also be prepared that there will be a lot of unpredictability in life. You are bound to face obstacles and setbacks. Things will not always go your way, and you will fail from time to time.  And that is okay - it is okay to fail, it is okay to face setbacks. What’s important is your mindset and attitude.  Do not crumble at the first sign of problems, or blame others when things go wrong.  Learn to take setbacks in your stride. Learn to bounce back from the mistakes and failures that are bound to happen to life.  You see this in many of our graduates here – many of them had to overcome adversity, setbacks, in order to get to where they are today.

  28. And you see this attitude in sports as well. You see this in our Team Singapore athletes.  And I’m glad that we have many Singapore Poly students and alumni who will be representing Singapore at the coming SEA Games. Amongst them is Naresh Kunasegaran, he is a graduand in the Diploma in Accountancy and he will be part of our Rugby 7s team competing in the SEA Games very soon.

  29. And as Naresh will tell you, it has not always been smooth sailing for him.  Finding the right balance between his studies and training is a huge challenge. And with the SEA Games coming up, he has to train every day and yet at the same time prepare for his final year and prepare for graduation.   

  30. And for him, this is a sacrifice that he has chosen to make.  To him, it is not just about winning a gold medal for Singapore.  It’s about wearing the Singapore jersey, giving his best, and putting his body on the line together with his team-mates.

  31. And that’s precisely what we hope to see in all of you – each and every one of you here today – that attitude towards learning and excellence in everything that you do.  

  32. Incidentally, I should mention that we are just 18 days away from the SEA Games in Singapore. All of our athletes are now training hard like Naresh. So I hope all of you, students, parents, staff, please come to the SEA Games, bring your family and friends along, and cheer for our athletes!  Make our home-ground advantage count. I know that our athletes are extra motivated when they have the whole of Singapore behind them, and that they will do their best for Singapore.

  33. Second, 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, all of us will not be remembered by our personal achievements – how much we have made in life, how much wealth we’ve accumulated, how far we have advanced in our careers. Well, this may be important to us individually, but I doubt that anyone of us will be remembered by that. Instead, what’s important is how much we care for one another, and how we have made a difference in the lives of the people around us. I think that will be the essence of what people remember us for.

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

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

  36. She volunteers with the Singapore Association for the Deaf.  And she set up the SP Sign Language Club to offer sign language lessons, community service programmes and stage performances outside the campus. The club has grown to more than 100 members, all with the hope of creating a more inclusive society for the hearing impaired.

  37. Amanda’s story is an inspiring story. 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. I think she fully deserves the accolade. Well done!

  38. Another graduand is Tan Fong Xin. And she also has 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 she 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 led a year-long project at the Movement for the Intellectually Disabled of Singapore (MINDS), to help the beneficiaries there acquire social skills.

  39. And today, she continues to be passionate about serving the community and has joined the Youth Corps.  The Youth Corps is a new programme initiated by my Ministry and the National Youth Council to provide more opportunities for young people like yourselves – students or graduates from tertiary institutions as well as young working adults – to initiate and to lead meaningful community service projects both in Singapore and overseas.  So if you are interested and would like to find out more, you can always ask Fong Xin how the programme is like, she will give you firsthand experience, and I will encourage all of you to sign up and help to build a better world, and a better Singapore.

  40. So, in conclusion, I just want to wrap up by saying that even as we look forward to the future, we remember what has transpired in Singapore, and particularly significant because it is our 50th birthday, our golden jubilee. It is particularly poignant also because of the passing of our founding father just two months ago. 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 than the one we inherited.  

  41. No one can say for sure what the future will hold for Singapore, or for all of us. But I can assure all of you that each one of you has a role to play in shaping Singapore to be a better home.  And I am confident that the knowledge, the skills and the values that you’ve picked up from your time at SP will enable you to contribute something worthwhile to this process and help to shape a future that all of us will be proud of.

  42. 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 very much.

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