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Speech by
Mr Johan De Villiers


Principal & CEO, Singapore Polytechnic, Mr Tan Choon Shian,
Distinguished Guests,
Parents and Graduands,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Good Afternoon.

Thank you for the invitation to address you all – it is a personal pleasure and a privilege of mine to be here in front of you all and to share in this amazing moment in your lives.

First and foremost, congratulations on achieving the very important milestone in your lives and careers! Enjoy the feeling! I remember mine, vaguely... I’m not sure if it will be the same with you but I scarcely remember the details of my graduation day because I was already so busy getting on with the next phase of my life. So don’t make the same mistake I did – enjoy it, savor it, and live in the moment, to remember for the rest of your life.

So what did you really achieve with your graduation? You proved to the world that you are bright, that you can learn, and apply what you have learned, that you can think clearly, acquire data and  knowledge, understand principles, and apply methods systematically. Also that you can find information and assess what is relevant and what is credible. All of this is useful and your education has helped to lay the foundation for you to be great at whatever you do.

But I hope that you have learnt much more during your time here – learnt about working in a team, supporting each other, getting along with people you don’t necessarily like, listening to what needs to be done, resilience, getting up when you are down, motivating yourself to improve and setting yourself challenges and targets and pushing hard to achieve them, rather than doing the minimum possible to get through. Well sometimes we need that skill too!

As I look around this auditorium, I see the future. I am sure you have already thought about your next steps – some of you will go for further education, some will climb the first rung of their career ladder and some may even start your own business – all of which are equally great pathways to success and to making a difference to the world.   Whatever you choose, use your brilliant minds to stay active and curious, to bring innovations and big ideas. 

And you are all very lucky to have a wealth of support to help you develop to your fullest potential. The SkillsFuture Earn and Learn programme for instance, can help you get placed with an employer and learn through structured on-the-job training – strengthening your learning in a real work environment.

On a more personal note, let me share with you my journey into engineering.

It all started when I was around 10, when I took apart a toy train that I received as a birthday gift because I wanted to know how it works. Instead of telling me off, my dad recognized my interest and actively supported me. For my 11th birthday, I got an electronics kit and a year later, I was etching my own circuit boards. 

I loved making things and this compelled me to study engineering – though it wasn’t always easy. With strong encouragement from my mom, I made good grades in school and managed to get a bursary for my studies. I was very lucky to have great family and teachers who believed in me, supported me and really helped prepare me for the big wide world of work.

My first job was an engineer with Johannesburg Electricity.  After 4 years, I joined ABB, and I’ve had a truly rewarding career.  I’ve experienced many different roles, working in many different sectors of engineering. I have moved from South Africa to Qatar, Abu Dhabi, and now here.  Through my job, I believe I made a difference to thousands of people through the projects that I’ve worked on, whether its improving productivity at the world’s deepest gold mine, delivering fresh water through a 250 km pipeline to remote communities in Botswana, building a world class port to export LNG from Qatar, or improving food safety by automating a bread bakery with industrial robots. 

Even though I spend more of my time now as a business director, I will always be an engineer at heart and will never forget those moments when your heart jumps as your project is literally switched on. 

So, you’ve chosen well.  Engineering is a fantastic subject to study and even more fantastic to work in!

I am more passionate about what engineering stands for than ever before. Think for a minute where would the world be without engineering? Where would we be?

If I look at what ABB has accomplished in the recent past, as one of several global engineering companies, it truly energizes and motivates me:

For example:

We’re connecting the world’s largest offshore wind farm to UK grid, delivering clean power to over a million households.

We’ve developed the electrical and automation system that controls the flood barrier system that protects Venice from flooding.

We will be helping to develop the power infrastructure in Iraq.

We’re bringing microgrid solutions to developing communities in Africa and India, and in fact our CEO recently discussed this very issue with Mr. Modi, the Prime Minister of India.

Our technologies will power the world’s most energy-efficient pulp mill, generating twice as much power as it consumes.

We’ve developed the world’s first truly collaborative two armed robot which changes and expands the ways robots can be used in industries, enabling closer collaboration with human co-workers

We’ve developed a 1 million volt AC circuit breaker that can interrupt 10GW!! That is the total power generation capacity of Singapore.

And we’ve also developed and tested a 525 kilovolt cable system that can transmit 2,600 megawatts (MW) to distances of 1,500 kilometers. 

And finally, a symbolic yet exceptionally powerful example is Solar Impulse, a project to fly a zero-emission, solar-powered plane around the world  This is an engineering marvel, a “flying laboratory to find innovative technological solutions for today’s challenges”, for using energy more efficiently and conserving natural resources. But most of all, for you here today, it demonstrates that engineering plays a key part in making the impossible possible.

These are inspiring examples of the possibilities of engineering.  But don’t forget the amazing contributions that you can make to Singapore. 

There are massive opportunities to develop innovations and solutions that will drive sustainable economic growth in Singapore, without harming the environment. After all, we’ve heard much about the Smart Nation program, and it doesn’t’ take a rocket scientist to know that a smarter nation needs smart people just like you.  

These are exciting times.  Always remember that as an engineer, you have an amazing opportunity to apply your time, energy and passion, to truly make the world a better place. I’m looking forward to hear of the great things that you will achieve and I hope some of you may even do that working in our company.

So there is much to reflect on, about your future and where and how you will follow it.  But today - celebrate your success, be proud of what you have achieved and be grateful for the opportunity you have been given.  You have done your lecturers, your colleagues, your friends and family all very proud. Congratulations again and all of the very best for the next steps in your careers!