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Speech by
Mr Irving Low


Mr Tan Choon Shian, Principal and Chief Executive Officer of Singapore Polytechnic
Distinguished Guests
Parents and Graduands
Staff of Singapore Polytechnic
Ladies and Gentlemen

Good Morning, very good to see all of you.

It is a great pleasure and an honour to be here speaking with you on your graduation day.

First and foremost, let me congratulate all of you here who are graduating this morning. It is a commendable effort.

More importantly, to your teachers, family, friends and loved ones, who have supported you for this journey, congratulations.

I wanted to take the next ten to fifteen minutes to share with you how I went through the last 23 to 25 years, hopefully, to be able to give you some pointers, so that you can embark on the new chapter of your life.

I have got four points for you.

Point 1 :  You Need to Work Hard.

It is going to be hard work for you.

This is not to dampen your spirit, but unfortunately, work is hard.  

There is no short-cut for hard work.

I am relating to you my own experiences.  As a young adult, I was impatient to get to the forefront as quickly as possible. I took on 3 jobs to support myself through university.  I wanted to earn money in a very steady fashion. So I was literally dying to get out to work.

Believe it or not, after I started working, I wished I was a student again.

The pressure you face at work is different. You will face immense pressure at work.

At KPMG, there are about 3000 employees.  I have 200 to 250 staff working directly under me.

No one single person does not work hard. The reality is, in Singapore, everyone works hard.

So, do not think that by working hard, you will achieve your dreams, because the starting point is to work hard.

Point 2 :  You Need to Learn to Stay Focused and be Disciplined.

In your lifetime and your career, you will find that you will have many job offers.

KPMG is the only job offer I’ve had. I have been working for KPMG in the last 23 years.

You would find that those who are very good at what they are doing in their career are those who love to do what they are doing.

It is very sad to see that some people, who probably have 10 to 15 jobs in their career and are in their mid-40s with families, are not able to look for a job in this competitive job market environment. 

Stay focused and be disciplined, know what you want.  This is probably an easier way to achieve your goals.

I tell my students that, when they join KPMG in their first 2 years, they need to decide, compare and speak to people they know, to make sure that it is the career path they wish to pursue.

To chase money as a starting point is the wrong way to start.

Nothing is more satisfying than to be able to wake up each morning and tell myself that I like to get to work because I love what I am doing.

If you are not sure what you want to do, let me share with you what I did when I was a lot younger. I defined my 5-year goals.

Being an auditor had allowed me to broaden my horizon.

I had many job offers from the banks.

I am sure a lot of you would like to work in the banking industry.

But as some of you may know, the banking industry today is no longer what it used to be.

If you are not sure what you want to do, make sure that you investigate and explore.  

In reality, it is very hard to look for your next job, after going through 10 jobs within a span of 10 to 15 years.

That’s not to say that you need to stay in your job forever, but I think you need to be selective about what you do, moving from one job to the next.

So what I did was, I wrote down the things that I like doing and the things that I did not like doing.

I would then match those attributes to find which occupation best suited me, and think of whether it is something I would like to do for the rest of my life.

I have to say that I started with auditing but I have since moved from auditing.

The point is, your goals will change as you mature and progress to suit your career.

You will find that, as you grow older, when you get married and have children, your goals may also change.

In my department, I have working mothers who work 3 days a week to meet their needs because their goals have changed.

Point 3 : You Need to Take Chances.

I would like to share with you a quotation by JK Rowling, author for Harry Potter:

“It is impossible to live without failing at something unless you live so cautiously that you may as well not have lived at all – in which case you’ve failed by default.”

In other words, if we will not take any chances, why bother to live?

You probably have heard this saying:  Fortune favours the brave.  We need to take chances.

The point is as you go through life, do not be afraid to make mistakes.  Hopefully when you have made a mistake, you have someone next to you to pick you up.

So my other point is, when you take chances, find yourself a good mentor.  Make sure you find someone who will be able to guide you in your career, give you advice, recommendations and ideas.

My parents used to tell me everything when I was young. I used to tell my parents that they were worrying too much and that I knew what I was doing.

As I grew older, I realised that there are experiences you cannot buy. You have to live through experiences.  Your family, friends, uncles and aunties are the ones who have lived through life.

Learn from other people’s mistakes. It pays a price to make your own mistake and learn from your own mistake. Speak to people around you and learn from their mistakes, so that you can avoid making those same mistakes. I think that’s the smart thing to do.

The other thing about taking chances, I would say that, it is also about venturing beyond your comfort zone.

One of the things I am referring to is working overseas.

When I started working in KPMG in 1993, I travelled to London to work for 3 years after working 4 years in Singapore.  

I’ll tell you why this is important.  With the way the world is going now, all the companies do not just operate in Singapore.  50% to 60% of the companies have businesses outside Singapore.

I look after a lot of multi-national companies in Singapore. The feedback I received from them, such as Microsoft and Google, is that Singaporeans do not like to work overseas.

Now when you go and look for a job with the company that says it has many offices in many parts of the world, that means you need to travel.

If you work for an MNC like KPMG, by default, we are telling you that you need to travel.

So the point is, keep your mind and heart open. Take the chances that you have.

Parents, don’t deprive your kids of this excellent opportunity.

Point 4 :  Be Flexible and Be Innovative.

I would like to give you some statistics here:

  1. In the 1970s, there were 13.5 workers to 1 elderly citizen.
  2. In 2000 (representing this batch of graduands), there were 8.4 workers to 1 elderly adult.
  3. In 2015 (last year), there were 4.8 workers to 1 elderly citizen.
  4. By 2030, there will be 2.1 workers to 1 elderly adult in Singapore.

That tells you that the world is changing. The world is no longer what it used to be.

Another set of interesting statistics for you:

  1. In 1930s, the Fortune 500 companies on the American Stock Exchange stayed for an average of 125 years.
  2.  In 1980s, they remained there for 75 years.
  3. In 10 years’ time, they will stay for 5 years.

Things are changing a lot more rapidly than they used to.

In point 2, when I mentioned to stay focused and be disciplined, you need to be committed to your job, and to do the best you can.

Sometimes, you may need to change jobs because circumstances are such that the companies are no longer there.

Think about the banks which used to exist, for example Barings and Lehman Brothers.

Take a look at Nokia which first came up with the “banana phone”, but they’re no longer in the market now.

Similarly, in the case of Kodak, which sold its own film for Polaroid cameras. Kodak was the first company that invented the digital camera.  However, they never marketed their digital camera.

So, be flexible and be innovative.

That’s the point of innovation and taking chances.

Most private equity banks pay for 9 failures out of 10 companies invested, with success in only one company.  This is the point of taking chances and making sure you do the right thing.

To all the graduands, the world is ahead of you.

What you do and how you do it will define your career, your future and your family.

I was at a convention in New York late last year.

The speaker shared some statistics that the occupation of an auditor may likely to be redundant in 10 years due to technology change and innovation.

So the point is, if you are not flexible and innovative enough, you will not survive.

I am no longer doing what I started to do 23 years ago because I chose to keep an open mind, and do something completely different.

My advice to all those who are graduating:
Think of this as an opportunity, and not as a burden.

In summary, I hope these four points will help set your career path:

You need to:

(a)        Work hard.
(b)        Stay focused and be disciplined.
(c)         Take chances.
(d)         Be flexible and innovative.
The experiences you have collectively as an individual and as a group are powerful.

Make sure you keep close contact with your family and friends around you.

Take the right advice from the right mentor to help you do the right things.

I am sure that, in 10 to 20 years’ time, Singapore will be in good hands with the graduands of today.

With that, let me congratulate all the graduands this morning.

Thank you very much.