I thought I’d share his commencement speech delivered to the graduating class on 10th July 2014. I loved his “coconut speech” delivered with his quintessential humour, dignity and an understated deep feeling.
“Member, NUS Board of Trustees, Mr Philip Tan,
Ladies and Gentlemen.
This is certainly a cheerful occasion for the graduates. It marks a significant achievement on your part and I congratulate you on reaching this stage in the journey of your life.
You have heard time and again the saying that “to be successful, you should dream”. If you believe that you will succeed by dreaming, then I’m afraid you will be deeply disappointed. Dreaming is good, and you should dream, but the dream will never be realised without committed effort on your part. And I’m sure that you recognise this by now.
Today, you are receiving your degree and this did not come about just by you dreaming that you will one. You had to put in tremendous energy – for some of you, it was more a nightmare in realising this dream. It was blood, sweat and tears trying to meet with assignment deadlines and constant examinations that keep your adrenaline level high, which is beneficial as that keeps you looking young. Tonight, not one of you has a wrinkle on your face. Just wait a few months without examinations and those lines will start appearing. Adrenaline also strengthens your heart muscles – so now you know the full worth of your tuition fees.
There are two quotations that I want to share with you. They are by two highly successful persons and both are featured in the connecting link between the two wings of University Hall. These quotations are extremely relevant as you journey on.
The first is by Tan Sri Dr. Lee Kong Chian. He said, “Education is the basic element in the survival and prosperity of the state. And the promotion of education should be the responsibility of every citizen. It is man’s best inheritance”.
You are now blessed with an education that fortifies you well for the next stage of your life journey, where you continue to learn and make a positive contribution to society. Always remember that you are not just receiving a degree that gives you a solid head-start but that you are graduating from the National University of Singapore, which is reputed to be among the world’s best. No, this is not a paid commercial in case you are wondering – it is established fact. This means that you stand equal to many of your best peers on the global stage.
Commencing on the next stage of your journey, you need to stay focused but remain relevant. We live in a world that is governed by rapid change. This means that as you aspire, you need to accept change and adapt to it.
Aspiration is good as it keeps you focused. Let’s say your ultimate dream is to be so successful that you can eventually sit under a coconut tree and relax.
As you maintain that focus and work towards it, do be patient. Some of you will get to sit under a coconut tree soon, but others will take a longer time. A few of you will make your first million dollars in a couple of years, but for most, that will take a few decades. However, do be patient. Whatever you do, do it with dignity. This is where the second quotation has relevance. It is by Tan Sri Dr Tan Chin Tuan and he said “I prefer having a good reputation to having all the wealth in the world”. And indeed, your success will be measured most by your integrity and humility.
You also have to adapt to change – we live in a world that is, in the words of the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Thomas Friedman, ‘Hot, Flat and Crowded’. The rate of change keeps accelerating. Technology advances swiftly, the environment is no longer the same, information is at your fingertips and you need to discern the reliability of the information source and interact with more people everywhere, all the time. If you don’t prepare for these changes, you will have difficulty in attaining your dream.
Looking for the coconut tree, it may no longer be in Changi or Sentosa where you expect it to be – you now have to be prepared to settle down in Sapporo or Jeju as coconut trees have shifted there because of global warming. If you don’t prepare for change, you lose.
Then when you finally get to sit under that coconut tree wherever it is in the world, you quickly realise that coconuts do obey Newton’s Law of Gravity. You have to be adequately prepared. Even when you have a crash helmet with google glass incorporated, and by that time google mouth (which lets you sing much better than anyone else) and google ear (which translates what the insects are saying about you), the helmet may just split if that coconut tree turns out to be genetically modified with coconuts that are extra-large and heavy.
If you are not totally prepared, you won’t be enjoying your dream for long.
But do not be discouraged by the elusive coconut tree. As Biological Sciences graduates of the National University of Singapore, you have an education that will help to prime you fully as you navigate through all the uncertainties towards your aspiration.
Best wishes to you and once again, congratulations!”