Well, now we hear from the government specifically the Minister Ye Kung [Ong Ye Kung] education minister in charge of higher education, that talks about interest and passion, about the importance of not looking at just academic grades. You also hear that from the other Minister of Education that looks at schools. And everybody is saying that actually even parents also say that. They don’t want their child to be just focused on academic grades and all but the system seems to suggest in Singapore system about the importance of it and why, that’s because the structure is still, there seems to be a unidimensional definition of success, which is oh you need to have either money or be smart intellectually with a paper degree. I think moving forward, that will change.
It’s not whether it should change but I think it will change because skills of all sorts, and other than paper qualifications become very important. And I would hope that all SMU students, in fact students of all universities in Singapore really realize that much earlier. And not only when they enter into the real world and realize that oh actually these are the skillsets that are required and the universities didn’t teach me that. I think students should not wait for the universities to teach you those so-called work-relevant skills. If there are opportunities there, but the students must take the initiative, and ask ourselves, and say well grades are important but it’s not the only important thing and may not be the most important thing. SMU provide the opportunity to do many non-academic stuff, right from day one, and I think when students in SMU are in that environment, you really need to make full use of it.
So I think the best advice student should have is pursue your goals, pursue something you are interested in, and if money is the only criteria and you will end up unhappy. And I will give you the example. I mean, I don't know how many students who come to the MBA program, I've taught in many different places, a lot of them come in after 5 or 6 years completely burnt out in the financial services industry. They've made money, they've been sitting in front of a terminal, either watching, you know, shares in the pharmaceutical sector or they've been watching exchange rates. How're they not getting bored out of their minds? I mean they're not using their mind. Yes they are in a very narrow way. But you know, for certain people, that's life and that's what they want to do. And if they got fire in their belly for doing it, I say Hallelujah. I mean for me, the thing I wanted most of all was a Welsh rugby cap, playing rugby for Wales. I couldn't get it. I was nowhere near good enough. I wouldn't even rated on a selector's radar, probably the radar dried up before they got my name. And so the nearest thing I got to a Welsh rugby cap was an honorary degree from Swansea University. And I've never had any association with Swansea University except I was born close to Swansea. My parents would've been delighted, unfortunately both of them had died by that time. But that would have been equivalent to a Welsh rugby cap for them and it was sort of for me. So I don't know. I think advice to students is, follow your dreams, and even if you get knocked down, get up again and do what you want to do because you'll regret it afterwards. And you know, people, you know the American film, Bucket list, people write up bucket lists. They should be doing the damn things when they're alive and still walking. Not, I want to go to Bhutan and trek through Bhutan. Well my god if you're in your 70s and trekking through Bhutan, what you need is a portable doctor because you will never make it. Or going to see the Amazon rainforest or whatever it is, or going to see the Aborigines or going to Darwin, do it while you can, don't grumble later on. I mean I think people whine and grumble too much. I've been influenced very heavily by Lynn who is a high positive. Her whole career has been advising others. And I think I've been lucky.
I hope that SMU students will consider marketing types of positions as well as finance. Not anything against finance, but. And the faculty, I hope that the faculty, the really research-concentrated faculty, will appreciate the teaching and those who do other dimensions of what needs to be done to make a great university, and vice versa. There have on occasion been problems of the two sides not valuing one another. And I value both. And I hope they do too.
Just remember when you're done, the platform you stood on when you walked through that door was those other generations, and the people in the government, and people who built that institution. And through your life, you owe them one. How you pay that debt is up to you, though you aren't compelled to do anything. But you ought to think about what you can do, whether it's volunteer activity doesn't have to be for SMU any kind of activity to help your fellow man and help your society. That debt continues, even though the education, formally, may be coming to an end.
When I look at our students and our graduates, what concerns me is many of them are focused on, I guess primarily, career and money. But to me, life is more than that. Life has to do with also first knowing yourself and your values. Career and money is just a means to that end. If those are your end in itself, I would say you are in trouble, because money is never enough. If you are a billionaire, there's always the next billion to make, so it's never enough. But I think ultimately for students, for anyone, to me it's your personal sense of happiness and satisfaction, not just from a career perspective but from your personal life, family and from what you are able to contribute to society at large. I think to me, those are key.
I wish that on the day I die, I will not say, I wish I could have spent less time in the office and more time with my family. I think I can consciously say that I have strike a good balance between family, personal life and work. I think that is key. I think we need to keep all that in balance and not tilt it to the other way. So if I may have a chance to tell students, is think carefully about all these as well. It's not about the more pay and all that. It is ultimately your own journey and your own satisfaction in relation to all these things, contributing to family, contributing to the society. You can chase money, money can fail you. You can chase career, career can kill you. You know because I always tell, even my children, I say, high pay is not for free. It comes with responsibility. It comes with stress. So nothing is for free. So the key thing is balance. Strike a balance in your life between your personal values and what you want to accomplish. That to me is more important.
Work with the career services. Come with an open mind. Come with that authenticity, that honesty, and put in the effort. You put in the effort in your own development then we can work with you. Don't adopt the attitude that we owe you a living because we can't. We can't make it for you. You have to work with us. We can help you navigate, we can help you get there, but a lot of effort will have to come from you. So do work with us. That's why we engage students from the very first day that they come in to university.
Probably two or three. One is to keep moving because our world is changing and Singapore as they know today will not be the same Singapore in 5 years. Many of the opportunities that they will face will not be in Singapore. They maybe in Shanghai and they maybe in somewhere else. So one is to keep moving and looking forward. And the second one is going to be on flexibility and continued learning. Because of the rate of change in the society, I don't think the degree means anything in ten years from now. So that's one of the things we have been doing in SMU with dual majors and so on and so forth. I hope they're leaving with the ability to learn. So hopefully we'll get some of them to come back to SMU. And the third thing I would say is to, just as they've taken ownership at SMU, is to take ownership wherever they go. Whether it's with a company or an NGO or with the government, you have to invest in the organization, in the eco system that you work in. So your contributions are going to have to be beyond the job and beyond the family, it'd have to be to the community.
Okay. So, yes, I can give at least a few, related pieces. What Ive observed in many of the current students is that many of them are now into the show rather than the substance. And this is also in the forms in which they do their final group presentations, it's all gadgets and gizmos. I tell them, I said, things can actually go very wrong with that. Because one of your gizmos doesn't work, you've got a glitch, you're finished, right? But I said, more than that, after the show, what? You know, I said, the important thing is if you share with somebody a three-minute video clip and the guy said, Wah, this is good! but he doesn't take it out to the coffee shop, to the restaurant, to his wife, to his daughter and say, My God, today I saw this clip,� he doesn't talk about it, you're finished. I said, the new world you have to have both form and substance. But, I said, probably the way I see it, the world has had a lot of show in recent times but it's now going to go back a little bit to the substance, so make sure you read a lot. Read widely. And think about what you read. That's number one.
Number two, don't be afraid, you know what I mean? God, or whoever you believe is your creator, whether its nature, whether you're just self-born, you have been given a very special and precious gift called life, and you have to make beauty out of that life. Try to minimize the ugliness, try to increase the beauty and the joy. And I said, because you're young, you're youthful, you have a whole life ahead of you with everything given. I said, many times I think that if I was born today, how different it would be, with all the future. SMU is such a beautiful place because you get to meet all these CEOs, you've get to meet wonderful people from all around the world. You get to travel, your exchange, your internship and all that. Don't waste any precious moment. It's so easy to just drift, and once you get caught by the form then you get gripped by the idea of distraction and all that, then you lose your focus. And even though you get your degree, the world out there is going to test you in very, very different ways.
So I give them the example of this Goldman Sachs guy. So one of the senior VPs of Goldman Sachs flew in from New York to Singapore and was having a round of meetings. This was about four years ago. He called me up for a chat over breakfast, and he said, you know, we looked to your university for creating these wonderful graduates. But, he said, quite frankly, I am a bit disappointed. So, I said, what happened? He said they had one guy from SMU who had reached the kind of VP level and then was in line to be promoted. Now apparently in Goldman Sachs, when you go from VP to senior VP, you become part of the global team, then you're no longer responsible for any place or country, you're at the top. And with it comes like a minimum of 15 million bonus every year for the top 50 of them. So it's big money, right? He said, we interviewed this SMU graduate who had been nine years with Goldman Sachs, our first cohort, very good, very able, but one area for some reason seems to be a little bit missing. And he said he couldn't create a conversation that centred on things that were beyond the financial world. So he said, we asked him what was the last play he saw? And he said the guy said, the last play was probably when I was first year of university, like years ago. And they said, oh, that's okay. So do you travel? Oh yeah, I travel. Where? Oh, New York, Chicago, London and all that. So he said, well, in London, there's the Victoria Museum, Albert and Victoria Museum, the VNA, what part of VNA do you like? And he said, actually, I haven't been in there. But he said, by the time we asked two, three more questions like this, we saw nothing but ignorance. So he said, Kirpal, at that level, when we meet, we don't talk about this data and all that. That is all done. We talk about these other things because we talk about people who have got like 500 million dollars to invest. You want to manage that portfolio? You've got to build up a client relationship. That guy wants a person who knows about megatrends, knows about culture and arts.
Then he told me, he said, the Malaysian guy, they also interviewed the Malaysian candidate, he also didn't get the job. But, he said, the Malaysian guy at least had the capacity to hijack the conversation. Because he said when we asked him about the London Symphony, he said, I haven't had much experience of the London Symphony, I've heard a couple of things over the radio, or maybe my wife has a record somewhere. But he said, I can tell you something about the Malaysian symphony. But he said, your Singapore guy was not even able to do that. We gave him opportunities, nothing happened. So he said, maybe your university might want try to acculturate your students with this larger, bigger picture. But, of course, it is a challenge.
I think a lot of our undergraduate students must recognise that the degree is only the first step to learning. Based on the last World Economic Forum where I spoke at on education, skills and jobs, you only have a degree, but education is life-long. So you are going to more, into practically three to five different careers throughout your life. Your first degree may not even be remembered and we did not teach you facts when you were in SMU. You came in; we wanted to teach you skills. We wanted to teach you life skills, so we were not that fussy about you leaning too much of all kinds of skills. We wanted you to have soft skills, life skills, such that even as the world change towards a greater VUCA world which stands for volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. So all of you are going to be facing a VUCA world, consistently. But, you will go out there and say, I have been given a university education with a set of life skills and I shall be courageous. And that's all you need. You do not need to have a degree that gives you every skill under the sun. You will learn those skills as you morph through your three to five careers, and your learning will never stop because we started you on that pathway.
I’ve been telling our students, because I have regular lunch with a smaller group of students and they always ask me that question, “Professor, given your— they don’t say, given your age—they say given your experience what do you have to tell us?” And my answer is a university education is something that we build together. A university offers opportunities. A student has to take some of the opportunities but also shape those opportunities in what he or she wants to do with it. We’re not a restaurant where you sit and you see a buffet and you can just take and eat. We are more a restaurant where you still have to do a bit of the cooking yourself, where you have to shape your own education yourself.
And so my advice to students has always been three-fold. First of all, we are not a cookie-cutter training machine that will turn out or churn out identical students every year. But what we are is an environment in which there are lots of opportunities, there’re probably too many opportunities, and you will have to make trade-offs, but choose those things that you feel make a good education for yourself.
Secondly, I tell students that my personal experience is that my student years were the years where I could experiment with leadership on a very small scale—in the clubs or the political organisations I was in as a student. You can make mistakes, you can experiment, you can simulate what leadership, taking on responsibility, really means. And when I look back—and of course I have evolved a lot over the years in the way I look at the world, the way I look at organisations, I’ve gotten a totally different perspective by being a president obviously again—but fundamentally some of the values I have about leadership go back to the time I was at university when I could try out things. So that’s my second advice, that is make sure that if you are four years at this university, that you grab the opportunity to hone, maybe honing is too strong, but at least to develop a little bit your leadership skills. Try out what your style of leadership could be. So that’s my second advice.
The third advice is undergraduate education is not preparation for a job—even professional schools like the law school or the accounting school, where yes, you go into a particular profession—it is still to a large extent the preparation that opens up your mind, that creates options for you, that enables you to do many different things. I studied engineering and yet I am not in a job that is an engineering job. But I still think when I was studying engineering, I had a very broad view of what I wanted to do, and the engineering studies I did—I saw it more as an opportunity to create options for myself.
So that’s the advice I would give to students. That is, education is something you make yourself, and there will be trade-offs to be made. You can’t do everything here and don’t be worried about it. We offer you opportunities, build your own education. Two, it’s an opportunity to hone your leadership skills, and three, see an undergraduate education as broadening your options, not as narrowing yourself down to one particular job.
Oh, be open to anything and don’t miss an opportunity to try something new and different. You get jobs and you meet people by being part of the community, not by having your nose stuck in a book all the time. But that’s not to say you shouldn’t do your studies, obviously you have to work hard. But be open to things and open to people.
I always say that the bottom line of it is that integrity and the being true to your principles is the most important guide for whatever decisions you make later on and how you cope with the different situations, different problems. Because in the end you’ve got to be satisfied with what you decide to do and the best guide for it is in terms of one’s integrity and values. And SMU talks about this many times in different forms, but to me that’s one of the most important things actually just maintaining your set of values and being true to them.
After I left administration, I went into teaching and surprisingly I managed to survive quite well. So we have student evaluations and I am only entitled to be considered for an award after three years. So the first three years, I got the best teaching, teacher’s award and then subsequently I got to stop for one year because I must give another person a chance. Subsequently I won again. Give another person a chance, I won again. So I won three. It was very gratifying. So after winning three, they put me into so called ‘The Hall of Fame’, teaching fame. So I haven’t seen my hall of fame yet. So yah, I think that’s good, the students appreciated it.
Sure, I think that whatever you do, whatever you do, do the best, do your best, you give your best and people will appreciate it. It take time sometimes but people will appreciate that you did your best and I always tell my students also and I say, “Wherever you are, do the best you can.” Okay, because if you don’t, people will know. Do your best, even if you’re not very good at it, but people know that you have given your best. Nobody will blame you. Sometimes people are so clever but they are not going to do their best. It’s not appreciated. So I want to bless my students, which runs in the thousands, okay, all over the world that they will continue to do well. Be proud of themselves and be proud of their country, okay.
My advice to future students is that they should take advantage of all the opportunities that SMU has to offer. Otherwise, they would have missed out on an important aspect of their education. Study is only one part of the SMU experience. Another important aspect is their personal development. Active involvement in CCAs, taking on leadership roles, contributing in service to SMU as well as the community at large builds character and contributes to personal growth. Over the years, I’ve witnessed how students who embraced a holistic education grew in stature and maturity. That I think is the SMU difference!
I am actually very impressed by SMU students, and I see that our students are, in a way, they have some attributes that we our faculty do not have, because they have gone through this system which we didn’t go through. So actually we don’t realise it but they’re actually quite different from us and in some area, some ways, better than us. I mean, I’m impressed by their degree of enterprise and the daring to do new things. I mean I meet some of my students during the long vacation in May, June. I talk to them after they’ve come back, and the typical student has gone to two different countries, to do attachment, to do community project, et cetera. And you know they are so plugged in to life and new things. And I’m also very impressed by the fact that many of them are considering business ventures, something that is not commonly seen in Singapore. So many of them, even fresh out of university, some before going out of university. I mean, I have a friend whose son is in the business school and he runs a limousine service. He’s got this big limousine. (some laughter) And he’s a business student in his, now I think, third year. That’s quite incredible.
My advice to SMU students is to just do more of what they’ve been doing. I also know that their university life is very hectic. You know, the typical term schedule is very tight, you got presentations, you got assignments. And some of them, the day before the assignment they don’t sleep. Alright, so it is hectic, it is stressful, but it is also very interesting to hear the response. I was just talking to a friend who’s a lawyer and he told me that the daughter is in SMU’s law school, second year. I asked, “How is it?” He said, “She says it’s very good, it’s very hectic but she loves it.” So I am quite fascinated. It’ll be good to analyse why on earth they like the SMU experience, yeah. And I believe that the education they go through in SMU is very valuable and it puts them in very good stead to survive and to excel in the world out there.
I think students wanting to come to SMU should come with the intention that they are going to be transformed. When I look at the students coming for admission interviews and then I see them starting the term and so on, and then I look at them as they graduate, the ones that truly succeed are the ones who allow themselves to be transformed by our system, meaning that when they come in they must come in wanting to change and be a different person. During admission interviews, I hear students say that, “SMU encourages students to speak up, I know this is something useful because when I go out to work, employers expect me to be able to speak up,” and so on but some of them say that throughout the years in the university, they don’t try to change.
And some of them graduate not much different from the person they were when they came in. And these are the ones who I feel; we have not value added as much. But to those who are really open and those who take advantage of the opportunities that are in SMU, and the opportunities are really tremendous you know, those who take advantage of the opportunities to develop their own leadership qualities, the ones that develop their own presentation skills, develop their own sense of professionalism and so on, these are the ones who will truly succeed, after they leave SMU. The opportunities are here in SMU. What is needed is for the students to be willing and to want to reach out and grab hold of these opportunities.
It's not about setting your career with what you study. That's one of the reasons SMU is so important. It’s got the four-year undergraduate programme, it’s the North American proposition that you take those four years to learn a lot, settle down, and then decide what your first major area of professional endeavour is going to be. But remember, that’s probably only the first. By the time you finish you’ll have been through any number of things. I guess what I’ll be saying to students is yes, it's great that you got the energy and that you want to be moving as fast as you are, but sometimes you’re best to just simply pause and to think about what is it you’re doing and to take some time off. A gap year is not something that you only do up between high school and university, because there’s a long working life out there that you’ve got to look forward to.