First Year Assembly 2018

Speech by Professor Tan Tai Yong, President, Yale-NUS College

at the Yale-NUS College First Year Assembly 2018

10 August 2018 at Yale-NUS College 


Madam Kay Kuok, Presiding Officer and Chair of the Yale-NUS Governing Board

Professor Tan Chorh Chuan, Member of the Yale-NUS Governing Board

Class of 2022, parents and colleagues,


Good afternoon. And to our first years, a warm welcome once again to Yale-NUS.

Writing today’s address took me about a week of drafting and redrafting, but I had been thinking about it for much longer. This being the First Year Assembly, I wanted to get the tenor right, but it has proven to be an elusive thing.

While thinking about what I should say, I asked around for suggestions on what new students like you would want to hear on an occasion like this. Someone said: try humour; another said: something uplifting and personal.

After a few attempts it was clear that I was getting nowhere. And that was when I decided to write in a voice that came to me most naturally, unforced.

What I’m trying to say is this: much of university life will be about you finding your own voice, coming to terms with your strengths and limitations.

In this community of talents, we don’t want you to lose your individuality. We want you to find your space and to flourish as a person. I hope that you will be able to find your interest, do the best in what you are good at and passionate in, and have confidence in your ability to make a difference.  The success of the College will be the collective successes that each of you will achieve in your own way.

With the Class of 2022 being our sixth cohort of students, Yale-NUS is now a much more established College. But, as I have said before, we are still evolving. We’re unique in that we’re the only liberal arts and sciences college in Singapore. But, beyond our academic and residential programmes, what is it that differentiates Yale-NUS as an institution of higher learning? What animates us as a community of learning?

Some of you may be familiar with the quote: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast, lunch and dinner” by management guru Peter Drucker. I am often cynical about what management gurus have to say, but somehow this quote resonated with me.

So, what does this mean? I think it is basically saying that the viability and success of an institution will rest ultimately on its culture. Applying this in our context, we may have in place the most advanced hardware, abundant resources and great programs, but without a strong, cohesive internal culture that is built on values that unites and motivates us as a community, the College will not flourish.

I spoke of the need to articulate your individuality, but without something that binds us as a community, we may end up like a loose pack of sand.

As our newest kingfishers, you will have a major part to play in the shaping of our college culture, which I hope will be informed by exceptional quality, respect, empathy, compassion and inclusivity.

You will recall that I alluded to some these points in my speech at the Experience Yale-NUS Weekend: I had shared with you then that I hope our College can aspire to be:

Exceptional without being elitist

Engaged without being entitled

Empathetic without being exclusive

But culture cannot be ordained or imposed top-down; it has to be owned and cultivated. I hope we can achieve this together. And remember, just as good culture strengthens and unites, a culture that is based on distrust, division and disrespect can cause the community to unravel very quickly.

I hope you will work with me and everyone else in the community to build a strong, positive culture for the College.

Dean Severin had earlier mentioned some of the words most widely used by your cohort to describe the Yale-NUS experience. These included  “diverse, fun, amazing, vibrant, global, enlightening and welcoming”.

Yale-NUS is indeed all of those things. However, I would like to add that much of College life and learning demands serious application. It means doing readings, turning up for tutorials and completing assignments in a timely manner. It means giving commitment to your CCAs and community life. Some days will be harder than the rest, but you’ll get there. Let us cross the river by feeling the stones.

The novelist Julian Barnes once said: “You put together two things that have not been put together before. And the world is changed.”

In assembling the Class of 2022, we have put together individuals who have not been put together before. And the world is changed. Not in a dramatic fashion, but in the forging of new friendships, the building of a community and the personal, intellectual growth that will take shape.

“People may not notice at the time, but that doesn’t matter. Our world has changed nonetheless.”

Now, let me invite the president of the Yale-NUS Student Government, Brandon Lee, to address you.

Thank you.