First Year Assembly 2019

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

at the Yale-NUS College First Year Assembly 2019

8 August 2019 at Yale-NUS College 


Mr Gautam Banerjee, Pro-Chancellor of the National University of Singapore and Yale-NUS Governing Board member

Dear Class of 2023, parents and colleagues,


Let me begin by welcoming, once again, the Class of 2023.

In a small college like ours, the arrival of each new class brings a palpable change, adding something new to our collective spirit.

We are a new College, but not so new anymore. Over the past five to six years, we laid the necessary foundations for a viable and thriving community of learning. The form and content of college life, co-curricular activities, residential traditions all bear the imprints of your seniors.

Upon these foundations, you will build the next phase of the College’s history, further defining what this College is all about, and reinforcing its reputation as a community of learning.

On a previous occasion, I compared the College to a lighthouse, which in the past several years have been setting up and warming the flame. I believe the time has come (or will come soon) when we are able to project that light, far and wide, to project Yale-NUS as a beacon for liberal arts and sciences education for the 21st century.

You will have a major part to play in this endeavour.

While your collective endeavours will define the College in substantive ways, I hope your time in the College will also help define you in some fundamental manner.

I hope that the College will provide all of you with a transformative experience, by encouraging habits of mind such as creativity, curiosity and critical thinking.

I hope it will imbue in you character and integrity; instilling in you compassion and empathy.

I hope that you will all embrace the principles of community, mutual respect and trust of one another, and of the broader community in which we are situated.

The next four years will be intense and you will be fully engaged. Much of undergraduate life demands hard graft, tenacity and application. It means sinking your teeth into new concepts and ideas, opening up your perceptions to different possibilities, plowing through readings, attending seminars, turning in essays and projects.

The next four years will also see you growing as an individual and finding your bearings in life.

You will experience many moments of exuberance and excitement; but there will be many moments of doubt, frustration and sometimes despair. In those moments, know that the community is your support system.

Recently, someone told me about The Red Hand Files, an online project by the Australian songwriter Nick Cave.

Wanting to explore a different, more direct relationship with his audience, Cave invited his listeners to ask him anything and he’d answer in a series of newsletters titled The Red Hand Files.

The topics are wide-ranging, from pets, Elvis, writing, the creative impulse to discussions about grief, faith, love and friendship.

In one issue, the songwriter is asked about self-doubt and whether he too struggled with a harsh inner critic. Cave replies: “Let me say this – the ‘harsh inner critic’ that you speak of is in no way unique to you. The truth is that virtually anybody who is trying to do anything worthwhile at all, especially creatively, has seated in his or her brain, a horrible homunculus that blows a dreadful little trumpet, and only knows one song – a song that goes, “You are not good enough. Why bother?” [..] Many of us listen, many of us accept its message, and many of us throw up our hands and give in.”

And yet, he says: “The world, for all its failings, is an extraordinary experiment in rampant human imagination. At its best, it exists because there were people who had the courage to follow through on an idea”.

In another, Cave muses on the individual’s personal capacity for good, and on being kind.

The Red Hand Files may not be everyone’s cup of tea. Some people may dismiss it as being too earnest, trite, self-indulgent even.

Others say these exchanges “confront listeners with brutality and tenderness. They cultivate discussion and the radical notion that people can still be good to one another”.

Whatever one’s views are on the subject, I decided to mention it because I hope we, too, can build a community that is strong, positive and kind, one in which people can be good to one another.

You each have a major part to play in the shaping of our community, which I hope will be informed by values of respect, empathy and compassion. Engage in open conversations with others who may have a different point of view. While you may not change your original opinion, at least you have heard another perspective and you have the opportunity to make a more informed choice.

On that note, let me welcome you once again and wish that the next four years will be some of the best years of your lives.

Now, let me invite the president of the Yale-NUS Student Government, Rachel Juay, to address you. Thank you.