Graduation 2018

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

at the Yale-NUS College Graduation Ceremony

28 May 2018 at University Cultural Centre


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

Mr Hsieh Fu Hua, Chairman, NUS Board of Trustees

Members of the NUS Board of Trustees and Yale-NUS Governing Board

Professor Tan Eng Chye, President, NUS

Graduands, Parents and Friends 


Let me begin by extending my warmest congratulations to the Class of 2018 and their loved ones on this special day.

Just about a year ago, I was part of an audience like all of you.

I remember watching my daughter make her way up to the stage on her graduation day. Her face serious and solemn, mentally willing the mortar board not to slide off her head, desperate not to trip.

A hand shake with the presiding office, scroll in hand. The long solo walk to the other side of the stage.

At the time of her graduation, she had already started working.  There was a new, enforced regularity to her days – work starts at 8.30 am and ends at 7 pm on a good day, 10 pm on not so good days.

One day over dinner, she said to me: “I knew working life won’t be easy, but I didn’t expect the learning curve to be so steep”.

I do my best to reassure her, but I also know that the path is hers alone to navigate, that the wisdom she acquires and the missteps she makes along the way will be of far greater value to her than any advice I can give.

No doubt, your peers from the Class of 2017 have their own experiences of life after graduation. A number of them have rejoined the College as staff members: Annette is at the Centre for International & Professional Experience (or CIPE as we know it), Anshuman and Yi Hao are both doing research, Chris is a Dean’s Fellow, Zhiwen is at the President’s Office; Kevin is at Public Affairs and has, with the guidance of his colleagues, done a wonderful job organising this year’s graduation ceremony. The early days in any new job can be daunting, and I am glad and relieved to see the six who are back at the College, as well as my daughter, settling into their roles.

If we go back in time, to when I was about your age, I was the first in my family to pursue a degree. My graduation was a moment of quiet pride for my parents. There were no emotive speeches imparting life lessons and advice for the graduating class. We were expected to get on with our lives, work things out on our own. It’s not that people were uncaring. It was just the way things were.

My first job was to teach at the History department at NUS. It was work I found great satisfaction in.

Over the years, I occasionally get news of former students: Many have built successful careers; more than one has ventured into politics; a few have become disillusioned and disheartened because life has, for various reasons, not worked out the way they wanted it to.

All of us are constantly searching for meaning in our lives. We seek self-fulfilment, recognition, acceptance, happiness, a soulmate we can trust.

We wrestle with our insecurities; I would like to think most of us try as best we can to be better individuals.

And so we devote ourselves to causes, we strive to improve things, and we arm ourselves with checklists – secure that first job, look for a better job, land that promotion, pursue a graduate degree, pick up a new skill, buy a flat, start a family, travel, exercise more, eat less. Amidst all that, we want to improve the community we find ourselves part of.

The compulsion to order and make sense of our lives is relentless.

This compulsion may perhaps have been one of the reasons why some of you chose to enrol in Yale-NUS. In your search for bearings, you looked to a liberal education and intellectual inquiry for direction. At Yale-NUS, you found yourself in the company of like-minded people.

Now the time has come when you have to leave the college. You will meet people from different places who think and do things in different ways. All this can, of course, be exciting and stimulating.

But on occasion, these differences may jar, they may have serious repercussions, and may even be hard to resolve. That’s when some of you will find the values you’ve been schooled in – such as empathy, patience, resilience, the willingness to engage opposing views and not rush to judgment – put to the test.

Life can be tough and unfair, and it can be absurd. You will need a healthy dose of equanimity to navigate it.

I hope what you’ve learnt at Yale-NUS will prove useful in the future – be it having an open and outward-looking perspective of the world, intellectual rigour and curiosity, or the experiences gained from intense engagement in living and learning in the residential colleges.

You’ve had your ups and downs, your moments of elation and a fair share of frustrations as you grew with the College. Even when there were differences in views, there was the underlying understanding that we all wanted what’s best for the College. While there’s still plenty of work to be done, all of you should feel very proud of what you have accomplished.

The final moments on campus will be bitter-sweet for they bring to a close the comforting familiarity of college life. The physical move is the easy part; it’s the mental shift that takes getting used.

As you move on to the next stage of your life, I hope you bring with you fond memories of college and of friendships made during your time here.

It’s hard not to get sentimental at moments like these, but a simple farewell feels the most appropriate on this occasion. And so I sincerely wish each one of you graduating today ‘good luck and Godspeed.’