Speech by Professor Tan Tai Yong, President, Yale-NUS College
at the Yale-NUS College Graduation 2020 (virtual ceremony)
18 May 2020
Graduands, Parents, Friends.
Let me begin by wishing a hearty congratulations to the Class of 2020. I hope all of you, and your loved ones, are keeping well.
These are extraordinary times; some might even call them dark times. With things changing in a matter of days, we have had to adapt repeatedly, sometimes on very short notice, to the latest directives on the COVID-19 situation.
Today, we are celebrating Graduation 2020 in circumstances unlike any other we have experienced. We are here as a result of our community’s adaptability and willingness to rise to every challenge with grace and selflessness.
I am very grateful that despite all that is happening, our students, faculty and staff have banded together to enable us to have this ceremony honouring and celebrating the achievements of the Class of 2020.
Let me say how proud I am of your class, students who have had their graduation plans upended, have had to say farewell in a manner that you never imagined likely – I am told air hugs were the farewell of choice – and yet, through these challenges, you kept your calm and your sense of humour, and demonstrated your care and concern for one another.
During these dark times, you have carried within you so much light; and now, as you are about to leave the College, what better subject for me to speak on than enlightenment?
This is a concept that you would be familiar with from your time in PPT studying Aristotle’s vision of the fulfilled life and Shantideva’s principles on achieving an awakened mind.
Your many discussions of the things you learnt – in and outside the classroom – must have shaped you, in some way or another. Perhaps some long-held conviction you had was overturned; perhaps you developed new convictions that you never imagined yourself having four years ago. The person you are today is, I’m sure, very different from the person who first set foot on campus in 2016.
And that is what enlightenment is – a slow, seemingly messy, sometimes painful journey of growth and transformation. Is there an end point? Perhaps. But I prefer to think of it as a continuing journey. And while this journey may look very different for each of you, I believe there are some common characteristics.
First and foremost, being enlightened means being self-reflective. It means thoughtfully considering others’ viewpoints, instead of merely trumpeting your own.
It means being humble – not thinking of yourself as superior to others just because you happen to know something they don’t, or because you have given up as untenable a view that they still hold. Enlightenment is not elitism.
And it means presenting your ideas kindly, remembering that your conversation partners are thinking, feeling human beings deserving of respect, even if you disagree deeply with what they stand for.
When each individual in our community behaves like this, the community as a whole flourishes. And in such a vibrant, agile, considerate intellectual environment, we give each other the chance to become our best selves.
In these trying times, being our best selves offers of the best hope. The pandemic has amplified existing problems and social inequalities in a way that demands change like never before. Let us use this time to reflect on how we can act and respond. Let us not forget to look out for one another, especially those who are finding it tough to cope.
The way forward may be uncertain, and it is my heartfelt hope that you will continue to practice all that tends to enlightenment wherever you may find yourselves.
Class of 2020 – you have been special in so many ways. Take care, stay well and congratulations once again.