Valedictorian Address 2015 by Michelle Khoo

michelle-vdMr Andrew M Lim, NUS Trustee, Professor Tommy Koh, Ambassador-At-Large, Distinguished Guests, Fellow Graduates, Ladies and Gentlemen

It is a great honour to be able to address the class as valedictorian. To do it a second time is infinitely more daunting. The first time was at the MPP Valedictory Dinner 2 months ago. If I had known I would be speaking today, I wouldn’t have used up all my best ideas then! With this second chance I have so generously been given, please allow me to humbly share two lessons from my educational journey.

Speaking of second chances, the MPP had helped me open the door to a second career. For many in my class, the Masters represented just that, another chance to re-evaluate the career we want to have. Many of you in the audience may also consider a career change later on in life. In fact, this was my second shot at entering the civil service.

After failing to get a government scholarship at 19, and being clueless about what my life’s calling was, I decided to just aim for the most highly paid job for a fresh graduate – investment banking in a Wall Street bank in bustling Hong Kong. Little did I know that this experience also prepared me for a completely different career. It taught me that anything was possible if you persist, it gave me clarity on my life’s priorities. It also taught me a bit about how the world works – it showed me the excesses and the inequality, the opportunities and the insecurities. 10 years on, my life has come full circle. I have joined the civil service with a different set of experiences and a whole lot of conviction.

So if you are waiting out for that dream employer to respond, or perhaps you didn’t land the job you thought you always wanted, or maybe you can’t decide which path to take. You don’t have to be too hard on yourself, be open to opportunities, because you never know where they might lead. As the saying goes “You Only Live Once”, but living in a country with one of the highest life expectancies in the world, you could be living a long time. Long enough to have plenty of second chances at finding your life’s calling, to reinvent yourself several times.

My second realisation is that our public policy education has given us a second sight. The law graduates might also be able to appreciate this. Whenever you’re jostling with the peak hour crowd, you think about policies to ease congestion. When you are walking through Botanic Gardens at night to the MRT or back to the hostel, you think about personal safety issues or the protection of women. Everyday things start to take on deeper meaning. And once you start looking at things with your policy lenses on, you cannot un-see it. In a way, it is empowering, to be able to look beyond societal problems, and try to figure out how things can be done better. Those who study public policy are, to an extent, a special breed, pragmatic idealists if you will. We see the world not for what it is, but what it could be. Hold on to that optimism. Because we are going to need it, lots of it.

For, how do you govern in a world that is more globalised yet more focused on local bread and butter issues? How do you govern a country that is more affluent but with more poor, more liberal yet facing growing religiosity, with more old mouths to feed and louder young voices to heed. We have big data but less certainty about the future. These challenges apply not just to Singapore, but many countries around the world.

Many of you will be among tomorrow’s leaders. Where we are heading is a higher calling to serve the society. It takes courage, conviction and the ability to see the glass as always half full. There might be no right answers, no professors to validate our ideas, no fool proof solutions. There might be failures, and unintended consequences. But we should never lose that desire to learn and relearn, the openness to ideas that compelled us to further our studies in the first place.

To quote the theme song of my favourite childhood movie The Land Before Time, “Souls in the wind must learn how to bend, Seek out a star, hold on to the end”. We may have to adapt, we may have to reinvent ourselves time and again, but let us reach for the stars, hold on together, and we will prevail over those headwinds.

To end my speech, I’d like to thank, on behalf of all the graduates here, our families. For your patience, support and encouragement. For giving us the space to rediscover and reinvent ourselves. Can we give a round of applause for our families.

Thank you.