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Speech by Mrs Lim Hwee Hua, Minister in Prime Minister's Office, Second Minister for Finance and Transport, at the National University of Singapore Commencement Ceremony, 12 July, 2009, 3:00 PM at the University Cultural Centre

13 Jul 2009

Associate Professor John Richardson
Presiding Officer and Director, University Scholars Programme,

Professor Lai Choy Heng
Vice-Provost, National University of Singapore,

Professor Bernard Yeung
Dean, NUS Business School,

Faculty and Staff,


Ladies and gentlemen,

1. Life is full of ironies. When I was in school, I often wished I could be done with exams. I used to dream about starting my career, earning my own financial independence. Fast-forward eight years after I started work, I began my MBA course with new-found enthusiasm. By then, I had wanted so badly to return to the charmed student life. Several projects and term exams later, I wondered why on earth I could have brought such hardship upon myself. I could not wait to get back into circulation. A few years ago, I was thinking aloud if I should seriously consider doing some serious research on some of my pet interests like corporate governance or globalisation. My husband shook his head in disbelief.

2. I am therefore delighted to be here on this special and joyous occasion to celebrate the commencement of graduands from the NUS University Scholars Programme and the NUS Business School. For you graduands, this afternoon's ceremony marks the successful completion of the arduous years of rigorous academic inquiry, the numerous hours of active participation both inside and outside the classroom, and the countless mugs of strong steaming coffee that helped kept you going.

3. I am sure that you have not undertaken this journey alone, but with the support of your loved ones and the dedicated lecturers at NUS. May I therefore invite all graduands to join me in thanking your family as well as your lecturers for their unwavering support?

Value of a University Degree Today

4. For many of the graduands seated here today, what is probably foremost on your minds, however, is not life's unresolved mysteries and theories but where all this new-found knowledge is leading to. It would hardly be surprising if some of you are asking yourselves soul-searching questions like what is the value of your paper qualifications in this current economic climate.

5. Let me draw a crude parallel to the unemployment situation across North America during its previous recession in the late 80s. This was a period that saw more than 20 percent of America's college graduates ending up in non-college-level jobs. This was nonetheless better than the many others who were unable to secure any jobs. Under such a bleak scenario, what is the value of a university degree?

6. Regardless of the economic situation, higher education remains relevant for its role in imparting in its students the higher order technical competencies required in any chosen field. More critically, many university programmes have sought to hone in their students the right analytic skills that would enable them to formulate independent solutions and strategies in their respective areas of work. Successful universities would have also developed in their students the foresight and gumption needed to recognise patterns of local and global change, to make critical interconnections and to stay abreast, if not ahead of the game. These were the distinguishing characteristics of the US colleges and were the qualities that enabled this same group of American graduates to have the robustness to eventually climb out of the economic doldrums and help propel the country forward into a period of unprecedented economic growth.

7. Graduands should therefore take heart in the value of your university education - that it not only prepares you for your next job, but also equips you with the life skills for the rest of your lives.

'A Lifetime of Careers' and not 'A Career for Life'

8. The next significant task that universities, including NUS, have had to undertake is to prepare their graduates for the realities of work and of the workplace today. Gone are the days where you graduate, work for one employer for the rest of your life and retire from that company. Owing to many trends including, increasing globalisation, shorter product life cycles and disintermediation enabled by technology, we have to be prepared for a 'lifetime of careers' and not 'a career for life'. The US Department of Labour illustrates this point quite nicely in a statistical observation published last year that the average college graduate will have held 10.8 jobs, or almost 11 jobs, by the age of 42, two-thirds of which would be held before the age of 27.

9. By raising this observation, I am by no means encouraging you to job hop or to decry loyalty. What this means for you graduands, is that careers will not always proceed according to plan and that you will not only need to learn to seize opportunities as they present themselves, but also need to be proactive in creating them. Your ability to adapt quickly to the changing tides, even if it means entering into uncharted areas that you might not have been initially trained in, will put you in a distinctive advantage regardless of the economic situation.

10. Adaptation alone is not enough; you would need to be prepared and proactive about climbing steep learning curves. The market place changes faster than we can say so but it also rewards those who excel in managing and capitalising on change.

Include a Moral and Social Compass

11. The final thought that I would like to leave you with today is a suggestion for each of you graduands to go beyond your professional qualifications and to establish your own pillars of success. However, you should always carry a moral and social compass with you. For some or you, it could be success in an area of interest that you have come to champion, as in the case of today's Valedictorian, Pei Shan, who has been extremely active in a host of international forums and community projects. For others, it could be success due to your resourcefulness and entrepreneurial flair, as in the case of Charlene Chang, whose passions have led her to distinguishing herself in business case competitions and overseas experiences.


12. There is a saying that goes 'success always comes when preparation meets opportunity'. Graduands, you have all been well prepared by your schools for the challenges that lie ahead. Opportunities abound as Singapore prepares itself for the next phase of growth in the post-economic crisis world. The future is yours to seize and make. My heartiest congratulations to all graduands at the NUS commencement ceremony. Thank you and have a good afternoon.