Speech by Mr Ng Chee Khern, Permanent Secretary (Smart Nation and Digital Government), PMO

09 Sep 2017

Good afternoon Presiding Officer Mr Choo Chiau Beng, SUTD President Professor Thomas Magnanti, members of SUTD Board of Trustees, distinguished guests, graduands, ladies and gentlemen.
To the graduands, I am honoured to be here delivering your commencement speech. When I was your age, I graduated from a British university. It is part of the difference in outlook of life that the British calls it graduation and the Americans call it commencement. The British looks at university as the culmination of many years of hard work, whereas the Americans look at university as the start of life. You finish university, after which you commence your life and career. So to give a commencement speech, I am essentially having to give you some advice as to how to look at life and career.
I would like to share with you the Japanese concept of ikigai, loosely translated as “the reason for being”, and how it has helped me to make sense of the experiences in my life and my career. If you find your ikigai or your reason for being, then you will find satisfaction and meaning in life. My wish is that after listening to the concepts under ikigai, and the part they played in my life, you would be able to reflect on your own life as you commence on it after finishing university.
So what is ikigai? Simply put, ikigai is the source of value in one’s life, and the things that make one’s life worthwhile. We are likely to find our life more worthwhile if we do what we love. If you take a look, (Slide 1) ikigai is depicted by a Venn diagram of four intersecting circles: “what you love”, “what the world needs”, “what you can be paid for” and “what you are good at”. We are inclined to think that life is more worthwhile if we do what we love. This is exemplified by Steve Jobs’ famous commencement speech to Stanford graduands, where his message to the students was to discover your passion, do what you love and follow your dreams. But for many people who have families to feed and bills to pay, we cannot just drop everything on a whim or because of passion. Many of us have to make a living because others depend on us. But beyond just making a good living, there is something else that doesn’t feel quite right about just following our passion. When we only care about our passion, we only focus on what we love and want, and what makes us feel good. It is very self-serving. On the other hand, we often want to do things or take on a career that is what the world needs and makes our work or job purposeful. But is it enough to be passionate about what we do, be well paid for it and benefit society, if we are not good at our jobs at all?
So you have all these permutations that you can think through.

  1. You are passionate about what you do, good at doing it, and what you do benefits society and the world, but you are not well paid for it. In this case, you may feel a certain satisfaction in life but it may not be sufficient to make you happy. Most of us wish to live a materially comfortable life, but what many of us want even more is to provide well for our family and children because we feel a sense of duty towards them.
  2. You are passionate about what you do, are well paid for it, and what you do benefits society and the world, but you are no good at it. In this case, you would feel a sense of unease, because you are probably a charlatan riding on luck in your job.
  3. You are good at what you do, are well paid for it, and what you do is useful for the world and is what the world needs, but you do not love the job or even dislike it. In this case, you would feel empty.
  4. You are passionate about what you do, are well paid for it, good at it, but it does not really benefit society or the world. In this case, even if on the surface you could feel very smug, deep down inside, there would be a sense of uselessness or a lack of a sense of purpose.

If you look at your friends, brothers, parents, relatives, you could probably think of different people whom you could populate in the different parts of the Venn diagram. Where would you end up? When I was around your age, I joined the airforce to fly. It was out of passion. To defend Singapore is a noble mission and to have a strong SAF and airforce were clearly things that Singapore needed. But what I did not know at that point was whether I was any good as a pilot. When I joined in the mid-80s, being a pilot in the airforce wasn’t particularly well paying. It was only in the early to mid-90s when the Singapore government moved to benchmark public sector pay to those in the private sector, that our salaries were suddenly jacked up. And by the mid-90s, I had become a rather good fighter pilot, good enough to be the youngest fighter squadron commander. So in the mid-90s, I was in this happy state where I loved what I did, I was good at it, I was paid well for it, and I knew what I did was important to society. It was an immensely satisfying and meaningful time in my life. 
But life isn’t always smooth sailing, and we can’t always live in the centre sweet spot. What can we do if we feel one or more of the circles are missing from our lives? If you feel you are not good enough at your job, you can always read more, work harder or take courses to get better. If somehow what you are doing becomes not so useful to the world, you can consider changing jobs. On the surface, they seem simple things to do. But what really makes it possible is to find the passion and the commitment to change and get ourselves back into each circle when we fall out of it. Contrary to popular belief, passion and commitment is not something you have, but something you develop. And developing passion requires getting out of your comfort zone to try new things, and developing commitment requires grit and determination. Both will not stop regardless of age. So, be grateful when things are going well, but never get too comfortable.
How does ikigai apply to you? By now, you would know how good you are at engineering and my suspicion is that many of you would be rather good, not least because SUTD is a superb university with a syllabus and a faculty that would have given you all the right resources to develop into a good engineer. Of course, whether you are good at it is largely dependent on how hard you work at it. It is to some degree under your control.
Do you love engineering? My suspicion is again yes. Engineering is inherently one of the toughest degrees to pursue. I am certain that most of you chose this field because you love it.
But being able to do what the world needs and what you can get paid for, are where you need a little bit of luck. Singapore’s economic development has gone through a few big waves. The first big wave in the 60s to 80s saw labour-intensive industries that soaked up unemployment, where our skilled but cheap labour was an advantage and MNCs located here to gain from it. It was also the time when engineers were important, because Singapore was building up its physical infrastructure massively – housing, airport, ports, transport, water and sewage. This was an era in which engineers were critical to Singapore’s success, and when our foundation as a technocratic society was laid, with many Cabinet Ministers and Permanent Secretaries being technically trained. This changed in the 90s to 2000s, when Singapore grew into a global financial center and a global services hub. Other expertise, such as financial expertise and business administration, were more critical and the engineering faculty dropped in its relative attractiveness. But in the last 2 years, as we completed various reviews of how Singapore can continue to remain economically competitive over the next 20-30 years, we saw clearly the need for Singapore to grow deep engineering expertise – in particular advanced additive engineering and branches of engineering related to the digital economy.
So the Singapore Government has given renewed emphasis on engineering, and salaries for both hardware and software engineers have increased significantly. It used to be the case that good engineers had to give up their engineering work to take on better paying managerial positions. But these days, there are specialist engineering jobs that pay just as much, if not better than supervisory jobs. You can therefore continue to indulge in your passion without sacrificing material rewards.  This makes it a truly great time to graduate as an engineer and to be an engineer.
In summary, most of you have already started on the right footing, pursuing what you love and doing well at it. Now, you are also fortunate to be graduating and commencing on your career and life at a time where two things that are not under your control – whether your job would pay well, and whether what you do is what society needs – are to your favour. The next 20-30 years is likely to be an era where Singapore would greatly need your engineering expertise, and where your engineering expertise would enable you to make a real impact and difference to society. Vested in each of you is a power to dream, to create, and to make society a better place by exploiting technology more effectively.
Concluding Remarks
So as you walk on stage to receive your scrolls and move those tassels from right to left, not only will you be closing a chapter of your life, but you will also be embarking on a new and exciting journey ahead. I sincerely hope that each of you will find your ikigai, your own meaning in what you do.
Thank you.