SUTD Class of 2020 Commencement - Speech by Prof Chan Heng Chee

30 Oct 2021

Chancellor Dr Tony Tan,
President Chong Tow Chong 
Honorary Doctoral Graduands of 2021 Mr Philip Ng and Mr Sam Goi,
Graduands of SUTD, Class of 2020
Parents and family members of the Graduating Class

What they did not tell you in class

Finally. You have waited a year for this moment to graduate proudly in the presence of your loved ones, especially your parents. This ceremony has been delayed for a year due to Covid. My warmest congratulations to each and every one of you. 

I feel very privileged to be asked to speak to you at this very important milestone in your lives. I have titled my speech “What they did not tell you in class” There are three things I want to share with you that were probably not told you by your professors.

I have been reading from reports of commencements in other universities in Singapore that students are now prepared to think differently about jobs in a  time of pandemic. "What are you going to do?" they were asked. Answers: 1) Be more flexible in our choice of jobs, 2) be a start up entrepreneur, 3) go for additional skills training, 4) retrain - take another degree in a different discipline, or 5) pursue graduate studies.

SUTD has trained you for all of this. How to be flexible, nimble and hands on. You are armed with the digital skills essential for entering the economy of now and the future. In 2021, we found 95.9% of SUTD 2020 fresh graduates found jobs in the first 6 months. That’s great! But how do you advance and advance well once you have secured the job? That is the question. 

I was invited to be your commencement speaker because as the title of my talk suggests, “What they did not tell you in class”, someone in senior management thought I would come with a different message. And perhaps I will. I am a professor in SUTD in the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities. I think about cities. But I also wear another hat. I am a diplomat. I was Singapore’s Ambassador to the United States for 16 years from 1996-2012  and I spend a great deal of time thinking about what is happening globally even after I returned to Singapore. I am still with the Foreign Ministry as Ambassador at Large and I continue to monitor the bilateral relationship - Singapore and the United States and the developments in the region.

So, the first thing I want to share with you is my reading of the geopolitics and geoeconomics in the world today.

1) The most important and most worrisome development in the 21st century is the US - China rivalry and the consequences and ramifications of that rivalry. It is particularly felt in Asia. You may be thinking right now, well, that's interesting but what's that got to do with me? And can you please make the speech short so I can get my degree quick.

Let me say: It has everything to do with you as you navigate your future careers and try to spot the opportunities.

Some of you may be following the exchange between the US and China in the last couple of years, but the problem began much earlier. The US has been the the sole superpower in the world at the end of the Cold War, after the Soviet Union imploded in 1992. In the Asia Pacific the US has been the predominant power for the last 70 years and more.

The rise of China has challenged that predominance. To cut a long story short, the US suddenly realised, around 2015 or 2017 I can’t pin it down precisely, that China had amassed critical military, economic, diplomatic and technology power to be a peer competitor of the United States. China was there as a competitor before, but not a peer competitor. The US had been used to being No 1 without challenge. Now the rising power had become the risen power.

I believe this change took place with the deep economic recession in the United States in 2009 which became the Global Financial Crisis. In America, Wall Street collapsed. Americans lost much of their self- confidence and Chinese investors showed up at Wall Street invited to buy into the deeply troubled banks. China felt ascendant and confident. During this time when America was distracted by the financial crisis and the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, China was steadily building its economic ties and influence in Asia and Latin America and elsewhere. In the South China Sea they were also changing the facts on the ground. The US sat up. President Trump saw President Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative, AIIB, and Made in China 2025 as a direct challenge to US supremacy and leadership.

Today the tension and hostility is about who will dominate the world in the future. As William Burns, the CIA nominee of President Biden said before Senate at his nomination hearing, "The greatest threat to the United States is China’s attempts to spread its influence throughout the world." He is channeling what many of the Biden Administration are thinking. That means there will be contestation and tension everywhere. The result of this rivalry and tension has produced a trade war, an investment war and a technology war. We all know whoever leads in technology will dominate the world. 

You may have heard of the threatened and coming decoupling of the two economies and technology sectors. It is already here. Many of you are engineers, computer and systems engineers and architects and you must be aware of this. During the Trump Administration and now the Biden Administration, the US crafted many policies to stop China from acquiring US technology. From the point of view of the US, China is stealing US technology. Many people in the US and in other countries were disappointed that President Biden kept Trump’s policies on China, though he is not as volatile as his predecessor and goes for alliance and coalition building. The US is decoupling technology and going around the world pressing its allies and friends on the dangers to security by installing Huawei’s 5G. China sees what the US is doing, and they must think, if the US is bent on decoupling the technology sectors from China, China must also actively decouple from the US to control the narrative and decouple on its own terms. The technology war continues though experts say that the US and the Chinese economies are so entwined — a huge trade relationship, China holds US $3 trillion in treasury bonds, and technology products and supply chains are so complicated that it would be difficult to separate into two spheres without hurting both economies.

Some of you may worry if there will be war between US and China? My view and one shared by many who watch this scene is that war is not likely at all. Both the US and China don’t want to go to war with each other, though some segments may want to push their leaders to war. Will there be a war by accident? It is always possible, but I think both sides will immediately try to end that conflict once it begins. They have to set up a mechanism to dial back. I don’t think that exists now.

Where does Singapore stand? And what does it mean for you a fresh graduate?

Singapore wants to be friends of both the US and China. In fact many countries want to be friends of both powers. Countries in ASEAN, in Europe, in Latin America, in Africa, then there is ROK, Japan and NZ. We all want to do business with the US and business with China. Both are big markets with many opportunities.

For the moment some companies and factories, both international as well as Chinese, have moved out of China because of US policies and Chinese policies. Some have come to Southeast Asia, to Vietnam, and to Indonesia. With the trade war and later the pandemic — companies want to diversify their supply chains. Some businesses have come to Singapore too. So there are opportunities. Some of China's top technology and financial companies have put their footprint in Singapore - Alibaba, Bytedance, Tencent backed Digital Bank WeBank are in Singapore. There are also American and European companies. Amazon is in Singapore in good numbers and Facebook and Google. Pfizer will be producing COVID vaccines in Singapore. Finland - established Neste, the largest renewable diesel refinery in the world in Singapore. Siltronic, a German company broke ground for a new manufacturing facility in wafer fab. Singapore is a good place to be at.

We have rule of law, we have competent people with the right skills though perhaps not enough for the demand, and a business friendly environment. 

What do you have to do? You have choice, and in spite of talk of the pandemic and its impact on a post COVID economy recovery, the job market for fresh graduates is still very good.  

My advice to you if you want to take advantage of the changing environment if that you must find out more about this environment. Be curious and seek to understand. Read about what is happening in your region and in the world. Information is advantage. Knowing what is happening places you in the forefront of those who can take up the opportunities. Read widely, read diverse sources, not just the WhatsApp articles your friends send you or on Telegram or Signal. 

It is crucial to read up on China, read also about the US. There is a great deal you would need to know to understand the scene in China and your opportunities. You may be asked to help analyse the risks and opportunities. Many Singaporeans think they know the US. Actually they don't really. It is not the US on Netflix or the big screen. And you should try to know the opportunities in ASEAN too.

2) This brings me to the second point about what they don't tell you in class. In your career and life, luck is important. You know when Napoleon was fighting one of his many battles, one of his top generals died. The other senior generals told him "Don't worry Sir, we will find you a very intelligent general to replace him" Napoleon replied "Don't find me an intelligent general. Find me a lucky one". People say in sport as in war, it is better to be lucky than good. Maybe not. 

But what is luck? Wise people say "You make your own luck," which means you must work at it. Put in the right amount of work and you'd be surprised. I often think "The harder I work, the luckier I get."  That is because you are laying the ground work in your project, preparing yourself for every contingency and when the opportunity comes, you feel you are prepared for it. And you take the opportunity. If you don't work hard at it, you may not see a good thing even when opportunity is staring you in the face.

3) The third and last point I want to leave with you is to remind you of the importance of developing relationships, friendships. In today's lingo, it is also called networking. 

I know networking is the way of the world now and you must develop and expand your network of friends and contacts, but it is not just a matter of counting how many contacts you have. Or how many chat groups you join. It is also the quality of the relationship. Which is why I prefer to talk of developing relationships and friendships. I am told that Singaporeans when they go overseas to do business or as a professional, are rather transactional in their relationships. You do this for me and I'll do that for you. That is short-sighted and not the way of successful men and women. Ask our honorary graduands Mr Philip Ng and Sam Goi who are here today. They are extremely successful. They know all about nurturing good relationships. Not transactional relationships. I could not have had my career and done what I have done if I did not have good personal relationships. I make friends with all kinds of people. I don't look for returns. I help A but A may not help me. It is ok. But C might do so because A told C that she is good, she is very helpful. Nice person. So that has already paved the way for me and C then treats me well on A's recommendation.
So develop your relationships, and in that way, you grow your network of meaningful and deep relationships. You'd be surprised how lucky you get. You can apply this hard work and relationship building wherever you go, in a Chinese firm or an American firm or a Singapore firm.

I wish you a good career, a meaningful life and stay safe and healthy.