Saturday, August 4, 2007

Common Sense and Your Blue Roses

NUS Commencement Address
9th July 2006
By Dr. Lee Kum Tatt

“Common Sense and Your Blue Roses”

I am honoured to be with you today on one of the red letter days of your life. I can feel the joy in your hearts, be you a graduate, a parent or loved one, or a University don. I have gone through these various positions myself - thrice as a graduate and a few times as a parent and grand father. I have taught science to medical, pharmacy and science undergraduates as well as supervising some M. Sc. and Ph. D. students for several years on an honorary basis. Seeing the students passing and doing well in life is a great reward by itself. Education is a noble profession and a good practice.

To the graduates I congratulate all of you for choosing Science as your specialty. Science is an area where Singapore’s competitiveness and future will depend. Many have contributed much towards making Singapore a science hub. You have been taught in one of the best Universities in the world, the NUS. You should be proud that you have joined the rank in being a man of Science in our new world.

Immediately after Singapore’s independence in 1965 it was decided that Singapore should go for a knowledge based economy with Science as one of the main pillars. Singapore’s only resource – the human resource, must be developed. The Singapore Science Council was formed. As the founder chairman of this Science Council I had to figure out how to tap, organize and expand the scientific human resources we had then and to build the infrastructure needed to help in the national development of Singapore. Our financial resources and network then were limited. It was quite a challenge for me and my colleagues to have to decide on what to do. I am sure you the graduates also have this very challenge in front of you now. What are you going to do now with what you have to give to get what you want?. Your future is in your own hands. You can start by taking a job that will require your science training and do the routine work that has to be done. If you want to progress faster and be able to do some of the things you like to do, you have to be different. You have to be innovative, creative and courageous. Like joining the university; if you did not attend the university courses you definitely will not get a University degree today. Even if you attend the University courses there was no guarantee that you will get the degree. Today you have shown that you have that X factor in you which drives you to take risk and you passed. Continue to have faith in yourself and dare to be an entrepreneur if you want to progress in the modern world. Your science training will stand you in good stead.

In the 1940’s science comprised of only Chemistry, Physics and Mathematics. They are called the Exact Sciences. Today everyone is a scientist except a few artists who still take pride in belonging to the Art fraternity. Today we have the medical, biological, engineering, economics, social , political and even domestic scientists. The Exact Sciences which you have been taught involve the study of the chemical and physical nature of matter. You learn to ask questions on why, what and how things happen. You studied and develop laws, hypothesis and concepts to explain what you observed. Your experiments must be verifiable and reproducible.

The other type of scientists concentrates more on the study of the nature of Man and his behavior, a more unpredictable subject than the Exact Sciences. They also have their own laws and theories to explain what they think is happening around them. You know the economists’ law of diminishing returns. Do not put money in certain investments if you want to make more money. These non – exact scientists concentrate more on with whom, where and when to make things happen. For example many businessmen discovered the importance of the law on “Kwan Si” or good human relations. It is not what you know alone that matters but whom you know that counts. How can you take advantage of this law and with whom? Unlike the exact sciences these other laws border more on common sense. They exist and they affect you.

The exact sciences develop your I.Q. which you have. You need to develop your E.Q. further to get on in life, to work with others as a team and to rise from there.

As an Exact Scientist pursue your interests by all means. Be a pure research worker and try to learn more and more about the nature of matter. However do not neglect to understand the laws that govern the nature of Man if you want to succeed as a citizen of the world. With your scientific knowledge coupled with some common sense you will have a great advantage over others in the modern world.

When you are an undergraduate you have to do what you are told. So long as you can reproduce the results on experiments established by others (cook up some results if you have too) and reproduce in the examinations what you have been taught you will pass. When you do your Masters or Ph. D. degrees you will have to produce something “new”. You learn to innovate, to produce a modified compound or formulation, a better process or a better product. This training in research will give you a good grounding on how to “innovate” in your coming profession or career. How to progress beyond that to the creativity and invention stages requires much more. You have to know your own strength, what you are you at, and find your own niche. You have to find your way or have to make a new one to get to where you want to go. This requires common sense and courage which has to come from you. Believe you me it is great to be able to reach there.

I like to tell you two stories on how I use my common sense backed up by my scientific training to achieve what have to be achieved.

Story No. 1 First Law of Common Sense

The world is interested only in what you have to offer.
It does not care for what you lack.
Lee Kum Tatt

When we started to build our science infrastructure and manpower Singapore needed a lot of outside assistance in expertise, training of our people and finance to buy equipment. Singapore was not one of the 26 poorest countries in the world. We had no priority in getting aid from the United Nations or foreign aid giving agencies from USA, U.K., Canada, New Zealand and others. We had not only to compete with outsiders but also among some of our own local colleagues in other Ministries for these aids. Yet we managed to receive millions of dollars in aid ( foreign and local) in the form of expertise, training of our personnel and purchase of equipment in building some of our institutions which I was personally involved. These include :

(i) SISIR and the Quality Movement;

(ii) establishment of the Science Centre and the Science Park,

(iii) building the professional engineering and architecture departments of the Singapore Polytechnic which have now become the Faculty of Engineering and the Faculty of Architecture and Building of the NUS.

(iv) Building of the Singapore Polytechnic and its technician courses.

These organizations have paved the way for the implementation of many new institutions, projects and schemes. These activities have played a highly contributive role and formed the essential foundation towards the making Singapore what it is today through the application of science and technology and the net working among the important segments of the country. They have created many jobs.

As graduates you are part of this system and you are expected to play your role to ensure that this system continues to grow for our own good and the good of our fellow men. For manpower development Singapore now has 4 very good Universities compared to the two small ones we had in the 1960’s. We have five Polytechnics instead of two in 1965 for the training of technicians. The Institute of Technical Education (ITE) is producing the craftsmen we need.

How did we get the assistance we lacked? We applied the First Law of Common Sense. We did not expect to get something by doing nothing. This is against the First Law of Thermodynamic. You cannot get something out of nothing. We discovered and offered to the aid agencies some of the things they wanted. We created projects which produced results which could also benefit other countries in the region and which the aid agencies were looking for. We offer what we had and we delivered what we promised. We never begged or demanded that others give us what we lack. As you start your profession and career, do not start by demanding and complaining that you are not getting what you think you deserve. Offer what you have, deliver and the rest will take care of itself.

Today we are fortunate to have the National Science & Development Board (NSDB) and now the A-Star to succeed the original Singapore Science Council. They have a few billion dollars to develop what we still lack.

Story No. 2 The Blue Rose.

Man does not live on bread alone.
He needs something to live for.

Man requires inspiration to take risks.

As Chairman of Singapore Science Council I attended an international conference in 1968 on “Science and The New Nations”. I was asked how Singapore would mobilize its people and resources to do R & D. Being a newly independent nation with no money, no natural resources, no tradition on R & D and only 1.6 million people this was a difficult question for me to answer. Off the cuff I told this story to illustrate what I proposed to do.

“There was once a small child with only one coin in his pocket. He went to buy himself a slice of bread. He saw a blue rose and he wanted it. He asked the shopkeeper whether he could have the rose as well and was prepared to take a smaller slice of bread. The shopkeeper thought this was rather unusual for a small child to want a rose when what he needed most was to have something to eat. The shopkeeper asked the boy why he wanted the rose so badly. The boy replied:

Madam , The bread is something I need to live on now. As a human being the rose reminds me that I always have something to live for. The small child got his rose and he led a full and meaningful life thereafter. I got off the hook with this story.

The moral of the story is that we must have our own Blue Roses as our inspiration. I have retold this story many times since. So I thought I should share it with you. We must have something that we love for which we are prepared to fight, sacrifice and even die for. These include our family, our special dreams, and our ideals. As true scientists our work must benefit our fellow man and not harm or destroy others by the wrong use of our work. This we must never allow to happen. My Blue Roses remind me of all these. My scientific publications and patents reflect my passion and commitment to R & D. My family is my most important Blue Rose to me. Most of my life’s work has been dedicated to the service of my fellow men. I hope that you will develop your own Blue Roses and that they will give you just as much joy, satisfaction and strength as mine gave to me. Unlike the other coloured roses that people give to their loved ones and friends the Blue Rose does not physically exist. It exists only in our Minds. You have to create them yourselves in your own minds. What are your Blue Roses?

Let me conclude by congratulating once again the graduates, parents, guardians and the university staff for a job well done. To the graduates with your newly acquired capability to offer what the world wants and with your own Blue Roses you should be able to have a bright and rewarding future.

Thank you , Gook Luck and God Bless You all.

Lee Kum Tatt
4 August 2007

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