7 July 2012, National University of Singpaore, Singapore
Mr Wong Ngit Liong, Chairman, NUS Board of Trustees
Professor John Wong, Vice Provost (Academic Medicine), Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen, Graduands of the class of 2012.
What is the difference between being clever and being wise?
Commencement is by far my favourite event in the academic year.
It marks the culmination of our students’ achievements, years of hard work rewarded in a degree and celebrated with friends and family.
But as the name suggests, it is also a beginning: a beginning as you enter the workforce or pursue further study, and as you transition from being our students to being our alumni.
This is my first graduation ceremony as Dean of NUS Law. I’m delighted that my predecessor, Professor Tan Cheng Han is here also.
For the Law students, congratulations: this is the last occasion on which you must listen to the Dean of the Law School.
In future, I’ll be asking for your time.
For the graduands of the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music — I hope that this is the last time you’ll need to listen to a lawyer at all. But that’s unlikely.
It is, however, probably the last time you’ll sit in a room with quite so many lawyers.
I would also like to offer a special welcome to the families that are here — none of our students would be graduating without the support you have given them.
I’d like to do three things in my remarks today:
First I will say something about the passage of time.
Secondly, I’ll talk about the choices ahead of you.
And thirdly, I’d like to tell you a story.
But nature of these addresses is that I’ll be lucky if you remember one thing a year from now
I hope that that will be the difference between being clever and being wise
First let me say something about time.
As I said earlier, a graduation is both an end and a beginning.
For many of you, it is the end of your studies, but the beginning of your career — as you make the transition from being students to alumni
There is a similar progression for academics
If we are lucky, some graduates will distinguish themselves by saying that they were once so-and-so’s student.
In time, however, it is often the professor who distinguishes him or herself by saying I used to be so-and-so’s teacher.
Together with all my colleagues, I look forward to great things from you — for which we may take just a small amount of credit
We ask only that you stay in touch and tell us of your achievements.
As alumni there are many ways you can help
Most importantly, you can do good things — you can make us proud.
You can also advise potential and future students.
Finally you can contribute your time and, if you are able, your money to building NUS to be one of the truly great institutions in the world.
So how has your time at NUS changed you?
Naturally, I hope you’ve learned something.
But I also hope that you think you have changed, and that we have played a role in that change.
In particular, I hope that we’ve prepared you for a globalized world.
We talk in these days of global lawyers.
Musicians know that they are entering a global market.
If I can borrow a music analogy – discussions of law and globalization often refer to harmonization.
This is sometimes misunderstood as meaning uniformity, as the world gets smaller, or flatter.
As the music graduates know, that is not harmony. That’s monotony.
Harmony is when things that are different work together in a pleasant way, when they create something new, perhaps even something beautiful.
Now I confess that it’s more likely that people will associate beauty with the work of someone like Clarence Lee, who will be playing later. But I do believe that there can be beauty and elegance in a legal argument.
Or at least that there can be ugliness, which suggests the possibility of beauty.
I also hope that we have encouraged you to be ambitious.
Now that you’re leaving University, we won’t be setting exams for you anymore.
But I hope you will continue to set ambitious goals for yourself.
And if you ever get to point where you are achieving all your goals … then maybe those goals aren’t ambitious enough.
Having completed your studies, you earn today a piece of paper that testifies to the fact that you are clever.
Whether you are wise is another question.
Secondly, let me say something about some of the choices you will have to make in future.
For the real test of a university education is not whether you can complete it, but what you do with it.
Each of you made a choice to be here, a reason why you studied law or music, and why you stuck with it.
Perhaps it’s the same as what you said to an interviewer several years ago. Perhaps not.
Moving forward, in law certainly, but I believe also in music, you will face choices where there is an easy option and a hard option.
There will be an option that is open to you because you are clever, because you are able.
But it may not be wise.
In the past few months there have been an unusually large number of stories about corruption in Singapore.
This is depressing, of course.
But as my late colleague Tom Franck used to say: no one’s completely useless — you can always be a bad example.
Today you earn a qualification recognized worldwide. We hope that this is a building block in a brilliant career. But the thing that will define you is your reputation.
Resist the temptation to follow Groucho Marx.
“These are my principles,” he once said. “If you don’t like them, I have others.”
Warren Buffet put it nicely when speaking of bankers, though the same might apply to lawyers and perhaps musicians:
“It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.”
Joseph Hall, the English bishop and satirist, was more optimistic:
“A reputation once broken may possibly be repaired -- but the world will always keep their eyes on the spot where the crack was.”
So choose carefully in your professional life.
Remember also that there are many ways to find professional fulfilment.
An increasing number of lawyers, for example, do pro bono work and find enormous satisfaction in that.
As Singapore continues to change politically, there will be increasing demands for access to justice.
Lawyers will play an extremely important role in those changes, and you may have a role to play too.
Choose carefully in your personal life also.
Many of the choices in your work life will be complicated.
Complicated questions are, in one sense, easy — you can break them up, look at different angles, piece them back together.
It’s the simple questions that are the hardest, because they just sit there staring you in the face asking you if you’re sure. Are you sure.
What is the right thing to do?
Whom should I marry?
What sort of person am I?
Again, reputation plays an outsize role.
So treat people the way you would want to be treated.
Try to see yourself as others might see you.
And never take friendship and love for granted.
Now I come to the story (1).
It is a short story about an old woman and a bird.
There are many versions across different cultures.
It has no known author.
I’ll tell you the version that I know.
Once upon a time there was an old woman. She was blind. But she was wise.
Now you could tell a different version about an old man, or maybe it was a young girl. Perhaps the bird was in fact a butterfly. But let’s stick with my version for the moment.
Old woman. Blind. Wise.
One day, some clever young people decide to visit her.
They know that they are clever and intend to demonstrate this by proving that the old woman is a fraud.
She may be blind, they think, but she is not wise. And she is not cleverer than they.
So a young man has brought with him a small bird. He holds the bird cupped in his hands.
“Old woman,” he says. “In my hands I hold a small bird. Tell me: is it alive or dead?”
The old woman is silent.
He repeats his question: “Is the bird I am holding alive or dead?”
And he smiles. Because if she says it is dead, he will release it — and the flapping of its wings will show her to be a fool.
But if she says it is alive, he will crush it to death and drop the carcass in her hands.
Still the old woman says nothing.
She is silent for such a long time that some of the young people begin to laugh.
Finally she speaks.
“I don’t know,” she says. “I don’t know if the bird you are holding is alive or dead. The only thing I know is that it is in your hands. It is in your hands.”
Now if this were a class in Law School I can imagine the student feedback:
“Prof didn’t actually tell us what wisdom was.” “He didn’t say what would be on the exam.”
And that’s my point. From here on, you set your own exams.
So, in closing, let me offer my congratulations to the graduating class of 2012.
I wish you peace and harmony;
I wish you success and happiness;
I wish you cleverness and wisdom.
 Adapted from Toni Morrison’s Nobel Lecture,
Toni Morrison's delivered her own commencement speech which is on Speakola here.