The secretary-general of the Workers’ Party (WP) had always struggled in his education journey, fumbling his way through the PSLE and junior college.
His admission into NUS, however, was like winning the lottery and changed the course of his life.
“Studying became exciting and enjoyable,” said Mr Pritam Singh, who graduated in 2000 in NUS with an honours degree in History. He was invited by the NUS Department of Political Science to address the graduates of political science, psychology and global studies.
“Perhaps it was about a change in attitude that struck me after a soul-searching but ultimately positive National Service experience,” he told the 470 students and faculty members.
In 1999, he was awarded the Straits Steamship Prize, given to the top history and political science undergraduate of each cohort.
“There may be some of you who felt like I did throughout the course of my educational journey before NUS, that feeling of ‘I should have studied harder’,” said the Member of Parliament who became leader of his party earlier this year, taking over from Mr Low Thia Khiang.
For those who may feel discouraged because they did not graduated with degrees of higher distinctions, Mr Singh, told them to take heart.
“Some of you may be disappointed about your 2nd lower degree,” he said to the audience at his alma mater. “Well, I have some good news for you and this is not simply advice to make you feel better. Your friends with their first and second uppers may find it easier to enter some doors to secure that dream first job. You may find yourself taking the uphill route to enter the same door. But make no mistake about it. When you are through that door, all bets are off.”
A degree, he said, “is only as good as your work ethic, attitude and diligence.”
“In fact, I know more than a handful of friends with diplomas from our polytechnics who have proven themselves to be better team players and leaders at the workplace and in unlocking value for their employers. So if you needed a pat on the back, chin up, the journey has only just begun. Most employers would take a committed, hardworking, confident and diligent man or woman, regardless the class of their degree any day.”
He ended his speech with this final piece of advice:
“And as you climb up the ladder of success, be nice to everyone you meet along the way because you will meet these very same people when you make your way down.”
The WP sec gen holds several other degrees, including a Masters’ in war studies from King’s College in London under the Chevening Scholarship offered by the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and a Juris Doctor’s degree from the Singapore Management University. He was called to the Bar in 2012. Mr Singh also holds a diploma in Islamic Studies from the International Islamic University in Malaysia.
Mr Singh, married with one daughter, is serving his second term as MP for Aljunied GRC, having entered politics in 2011 with the WP.
Below is Mr Singh’s speech in full [from 25th minute; transcripts below]:
I would like to think that it was not too long ago when I was in your shoes, at the same University, proud to be in this moment. It capped 4 thoroughly enjoyable years of personal growth, challenges and friendships that were priceless and which I would not trade for anything.
For me, the reflection did not go back just 4 years, but much further. You see, I did not perform sparkingly throughout my educational journey until I entered NUS. If I could use a sporting analogy, I was that swimmer who somehow only just managed to qualify in the heats of his event to enter the finals, but when the final race took place, was never to be found on the podium and struggling to keep up throughout the race. I was always a work in progress, almost always reflecting on each exam I took from the age of 12 as a lost opportunity with the usual self-reflection – I should have studied harder.
I did not do well at the PSLE, entering the Normal stream in Secondary school and really bumbled my way into Junior College and later, NUS. Forget about even graduating, qualifying to enter the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences felt like I hit the lottery.
But things changed for me in NUS. Studying became exciting and enjoyable. Perhaps it was about a change in attitude that struck me after a soul-searching but ultimately positive National Service experience. Perhaps it was also because I chose courses and fields of enquiry at NUS that I felt at home with. Political Science and History are incredibly rich and rewarding academic pursuits, as the arts and social sciences are in general. They open one’s mind to alternative perspectives and critical thinking.
Ultimately though, it was the teachers at NUS who played the biggest role. I use the word teacher on purpose because – with respect to the distinguished Faculty here – in my view, an academic at the undergraduate level must inspire. And I will be deliberately provocative here without seeking to undermine the efforts the university has taken to climb up the ranking of universities throughout the world. For an undergraduate, an academic’s teaching record is as, if not, more important than his or her research.
I was blessed with great teachers. From the Political Science department, Alan Chong, Kripa Sridharan, Bilveer Singh, Lam Peng Er, Ishtiaq Hossain amongst others, stood out. From the History Department, Paul Kratoska, Brian Farrell, Peter Borschberg and Malcolm Murfett inspired my best efforts. And there were many others also, even in other departments where I sat for or audited minor subjects – such as Philosophy and Sociology.
I have no doubt that all you would have been inspired by the NUS experience in some positive way – your presentation skills may have been critiqued such that you are much better now, your writing style would have improved, your ability at analysing information would have been enhanced. Don’t forget these little things that you have learnt. These skills are bread and butter for all of us Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences graduates. Build on them – they will come to good use sooner than you think.
As many of you grapple with which job or future you desire for yourself after today, do take significant time to angle yourself in a direction which interests you and in a career you are passionate about.
Some of you may want to study more. Some of you may be contemplating pursuing further studies in a completely different field or even in the STEM vocations. Why shouldn’t you? A Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences degree can either be a springboard to a chosen career or a strong foundation for another. More and more we hear of lifelong learning and Professional Conversion Programs. If you always wanted to be an aeronautical engineer or a lawyer, sure the road may be tough and winding, but take heart in knowing that you are always in the driver’s seat of whatever future you desire. Many among you have already decided to pay things forward, having set your hearts on public service as a teacher, an officer with the Home team, or as a social worker in service of the community. If I can offer some advice, whatever path you choose, it is vitally important for you not just to follow your heart and passion, but to pursue excellence rather just to settling on mediocrity.
As stand here looking at you, I can imagine some of you feeling delighted at yourself, particularly those of you anticipating with relish to receive your first class degrees, a degree which was very rarely awarded at NUS in the past.
And yet, there may be some of you who felt like I did throughout the course of my educational journey – that feeling of ‘I should have done better’, or studied harder, or done something differently. Some of you may be disappointed about your 2nd lower degree. Well, I have some good news for you and this is not simply advice to make you feel better. Your friends with their first and second uppers may find it easier to enter some doors to secure that dream first job. You may find yourself taking the uphill route to enter the same door. But make no mistake about it. When you are through that door, all bets are off.
I hear this more and more at all workplaces – a degree is only as good as your work ethic, attitude and diligence. In fact, I know more than a handful of friends with diplomas from our polytechnics who have proven themselves to be better team players and leaders at the workplace and in unlocking value for their employers. So if you needed a pat on the back, chin up, the journey has only just begun. Most employers would take a committed, hardworking, confident and diligent man or woman, regardless the class of their degree anyday.
The competition for jobs is real and for my deserving friends who are graduating with their firsts, don’t ever let your degree speak for itself. Your continually strong performance and a relentless drive towards excellence is the only road you should consider. The real world is unfortunately harsh and unforgiving – don’t ever forget that. And don’t ever forget that common denominator of diligence and discipline. More will inevitably be expected of you.
To conclude Class of 2018, please allow me to congratulate all of you, your parents and loved ones on your graduation. I wish the best for all of you and trust you will not just be your own worst critic, but also exhibit resilience in bouncing back from setbacks. And as you climb up the ladder of success be nice to everyone you meet along the way because you will meet these very same people when you make your way down.
Good luck and all the best!