99.co Stories

Thoughts Shared in a Funny Hat

July 14, 2014

Thanks to my Alma Mater; I am grateful for the great privilege and honour of sharing a few thoughts with NUS’ 2014 graduating class of Electrical and Computer Engineering students. Below is the draft!

Pro Chancellor Mr Po’ad Mattar, Distinguished Guests, Proud Parents, Ladies and Gentlemen — Good morning.

To the graduating class of 2014 — Congratulations! You made it!

It wasn’t too long ago I sat in your seat, full of anticipation of the new life that is to come. And I have to say, being invited here to speak with you is a great honour and privilege — and is pretty intimidating.

So I started preparing by thinking back on what my graduation day was like exactly 10 years ago, and I really could remember only one thing very clearly — the massive hangover I was trying to hide from my parents.

So I take great comfort in knowing that most of you are probably in similar conditions and won’t remember a thing I am gonna say.

Btw, does is anyone else confused by the word commencement? Or is it just me? When I got my commencement notice, I was quite confused by it — you know in secondary school and JC and so on, we call it graduation right. So now we are having this commencement ceremony and  I was like, wait I thought I was done here? I spent four years completing all the courses and getting my degree , shouldn’t I be celebrating completing it? It was very dissatisfying, it’s like you tried so hard and just when you thought you are done. Someone up there just decided to take that achievement away from you and say gotcha  – you have just completed the tutorial and the real game starts now!

Anyways, I can only assume that I am invited to speak with you because startups are becoming the in-thing nowadays — despite being a pretty dubious career choice — I have been doing startups for 10 years, and I was to impart some startup lessons I had to learn along the way.

If most of you were like me, you got into engineering because it was the default right thing to do — you had good grades and was somewhat scientifically inclined, you like building and troubleshooting things, and you didn’t want to do chem engine. (seriously, who would)

So you enrolled to be an ECE engineer, which must have been great for the most part. As I found out quickly though, and it seems to still be the case now — one of the things we really didn’t think through was the gender ratio, it was like going back to an all boys school. So as expected, we used to go to the arts canteen a lot, for lunch and so on — of course it was because there were many more girls there and we thought statistically we must be dramatically increasing the odds.

So that’s where I learned my first lesson in sales and marketing — simply being close to the market, does not necessarily mean you can win customers — you will still need a product that sells (and engineering wasn’t the best selling brand in the market, shall we say) AND actually be thick skin and proactive and get good at selling it. And many of us weren’t very good at it, we’ll leave it at that. But fortunately, that deprivation phase is now over for you — you are now the popular choice amongst ladies, you now have freedom to make brand new choices about a brand new life, and we are here to talk about that.


Did you know that by the virtue of graduating here today, you are in the top 2% of the world in terms of intellectual capability? And you know what — NUS Electrical and Computer Engineering is ranked 6th in the world? (I’m sure you know, NUS made sure everyone knows)

Google it if you don’t believe me — It’s MIT, Stanford, Berkeley, Cambridge, some Swiss university I’ve never heard of, and then us. We even rank better than Harvard, Oxford and Imperial!

It’s pretty amazing — we are like the only top engineering university in the world who has not produced any famous inventor.

But seriously — you’ve had an amazing education that is the envy of the world, and is the desire of every employer.

At least that’s what I said to myself when I graduated 2nd lower to feel better — hey I didn’t’ get very good grades but I am still better than Harvard.

Oh btw, here’s another piece of advice, especially if you were like me, not one of the smart ones — make friends with them and hire them. You know who they are, ya you know who I’m talking about — exactly, the Indian and Chinese scholars who you hate so much because they seemed to be specially selected and air flown here to kick the rest of our asses.

See I could never get into dean’s list myself, fortunately one of bathe best things I’ve done was that I could con a few into working with me — really they do all the hard stuff, I just coast along. Thats the secret in life, surround yourself with smart people so you can coast along with them. So instead of complaining about foreign talent crushing our grades and taking our jobs — be an opportunist, figure out how to capitalise on it.

And here’s another privilege you have — your lot will have an unemployment rate of near zero — every one of you can get a job if you wanted to.

Starting work is like starting a Lord of the Rings Marathon — once you start, no matter how sick of it, you can’t stop. So I say take your time, spend some time off, see the world, go climb a mountain, go take the Siberian train, go do your dream tour in Europe and btw see for yourself the depression of 40% unemployment rate for age under 25 like in Spain. So, you when come back, you won’t complain so much.

And you can afford it too — the GDP per capita amongst you is one of the top 5 in the world, and within the next 10 years of your life, you would reach an income level that is in top 1% in the world, and you will not have a problem getting the 5Cs that you were told is the meaning of life.

So — not bad huh. Not only are you better than Harvard, guaranteed a job, you will make good money and not worry about your life in general. Isn’t that great? You have your life sorted out at 25.


But of all these privileges, this is the one i want to talk to you about — the privilege to live to see and participate in the creation of an breathtaking amazing future.

All of you graduating today will get to see a future that is wondrous and unimaginable — yes, every generation will say this to the next, but really, this time it really is different.

All of you graduating today, will live to 120, maybe 150 years old. — in your life time, you will have bionics implants that would improve every aspect of what you think is human — vision, speed, strength, memory, everything. Sports will have to be redefined.

If you drink too much, you can get organs that are custom-grown to your genetics to as perfect replacements, you will see human kind cure or prevent the effects of most diseases known to man today.

You also will witness the creation of sustainable, renewable energy sources, water sources and food sources.

Cars will drive themselves, you will practice tennis with a flying drone, robots will change your baby’s diapers, and your toilet bowl made by Taobao will be the first to tell you that you have early signs of cancer, and suggest you order the preventative drugs off Amazon and you will be ok. It will not be a big deal.

You will be able to travel to space, for fun, for ten thousand dollars. and you may even be able to visit our colony on Mars.

Perhaps more importantly — you will see the world get to 100% literacy for the newborn, 100% internet penetration for all human kind.

The best education, on any topic, any knowledge the entirety of human race has accumulated — including the course materials of what you have invested the last 4 years learning, would be online and almost free for anyone who so desires to learn.

Poverty, as defined by the world bank today — which is the lack of basic levels of health, water, sanitation, security, voice and opportunity to better one’s life, will be down to almost zero.

Anyone, born anywhere on earth, will have the opportunity to better themselves and compete with.. well you. Communications and the spreading of an idea would be instantaneous and global.

This is not science fiction. Most of this would happen by 2100 — and you will live to see it.

Human capacity — the capacity of what one person can achieve in a lifetime, will be a hundred times what it is today.


But yet, but yet — we will also be living in a world that is more fragile than ever.

We will live in a world so interconnected and interdependent that catastrophic failure in one part of the system can drag down everything else.

That wonderful future is assuming nobody does anything stupid and crazy that death spirals the world out of control.

We will live in a world, where a few really angry people can do massive amount damage because weapons have gotten so powerful, a few disgruntled hackers can cripple entire country’s information system, an disenfranchised individual can leak information that can start wars.

American subprime mortgages and Palestinian conflicts are no longer none of our business. Big banks getting too many people to buy houses they cannot afford can bring down our economy and cause you and your parents to lose your jobs. And many of you here today, will work for these banks.

A handful of companies would be more powerful than governments — some of them already are. And some of you will also work for, or maybe even run some of these companies.

Computers and robots will beat humans in almost every kind of task that can be automated — more power will be concentrated in the hands of on those who know how to use them, while a massive number of jobs would be made obsolete.

While the poorest of the world may be out of poverty as we define it today — they will also see the widest wealth divide we have ever seen.

If we don’t do anything about it, the top 1% would make 50% of the world’s income, and the bottom 80% would make less than 5%.

And we all know how we feel about wealth — it’s relative. The reason we are so pissed at MRT breaking down is not because MRT suck — our MRT system is one of the best in the world, ask the white people, they will tell you. The reason we are pissed is that there are many more Ferraris on the road compared to 10 years ago, and they are not driven by us. It is fairness that we seek.

If we don’t find a way to share the fruits of our labour while keeping capitalism effective — we will likely have a war at hand.

And while the world has become a much more complicated place to live in — the internet has us all so connected that passing along a message, with a tweet or a like button, is so easy that we will often do it without contemplation or conviction, as long as it carries a cool headline that makes us sound smart if we share it.

An angry blogger can start a war with his voice — and he may be right and there may be real pressing issues to be addressed, or he may simply be a sensationalistic attention seeker with a naive premise and a talent for writing sharable headlines.

How you will respond to all of this everyday matters, with your career and the decisions you will make in your job, and with your voice as a person — you can choose to be part of the solution, or part of the problem  -  and it is often not easy to tell which is which.

And that’s why it is all the more important for us to make conscious, intentional effort to examine our believes so we can speak and act with conviction instead of convenience.

Make It Count

The world is going to be an amazing place — but you won’t feel it coming as changes are subtle and slow. 10 years ago, when i graduated, we did not even have iPhones.

Most of you will spend the next 3-5 years in comfort — you will get a pretty good job, earn a good living. You are very fortunate that all of these paths are there laid for you — they are all safe and sensible.

But you are also cursed — with this comfort and safety that is so easy to slip into. It’s the most dangerous thing you have to fight against. You have to take deliberate effort to choose to live with purpose, with intent, and passion.

It doesn’t matter what you want to do — you can really be passionate about having the perfect family and bringing up your children right (and that’s one of the greatest service you can provide society), or about exploring the world, or invent something.

Just remember the future is going to be incredible — and nobody knows what it’s gonna be like. Make plans, but don’t get sucked into them. Follow your passion — not in the grand illusionary sense of “I want to play the NBA” follow your passion, because that’s stupid since you will not make it. But in the sense of — race cars are really interesting, let’s go build one.

Your interest will change. Your knowledge and skill set will become irrelevant faster than ever. It is more important to be short-term passionate about the thing you are doing right now.

Let your curiosity take you forward, and get good at what you are doing, get really good at it, like kick-ass, top-of-the-world good — you of all people are the most equipped to do so, you owe it to yourself to be good at what you do. YOLO, so make it count.

Love, Finally

Finally — you will live a life that is in the top 1% in wealth and in ability, and sometimes in power and in influence too.

Be grateful for what you have, and know that while you have worked hard earn your spot in the world, 99% of this was built and handed to you by your forefathers, your teachers, and most of all your parents. So be grateful and thank them.

Understand the world is not fair, never was and never will be — you are privileged to be the top 1%, and while life is pretty good for you, it’s not as magical as the 0.01%, and that’s ok.

But more than that, remember there is 99% worse off than you, because they were not dealt as good cards as you had along the way, those who needs your help to even out the odds for them.

Be kind with your words, be compassionate to others, be brave with your beliefs, but be wise to examine them.

Your voice and your actions matters now more than ever.

Learn to understand and love those who are different from us — our survival depends on it. Learn to understand and love those who are different from us — our survival depends on it.

Class of 2014, congratulations again! Go forth and build the future, and build a good one, you will be living in it for a long time.

Thank you.

Ready to find the home you’ll love? Go to 99.co!

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