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Address delivered by Honorary Graduate, Mr Wee Kim Wee during his conferment of the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters, on Tuesday, 30 August 1994.

The University (1994). Convocation. The National University of Singapore Gazette, 1 (14), 6-8.


Address by Honorary Graduate, Mr Wee Kim Wee

Mr Chancellor, Graduates, Ladies & Gentlemen,

I would like to begin by thanking the Senate of the National University of Singapore for conferring on me the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters.

It is an honour which I accept with joy and humility.

Because of near poverty I had to terminate my formal education before I completed my 'O' levels. It is, therefore, a special honour for someone like me to be given a doctorate. The only university I have attended is the University of Life.

Mr Chancellor, my association with the National University of Singapore has been a very happy one. For eight years I had the high honour of being the Chancellor of the University. On eight successive occasions, I had to perform the solemn but delightful duty of presenting degree scrolls to nearly 5,000 young graduands and graduates. I must confess that there were moments when I secretly had longed to exchange places with one of the young graduands. Life would have been easier had I had a University degree. But I have come to accept that, in life, you cannot have everything that you desire. This leads me to the first of the three rules by which I have conducted myself in my adult years and I would like to share them with you, the graduates.

In the lottery of life, you cannot choose the circumstances of your birth or the accidents of fortune and misfortune. Should misfortune bar your path, you should strive to overcome your handicaps and hardships and turn to advantage every adversity. Always do your best.

Having done your best, you should try to be contented with what you have. In life, as in sports, it is not possible to be victorious all time and avoid defeat completely. You win some and you lose some.

What option do you have if you are not contented? For one thing, you can try and achieve your aim or target "by hook or by crook" and that is the surest first step to ruination.

Must we really keep up with the Joneses next door? You and l know it. We do not have to own a Rolls Royce of live in a $20 million bungalow if we cannot afford them.

For eight years as President of Singapore, I continued to stay in my pigeon-hole bungalow standing on 6000 square feet of land space when a luxurious bungalow in the 100 acre Istana grounds was available to me. At no time did I feel inferior to any other Singaporean who lived in grand and luxurious homes. My gut feeling was and still is "Good luck to them". They must have done something really good to be blessed with such luxuries and a good life. We should not be jealous or even envious. In short, be contented and happy. This is the first rule. 

I adopted this simple philosophy about 58 years ago, when I was 21. I went through a very trying experience. I came close to a mental breakdown. When I emerged from that dark period, I told myself that in life you cannot hope to win all the time. 

This simple but very sound advice was given to me and some 29 other youthful members of the Straits Chinese Reading Club at the Prinsep Street Presbyterian Church by a venerable and respected lawyer of the time, Sir Ong Siang Song, who was then also an Executive Councillor of the Legislative Council. Incidentally, it was in his law firm, Aitken & Ong Siang, where our very successful criminal lawyer and former Chief Minister, Mr David Marshall, was first attached.

This simple rule has served me very well. It has given me contentment and peace of mind. You will soon learn that in the world we live in today, peace of mind is not only very important but crucial. The alternative is "stress" and you do not have to consult your doctor to know what this state of the mind can bring in its train.

The second rule which I would like to share with you is: treat every person, no matter how lowly he may be, as a fellow human being. 

This golden rule was passed on to me by Mr David Marshall. I am grateful to him that he had shared this golden rule with me at an early and appropriate moment of my life, when I was a struggling and hungry journalist.

Many years later, I was to learn, firsthand and by accident, that Mr David Marshall had not only preached this rule but had practiced it himself "to the letter".

Two months ago, I attended a memorial service for the late Professor Wu Teh Yao at the Presbyterian Church in Orchard Road. It was packed to capacity, not surprisingly. I would like to believe the big turnout was not so much because he was a highly-learned man alone or that he was former Vice-Chancellor of several universities. I believe that people from all walks of life attended the service because, first and foremost, the late professor was a very humble man and they loved, admired and respected him for that.

Professor Wu Teh Yao had held high and intellectual posts almost all his lifetime, yet, in the twilight years of his life, he lived in a very modest HDB flat at Jurong East and used taxis as his form of transportation. I had the good fortune to meet this humble but great man at the Istana. After the first meeting, I was convinced we had a sage among us in Singapore, who would move mountains to help his fellow men. I feel his death is a great loss not only to his family, but also to Singapore and others in the region.

The third rule which I would like to share with you is: practice the virtue of humility. Humility is a virtue which Asian sages have handed down to us through the generations. It is, however, a virtue which is in danger of losing its way in Singapore. As Singapore continues to make progress and prosper, it is easy for us to become smug and priggish, even arrogant. We should make humility one of our core values. We should be humble in our office, at home and in our interactions with friends and member of the public.

Let me tell you a story, which was given to me by Professor Tommy Koh, who was our former ambassador to the United States in Washington and, before that, our Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York. It concerns President Harry S Truman, who succeeded to the high office after President Franklin Roosevelt. He was from the small state of Missouri. He had a humble beginning. He was a haberdasher before he entered politics. After he became President of the United States, and the most powerful man in the world, he remained a very humble person. One day, a visitor walked into the Oval Office and was surprised to see President Truman brushing a pair of shoes. The visitor asked him: "Mr President, are you polishing your own shoes?" Truman replied, with a mischievous smile: "Whose shoes do you think I am polishing?"

Earlier this year, President George Bush and Mrs Bush paid a brief visit to Singapore. In an interview, Mrs Bush said that her husband had learned very quickly that a push of the button would not bring his cup of morning coffee. She had to remind him to make his own. 

These two lovely anecdotes struck a strong chord with me: that two Presidents of the world’s mightiest nation should be so humble as to have their feet on the ground, one while in office, the other after he had left the office.

I am sure there are other Heads of State and Prime Ministers today who also are polishing their own shoes and making their own cups of coffee.

I was rather amused when I learned of these tow anecdotes, for I had thought that I was the only Head of State in the world who polished his own shoes and made his own coffee.

Throughout my eight years in office as President if Singapore, I had brushed my own shoes and made my own coffee.  Not that I did not have a maid to do it or that Mrs Wee had reminded me not to push buttons for my coffee. It is just that I felt good to do these routine chores expected of the average man. No human being should feel inferior or downgraded to polish his own shoes and make his cup of coffee.

Mr Chancellor, ladies and gentlemen: 

The three simple and basic rules I have stated are not new or worldshaking. Many in this hall must be practicing them, but I feel there is nothing wrong in offering my young audience the simple facts of life when they are just about to fly out into the wide open spaces to seek more knowledge, more wisdom and other good things in life and full happiness.

I hope I have not sounded like a pontificating guru who knows everything. All I have tried to do is to share with you, my young friends, these simple rules by which I have lived my life and which I have tried to practice diligently all these years. They have served me well. I hope that if you see merit in them, you would consider adopting them as signposts to guide you through life.

In conclusion, I wish, from the bottom of my heart, to congratulate you, the graduates, and to wish you success in all your future endeavours. 



Wee Kim Wee



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