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SIIA Council Secretary Joseph Tan delivers UWA commencement address [7 Sep 2010]

Updated On: Sep 08, 2010

University of Western Australia
It is not how well you finish
by Joseph Tan
Vice Chancellor Alan, Deans Tracey and Tony, Professor Renu – thank you for the kind introduction, Dean Chong and members of the PSB academic board, graduates, parents and friends from the University.
First of all, let me say what a privilege and honour it is to be here on this special day for all of you. I want to congratulate the graduates for your success today, and I am so happy to be here to share this day with you and to honour you for all the hard work and effort you have put in.
Ten years ago, I was in the same seat as you. Well not quite the same seat as I was in Winthrop Hall then, a remarkably beautiful hall but you get what I mean. So as I was seated there, observing the pomp and circumstance in a gown that was clearly one size too big for me, I remembered being happy, excited and worried.
When the University asked me to address you, I again felt happy, excited and worried. I am happy and excited as it is a privilege to speak to you. But worried because I could not remember who spoke at my convocation or what he or she said. So clearly, plagiarism is not an option. But jokes aside, I did spend many nights thinking hard about what to share such that it is both memorable and at the same time, make me sound smarter than I really am.
I finally decided to keep it simple - to share with you my journey thus far, from that seat to this lectern.
When I started university in Perth, it was the summer of '97 but it was winter in Australia - everything has to be done the other way around in Australia. At that time, Asia was deep in the Asian Financial Crisis. You may not remember the Asian Financial Crisis much but trust me when I say it is an episode that I hope does not repeat itself. The '97 crisis is in many ways similar to the recent Global Financial Crisis, but worse. It happened in our backyard. The pain of losing your jobs and wealth was acutely felt then which is very unlike this recent crisis; where no matter where you travel in Asia or Australia, you can scarcely feel the doom and gloom.
A year after, thanks to significant monetary easing done by central banks, economies and confidence recovered in Asia. When I graduated at the beginning of 2000, it was the roaring good old days again. I graduated during the best stock market rally in history. The price to earnings ratio of companies like Yahoo! was at 1,715 times. In other words, for every dollar of earnings the company generated, investors were prepared to pay over 1,700 dollars. As I was sitting in my oversized gown, the question that went repeatedly through my head was "why oh why did I not study computer science". Now you know why I was worried. Of course, with the benefit of hindsight, we know that was the biggest stock market bubble in history.
There are many parallels that can be drawn from the time when I graduated to your current situation. During my undergraduate studies there were two crises, the Asian Financial Crisis and the Dot Com crisis. You have two crises. The Global Financial Crisis and the European Debt Crisis. Like I was, you might be worried about getting a job that can pay you well with good prospects. You might even be worried that before you have even earned a single dollar, you have spent a bomb on education. Things are also starting to get very expensive in Singapore and you might have to run very hard just to stand still.
These are all very valid fears and concerns and I do not make slight of them. But I would be lying to you if I said that during the course of my journey, the biggest things I have learnt is about overcoming these fears, climbing the corporate ladder and being successful in life. Don't get me wrong, these are big things but certainly not things you remember when you look back.
Allow me to return to the crisis which might help make my point clearer.
You see, ten years ago, when Asia had its financial crisis, scholars from around the World dissected the crisis and found that the cause of the crisis was due to cheap loans which led to wasteful investments that could not deliver upon the lofty returns that was previously envisaged. These loans ultimately turned bad and triggered a domino effect that affected banking systems and brought down economies.
One would have thought, that with the benefit of that episode, policymakers, investors and individuals would have learnt a valuable lesson which will prevent the repeat of such an event. After all, scores of theses and journals have been published on this.
Did we get smarter?
I believe that we got smarter but not wiser. Because ten years after, the roots of the Global Financial Crisis are similar. Cheap loans that led to indiscriminate lending again brought down banking systems and economies. The only difference is that we are now able to do it with a lot more oomph! Lehman Brothers became the biggest bankruptcy in history at USD 640 billion and during the height of the crisis, more than USD 35 trillion dollars of wealth was wiped off from the World's equity markets.
As governments now try to regulate financial institutions more tightly, I have no doubt that sheer human ingenuity will ultimately undermine it. You see, from the time of the Asian Crisis to this recent crisis, I have seen scores of other crises ranging from tiny places like Iceland to huge places like Russia and involving oil companies like Enron to hedge funds run by noble prize winners.
At the core of it all, is greed. Greed is a double-edged sword. It is what makes us smarter but not wiser.
As the world becomes increasingly more globalised and integrated, events from remote places can rattle your home. You will be stepping into a world that is more volatile not less. So be prepared.
Learn to temper your brilliance with integrity. Seek wisdom.
Let me now move on to the other big lesson that I have learnt during my journey. It is the story about another man. His name is Adolf Merckle.
Adolf Merckle was born in 1934 in Dresden, Germany. He was born into a wealthy family. Trained as a lawyer, he did not practice law but instead developed his grandfather's chemical company into Germany's largest pharmaceutical wholesaler. He was also a very astute investor and grew his family wealth over time. In 2007, Merckle was estimated by Forbes magazine to be worth USD 13 billion dollars. At that time, Merckle was the 44th richest person in the world. During, the financial crisis, Merckle's wealth dropped to USD 9 billion and he moved from being the 44th richest person to the 94th richest person in December 2008. 
On January 5, 2009, Adolf Merckle threw himself in front on a train near his hometown.
This is a very tragic story. Merckle thought that he had ruined his family legacy. Had he known that financial markets were going to rebound just two months later, I am sure he would have lived out the rest of his life happily with his family.
Honour your loved ones. Learn to temper your success with love and mercy. Seek wisdom.
I am not a very old person even though I look very old. And so, in not being very old, I do not have much wisdom that I can claim to be my own. Instead, I choose to borrow upon the wisdom of others. Allow me to read to you the words of Max Ehrman in a wonderful piece of poetry entitled the Desiderata. "Desiderata" is Latin and it means "things that are desirable".
The Desiderata has inspired and uplifted me. It has also encouraged and challenged me all these years and I hope that it will do the same for you.
The Desiderata by Max Ehrman.
Go placidly amid the noise and the haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible, without surrender be on good terms with all persons. Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even to the dull and the ignorant, they too have their story. Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit.
If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself. Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs, for the world is full of trickery. But let not this blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals, and everywhere life is full of heroism. Be yourself. Especially do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass. Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness. Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.
Therefore, be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be. And whatever your labors and aspirations in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul. 
With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams; it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful.
Strive to be happy.
In conclusion, a friend who is smarter than me once said this.
"It is not about how well you finish, it is about having fun along the way".
Thank you.

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