What Chan Chun Sing said (and did not say)

By May 4, 2017Current

TL;DR – Loving (your job) is a many splendored thing.

The internet is abuzz with criticisms of what Minister Chan Chun Sing said at the graduation ceremony at Temasek Polytechnic.

Somehow everyone, from mainstream media to alternative media to whoever on social media just focussed on the point that students should “do justice” to to the jobs that they do instead of searching for the perfect job.

And of course, this analogy that Minister Chan made:

“Is it (more important) to marry the woman you love, or to love the woman you marry?”

And in so doing, everyone missed the main point of what Minister Chan said. A pity, we say, as it was a rather good speech for the students.


Let’s back up a little. Before Minister Chan delivered his speech, he asked the students a few versions of the same question, “At the age X, what would your definition of success be?”

He first asked the students to think about what they think would be their definition of success when they are 80, then 50, then 35 and then 27.

Minister Chan then got the students to send in their responses, which had to be three words or less, to a website called Menti.com. The website then generated a “word cloud” based on the responses the students sent in.

People who have attended dialogue sessions with Minister Chan would find this familiar. This is something he likes to do. Get a sense of what’s on the minds of the audience and tweak what he says based on sense of what they would like to find out from him. Most times, he doesn’t even have a prepared speech at all and would craft what he wants to say based on the questions and responses from the audience. He prefers to deal with whatever the audience wants to know, and the issues they want addressed.

Anyway at Temasek Poly, when he asked the students for their definition of success at the three different ages, one of the first and largest words to appear was “Marriage” and the audience laughed. And after the responses settled, it was “Family”. With this context, it’s hardly surprising that Minister Chan had used the marriage analogy in his sharing with the students.

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What he actually said

I heard a recording of his entire speech. Yea, this is the era of smartphones with all the bells and whistles. Although it did take the team a little time to ask around, we managed to find someone who knows someone who was in the audience yesterday and made a recording. That someone-someone even told us it’s the best graduation speech he’s heard.

Unfortunately, the recording quality is quite bad, so I shan’t post it here. But I think it’s worthwhile summarising his full speech.

Based on the responses from the students, Minister Chan got a sense of how the students defined success, and thus what they think their goals should be at different stages of life.

He explained that it’s important to think about what’s truly important in life when young. Because that’s when a person hasn’t quite gotten bogged down in all the “busy-ness” of life. He said:

“In your busy-ness… you will soon risk losing track of where you are going, and you will soon feel that you don’t have a compass and you are buffeted by the forces across the world.”

He then encouraged the students to consciously think whether all their actions are bringing them closer to the goals that they have set. He also encouraged the students to hold true to their goals, but be flexible and adaptable in their approach.

And adaptability is certainly something Minister Chan thinks is very important. In fact, he told the students that the most important thing that they take away from their time in TP is not the knowledge or technical skill.

It’s the adaptability.

Where did the marriage analogy came in?

Minister Chan then turned to something that would be of more immediate concern to the students.


He acknowledged that most graduates, after getting their certs and diplomas, will be wondering how to land a good job, where a good job might be, and how to find the meaning in the job that they go for. To which, Minister Chan said this:

“Finding meaning will always be inferior to giving meaning in all that you do.”

He also said:

“It is almost impossible to find the perfect job for you, that have all the conditions that will make you successful in life. But it is always possible to be in control to give meaning to what you do.”

And that’s where he made that marriage analogy:

“Is it more important to marry the woman you love? Or to love the woman you marry?

But news didn’t quite report what he said next:

“BOTH are important! But if you have to make a choice, which one will you find more happiness?”

Minister Chan went on to say:

“In today’s world, where we have many choices, it is very easy for us to get lost among the many choices and get very distracted. We are constantly searching for that something that would give us perfection, searching for that something that would give us meaning. But we would often fail, and then we will be disappointed.

But instead, if we change our perspective, and ask ourselves, can we do justice to the job we are doing, can we do justice to the relationship that we are building, can we give meaning to what we are doing, then we are in control. And if we can give, rather than just expect to take, then regardless of our station in life then I think we will find meaning because we give meaning. But to only find meaning, it will be tough to be happy.”

I can’t agree more with the crux of Minister Chan’s message

How many people have we met who are constantly searching for a “perfect” something? Be it a “perfect” job, or a “perfect” person to marry, or a “perfect”… whatever?

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I know I used to be one of those people. I wasn’t very happy. Then I realised why.

Not so much because perfection doesn’t exist. But I expected that there was something perfect out there, waiting for me to find.

I thought it was my god-given right that a job that was perfect for me existed. You know… one that paid well, where I was good at it, where I needed to work just hard enough to feel a bit stretched, yet had time to chill, spend time with family and friends, one that I found meaningful, where I could constantly feel that I was growing, learning and developing, that was near my house, preferably came with free meals, a beer fridge and a pool table, etc etc.

And all I had to do was to find that job, and I’d be happy. And when I couldn’t find it, I whined and ranted about how difficult it was to find my calling.

Looking back, I realised that that’s pretty self-entitled. Why would there be a job out there that was perfect for me? Why would anyone be so kind to make that job for me?

No. That’s not how the world works.

And I slowly learnt exactly the lesson that was the main point of Minister Chan’s speech. It’s OK if I can’t find a perfect job. I can find a quite-good job. There will be things about the job that I don’t quite like. I will still get Monday blues. I will still find it difficult to wake up on some mornings.

But I can also do my best to shape my job, to expand my role. To do little things or big things, or whatever things to make my job more meaningful to me. To learn. To grow. To slowly make my job closer to that elusive “perfect” job. And ultimately, that made me a whole lot happier than always being on the constant lookout for that “perfect” job.

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If only someone, when I was 20, told me what Minister Chan said. I probably would have had many more years of being happier. But… well… better late than never.

And I hope that I will apply that same lesson to as many things I do as possible. To not only find meaning in what I do. But to give meaning. To not just take. But also to give.


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Author CRC

Working on a startup is a scary crazy process. To destress, I write random stuff.

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Join the discussion 2 Comments

  • John says:

    The reason, perhaps, that people misread the message was because they did not understand it. It is difficult for young adults to appreciate meaning-making. The minister shared something profound, out of his experience and genius, that the audience couldn’t understand. Instead of mulling over it, they (being the young and implusive that they are) resisted it. Perhaps, there is no shortcuts to gaining wisdom. The old saying holds true, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”

    Before us was one worthy teaching that demanded the best of us to be students.

  • Jai Singh says:


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