To be a Canossian Star.


I was invited to be the Guest of Honour at the 2012 Canossian Awards. This ceremony is an annual event organised by my alma mater – St Anthony’s Canossian Secondary School –  to recognise students that have achieved academic excellence for the year. Teachers are also commended for their efforts in support the students. It was also a wonderful opportunity for me to not only be updated with the various improvements made for the school, but also meet some old teachers and sisters that played a part of my growth as a teen.  Below is a text of my speech.

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Good morning everyone,

First and foremost, I would like to thank SAC for giving me this great honour of attending this year’s Canossian Awards ceremony and addressing you today. It was really a pleasant surprise when Mrs Yip called me one afternoon while I was at work to tell me about this.

I think she was a bit amused by my reaction — “Oh wow, that’s so cool”. It was a nice piece of news amidst the stress and uncertainty in my preparations for PhD; and its very humbling to know that my little steps of progress are being recognised by an institution that has played a significant role as in my teenage years. Thank you, once again.

The theme of today’s event is about aiming high and reaching for the Stars. How everyone has the potential to be a shining star and achieve their goals in life. The concept of individuals as stars is also relevant for the fact that only the bigger shinier stars are visible to the naked eye. Its only when we use a telescope that we are able to see a range of smaller stars in the sky.

Similarly, in life, we often only hear about the success stories of a few, when there are actually many others out there who have had many achievements and more importantly touched the lives of others.

That said, why are some stars more visible than others? Why are the achievements of some individuals recognised more than others?  In my short address to you today, I’ll highlight four  points that I think are important for becoming illuminating stars. I must say that I am far from being a bright guiding North Star at this point of time, but there have nevertheless been lessons through my schooling years and short working period that I think would be relevant to young individuals like yourself.

Point #1: Know Yourself and Your Opportunities

Know what topics interest you, and seek to develop those interests further. Start a hobby – apart from surfing on Facebook. Know what your strengths are and know what you like to do. When I was in secondary school, I only knew I liked talking about politics and current affairs. So I opted for history rather than biology in Sec 3.

Also know your weaknesses and how to overcome them. Like many of you, I hated exams. I also knew that I preferred to be given essay assignments rather than sit for a 2 hour exam. However, given the exam-based systems that we have for O-level and A-level, I just had to suck it up and do my best. Fortunately O-levels went well, although my A-levels was pretty bad- a point which I will get to later.

Also know that in the working world, personality matters more than paper qualifications. This does not mean that academic grades are irrelevant. Rather its a basic requirement. Everyone has a diploma or degree and sometimes even a masters.

Employers want to know what other skills you can bring to their organisation — such as leadership skills, social skills and willingness to work as a team. Developing such skills definitely cannot be done via memorising text books, but rather through the various CCAs that you participate in.

I know you’ve probably heard this before, but its really true. Because when you’re actually trying to create an impressive CV for your first job, you’ll be really happy that you participated in CCAs, or regretting that you didn’t do enough of it in school.

In Sec 1, I was chairman of my class, then moved on to be a prefect and a member of the Student Council. I was also a Girl Guide and subsequently became a patrol leader. At some point in upper secondary, I was also a Peer Support Leader and a School Year Book Committee Member. For me, these experiences allowed me to develop important life skills that I would further enhance through other CCAs during my undergraduate days and other activities that I engage in outside of work.

Point #2: Listen to the little stars around you.

While we can often look up to the bigger stars and achievers highlighted in the mainstream media, oftentimes it doesn’t take much to find inspiration from those around us – especially those older and with more experience than us. This includes your family and your teachers — They would be in the best position to guide and advice you, if you are willing to listen. Such advice may sometimes come across as nagging, but always take a deep breath and bear in mind that what you don’t understand now, will be understood later on.

Aside from family and teachers, little stars can also be random people that you meet in life. For instance, one person I find inspiration from is an elderly janitor that works in NTU.  This lady is a widow in her mid 60s and comes to work earlier than anyone else. She earns maybe about 400 to 600 dollars a month, and has the simplest of lunches – usually some rice topped with a bit of ikan bilis and soy sauce that she brings from home. Yet, despite these challenging circumstances that she faces, she still makes the effort and time to do community service at an old folks home and a neighbourhood mosque. It made me think, if she can do all this, why can’t I? Why is it that we – who have a life much easier than her – still complain of being too busy and not enough time to do anything?

This brings me to my 3rd point –

Point #3: Take Advantage of Adversity.

It is important to note that achievements don’t occur overnight and are part of a long-term process of development. Often those who are successful, have failed at some points in their life. Doing badly in my A-levels, was one of them. I also experienced a rough patch in my third year of University, due to a few personal issues.

The most useful lesson for me during these rough periods was the importance of picking myself up and channelling the energy to other activities. During my University days, I took on responsibilities in at least 4 Committees in Hostel (which are called Colleges in Australia) – specifically the College Year Book committee, Environment Committee, Diversity and Volunteer Committee and Arabic Society. I was also Director/Producer of the College Play, President of a Senior Common Room, was part of an external dance troupe and participated in other random inter-college events. Ironically, this crazy schedule forced me to be more organised with my time. In addition to graduating with a 2nd upper class honours, my CCA efforts had unexpectedly paid off as I was also awarded the Collegian of the Year Award. In retrospect, its interesting how my performance was most mediocre when I was most inactive in Junior College.

The fourth and last point: Communicate Globally and Locally Effectively.

The history of astronomy has demonstrated the importance of stars by all civilisations, thus showing its universal relevance to mankind. Similarly the potential to make your ideas relevant to a wider audience beyond Singapore is immense. Globalisation is such an intrinsic part of our daily life, it would be a shame not to make the best of it. Sharing ideas through social media is an effective tool – if used with a sense of professionalism. For instance, if you would plan to maintain a blog, rather than it being a series of rants and posts beginning with “dear diary this is what I did today”, take the effort to compose thoughtful, clear and constructive commentaries on an issue.

Truth be told, some key opportunities that I received in the past few years was a result of people contacting me because they were interested in my environment-related blog posts. Firstly, it allowed me to get connected with people who understood and shared my ideas (at a time when others around me didn’t understand my ideas). Secondly, it provide a chance for me to present my ideas at international conferences, and from there opening doors to other networks and opportunities.

That said, communicating locally is just as important, so that we are clear on what’s happening in our own backyard. At the end of the day, Singapore is our home and we have a responsibility to this island.

There was a quote I found on Twiiter, that I think sums this up very well – it said:

“The grass isn’t greener on the other side, its greener where you water it. Don’t lust over something that isn’t yours and invest in what is.”

This is, however, the most difficult task to accomplish, but overcoming it will be most rewarding.

So there you have it, 4 points to being a shining star. Having said all that, some of you might be thinking, “Well that’s all very nice, but I’m still not convinced that being a bright shiny star is for me. I don’t even know where to start”.

 My response to this would be to reflect on the vision of SAC.

“To be a passionate learning community, renowned for its spirit of innovation and excellence  , within a culture of compassion.”

  1. Passionate learning community — meaning you’re always hungry to know more about everything and anything
  2. Spirit of innovation & excellence – referring to new ideas, and being the best that you can
  3. Within a culture of compassion  — for me – that the key word: compassion.

Here in Singapore, we’re always told to be #1 in everything. We have various institutions and resources dedicated to education, training and research — all in a bid to support innovation. But most of the time in the working world, what drives innovation is not compassion, but individual gain.

People tend to innovate not for principles but for profit. Or sometimes, they may have started with principles, but strayed away from their original mission.

This is the challenge I pose to you – future stars of St Anthony’s Canossian Secondary School.

How will you strike a balance between getting a good job  that you love and enjoy while still giving back to society?

How will you innovate primarily for compassion rather than cost-cutting?

So the next time when you switch on your computer or smartphone —  Instead of immediately logging on to Facebook, take a few minutes to do a google search on a topic or idea that you would like to develop or know more about — and constantly reflect on how it can be relevant to your life and society as a whole. It’s a small start for bigger things to come.

And with that, thank you and I’d be happy to leave my contact details with the teachers if anyone you want to have a chat about your ideas on being a star.

I wish you all good luck and God Bless 🙂

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