EVERY great country relies on effective institutions, and it is most apt that the name of this school contains the word ‘Institution’. St Paul’s Institution has the distinction of being 118 years old this year and it is clear that it encapsulates a strong spirit and institutional memory. I was delighted to learn that the alumni of this Lasallian educational institution include not only pioneers like the great Malay writer Zainal Abidin Ahmad (better known as Za’aba) and Malaysia’s first astronaut Dr Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor, but also statesmen of both Malaysia and Singapore and athletes who have done the country proud.
When arguing about how to make our country better today, adults often think about political, judicial, and economic institutions, but to me it is educational institutions – universities, colleges and schools just like St Paul’s – that serve as the embryo of all these other institutions. If citizens fail to receive a good education, then our country is more likely to fail. This is not just because there will be fewer good people of high calibre and morality to serve in positions of leadership, but also because there will be fewer citizens to hold them to account. Regardless of your eventual profession in life, you all will have responsibilities as citizens and opportunities to show leadership.
You guys are now only 12 years old and you might think that being a responsible citizen seems a long way off. It is five years before you will be able to drive, six before you’re considered an adult and nine before you are able to vote. But let me tell you having once been the age of 12: the next decade of your life will pass by in a flash.
These will be your formative years that will shape what you believe in, what your passions are, and even how you will think for the rest of your life. So even though you might have just got your identity card, it is never too early to start thinking about what kind of citizen you want to be and what kind of life you wish to lead. And if it takes you away from our beloved Seremban, Negeri Sembilan, and Malaysia, the foundation of this next journey of your life has been established here at St Paul’s.
And as Paulians – having met some of your alumni – I hope that you will keep your mind open to new ideas, to challenging concepts and understanding completely different philosophies of life. In this manner you will be able to respond to the world’s challenges in a way that best contributes to your development.
This is all easier said than done and I’m sure that you are all very excited to grow up. But as I’ve also learned, you can move too fast. You will find that life is about making mistakes and in this process, you may hurt yourself and you may hurt your loved ones too. The important thing is learning from these mistakes as you strive to become a better human being. One way to anticipate these regrets is to find the things that will give you stability throughout your life.
In particular, my advice would be to try many different things and push your own boundaries. Enrich your minds by reading and debating about current affairs and the state of the world. If you play a sport, then continue to play it even if you’re going to pursue a completely different career: I started playing squash before I was your age and still find time to play now. If you enjoy playing a musical instrument keep it up: I regret the fact that I stopped playing piano for years before starting again. Pursue hobbies and passions – perhaps the environment, animal welfare or even human rights – and make friends with those who share them. There are today so many organisations or online groups through which you can help your communities working with others. These are the things that in time can change the world.
And yes, it is important to do well academically, but growing up is also about wonder and experiences that you may never be able to recreate in the future.
So congratulations again to you guys, congratulations to your proud parents and congratulations to your hardworking teachers. I hope that decades from now, each and every one of you in this hall can be cited as among Malaysia’s most outstanding citizens, and the pride of St Paul’s Institution, of Seremban, and of Negeri Sembilan.
Extracted from the writer’s speech at the Standard Six Graduation Ceremony at St Paul’s Institution Seremban on Nov 20.