Expect the Unexpected – From Yourself

This is my all-time personal favorite convocation speech apart from the famous Steve Job’s “Stay Hungry  Stay Foolish” speech at Stanfarod University (see the video here). ON APRIL 22, OCBC Bank chairman Dr Cheong Choong Kong, 64, gave a convoca­tion address to graduates of his alma mater, the University of Adelaide.In it, he spoke about lessons he had learnt in life, and advised graduates to be contrarians, and to place integrity above all.


“What can I possibly say in 10 minutes for that’s the time I’m given that would make the slightest difference? I’m expected, I suppose, to deliver an inspiring message. I’m sure it’s very important that you work hard, succeed and become a model citizen, but you’ve heard all that before, and you will hear it repeated many times in the future. So, I’m not going to give a lecture; you’ve had enough of those. And I won’t even try to inspire, even though that is expected. That perhaps is my first piece of advice to you:

Don’t do what is expected. Be contrarian.

No one ever achieved greatness by following the textbook or meekly obeying orders. And since you’re expected to take my advice, that means you should not do so. Sounds confusing? That leads me to lesson number two, which is: C’est la vie. That’s life. Outside the university, very little is plain and simple, black and white, and there is no all-know­ing professor whom you can turn to for unambigu­ous answers. In life real life it’s not necessarily how much you know that counts, but how you apply your knowledge, in ways that vary from one situation to another, from one person to the next.

Are you academic and dogmatic, or flexible and pragmatic? Very often, IQ has to give way to EQ, or emo­tional quotient. To those of you who are about to enter the corporate world, I have this advice (which of course you are expected to do the unex­pected by not accepting): For a quick introduction to the real world and an accelerated development of your EQ, ask for a posting to the Industrial Re­lations department where you have to empathise and negotiate with hard-core unionists. Unfortunately (or fortunately, in another con­text), there are not many companies in Singapore where unionists are sufficiently challenging, so one’s EQ may not be well exercised. But there are still some places where industrial relations is boisterous and dramatic, and one can develop one’s EQ in an environment where Aristo­telian logic, the type you are used to in university, does not always reign supreme.


Life is about balance and compromise. My view, the view of a 64-year old which you young people need not accept (and which you definitely must not accept unquestioningly), is that success in life is measured not only by the wealth you accumulate, or the rank you reach in your company and society. Rather, it is about how well you balance the op­posite demands of work and family, work and lei­sure, personal and official interests, spiritual and material, yin and yang.

In this regard, I am most unqualified to inspire, and the best I can do is to tell you what advice I would give myself if I could start all over again at your age. I would certainly try to marry work and enjoyment by choosing a vocation or entering a line of business where I can have the cake and eat it too. If you like traveling, join an airline; if high finance fascinates you, join an investment bank; if you fancy international relations and diplomacy, join the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Everything else being equal, you will be less stressed and you will cause less stress. You may even be happy and contented not a necessarily desirable state, but that’s a subject for another oc­casion. I would also advise myself, if I could begin life again as a fresh graduate, not to put off to the next year what I would enjoy doing this year.

It is all too easy to say that we are too busy to do what we enjoy, and we can always do it later when we have the time. If we don’t make the time, it will be many years, if ever, before we get around to doing it. We can always find the time if we try. For over 2 1/2 decades, I told myself I could resume acting and dancing, activities that I en­joyed very much, any time except the present. I did resume, luckily, but almost 30 years after I stopped, and I now regret the lost years. I could have continued acting and taken up serious danc­ing if I had made the effort, with little adverse ef­fect on my career, but I was preoccupied with work to the exclusion of almost all else.

I was not successful in striking the right balance all yang and no yin. It does not have to happen to you. The same is true of friends and family. They cannot be put on hold until career goals are met and more time is then available. Friends become distant for lack of attention, and children grow up. A familiar excuse for taking friends and family for granted is that time is limited and one has to set priorities. In the exercise of setting priorities, work and career usually take precedence. However, advancing one’s career and nurturing important relationships are not necessarily mutual­ly exclusive. How to balance one against the other is an essential lesson of life that you cannot find in the normal academic curriculum, but it is a lesson that must be learnt, a skill that must be mastered.

I am the last person to give advice on matters spiritual but I have no doubt that the more devout among my friends will want me to stress the dan­gers of addiction to the material.

The material rewards of success are sweet, so far be it for me to discourage you from the pursuit of excellence in your chosen profession. The mod­ern economy dangles incentives for hard work and achievement, the religious domain calls for re­straint, donations and sacrifice. It is little wonder then that the scale is heavily weighted against the spiritual; yet, here too it is wise to strive for a judicious balance.


Up till now I have been speaking about the wis­dom of striking a balance between opposing de­mands. There are times when compromises are necessary. Let me now conclude with remarks on an issue over which there must be no compromise: the is­sue of integrity. I can think of no better guidance to give fresh graduates about to make their mark in society than to stress the importance of integrity. You must be fair and honest in your dealings with clients, colleagues and business partners, suppliers of goods and services and, yes, even competitors. A reputation or integrity will be an advantage in most circles, but that is not the reason to stay honest and fair. After all, some people have amassed enormous wealth and power through dubious means.

You want to be a person of integrity not because it’s a formula for success, although it’s extremely helpful, but because success will be all the sweeter if you have not compromised your principles to achieve it.­ On the other hand, success borne of stabbing a colleague in the back, or dishonestly using insider information, or misleading a client, is hollow.

If you must remember one piece of advice, dis­carding the rest, remember this.