Humanities helped chart S'pore's course

I graduated a long time ago but still remember that great feeling of having reached a significant milestone in my life. I had completed a challenging course and was eager to start working life and to make a contribution.

I'd like to share three reasons why I am especially glad to be here:

One is that I, too, am a Humanities graduate. I studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE), which I thoroughly enjoyed.

Second, I recently participated in Nanyang Technological University's external review panel for the School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences. And so I know what a great faculty you belong to.

Third, in my work at the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth as well as the National Heritage Board, I certainly hope I get to work with some of you in the arts and heritage sectors.

In the early years of Singapore's independence, the humanities were thought to be less important or prestigious than a science-based education. An emphasis on the hard sciences laid strong foundations for our economy.

The humanities teach students to think creatively and critically, to construct good arguments anchored with reason, and to make sense of the world. ST FILE PHOTO

However, the humanities and social sciences were equally important in charting our path.

From the 1980s, much investment was put into training in the humanities to adjust the balance. I am a beneficiary of that wise decision.

In my case, I was a Science student all through school, aspiring to be a doctor. But I had always enjoyed reading, music and the arts. When the opportunity came to change course with a government scholarship, I decided to take the plunge. I have never looked back since. I never regretted this decision taken at age 18.

My own training in PPE has shaped my ability to think more strategically, grapple with complexity and apply holistic solutions to problems.

The humanities teach us to think creatively and critically, to construct good arguments anchored with reason, and to ask good questions.

The social sciences help us make sense of our world. They broaden our experience and understanding.

Languages and communication are essential to who we are as a people, as a community.

Great literature can transport us to different places and cultures, fuel our imagination and inspire us.

History connects us to the past, and helps us put the present and the future in perspective.

Without the arts, we would have no anchor to our society or expression for our aspirations.

Without the humanities and social sciences, we would not have gotten to where we are today.

Many of our nation's pioneer generation leaders were students of the humanities themselves.

For instance, Dr Goh Keng Swee (Minister for Finance, Education and Deputy Prime Minister) and Mr Lim Kim San (the founding chairman of the Housing Board) were both economists.

Mr S. Rajaratnam (our first Minister for Culture and Minister for Foreign Affairs), though trained as a lawyer, was also a prolific short-story writer and playwright.

Many of you may not be aware but he has been published alongside modern literary greats: Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and James Joyce, among others.

His lasting poetic legacy is our National Pledge - 38 words that articulate the ideals and aspirations of our nation. And which particularly strike a chord with many of us in Singapore's jubilee year.

At the National Heritage Board which I head, we are aware of how the humanities have played a critical role in the building of our nation over the last 50 years.

A racially diverse nation that had the odds stacked against us, it was an understanding borne out of the appreciation of the humanities that paved the way and laid the foundations for Singapore.

We invested in our people and built a multicultural society, regardless of race, language or religion. We overcame challenges together with the "gotong royong" kampung spirit that is pioneering and resilient.

We have always shown compassion and generosity to one another, caring for our neighbours and putting family first.

These values are the building blocks of our society. They continue to define us today.

I am sure many of you share these binding values in your own way and find meaning in them. But values are good only if we live them out in our communities, among our friends and family.

I hope you carry them into the future - out of this university and into your workplaces.

You are a special cohort. You graduate in Singapore's 50th year as a nation. As Singapore's future, I hope you will be torch bearers of our cherished values going forward.

I'd like to end with some words from Yusof Ishak, our first President. He said in 1966, just a year after our independence:

"Singapore today, more than ever before, needs mature men and women who are well-trained and educated. Therefore, no matter what your success at university may mean to you personally or to your family or to your alma mater, it means as much, or more to the country.

"You leave this university equipped with certain skills. Your minds have been stimulated. You can use them merely to achieve your own selfish ends, or you can use them not only for your own betterment but also for the betterment of others. However successful you may become later in life, your success will have no meaning unless it is shared by the whole community. Singapore has a brilliant future ahead."

•The writer is chief executive officer of the National Heritage Board.

•This is an excerpt from a speech delivered at the Nanyang Technological University School of Humanities and Social Sciences Convocation last week.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 15, 2015, with the headline Humanities helped chart S'pore's course. Subscribe