Sunday, 12 November 2017

Lessons from an Octogenarian.

When an octogenarian imparts his life lesson in the papers, you'd better listen. When that octogenarian is our very own diplomat extraordinaire Tommy Koh, you'd better take notes.

Turning 80 this November, Tommy Koh has a long history of serving the nation unwaveringly, even unconditionally. 

Like EW Barker, there is no area of public office that he has not already served with distinction. The list of public service in fact runs into realms of accolades.

In the papers today, he reflected on all those years in his coming 80 yrs old life's marathon, and he came up with three simple for our digest. They will form my three lessons here.

So, lesson? Three lah. 

1) Tommy Koh said: "My first observation is that success in life does not depend on who your parents are or the circumstances of your beginning."

If the mantra of self-improvement has a synopsis, a placard, a billboard for easy mental accessibility, that saying will be it. Tommy Koh cited three presidents, WKW, SR Nathan and Halimah Yacob, to bring home his first lesson.

All three come from humble backgrounds, two of them lost their father at a young age. They struggled to make ends meet with their family, and yet their perseverance bore great fruits when they became heads of state, their crowning achievement. 

He said: "My advice to young Singaporeans, especially those who come from poor or fractured families, is not to be fatalistic and feel defeated. The future is what you make of it. Work hard, think positive and seize the opportunities which come your way."

2) "My second piece of advice to young Singaporeans is to have a positive mindset, be willing to leave your comfort zones and take on new challenges."

Here Tommy Koh recounted how he left his comfort zone (a professor at NUS law in the 60s) to venture into foreign fields to become Permanent Representative to UN, to have led reputable think tanks like Institue of Policy Studies, National Arts Council, Asia Europe Foundation, to have chaired the Earth Summit and two dispute panels at WTO, and to have taken on the role of the UN General Secretary's special envoy - just to name a few.

He wrote: "My philosophy of life is to have a positive and optimistic mindset and can-do spirit. Life is a learning journey. I have enjoyed all the jobs given to me."


3) "My third piece of advice to young Singaporeans is in the importance of making friends and building relationships." 

He went to talk about three kinds of intelligence: cognitive, emotional and cultural intelligence, with special emphasis on cultural intelligence because he was a foreign diplomat for decades, and he had to adapt to the many cultural nuances (mannerisms) of foreign territories and people. 

Tommy Koh concluded his three lessons: "First, the future is what you make of it. Do not feel that you have no chance in life because of your difficult circumstances. 

Second, have a positive mindset and be willing to leave your comfort zones and take on new challenges. 

Third, develop your cognitive, emotional and cultural intelligence and make lasting friendship."

That's his three lessons in a nutshell. If they feel familiar to you, well, you can't deviate too much from those three points. They are the cornerstone of a life well-lived. 

Success will beat a path to your door if you live up to those three lessons, and never give up.

You see, a positive mindset is a must in this world that is run by an animalistic instinct to profit self more than others. 

Then, we have the part about developing emotional and cultural intelligence to make the connection with fellow human beings. 

At one point in the papers, Tommy Koh reminded us to be modest and humble and respectful of others, because we think not just with our head but also our heart. 

Therefore, the connection must be made both intellectually and emotionally. 

And finally, not allowing circumstances to oppress you is another must because the reality is there are no free lunches, and the world is a blind circle of life, where the rich will often prey on the poor. 

Another raw reality in a world of about six billion people is that sometimes you need a little (if not a lot of) luck to succeed. 

And I guess if given a choice, bankers and investors like Warren Buffet and Wee Cho Yaw would rather have luck on their side at every crucial turn of the way than be working by the cold sweat on their brows alone all the way to their grave.

The problem is that you can't control luck, you can only control to some extent how prepared you will be when luck comes your way; if it comes your way. 

Further, you also need luck to recognise that you are lucky. Sometimes, we take so many things for granted (like family, friends, relationships) to blindly pursue our dreams that we not only lose our way, but we also can't differentiate what truly counts and is lasting from what is transient and passing. 

Alas, luck or being lucky is not a good lesson to impart because it is beyond one's control. You just can't lecture on luck because it requires you to be at the right place, at the right time and with the right people (or environment) to reap luck's bounty harvest. 

You just can't capture all that in a series of lecture or textbook.

So, let me end with what I started, that is, Tommy Koh's life lessons, and here is one reflective answer he gave in an interview:-

"My wife used to ask me: "Where would you like to spend your retirement years?" I would reply that I wish to work until I die and would like to die in the land of my birth. I have spent my whole life working for Singapore and, although I have never signed a bond of service, I feel bonded to Singapore...One of our founding fathers, Mr Rajaratnam, used to say that being a Singaporean is not a condition of one's birth but of one's conviction.""

There you have it. The best advice to live by amongst the many that successful people will give you all essentially boils down to that one word "conviction". 

Conviction counts. Without it, we are just sleepwalking thru life. Without passion, hope and belief, we will always be unhappy, self-tortured, and restless. Conviction is to happiness what love is to sacrifices. 

So if I would to leave a legacy for my children, it would be to remind them to live their life with conviction, to do what is right with conviction, to love and treasure with conviction, and to pursue their dreams with conviction. 

They may not always be lucky in life. But with conviction, with a belief that is unshakeable for what is good, worthy and virtuous, they will always be contented, fulfilled and happy regardless of the circumstances. Cheerz.

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