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Saturday, August 27, 2016

For the love of learning

Saturday, 27 August 2016
For the love of learning

Personal reflections on tradition, life, Confucius, sanctification and service

LAST weekend, I spoke to this year’s crop of Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman graduates (pic) whose life and career expectations are changing, reflecting variable interests, volatile circumstances and evolving personal values.

Millennials feel responsible for their lives as they search for diverse experiences. That can mean frequent career changes and a willingness even to take pay cuts.The Journal of Positive Psychology’s study shows that emerging adults who are able to focus on life’s purpose were strongly associated with greater life satisfaction than failing to do so. Here are my prepared remarks.

I should confess that assemblies like this one used to intimidate. Not anymore. For 10 years, I was pro-chancellor of Universiti Sains Malaysia. Today, I am pro-chancellor of Sunway University as well as at Universiti Teknologi Malaysia. I am also chairman emeritus, Graduate School Alumni Association Council at Harvard University. I have four children – together they attended 10 of the top universities world-wide. So, I have been around among the best – as an anxious parent, as an expectant graduand and as a nervous speaker. Even so, when Tun Dr Ling Liong Sik asked me to speak, I was delighted of course; but a little unsettled. I am expected to inspire and uplift. But that’s easier said than done. Of course, I am well aware that, rather often, such addresses are met with blank stares and tepid applause. What am I to do? Needless to say, I am honoured to be asked to speak at this convocation. So, to make things simple, I will just tell three stories from my life.


The first story seeks to answer the often asked question: who helped you to be where you are today. I received my first degree at the early age of 20, in economics, philosophy and statistics. Not a popular selection even today. My first job was as an economist at Bank Negara, where I remained for the next 34 years, with bouts of pioneering work at the Prime Minister’s Economic Planning Unit and the Finance Ministry; as well as tough learning at the International Monetary Fund, the Bank of Japan and the Reserve Bank of India. At 29, I took leave to pursue graduate studies at Harvard University – at its world famous Kennedy School of Government; later its world-class Business School and then, the ever prestigious Economics Department, graduating eventually with three graduate degrees, including a PhD in Economics. I turned professional early – becoming a UK Chartered Statistician, an Asian Chartered Banker and a British Chartered Scientist. All these would not have been possible without a vast, invisible infrastructure of parents, teachers, colleagues, bosses, friends, spouse and mentors. Experience tells me that people who think their success is attributable only to their own drive and talent, usually wreak havoc in organisations. Sooner or later, to have impact, to build trust, and for everybody to want to work with you; you will need luck and you will need help. Lots of it. Successful people invest time and attention in anyone from whom they can learn. I was fortunate to have a great mentor early – Tun Ismail Ali, the longest serving Bank Negara governor for 18 years.

Ismail, handpicked by Tun Razak, studied law, economics and politics at Cambridge. I was lucky to have been taken under his wings. My job at Bank Negara involved identifying and examining core problems in public policy; and resolving them in a highly complicated, competitive and complex environment. To succeed, I needed to collaborate because it is impossible to know enough alone. Once you realise that you are doing challenging work that matters, sooner or later, you are going to become perplexed, confused – even lost. And it is going to be the support and contributions from others that will pull you through. Ismail had the genius to direct and lead with a firm hand – able to focus on what’s core, and dislodge assumptions or retrieves insights I was probably too panic-stricken to recall.

Without such leadership and guidance, you can forget your breakthrough! Psychologists say gratitude to those who help, is good for you. Yes, I believe that being “indebted” to others can be more eloquent than any CV. In Ismail, I learnt – and have since not forgotten (and will not ever forget) – that a leader has the responsibility to build lasting traditions – i.e. instil virtues and set standards that will last many lifetimes. For Ismail, his job was (quote) “to build a tradition of absolute integrity; a tradition of competency; a tradition of efficiency, even to the point of ruthlessness; a tradition of continual and dependable expertise; and above all, a tradition of being able readily to recognise and accept absolutely, the dictates of the national interest” We don’t make people like Ismail anymore. But the traditions he built, and the example he set, will live-on and inspire. I was inspired. And they made me a better person. The same can happen to you. Yes, my young friends, these timeless traditions are also meant for you. They are your building blocks. And, if I may say so, people who hold public office should embrace and stay true to honour, such time-tested traditions.

Live your life

My second story touches on pain, or in essence: we just don’t know when to quit. After devoting a lifetime managing central banking policy, I spent the next four years proving that I can just as well, successfully build and run a large commercial banking group – which I did. But let me say this – managing a fast growing financial institution is less fun than running a well-functioning central bank. Take it from me. I know. So, in time, the commercial bank was built-up with enough value added-on, to be sold; and I moved-on to consulting – to being a corporate consultant, specialising on strategy and finance. A different business from what I am used to. I was excited and the business was good. However, in September 2009, I was diagnosed with a bad case of degenerative lumber kypho-scoliosis, causing severe multilevel spinal stenosis. Simply put, I suffered severe back pain that was “killing” me. The excruciating pain left me with no choice, in the end, to quit fighting and undergo surgery.

My doctors tell me that because of constant wear and tear over many years, not to mention prolonged youthful excesses, my lower back bones had degenerated badly enough to cause persistent, severe spinal pain and great discomfort. It’s a big deal – a seven-hour operation. Simply put, the surgeon has to decompress – enlarge the vertebrae space to remove undue pressure on the nerves; repair, rebuild and fuse, and re-fuse with instrumentation, in order to stabilise the specially sensitive part of the spine. Titanium nuts and bolts and plates were implanted to put my vertebrae together again. It involved seamless teamwork, intricate “carpentry”, meticulous surgery, and sensitive dexterity in managing the patient to avoid, in the worst case, paralysis. Lucky for me, the operation was a success. But unfortunately, I suffered a bad fall six-months later and at 72 years old, was back once again on the surgeon’s table.

This time, two new screws were added. Simply put, they had to fuse together this time, five lower lumbar vertebrae. The outcome: I now have 10 screws in my lower back, held together by two slim eight-inch titanium rods. It took up to eight-hours of meticulous surgery; yes, you may say “I am screwed”! So, I now have sort-of-a “bionic” lower spine. It does sound awesome. But I am fine – able to walk and sleep without pain.

Here’s the rub. Confronted with unbearable pain and the prospect of possible death under the knife or survival as an invalid – that was the closest I’ve ever been to really giving-it-all-up; even facing death. For years, I just wouldn’t quit. I fought hard and long for 40 years to avoid surgery. In the end, it was the conversation I had with Apple’s Steve Jobs at Stanford years earlier in 2005, after he had survived from pancreatic cancer. As Jobs told it, when death stares you in the eye: “Death is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old, and make way for the new. So don’t waste it, living someone else’s life.” That was his message: Don’t ever live someone else’s life. This is also my message to you: Don’t live someone else’s life. And, that’s exactly what I did in the past five years – against what Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman calls “loss aversion,” a phenomenon which leads one to cling-on, pigheadedly, to bad decisions – yes, it’s a psychotic streak, simply because we hate to stop “playing” when we are behind. People hate to quit, when they feel they’re losing. You cling on. Indeed, it takes an awkward incident like the one I had, to know when to quit fighting the pain – when it’s time to let science and modern technology take over. Yes, to finally set aside the old ways, and live life as it should be lived.

Somehow, you will instinctively know where you want to go. So, go for it: stir-up the courage and change when you must. Follow what your gut tells you. Your time on this earth is limited. Yes, quit your old ways; and just do what you really want to do. Period.

Confucian legacy

My last story has to do with my father’s Confucian legacy – he connected the dots for me. He was a quiet scholar in Chinese classics and a painter and calligraphist; educated at the University of Tokyo during the Great Depression years. Life was real tough for him, coming from poor, rural China. He educated himself well, in both Chinese and Japanese; and then migrated to the then, Malaya. Set up his own school and taught the immigrant Chinese community. In his spare time, he painted and practised calligraphy to uplift his spirits. He raised 11 children in Ipoh and imparted to them, the high virtue of a first-class education. Being poor didn’t stop him.

He set his priorities right – all 11 of us became professionals. The family now has six medical doctors and 14 grandchildren are doctors; 20 doctors in two generations and still counting, not including a PhD in economics.

True to Confucius tradition, my father felt an obligation to “sacrifice” one of his 11 children to serve the public interest as its servant – and I was selected as the sacrificial lamb to assume the public face of the “mandarin,” a là Confucius. He encouraged me to study economics and public administration at Harvard. And I picked up business studies from across the Charles River. Unfortunately, he died while I was sitting for exams at Harvard. But he left me a legacy in the form of a quotation from “kung-fu-tze”, which roughly translated reads: Let the Six Virtues and their attendant Faults guide your life: First, there is kindness, but that alone without love of learning, degenerates into silliness. Second, there is knowledge, but that alone without love of learning, tends to amateurism. Third, there is honesty, but that alone without love of learning, produces heartlessness. Fourth, there is uprightness, but that alone without love of learning, leads to tyranny. Fifth, there is boldness, but that alone without love of learning, produces recklessness. Sixth, there is strength of character, but that alone without love of learning, produces wildness. There you are, six worthwhile virtues to live by. If he were alive today, my father would be justifiably proud that I kept his promise. I strived to be virtuous in serving the public interest. At 77 today, I still do. Indeed, very likely, I am the only living senior public servant who has directly served every Prime Minister, and every Minister of Finance, since Merdeka ‘57.

What then, are we to do

My father knew the world was changing – and changing fast. He also sensed that the “young” needed to articulate a life-purpose, in order to bring about greater life-satisfaction. Just like millennials today, it is not enough to just “find a fun job” – a purposelessness closely tied to worldly prosperity, alarmingly devoid of true satisfaction. Or, what the existentialist French philosopher Jean-Paul Sarte evocatively termed, the “nausea of existence.” My father’s message to me was simple: for heaven’s sake (I can still hear him say), use that love of learning to avoid this sensation of purposeless living. Indeed, in today’s uncertain world, it will be hard to find a better life-purpose, than what the great composer Johann Sebastian Bach called: “sanctification and service” – yes, to do good and to serve. My father wished that for me. And now, as you all graduate to begin anew, I wish the same for you: to do good and to work for the public good.

To all you new graduands, let me welcome you to the community of educated men and women. I wish you Godspeed on your journey thro’ life. May it prove for each and every one of you, a joyous adventure.

Former banker, Harvard educated economist and British Chartered Scientist, Dr Lin is the author of “The Global Economy in Turbulent Times” (Wiley, 2015). Feedback is most welcome; email:

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