Monday, September 7, 2009

Graduation address at the Monash University Convocation – Sep 2009

I was invited to give the graduation address at the Graduation Ceremony at Monash in Kuala Lumpur. Monash is the largest University in Australia and has a campus in KL, Malaysia. The address was to graduates from the different disciplines including engineering, medicine, arts etc. I used ideas from my blog and really enjoyed delivering the address. Below is the transcript.

Convocation address: Monash Class of 2009

Good evening to the esteemed guests here. Most importantly; good beginnings to the graduating class of 2009.

When I was asked to talk on this occasion, I was wondering what I could possibly say that would be relevant to a new generation of professionals. So here is my attempt at sharing some of my thoughts and a few things that I have learnt.

The theme of my address is: You can make anything happen, and while doing so you enjoy the journey. Often people focus only on the goal, and loose an entire life time trying to achieve their goals and then realize that they missed a life time of enjoying the journey.

Your goals could be about wealth creation but in order for your generation to succeed in tackling the tremendous problems that you have inherited; your pursuits should include adding true value to society.

At this juncture as you move into an important phase of your life, you are inheriting not only great technological progress, great improvements in infrastructure, medicine and telecommunications; but also war, fundamentalism, economic crisis, and to top this all an accelerating change in climate. Many of these problems that you are left to tackle are fuelled by excess consumption and excess greed

As a young graduate you are blessed with naiveté – what I hope is intelligent naïveté. What I mean by this is that you are willing to do what many people think is impossible. You should question every prevalent assumption, understand issues from a historical context, be willing to be outrageous in your approach to solving problems, and most importantly be willing to learn from your successes and failures.

As you learn and progress, make sure that you do not throw away the ladder that you got there. What this means is that you continue the process of sharing your knowledge so that more people can progress by learning from your success and failures.

Another aspect that took me a while to learn and that I would like to share with you is that there is a big difference between determination and stubbornness. Working really hard on a bad idea does not make the idea any better. You must be wiling to learn from your experiences, and make changes in your approach based on pragmatism and ideology. Note I say pragmatism and ideology and not pragmatism versus ideology.

In times of crisis like in today's economy, there will be continuous demands for change. Many of these demands will be justified. Many will not.

As you grow into positions that require you to provide direction to your organization, take a little time and understand the history of your organization; the agenda of the current actors including your own agenda. This will help you make good decisions and to some extent differentiate between determination and stubbornness.

The gift of education that you have been fortunate to receive comes with responsibility.

One of the most important responsibilities is that of having the courage to dissent. As you see practices that are against the core values of human decency, you have to dissent.

Another lesson I have learnt is that most of us are smarter than we think and greedier than we like to admit. A great cause for the economic crisis we see today is due to this. We innovated to create financial tools that made money; and then money beyond belief. Forgetting when to say enough,we succumbed to greed. So the lesson from this is that if something sounds too good to be true – then it probably is not true.

On a final topic I'd like to spend a little time on talking about the economic crisis.


Many of you are graduating in a probably the most difficult economical times seen in few decades. . But I would like to emphasize that with crisis comes opportunity.

Financial engineering and unsustainable borrowing by enterprises and individuals fuelled growth in the last decade. Along with the credit crisis the conditions also led to commercialization of technologies that are extremely beneficial.

This helped us commercialize wireless technologies that make our every day life better. Semiconductor technology used in consumer electronic devices has improved exponentially and has contributed to advances in health sciences, transport, telecommunication etc.

So what are the opportunities in this crisis? Here are some thoughts.

  • From a financial perspective; add value to your customer. If you are a bank – be a bank, if you are a financial advisor, understand the financial instruments you are selling, if you are involved in synthesizing new financial instruments, then understand the math behind it and be transparent.


  • From a technology perspective, there are a number of problems facing humanity that need to be solved, and can create wealth in the process of solving. For example ;
  1. Over 2Billion people do not have decent roofs over their heads. Just in urban areas alone there are 500M poorly housed people. Yes low cost housing can be a profitable business!
  2. Businesses that help reduce the environmental impact of our lifestyles – Technologies like Cisco TelePresence On-Stage Holographic Video Conferencing can really make a difference, and be profitable.
  3. Robotic or autonomous systems to help the increasing elderly populations. Or sensor based technologies that help monitoring the elderly. A great example is the ishoe that could help the elderly from falling.

The list is long but the point here really is that there is a lot of wealth to be generated in business that also generates value to the customers in ways that can fundamentally improve ones quality of life. The biggest opportunity in the current crises is to focus your enterprise on value creation.

So friends each of you will have different goals, and different journeys. I hope you enjoy every moment of your journey. I hope you can pass a better healthier word to your next generation.

I wish you the graduating class of 2009, a great future.

Thank you





Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Pragmatism vs. Ideology --> Pragmatism and Ideology

Lord Turner, the chairman of the Financial Services Authority (FSA) in the UK last week proposed a Tax on banks to curb bonuses. My first reaction was that of derision. I immediately went online to see the details. There weren't too many details but there were a lot of derisive comments. Always mistrusting mob intelligence I began to re-evaluate my initial reaction.

In the past I would have taken a more dogmatic approach on such issues based on commonly used presumption "the market knows best". Taking the market knows best approach is actually the oldest approach in the book. It has led to a lot of innovation in the 20th century, but also a lot of human suffering in Czarist Russia, Medieval India, Africa, S. America etc... The "market knows best" with out regulation, pragmatism, and most importantly focus on development of civilization leads to serfdom in one form or the other.

So what has all this to do with curbs on pay? 2 years ago I would not have even imagined that I would even entertain the thought of accepting mechanisms to regulate compensation in any industry, because of course "the market forces decision is the best".

When we discuss curb on pay there is show of tremendous indignation from many of the well educated, free market followers (me included). But we have to ask ourselves will we have the courage to show the same indignation when we see teachers who are supposed to educate our children being paid very low wages like is happening in most countries (Singapore where I currently live is fortunately an exception to this). Would we show the same indignation when the best minds working on cutting edge technologies in the areas of medicine, renewable energy etc are paid a fraction of what they would be paid if they redirected their work to develop financial tools. Do we show indignation when we see that no amount of profit taking is "enough". Would we have self doubt if we were was paid a Million dollar bonus on a failed project or would we take the money?

The question I guess is what is enough? What amount of regulation is enough? What amount of profit taking is enough? I am inclined to think that having strong intellectual/ideological foundation mixed with a healthy dose of pragmatism is essential. Most importantly it is essential not to be irrationally attached to an ideology. May be this is the essence of creative destruction.