Published on: 28-Jul-2017
What role does a Social Sciences student play in today’s fast-paced world of technology? Sun Xueling, Member of Parliament for Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC, offers her thoughts in her speech to graduates of Nanyang Technological University’s School of Humanities and School of Social Sciences. Below is a copy of her speech.
I graduated from the faculty of Arts and Social Sciences quite some time ago and till today remember how I felt then, who was with me that fateful day. It was an important day of my life. Just as it was my personal achievement, it was also my family’s achievement as they had been with me every step of my educational journey. I urge you to treasure every minute, and savour the moment with those you love and with those who love you.
We are living in an interesting and exciting time, this era that you are graduating in. Technology has always been an accompaniment in our lives, but in the past few years, it seems to have jumped into the driving seat, disrupting business models and upending products and services. I was asked recently by a second-year student of the social sciences in university: How does the humanities and social science student navigate a world that is seemingly increasing its focus on the natural sciences and technology?
From my perspective, the goal of technological development is to better serve the needs of people.
Some may argue that scientific endeavour is a pursuit of truth. Never mind applicability, one should conduct research for the sake of science itself, but I take a practical approach. I believe that technological development should ultimately be applicable and solve the problems that people have or satisfy the needs that they have.
And to effectively solve problems and satisfy needs, it requires an understanding of the human condition. And that is where social science students have an important role to play.
Technology in, and on its own, is cold. It has no feelings. No sense of right and wrong, no judgment of how it should be applied. Just as nuclear power can be used to generate energy, it can be used to harm. Or as we press ahead in the development of autonomous vehicles, how do we solve the negative externalities that come with it — of taxi drivers who will lose their livelihoods?
We need the economist, the lawyer, the politician, the journalist and so on to understand and analyse the implications of technological changes and provide input so that society as a whole can come to a collective understanding as to how to benefit and how to ameliorate the effects of technological change.
But to do it effectively and responsibly, the scholar of social sciences, apart from studying what can be glimpsed from textbooks and history, also needs to be sensitive to the moment, to synthesise what is happening around him or her, to take into account cross-cultural and cross-geographical contexts, and also apply values that may be unique to him or her.
I would like to suggest some areas for social science students to consider:
Firstly, the importance of being open and international. Never before have markets been so open, and information so free-flowing. Technology has broken down barriers, and products, services and information are now readily made available to global audiences due to the ease in logistics and the rapid expansion of data.
When considering issues, policy-makers, businesspeople, academics have all needed to reframe perspectives and take into account global developments.
To do well and have sustainable careers, our graduates will need to have an international perspective when deliberating issues, or be prepared to go overseas or have an international market in mind when working on products and services.
This is especially so given the inherent limits of Singapore’s market. Staying put and limiting ourselves to the size of Singapore’s market is dangerous, especially when other firms are going global and already entering our shores.
Next, I would like to discuss the importance of real experience. The experience of being in industry, and plugged into people networks.
Just as the researcher or engineer should not spend years creating or fine-tuning a product in an ivory tower only to realise that the product does not match the actual needs of the market, the social sciences student also needs to be immersed in the “marketplace” so that his or her understanding of issues is not theoretical.
There is no easier and more accurate way to understand the human condition than to be actually testing out real-life, concrete products and services with people.
As such, I would like to encourage our graduates to seize opportunities to be in the market. There may not be a perfect opportunity or a perfect job at the onset, but every foray in the market is an opportunity to know the market and know people’s needs better. That contributes to an understanding of the human condition, and what social sciences graduates can bring to the table.
Lastly, I would like to talk about the importance of values. As I shared at the start, technology is cold and unfeeling. It is not in itself capable of making a judgment. And values have a large part to play in contributing to how judgments are formed. Do we allow or disallow? Do we help or do we not? Do we penalise or do we pardon? Oftentimes, judgments need to be guided by values.
There are values that can be specific to a religion or to a particular culture. But there are a vast number of values that are universal — those of compassion, gratitude, respect, fairness, generosity, and so on. And as a student of the social sciences, you are probably more cognisant of examples in which values have guided societies to arrive at desired outcomes. What can we learn from that, and how do we learn from that to make Singapore an even better place for our people?
You are on the cusp of entering an exciting phase of your life. You can choose to accept the world as it is, or make choices that will allow you to shape the world you live in. There is much that students of the Humanities and Social Sciences can contribute to, and I hope you seize those opportunities to lead a meaningful life and make the world a better place for humanity.
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