The Singapore Management University (SMU) hosted the fifth edition of the Leadership Symposium from 11 to 12 December 2018 at the Mochtar Riady Auditorium. Launched in 2014 to equip participants with fundamental skills and attitudes to become successful future leaders, the theme for the two-day conference was Beyond Boundaries’

Participants were challenged to think beyond common assumptions associated with being a leader – to see leadership in a broader, rawer sense and with more creativity, in order to push past their personal boundaries and comfort zones, and achieve the best of their potential.

In line with the theme of going beyond our boundaries, and for the first time ever, the Leadership Symposium reached out beyond our shores and saw 80 international participants from 37 overseas universities. They were joined by 250 student leaders from SMU, Polytechnics, Junior Colleges and International Baccalaureate Schools.

Through the plenary sessions, interactive workshops and discussions with industry leaders, participants had the opportunity to reflect on their leadership journeys and gained insights into the art and science of leadership. Over the two days, 20 inspirational speakers shared their experiences while the audience were encouraged to ask probing questions and share their views, receive and learn from constructive feedback.

Day One

Opening Address by Professor Lim Kian Guan, Vice-Provost (Undergraduate Matters) and OUB Chair Professor of Finance

On the first day of the symposium, Professor Lim Kian Guan, Vice-Provost (Undergraduate Matters) and OUB Chair Professor of Finance in his opening address said that we were at a watershed moment in history where there were many problems facing mankind and society. These included the threat of terrorism, trade wars, environmental losses, global warming and climate change, poverty gaps, food and water security issues, and shortage of healthcare in many countries. Even in developed and fast developing economies, technology disruption has been increasing at an unprecedented rate, and business outcomes were complex and job uncertainty was high.

He then encouraged the youth participants to find solutions and have the courage to create and provide for a better society. “In your own way, whether in leading institutions, businesses, associations, or professions, whether in leading teams or social groups or leading your own family, you will require resolve, perseverance, hard work, integrity, and ingenuity to tackle many of the problems that may find their way to you.”

Keynote Address by Tan Chuan-Jin on “Leaders Matter: Why? How?”

Speaker of the Parliament of Singapore, Mr Tan Chuan-Jin then gave his keynote address on “Leaders Matter: Why? How?” and shared his own personal leadership journey in various capacities. He asked the audience what their own “theory of success” was and what the one-word was that would solve all problems. Responses included “balance; passion; empathy; collaboration; determination; hard work; and happiness”. While there was no right or wrong answer, to Mr Tan, his one word was “people” as he felt that in a country with limited resources, it would be people who would help to make decisions, come up with solutions and make things happen. “It is also about the qualities and values that people bring about that will allow us to be successful.”

“Most human beings are self-centered, but if we can see ourselves as part of the bigger whole where we have a capacity to love and the desire to do good; where we are willing to go the extra mile for a cause and have a sense of sacrifice for the organisation or community. The focus must shift from ME to WE so that’s where things can happen and where leaders are made.”

According to Mr Tan, the levers to which you move people to want to do something more comes from the leaders. “While some leaders are appointed, anyone can be a leader and effect a change. What makes a good leader then? People follow a leader because they trust and respect the leader. Who you are as a person and how you treat others can be seen by others around you. In addition, it is important for a leader to have vision and a clear purpose, so that others can follow. Leaders also need to ensure that their followers are engaged and feel like they are valued and contributing. Engagement builds bonds and success.”

To sum up, Mr Tan said that “leadership is about having one’s own theory of success; having the clarity and sense of purpose; engaging your followers. The fundamentals go back to your own values, picking up good values starts at home but it is also a personal journey. It is about giving and doing, never underestimate the difference that you can make.”

Plenary Discussion


  • Mr Tan Chuan-Jin, Speaker of the Parliament of Singapore
  • Ms Feon Ang, Vice-President for Linkedln’s Talent and Learning Solutions in Asia-Pacific
  • Mr Zaini Tahir, Head/Arts Development, ITE and Chief Choreographer of NDP2018
  • Moderator: Toshin Sequeira, SMU final-year undergraduate, School of Economics  

The panel shared about how they went beyond their comfort zones/“broke boundaries” and explored new ways of doing things which led to their success in their respective careers. Mr Zaini spoke about how these days he was inspired by people and things around him, and this drives him to do better in his dance choreography. He added that as a leader, it was important to have influence, impact and relevance on the followers.

Ms Ang also shared how integrity was a very important value to her and every decision she makes will be guided by this. It is also this same value that she looks out for when she hires people at LinkedIn and how she leads her team at work. She added that it was useful to keep a journal and pen down issues and emotions so she can get better clarity of her thoughts and only focus on things she could control and work on. She also tries to leave her problems aside before she goes to bed, and when she awakes, the problems seem smaller.

For Mr Tan, he thinks that in many ways, we are led by our own moral compass, and the thing that gets in the way of trust and respect is actually the SELF. We ourselves must be willing to take risks and accept responsibilities for our failure and success; we cannot blame others or the system that we are in. Most leaders claim to be doing the right thing and there is a constant struggle especially with regard to one’s values system. But to be a leader means to care for others and go the extra mile, and get people to want to go the extra mile together with you. All of us can play a part in shaping society – if we all practise love, empathy, compassion, and we all volunteer, perhaps Singapore may feel different years down the road. You can make the change.


Day Two

Keynote Address by Second Minister for Finance and Education Indranee Rajah on “Singapore’s Fiscal Sustainability Challenges: Managing Competing Needs with Limited Resources”

Minister Indranee Rajah began her address by commenting about how the theme “Beyond Boundaries” was an important topic because everyone in the audience would at some point in the future encounter obstacles or boundaries that prevent them from going further.  These could be psychological (lack of self-belief or self-confidence), financial, physical (space constraints) or intangible (mindset boundary). 

She went on about how we all needed to overcome these obstacles and could do so by (i) identifying and understanding the boundaries; (ii) being open, bold and flexible to see beyond and willing to explore new ideas, thoughts, concepts or solutions; (iii) having determination and desire to overcome them; (iv) having conviction to believe in what one was doing; and (v) having the courage to strive for change and challenge convention.

She then cited the Singapore story as an example of transcending boundaries. When Singapore separated from Malaysia in 1965, the future was bleak as we had little resources and the region was unstable. In the last 50 years, Singapore have worked hard to overcome these constraints, including our supply of water.  Apart from a series of water agreements with Malaysia, we also took many steps to build up our own self-sufficiency in water. We increased the capacity and size of our reservoirs, invested in desalination and came up with NEWater. Today, Singapore is one of the world’s leaders in water technology. We turned a vulnerability into strength.

She added that Singapore’s success was never guaranteed. In 1965, the odds were stacked firmly against us, as a small, newly independent island state without natural resources. It was through the courage and determination of Singapore’s founding leaders to do the right thing, even if it was not conventional, or accepted by larger countries, and definitely not by sacrificing our sovereignty and the interest of our people.

She cautioned the audience that “when you enter the workforce, you will likely have to work your way up. At the beginning, you will have to prove yourself, to make yourself relevant. Do not be tempted to take the shortcut, to acquiesce to demands that have crossed your values or principles. Singapore’s leaders did not allow boundaries to define us. Instead, they did what was necessary to not only survive, but enable Singapore and Singaporeans to flourish and prosper. As future leaders, you will one day find yourself in situations where the obstacles could seem overwhelming. Draw on the Singapore story, to see how you can transcend your own limitations and achieve your fullest potential.”

Minister Indranee’s address was followed by a candid Question and Answer session which covered topics ranging from Singapore’s position on trade war and protectionism, multinationalism and making tough political decisions. The session was moderated by Dr Kenneth Tan, Director of SMU Office of Student Life.

Keynote Speech by Dr Goh Wei Leong, Chairman and Co-Founder of Healthserve on “Leadership – A Relational Dance”

The session by Dr Goh, a successful community leader, challenged participants to rethink their traditional perspectives of leadership and the conventional leader archetype. According to Dr Goh, leadership is a continual process of being “formed” by others. He shared that he draws on the skills and strengths of his team members at Healthserve, which he founded in 2006 in response to migrant worker requiring medical care. Since then, their services have evolved to also provide counselling, interaction and exchange of ideas.

To Dr Goh, he feels that migrants are also great leaders who have taught him the art of hospitality and initiative – when they go beyond their linguistic and personality boundaries to share their stories, thoughts and creative ideas. He cited the example of a reserved Indian migrant worker who tried to reach out to a Chinese one at MOM’s waiting area. Likewise, he spoke highly of an intern from SMU who served in his organisation.

To him, “Leadership can be discovered in every corner of our community. A good leader helps others to reflect and is himself a reflective person. We need to reflect on the community we are serving. Reflections shape us and it grows a leader. Everyone has different abilities and will become useful when the opportunity arises”.

“Leadership is quite dynamic and expressing leadership is like a dance, we are constantly moving in response to the lives of our peers. Leadership happens in a relational space, it is only meaningful when we consider it in relation to our neighbours.”

The session ended with a Q&A which drew questions on the social services/NGO Sector.

Panel Discussion


  • Mr Karl Mak, CEO & Co-Founder of Hepmil Media Group (SGAG & MGAG) 
  • Ms May Ooi, Former Olympian and Mixed Martial Arts Fighter
  • Mr Thaddeus Lawrence, Human development coach and extreme sportsman   
  • Moderator: Dr Kenneth Tan, Director of SMU Office of Student Life

The panel members each shared their personal life and career stories, how they found their own strengths to lead themselves – and others – along the way, and how they overturned personal challenges, adversities and periods of vulnerabilities into successes.

May described her career progression – from a glowing national swimmer during her younger days who had attained the highest echelon of sports recognition as an Olympian, to going back to school and earning a doctor’s degree, to becoming a respected mixed martial arts exponent and national competitor today. She went on to share how she overcame a dark period in her life when she fell into depression but fought back at life by harnessing the power of Mixed Martial Arts, and how her passion and consistency in the sport helped her compartmentalise and cope. According to her, she made a decision to compete in a particular fight which she felt allowed her to enter a “different space” – one, which would literally and figuratively “save her life”.

While there was no one fixed formula for success, Karl revealed that for him, his motivating factor to succeed was having sheer grit. For him, his tenacity to put in effort despite not having that much talent or skill, as he claimed, led to his entrepreneurial success. The co-founder of SGAG, MGAG and several other social media sites described how he persisted through setbacks and failures, learnt from them, and shared how through family support he was able to chase and focus on his passion - “making memes” – which led him to eventual success. Today, he and his co-founder, who have made it to the Forbes 30 Under 30 list, manage and lead dozens of employees over several Asian countries.

Extreme sportsman and human development coach Thaddeus Lawrence described how a particular low point made him embark on an adventure expedition which eventually changed his perspective of life and its priorities, and altered the course of his career. Citing a pendulum as a metaphor, he explained that to experience greater happiness and successes, one must be open and accepting to unpleasant experiences as well – just as how a pendulum swings. He also described how like tissues, we absorb our surroundings, so we should be discerning of who we hang out with, and our environments in general - as this is “stronger than willpower” and will influence us. He also shared that people need to first invest in their own self-development, before having the capacity to coach and lead others.

Learning Journey in the City (13 Dec)

Besides participating in the two-day main symposium, international participants also went on a full-day “Learning Journey in the City” on 13 December to deepen the conversation and understanding of leadership and Singapore through walking and cycling tours through five different routes.

The routes were:

1. Sustainable and Harmonious Living - Bike Learning Trail (Cycling Journey in Punggol)

2. The Singapore River Journey - Old with New (Cycling along the Singapore River to Marina Barrage)

3. Public Housing in Singapore - From Squatters to Skyrise (Walking tour in Toa Payoh)

4. Geylang Heritage and HealthServe (Walking tour in Geylang)

5. Kayaking activity in Kallang and NEWater Visitor Centre

Said Moesha Mirelle Albarracin from the University of Philippines who went on “Sustainable and Harmonious Living - Bike Learning Trail (Cycling Journey in Punggol)”, “It was an amazing opportunity to get to learn about the culture and history of Singapore and get to immerse ourselves with the way Singaporeans live because it is a very diverse and interesting way of life. One of my takeaways is that it’s not always about aesthetics and there is always a practical function to things. Singapore has been able to marry the two and it has been a wonderful experience to observe that.”

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