MLS Valedictorian Speech 

Management and Leadership in Schools Graduation Ceremony

National Institute of Education, Singapore
25 July 2018


Professor Christine Goh, 
Director, National Institute of Education (NIE);



NIE Senior Management;

Ladies and Gentlemen.

A very good afternoon to all of you.

It is good to see all of you again, in what is quite possibly the last time we come together as a cohort, at least in such large numbers. And I am deeply humbled and grateful to be standing here speaking to and perhaps on behalf of you. This was definitely unexpected and a very pleasant surprise. So I would like to begin with my notes of appreciation.

On behalf of all the participants:
Thank you, NIE and the ministry, for continuing to provide our middle managers with this meaningful opportunity to grow professionally and personally.
Thank you to the lecturers and tutors for sharing your wealth of knowledge, expertise and experience with us, and along the way, introducing us to many new friends in high places.
Thank you to our school leaders and colleagues for giving us the time and space to learn without distractions.
Thank you to our class representatives, Choon Wee and Sophia, and all those who contributed to the cohort events, for truly embodying the spirit of giving, without taking. 
Thank you all, my MLS coursemates, for the friendship and camaraderie over those four months.


And on a personal note, a big thank you to my RV, CFG and of course, CPT mates for being a joy to work, and play, with over the four months. Those who know me will know that, despite my readiness to speak up, I am a fairly guarded person when it comes to relationships and like to keep the line between professional and personal very much intact. But during these four months, you have shown me nothing but kindness and understanding, and behaved in ways that transcend normal friendliness, and that has made keeping that line very hard indeed. In particular, I'd like to thank Daniel Loh, who was a constant source of encouragement and affirmation. To be affirmed is one thing; to be affirmed by someone who is the very definition of a teacher with heart, is something else altogether. Thank you, Daniel. 

I can honestly say that I have thoroughly enjoyed my MLS experience because I’ve always been deeply interested in education and leadership. I came into this programme with a very clear objective, which was to clarify, sharpen and crystallise my own educational leadership philosophy and practice, and I have genuinely enjoyed and appreciated having the time and space to think deeply, learn about and engage in critical discussions of these. My wife and I discuss leadership a lot. Actually, that’s not true at all. She complains a lot about her bosses, and as all the men here would testify, I can only listen, empathise, and maybe pacify. But that can be quite boring. So to entertain myself, I listen and distil lessons on leadership from her stories and experiences. I’ve been married eight years now and she’s had terrible bosses for about five of those, so if you were to do the math, that’s a lot of leadership lessons. Like a personal MLS of sorts. So between that, my own leadership experience, and now coupled with the knowledge and wisdom that I’ve acquired on this programme, I have come to a very simple conclusion. Yes, leadership is not easy, and as leaders, we will undoubtedly face many situations that are very complex and challenging, but at the heart of it all, leadership can and should be anchored on a very simple intention. For me, that intention is to make things better for everyone.


 I should disclaim that making things better does not necessarily equate to making things easier or doing things that are popular. And of course, by everyone I mean those whose lives we can realistically impact, our sphere of influence so to speak. But we should always be guided by a genuine desire to improve things for the people we lead and serve. Many of us would be familiar with Simon Sinek’s the Golden Circle. The great thing about that is that it inspires us to think about the why behind the things we do. The purpose or soulful calling, as he describes it. But I recently read a critique of it by Lex Sisney, who suggested that knowing the Why, How and What is not enough, but that good leadership also comes with an understanding of Who we serve, in relation to who we are. So he proposed an extended Golden Circle of sorts with Who at its core, followed by Why, How and What. And in our business, a business of people, this I feel is perfectly apt. And I’m sure Jason Lai would be very happy to hear this. After all, this is very much in line with the principles of Design Thinking. 


One of my favourite quotes is by a fashion designer, Hardy Blechmann, who founded a brand of streetwear called Maharishi. It reads: Attention to intention manifests love divine. I first heard this when I was about twenty years old and it has stayed with me since. More importantly, I have anchored my own leadership practice on that very idea, that every decision I make, every action I take, must be preceded by a rigorous examination of my intention. And with Sisney’s extended Golden Circle, it becomes clear to me that we cannot have a notion of intention that is complete without considering both the Why and Who. In our business, the Who primarily refers to our students and the people we work closely with, and secondarily, our partners and other stakeholders. And I genuinely believe that if we actively and consciously keep these people at the heart of everything we do, we cannot go wrong. 

Finally, I would like to share with you one of my main takeaways from the MLS - and I hope that many of you share this too - and it is that there is such a thing as an enlightened view and practice, and higher purpose of education. We should all be familiar with these notions – we’ve had a number of conversations and discussions that allude to those very ideals. But the fact that it is an enlightened view suggests that it is not yet the norm. And for that reason, our role as middle-managers or educational leaders is critical. We should be the ones to advocate for and model this enlightened view. 


Now it’s easy, and well and good, to buy into, and believe in such ideals when we are in the relative calm of MLS. It is not so easy when we’re back in school, swept up in the daily grind, in a place where we barely have time to think let alone reflect deeply, which is where we find ourselves now. Yet I would argue that this is perhaps when we have to hold most strongly to those beliefs. We cannot let the demands of everyday teaching and leadership blunt our sense of purpose and belief in a higher order of things. We cannot let the weight of pragmatism fuel apprehension and ground our ideals. So I urge all of us today to hold ever so strongly to those ideals even as we ride our respective storms. Otherwise, that enlightened view and practice of education that we acquired from our MLS experience will forever remain for us, relics of our time here, and never be a reality for all. 

And on that note, I would like to congratulate all of you for graduating from this programme, and I wish you the very best for the future.

Thank you.


© 2018 Saiful Idris

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