Life – what’s the point?

Almost everyone has pondered this age-old question, from philosophers to scientists. To shed light on it, student-run think tank NTU World of Wisdom held an independently organised TED conference, TEDxNTU, on campus

By Vivek Manoharan and John Nathan Fernandez
Sociologist and Associate Provost for Student Life Assoc Prof Kwok Kian Woon (below) opened with a light-hearted quip: “You did not choose to be born. It was your parents’ choice. The beginning of life is a journey towards death. Who’s to say how long the journey lasts and when, where and how it ends?” To demonstrate his point, he had a student hold up a broom to simulate a soldier pointing a rifle. “During war, why do ordinary men commit extraordinary evil? What does it take for a human being to be trained to kill another?” In short, questioning is at the heart of education and a well-lived life.

Mr Alvin Tan, who has battled HIV, talked about handling setbacks constructively. “Bad things happen... we cannot control that, but we can control what we do after they happen. If you think you didn’t have a better childhood, go and create it again.”

Oscar Award-winning documentary director Prof Ben Shedd (below) shared his life of filmmaking that netted him an Oscar in 1978. “I didn’t have the opportunity to ‘fail’ – success was expected of me all the time,” he said, while holding up his Oscar. His dream is to continue doing what he loves, because “films set the mind soaring” and it is a life pursuit that gives him satisfaction.

Having seen many patients cheat death, Dr Akhileswaran Ramaswamy, a palliative care specialist, said: “Why would anyone want to die if they had a good enough reason to live? My patients have taught me this: If you have a powerful thought, put it into powerful action and you will get powerful results.”

Prof Peter Sloot, a physicist from NTU’s Complexity Institute, talked about patterns of life and how they interact through mathematics and order. “About 95% of the molecules in your body are replaced every year. Nature holds a template of life in networks, which are everywhere – in crime, in proteins, in our brain and so on. What we know through the science of networks is that ‘life’ is calculating its own future.”

Prof Russell Gruen (left), a trauma care surgeon and Director of NTU’s Nanyang Institute of Technology in Health and Medicine, believes technology could be changing our end point. “In an emergency room, I have never experienced divine intervention, but what I have witnessed is technology coming to the rescue. This makes me wonder: Can we change the end point of life itself? Tinkering with the limits of life, at times, makes us feel like we are ‘playing God’.”

According to corporate strategy and leadership consultant Mr Rajen Makhijani, the social class we are in could have a bearing on how meaningful we find our lives to be. A country’s wealth alone, for example, does not bring a high “happiness” score. What we make of life and our life choices could be conditioned by the socio-economic position we are in. “Who could have known that richness to my life would come through the poor?”

Dr Elizabeth Nair, a counsellor and psychologist, shared her insights as a counsellor with Samaritans of Singapore, a suicide prevention agency. “When you don’t have a sense of who you are, what gives you meaning is the sense of connection with others around you. So, reach out to those who need help.”
A journey from a “life of destruction” to a “life of creation” – that was ex-convict-turned-artist Mr Barry Yeow’s (right) story. “In prison, I acted tough. I wanted to be somebody I wasn’t.” His turning point came when he met an inmate on death row and realised that he still had a second chance at life. “Instead of praying for death, I prayed for life. And the more I painted, the more I realised how small I was in the face of creation.” He concluded with a powerful message: “As long as you are breathing, you have hope.”