Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, former president of India, passed away on the evening of 27 July 2015 doing what he loved best, among those whom he loved the most – teaching and inspiring the youth of India.
In 2006, I was a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. Dr. Kalam was making a visit to Singapore and an address by Dr. Kalam to the students had been organized. I was one of the lucky few who replied to my email quickly enough to be included in the limited audience for his talk.
That morning, many of us arrived early at the small and cosy lecture theatre to listen to him. In the audience were many energetic Indian students like me who were waiting to catch a glimpse of their icon in a foreign land. Dr Kalam gave a wonderful talk on technology and its implications. At the end of the talk, the floor was then opened to questions and a line formed at the microphones.
From the ease at which a few students made their way to the microphones, it was clear to me that it was not exactly an open forum. The university, it appeared, had arranged a few students with questions planned in advance. Either protocol for a president required that, or the university was being a good host ensuring that no embarrassing questions came up.
Dr Kalam responded to the first couple of interesting, but general questions with his usual aplomb. And then… A member of the audience, a young lady, took the microphone. “Your Excellency,” she said, “What is your take on child-sex trade that happens in India and the South-East Asian region?”
A collective whoosh descended on the crowd. You could hear the proverbial pin drop. My own emotions ranged anything from demanding to know why someone would ask such an embarrassing question to smirking about how someone got by the extremely thorough Singapore university minders. The audience waited with bated breath wondering how Dr. Kalam was going to reply to this unexpected question.
Dr. Kalam’s reply remains forever seared in my memory.
He gently asked the questioner to repeat her question to ensure that he had understood her. His next words were direct and simple, yet had the profundity in them that I remember to this day.
“The problem of child-sex trade cannot be solved by governments and laws,” Dr. Kalam held forth.
“Our school teachers hold the key. When primary school teachers inculcate in their students the value that every human life needs to be respected, students will value everyone around them. Then there will be no more human traffickers and the problem will disappear,” Dr. Kalam concluded to resounding applause.
Years later, today, as I work with the Center for Creative Leadership, and read its research on Expanding the Leadership Equation, which stresses that leadership development can never begin too early, I see the echo of three things that Dr. Kalam stressed that morning.
- First, the impact that our school teachers have on our lives
- Second, the power of developing the idea of respect for oneself and others early in life
- Third, the power of the individual to make a difference
(Source: Expanding the Leadership Equation, White Paper, Center for Creative Leadership)
At CCL, I feel inspired and privileged to be a part of the Leading Beyond Boundaries effort that is impacting individuals early in their lives by working with teachers and students, through efforts like the Girls Club Toolkit, Golden Leaf Foundation Scholars Program, and Global Citizen Leader initiatives.
What LBB believes is the value that Dr. Kalam espoused, that all young people have immense potential. His life was testament to this as he rose out of poverty through sheer perseverance to become one of India’s leading scientists, its president, and a bestselling author. Along the way, he inspired many people like me to lead lives of purpose. For this I am deeply grateful.
To my teacher Dr. Kalam:
Every moment, was a teaching moment;
Every one, a student;
Every experience, a lesson learnt;
Every action, a positive change!
As a proud Indian, and a dedicated student touched by you,
May you rest in peace!