90 minutes with Nobel laureate Kailash Satyarthi

Students, staff and alumni were moved and inspired by an unexpectedly personal sharing by Nobel laureate Kailash Satyarthi, who won a Peace Prize for his fight against child exploitation and campaigning for their right to education, at his guest lecture hosted by NUS College on 14 September 2022.  

Mr Satyarthi took the stage to an audience already enthralled by his reputation. But his candour quickly put them at ease as he shared stories of his youth and how he overcame challenges to make the world a better place.

His lecture, titled “Harnessing the Power Within: Youth Lead the Change”, took the audience on a journey of his life built on the belief that every child must have a right to education for a better future, crossing significant events which led him to champion an end to child trafficking and slavery. 

Over four decades, through various organisations he founded since 1980, Mr Satyarthi’s efforts have saved 120,000 children from exploitation, setting them on a path to a brighter future. In 2014, the Nobel committee awarded him the Peace Prize for “his lifetime of struggle against the exploitation of children and young people and for the right of all children to education”.

Special lectures by leaders and practitioners from around the world such as this form an important part of NUS College’s approach to interdisciplinary and experiential learning with the aim to cultivate a global mindset and inspire action to impact the world for good.

Professor Simon Chesterman, Dean of NUS College said: “Part of our vision for NUS College is to encourage and empower students to bring about positive change in the world. We were thrilled that one of our first guests on campus was Nobel Peace Prize winner Mr Kailash Satyarthi.”

“His literal and metaphorical journey – from engineer to activist, leading a march to Geneva in support of a treaty prohibiting the worst forms of child labour – was as inspiring as it was moving. Yet he also showed how change is not just about idealism and ambition, it is about commitment and dedication to understanding problems and finding creative solutions,” Prof Chesterman added.

‘Ordinary people – when they have that determination and passion – can change the world’

Mr Satyarthi anchored most of his story-telling on the testimony of an 8-year-old girl he and his colleagues rescued, along with many other children, in a perilous operation involving criminals and violence. He shared that it was not the nature of this rescue operation but his encounter with the child that left an indelible impression on him, citing the following reasons.

First was the profound question she asked him immediately after her rescue from her child labour: Why didn’t you come sooner? Mr Satyarthi posed the same question to the audience to challenge them to think of an action they can take to make a change or improve the lives of people around them.

Second was how she had paid forward the kindness she had received, determined to return to her community to ensure that every child would be free of exploitation and be able to go to school. She has now become an activist and a spokesperson for the education of marginalised people.

“This is the power of young people. We need to harness that,” Mr Satyarthi said. “Ordinary people – when they have determination and passion – can change the world.”

What you see today, were yesterday’s dreams of hardworking, intelligent and passionate young people’

Emphasising the power of youthful determination, Mr Satyarthi referred to today’s engineering and architectural marvels, medical and scientific breakthroughs as well as technological advancements as the result of the collective vision of “hardworking, intelligent and passionate young people who grew up with those dreams,” he said.

He noted that the time students spend in university should not just be about gaining an education and seeking knowledge. These formative years should also be a time for them to ignite their passion and find the ‘hero’ within, so they become an agent of change.

In the context of today’s highly connected world, Mr Satyarthi also emphasised the importance of taking a multi-pronged approach to solving the world’s problems as issues such as global warming, oppression, extremism and child pornography transcend geographical boundaries, and require ‘global compassion’ to overcome.

One biggest obstacle in galvanising change, Mr Satyarthi said, was the difficulty of changing mindsets and tackling complacency in society. “We cannot think that poor children are just poor,” he emphasised.

Recalling the time when he noticed that the children he saw hanging around outside his school could not afford books to attend classes, he said he later learned that they had been forced into labour.  Some children, unlike others more fortunate, were born to work, he was told.

“I could not accept it, and still cannot accept it,” Mr Satyarthi said, citing this as one of the defining moments that sparked his mission of protecting a child’s right to education and their childhood.

Those who attended said the 90 minutes spent with Mr Satyarthi was a thought-provoking and enriching experience.

First year Science major at NUS College, Nguyen Thu Hoai, said the talk made her think about the possibilities of what she could do to make an immediate change. “His stories of how he started, with his determination and passion, and even of the danger that he was willing to throw himself into, lit a ‘candle’ in me and changed my perspective. If all of us take the action, the world be so much better, and I believe we can do that.”

Mr Suyash Sekhar, who graduated from NUS’ University Scholars Programme in 2021, said Mr Satyarthi's lecture was particularly enlightening not just because of his work but also because he was an inspirational youth activist. “He showed us all that he truly meant what he taught us during the lecture – there is a fire in us all and when ignited, none of us is too weak or small to inspire change."

Mr Satyarthi was speaking at the Nobel Prize Dialogue in Singapore, themed  “The Future We Want Together”, where Nobel Prize laureates, thought leaders and youth discussed wide-ranging global issues.

Click here to watch the full recording of Mr Satyarthi's lecture hosted by NUS College on 14 September 2022.