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Michelle Yeoh: Be the Change

Learn English with Michelle Yeoh. Join Academy-award winning actress, advocate, and United Nations Development Programme Goodwill ambassador, Michelle Yeoh, as she shares her wisdom and experiences with the HLS Class of 2023. Born in a small town in Malaysia, Michelle dreamed of becoming an actress and went on to star in a James Bond movie and work with some of the greatest talents in the industry. Today, she is proud to be a part of the UNDP and strives to make a difference in the world. Listen as she encourages the students to be brave and to be the change in their bright but unpredictable future.

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Michelle Yeoh | Quote

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“Stay loose. Know your limits and find your people.” Michelle Yeoh

Michelle Yeoh | FULL TRANSCRIPT:

Why have I been asked to deliver the keynote speech to you on this pivotal day in your lives as you dive head first into a presumably bright but unpredictable future? Well, maybe the reason I’m here is because I happen to have some experience leaping off high purchase into scary voids.

So do allow me to offer some simple pointers that I’ve picked up along the way in my career full of leaps and dives. How to survive the fall in three easy steps by Michelle Yeoh. The first one is pretty obvious but not always easy. Stay loose. My journey from Malaysia, Ipoh, Malaysia to the Academy Awards stage began with my first love which was not acting but dance.

I knew at a very young age that my gift was to communicate through movement. In my studies, I found freedom in discipline and focus. I trained tirelessly day and night, drilling my body in every aspect of the craft. More importantly, I trained my mind to be still, to silence the whispers of self-doubt.

Dance was my safe place, my inevitable future and my undeniable path. So I enrolled in a ballet school in England and began living my dream. Unfortunately, life had other plans. I suffered a spinal injury and just like that, I watched everything vanish into thin air. Life as I knew it was over. With my dreams of dance crushed, I credit the principal of my school for giving me the encouragement that ultimately led me to a career beyond my imagination.

It was she who encouraged me to stay loose about my future. When falling, the tendency is to tighten up to brace for impact. But in truth, the safest thing one can do is remain calm. Even curious about the shifting world around you. After graduating with a degree in creative arts, I returned home more open to other possibilities outside the box.

With this awareness came the freedom to make choices I might not have otherwise been able to. This opened the door to doing a commercial in Hong Kong, then to acting roles and the start of my life in film. Which leads me to my second piece of advice. Know your limits. Although understanding what you can do is essential, understanding what you can’t do is pretty important too.

This works on two levels, both internally and externally. Internally, knowing your limits keep you humble, motivated and focused on a goal to point your finger toward. Externally, knowing the limits that are set for you by others give you a place to point a different finger. I am talking about the middle one.

In other words, limitations set by yourself give you boundaries to respect. But limitations set by others give you boundaries to bust through. As a young woman trying to break into film in Hong Kong, I was confronted with limitations at every turn. Initially cast in stereotypical roles, the demure, docile, damsel in distress, I soon realised that what I wanted to play were the action roles, the heroes.

Of course, these were then reserved exclusively for men. But I could see that their fight sequences were highly choreographed and I knew in my bones that my dance training would allow me to excel at them if only I were given the chance. So I went to my producer and said, I did say please, I want an action role.

I was prepared to do everything the men were doing, the choreography, the stunts, taking the blows, the wire work, all of it. What? Like it’s hard? But when the chance finally came, I knew it was make or break. I had the one shot to prove my bankability as an action star and if I failed, I would not get that opportunity again.

So I seized the moment with everything I had and as it turned out, thankfully, audiences were more than ready for a female star in action comedies. The film ‘Yes, Madam’ was well received and launched my career. I knew I had made it then when I soon after, I joined Jet Li and Jackie Chan as the three people who Hong Kong insurers refused to cover.

They took one look at the scenes we were shooting and ran for the hills. I wore that as a badge of honor. Eventually things progressed and before I knew it, I was regularly running on rooftops, riding motorcycles onto moving trains and rolling off vans onto oncoming traffic. Don’t try that at home, okay?

There were injuries as you can imagine but with every nick and scratch and bruise and fractured vertebrae, I came back better and braver. Learning how to fall teaches you how to land and learning to land gives you the courage to jump higher. These examples illustrate the importance of limitations because our limitations become our challenges and there is nothing like a challenge to keep you working, striving and pushing for more.

Every demeaning role I was offered, every rejection I was handed and every time someone underestimated me, I found energy and renewed motivation. This brings me to the third and final tip. Find your people. Life is not always a zero-sum game. For every winner, there doesn’t have to be a loser. In fact, most success stories are less about competition and more about collaboration.

The truth is I could not have done any of this alone. My achievements are the results of those around me who offered and continue to offer support and belief. There are times where as much as I don’t want to let myself down, I don’t want to let them down even more. My definition of community is vast, including my family, loved ones and friends.

But it also includes the other actors, directors, producers, stunt people, film crews, dancers, musicians and artists with whom I’ve crossed paths. My community transcends time in the sense that I stand on the shoulders of those who have come before me and I am energized and inspired by those who come after me.

My community extends beyond people I know personally, which is why representation matters and why diversity on and off the screen have been a major priority for me, particularly for women and particularly in lead roles. When we shine a light on the rich and varied world around us, we empower the whole of our humanity.

I can see no better reason to wake up in the morning and get to work. Lastly, my community is not limited to the film industry. In my work as UNDP Goodwill Ambassador, I have witnessed the deep inequalities that continue to plague societies around the world and I have seen up close how women and girls are often the last to get essential services like clean water and vaccines, especially in crisis.

For this reason, I have committed myself in walking in lockstep with their struggle. The prerequisite to change is empathy. Seeing through other people’s perspective activates our compassion, which becomes the driving force for real world demonstrable action. Compassion is the ultimate superpower within us.

When you are leaping without a safety net, people become your safety net and you become theirs. So those are my tips. Stay loose. Know your limits and find your people. So class of 2023, this is my offering to you. Today you graduate and today you leap. Stay loose, be smart and go with love and then leap and then leap again and leap again.

I look forward to living in the world you all helped build and I am honored to have been one small voice at the beginning of your journey. Thank you all and I wish you every success.

Michelle Yeoh