Goh Keng Swee : A Portrait by Tan Siok Sun

Goh Keng Swee : A Portrait by Tan Siok Sun


Everyone knows about Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founding father. But not many know of the decisive contributions made by his comrade, Dr. Goh Keng Swee (GKS).

When GKS retired, LKY exclaimed to Goh, "No panegyric can do justice to you. A whole generation of Singaporeans take their present standard of living for granted because you had laid the foundations of the economy of modern Singapore."

This book dives into the origins of many of Singapore’s most enduring institutions and vividly portrays Dr. Goh’s cerebral mind and unique character.

The author, Tan Siok Sun, is Goh Keng Swee's daughter-in-law. The book feels refreshingly personal and honest. When reading it, I felt like I was transported back in time and was now reliving his greatest hits.

This is a must-read for Singaporeans and folks interested in Singapore.

What I Internalized

  1. Goh Keng Swee was Singapore’s ideal technocrat. For a man of impeccable intellect, GKS did not immerse himself in theory; he applied his genius to improve the lives of average Singaporeans. This was his life’s work. He listened, studied, and experimented relentlessly. He implemented systems in institutions that would position Singapore as an economic powerhouse in the later years. He was the yin to LKY’s yang. If LKY was the great visionary of the Singaporean project, GKS was his perfect architect. I returned feeling incredibly lucky that we had a gentleman and scholar like him as our founding father. I also believe we will benefit greatly in learning from the example he has set.
  2. Friends Are Even More Important in Politics. In 1961, the People's Action Party was almost eradicated. The left-wing faction mounted a challenge against LKY's Prime Ministership and sought to prevent a merger with Malaysia. The party broke down from within. This revolt meant that the PAP would lose valuable political resources. They lost party branches, volunteers, community Centre organisations and the support of many workers. Goh Keng Swee and LKY were devastated. These two men were staring at the ceiling. Dr Toh Chin Chye exclaimed,"Well, we better snap out of this mood. I mean, there are lots of things to be done. We've got to start re-building the Party, rally the MPs who are loyal to us and carry on the fight!" We all need a Toh Chin Chye in our life.
  3. The Beauty of Humility. When you are a man like GKS, who transformed Singapore from a swamp into a world-class financial hub, it’s easy to be consumed by pride. You can let your ego rule you. But, he escaped the trappings of power. When asked about his accomplishments, he said - “Life has been kind to me. I had this opportunity to make my contribution to Singapore’s development and to lay a foundation for the next generation to build on.” I am most inspired by his unassuming humility in spite of his great accomplishments. We should count it a great blessing to leave a place better than we found.
Getting to know: Dr Goh Keng Swee - People's Action Party
Goh Keng Swee and Lee Kuan Yew (PAP)

Key Takeaways

  1. Goh Keng Swee, the Voracious Reader. In trying to understand the spirit and psychology of the soldier, GKS read widely. His reading diet included Good Soldier Schweik by Jaroslav Hasek, and the German Field Marshal Erwin Rommels account of the battle of El Alamein from Liddel Harts The Rommel Papers. He was a voracious reader, and past librarians at the Ministry of Defence can vouch that GKS checked out more books than any other ministry staff. Chia Cheong Fook, himself a senior civil servant and a future Chairman of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS), recalled seeing a perpetual tower of books on GKSs table.
  2. The Remarkable Intellect of Young Goh Keng Swee. In his final year of Junior College, GKS read John Maynard Keynes’ General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (cover to cover) at least twice.
  3. The Goh Keng Swee Work Ethic. Intent on working hard at LSE, GKS developed a work routine which involved spending a minimum of four hours of daily study outside of lecture time. He clocked the greatest number of study hours during the long vacation, as he remained on the college premises while the British students went away on holiday. Years later, GKS would recall turning up at the library almost every day. This routine worked. He graduated with First-Class Honours from LSE.
  4. How Goh Keng Swee Almost Died in WWII. GKS received ord0ers to turn up at a camp, but having mixed up the dates, he turned up the following day instead. He was dismissed and told to return home. GKS later found out that those who had turned up on the correct day were never seen again.
  5. Yamashita’s Bluff. If only Singapore had held out a few days longer, GKS ruefully reflected later, after excerpts from Yamashita’s war diary revealed the true situation: My attack on Singapore was a bluff that worked. I had 30,000 men and was outnumbered more than 3 to 1. I knew that if I had to fight long for Singapore, I would be beaten. That was why the surrender had to be at once. I was very frightened all the time that the British would discover our numerical weakness and lack of supplies and force me into disastrous street fighting.
  6. The Value of Creativity. It is only when a person can think creatively that he is capable of initiative, that he can form his judgements on matters and that he can be trusted with great responsibility.
  7. How An Economist Learnt How To Build An Army. How does a non-military man go about the daunting task of building a large and efficient defence force? On most matters, GKS's guiding principle was to seek good advice from those who had trodden the path. But he also realised that the defence of small states had to be approached in a particular way, with essential basics to be implemented right at the start.
  8. Disguising Israelis as Mexicans. To cater to the sensitivities of Singapore’s Muslim neighbours, GKS had to be extremely delicate in working with the Israeli military advisors. In the beginning, utmost secrecy surrounded the presence and activities of the Israelis, who had specially asked to be referred to as Mexicans to avoid having their cover blown. Carmel and Zeevi had rationalised that Mexicans most resembled them in terms of appearance. It was also highly unlikely they would be tested on their Spanish in Singapore.
  9. Lee Kuan Yew's Friendship with Goh Keng Swee. Your biggest contribution to me personally was that you stood up to me whenever you held a contrary view. You challenged my decisions and forced me to re-examine the premises on which they were made. This benign tension made our relationship healthy and fruitful.
  10. Goh’s Commandments. Like the biblical Moses, GKS had his own set of commandments. They were: never re-invent the wheel; seek the best expert advice always; honesty in thought and action; respect for intellectual rigour, curiosity and creativity; admit to mistakes and learn from them
  11. Former President, SR Nathan on the unique pleasure of working with Goh Keng Swee. You could reason with him. If you disagree with him, put your case on paper, but make a good case. Tell him, Yes, this action you propose. “These are the consequences. You give your advice and some options. He will be prepared to accept if you put it down logically and it makes good sense. Or he would come back with improvements and new ideas.

I want to leave you with this hilarious story on why it (literally) pays to be a critical thinker.

The passing of yet another old guard-His Legacy (But is it still relevant  in this age of Singapore?) | yearningforlove
Goh Keng Swee at a commissioning parade (MINDEF)

One of GKS's constant worries was that Singapore's armed forces would one day become complacent, thus losing their alertness and fighting spirit. Indeed, so concerned was he about complacency that he once told his librarian, Ong Chwee Im, that anyone could slip chunks of statistics from the National Estimates into an army document, and no one would notice.

To test his theory, GKS inserted into a general circular a fairly long extract on the Flood from the Bibles Book of Genesis, before widely circulating it to all the various divisions and departments in the Ministry of Defence.

His experiment met with mixed results.

Most recipients were perplexed, to say the least, “ but in a comical bid to conceal their ignorance, they either forwarded the circular to their subordinates, with the words, For your necessary action, or noted and filed. Since the passage had mentioned floods, the Army officers sent it to the Navy officers for action. The more imaginative officers interpreted the extract as instructions to send two representatives from each company to assemble forty days later, as the document mentioned the following two lines, You shall bring two of every sort into the ark and The rain was on the earth forty days and forty nights

Only one officer, according to GKS, had the common sense to ask in exasperation, What on earth is this circular all about, and who sent it? With almost boyish delight, GKS enjoyed telling this story over and over again, relishing the outcome of his little experiment.

Subscribe to feed your mind.