GOH KENG SWEE On May 14, 2010, the nation bade farewell to one of its founding fathers, former Deputy Prime Minister Goh Keng Swee, with a heavy heart. Dr Goh passed away at the age of 91 after a long illness, leaving behind widow Dr Phua Swee Liang, son Kian Chee and daughter-in-law, two grandsons and three great-grandsons. He had devoted 25 years of his life to serving the nation in the ministries of defence, finance and education. Born into a middle-income Peranakan family in Malacca, he came to Singapore when he was two years old.
His early education was at Anglo-Chinese School (1927–1936) and later at Raffles College (1936–1939). Armed with a diploma in arts, he entered the colonial civil service in 1939, but his career was interrupted by the Japanese Occupation. He rejoined the civil service in 1946 and his outstanding performance earned him a scholarship to study statistics at the London School of Economics (LSE) in 1947. During his stay in London, he started the Malayan Forum, an anti-colonial political group, with some fellow students including Lee Kuan Yew and Toh Chin Chye. Goh became its first chairman.
In 1951, he graduated from LSE with a first class honours in economics and won the William Farr Prize. He resumed work in the civil service back in Singapore, but later returned to LSE for further studies in 1954 and obtained his Doctor of Philosophy degree in 1956. Among Dr Goh’s many achievements in helping to bring about this transformation was his role in establishing the Economic Development Board (EDB) in 1961, the Jurong Industrial Estate in 1962 (which he promoted in spite of severe public criticism, though it turned out to be the right move) and the Development Bank of Singapore (DBS) in 1968.
These institutions have made, and continue to make, vital contributions to Singapore’s economic success. Dr Goh was also responsible for developing the economic strategy that is crucial to explaining Singapore’s economic takeoff. Between 1959 and 1965, he advocated an import-substitution strategy and positioned Singapore as a manufacturing centre supplying the common Malaysian market. Following Singapore’s independence in 1965, Dr Goh realized the futility of keeping to this plan and began promoting an export-oriented developmental strategy.
By adopting this export-oriented strategy, he went against influential economic theories circulating in the 1960s and 1970s which asserted that state protectionism and heavy government expenditure was necessary to spur growth in emerging economies. Many ideas and institutions on which the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) is built were put in place during Dr Goh’s tenure, for instance a conscript army and compulsory national service for young men. He believed that Singaporean citizens should participate directly as soldiers in their country’s defence to reinforce their sense of responsibility to the national community and to strengthen their bonds with one another as countrymen. Dr Goh thought that this was especially important as Singapore as new nation populated by migrants of diverse origins and particularistic interests did not possess a strong national consciousness: Besides defense and economic matters, Dr Goh also made significant contributions to Singapore in the field of education.
Between 1979 and 1985 he was put in charge of the Ministry of Education where he introduced important reforms. The influential Goh Report, released in 1979 under Dr Goh’s supervision, examined the challenges facing the education system and detailed recommendations that would profoundly influence its future direction. Notably, the current practice of ‘streaming’ in schools was introduced through the report, with the purpose of helping all students develop their potential more fully, in particularly the weaker students.
Dr Goh was appointed Deputy Prime Minister between 1973 and 1979, and from 1980 to 1985 he was made First Deputy Prime Minister, the position from which he retired from public life in 1985. He was made Chairman of the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) between 1980 and 1985, where he spearheaded major organisational and professional improvements. He also came up with the idea in 1981 that Singapore’s national reserves should be managed by a specialised and professional investment management body that led to the formation of Singapore’s Government Investment Corporation (GIC) in which he served as Deputy Chairman between 1981-1994. 1 Apart from these achievements, Dr Goh was responsible for initiating or founding a diverse mix of other Singapore institutions, reflecting his remarkably broad range of interests. He championed the establishment of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (setup in 1968), the Jurong Bird Park and the Singapore Zoological Gardens (opened in 1971 and 1973 respectively), and the Singapore Symphonic Orchestra (setup in 1978).
He conceived the idea of transforming the island of Pulau Blakang Mati, which was renamed ‘Sentosa’ in 1968, from a military base into a tourist and leisure resort – an idea which has come to full fruition recently with the opening of the Sentosa Integrated Resort in 2010. He also laid the groundwork for the institution of the Singapore Totalisator Board which was established in 1988. 12 Following his retirement, the government of the People’s Republic of China sought out Dr Goh’s expertise and appointed him as its economic adviser on coastal development and tourism in 1985.
Dr Goh was the first foreigner to be appointed to such a role – a testament to the international recognition he had garnered for his accomplishments. Dr Goh would perhaps be best remembered for his contribution to Singapore’s economic success. Hailed as a ‘Singapore giant’ who dealt with the most pressing issues during Singapore’s formative years, Dr Goh turned the tide for the Republic and created a successful nation against the odds, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in his eulogy.