Sunday, September 26, 2010

Thinker Mover Shaker

Sep 25, 2010

Dr Goh Keng Swee's life spanned 92 years, four ministries and countless policies that undergird the Singapore of today. The late deputy prime minister, who died on May 14 this year, was the quintessential thinker among the country's founding leaders. From his entry in a limerick competition at age 13, to his thoughts on the emergence of China at age 76, his writings are gathered and analysed in a book by Dr Ooi Kee Beng, a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. In Lieu Of Ideology: An Intellectual Biography Of Goh Keng Swee will be launched on Oct 4. Here are edited excerpts from the book.

'My Ambitions'

GOH demonstrated early in life a talent, if not a need, for writing.

At the age of 13, he won a consolation prize of five Straits dollars in a newspaper competition. The paper had published a limerick without its punch line, requesting that competitors provide it.

It read:

'A planter cried out in affliction,

If only they'd give me restriction,

It might end all my woes.

But as everyone knows,


Restriction here referred to curbs on the planting of new rubber trees. Goh's concluding submission was: 'It's only a planter's conviction.'

Goh later published a couple of noteworthy short pieces in the school magazine, the first of which was written before he had turned 13 years of age.

'My Ambitions (1931)

Anybody who wants to prosper in this world must have an ambition. Ambition comes from a thought or when we get enthusiastic, we determine to carry out our thought. He who has an ambition will do his best to satisfy himself. He will stick to his work and see that he is the best man that ever has done that work. Our ambition must be to make ourselves useful to our country, our people and ourselves.'

This early document is fascinating for a variety of reasons.

First, we see a boy who is certainly more philosophical than his age would coax us to expect. Not only does he show conviction that ambition is critical to success, but he wishes to persuade others of that as well.

Second, this ambition goes beyond itself and has ethical goals, namely serve 'our country, our people and ourselves'.

Singapore's disadvantages

TWO months before the 1959 elections, Goh spoke at a rally at Dhoby Ghaut. That speech contained his basic ideas about Singapore's economic situation.

It was in his symmetric listing that day of the island's disadvantages that we detect his brilliance and his practical mindset.

Despite Singapore's fortunate location, he said, the free entry of foreign goods made it extremely risky for local capital to go into manufacturing. Second, as long as import duties had to be paid on goods going into the Federation, investors would prefer to establish factories in Johor than in Singapore. He also realised that not only was the general technological skill level among Singaporeans not up to standard, but training facilities too were 'grossly inadequate'. All these had to change.

To achieve that, Goh contended, a common market comprising the Federation of Malaya and Singapore was necessary. Goh would remain strongly convinced of the correctness of this analysis, and the subsequent failure to reach agreement on a common market with his counterpart in Kuala Lumpur, his second cousin Tan Siew Sin, was a pivotal reason for the separation of Singapore from Malaysia in August 1965.

Fear of PAP leaders being 'butchered'

WHEN relations between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore began sliding from dreadful to dangerous, Goh took it upon himself to work for a separation, and kept it secret from the British as well as certain members of the Singapore Cabinet who were deeply involved in PAP ventures on the peninsular mainland. 'Rajaratnam's histrionics' was also upsetting Goh.

Apparently playing his role as Minister of Finance to the hilt, Goh mentioned to Australia's representative in Singapore William Beale Pritchard just five days before the separation that 'Singapore might just as well be out of Malaysia if KL was not going to cooperate economically'.

He feared that the PAP leaders would all be 'butchered', and after Lee Kuan Yew's 'moment of anguish' in signing the document for separation on Monday, Aug 9, 1965, Goh confided in Pritchard about 'the long haul ahead and the need for hard work' with 'none of the nonsense of the last six months'.

As a further sign of how frenzied and insecure the political situation had become by July of that year, Goh, being perhaps the Singaporean leader least emotional about Malaysia, remarked further to Pritchard that 'Lee would be kept under control'.

On the day of separation, the Finance portfolio was handed over to Lim Kim San while he took over the Ministry of Interior and Defence, apparently feeling that priority had to be given to Singapore's physical safety.

The PAP leadership managed nevertheless to stay sufficiently united during these critical times. Over the next two years, Goh rushed through the establishment of the Singapore Armed Forces, national service and the Singapore Air Force. By August 1967, he was back at his Finance post.

The policy that doesn't work

ON JAN 13, 1971, Goh was asked to officiate at the opening of the Seminar on Modernisation in South-east Asia organised by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

In the post-colonial world, import substitution became the common path towards development. It appeased national demands for genuine independence and made economic sense to the national economists. And yet, in almost all cases, it failed to work.

Goh advocated that the logic was flawed in the first place. While the rationale aspired to cut foreign interests down to size, it actually could not.

First, import substitution required heavy investments in machinery and equipment that had to be imported from overseas. Second, local demand for import-substituting goods was usually low. In order to right this weakness, governments began either protecting certain firms through high tariffs and encouraging monopolies or providing subsidies. Success in business in such a milieu would depend on 'obtaining official permits and licences more than on efficient production and management', paving the way for corruption.

What was more harmful, Goh claimed, were the non-economic effects. The original goal was after all to spread new technologies and 'new social attitudes appropriate to modern societies' - 'respect for hard work, innovation, a meritocratic system of personnel selection and advancement, continuous striving for greater efficiency, in short, achievement-orientation'.

Need for elite to serve NS

GOH moved for the second reading in Parliament of the National Service (Amendments) Bill on March 13, 1967.

He presented the reasons for the special kind of defence that Singapore needed, the foremost of which was that the absence of a viable defence would mean that the island 'must revert to a colony or satellite of whoever wishes to afford it protection'. Furthermore, small states that failed to look after themselves invited civil war and disorder, tempting larger states to intervene.

Another important reason was the contribution it would make to the nation-building process.

One of Goh's strongest arguments was that 'many of our monied and intellectual elite' had failed to realise that 'their status and position (could) be justified and maintained only if they (undertook) a responsibility in the defence of the nation consistent with their position'.

Another line of thought entertained by Goh where defence was concerned involved Singapore being a 'rootless, migrant parvenu society'.

'(In a society without deep roots), minor success brings about overconfidence and the belief the good times last forever; minor setbacks send people into a state of nervousness. In this situation, the Singaporean lends his ears to rumours of all kinds. Nothing is too absurd for him to listen to and pass on to others.'

The rumours he referred to were about him leading a Cabinet faction against Lee Kuan Yew in order to seek the latter's resignation and a re-merger with Malaysia. The 'gullibility' of Singaporeans on this point which he considered 'bizarre' and a 'patent absurdity' was what worried him.

Singapore's 'brainless young'

THROUGHOUT his life, he held strong views that he voiced publicly about what can only be called 'The Human Element', and how this impinged on the best-laid plans of mice and men, including Goh.

Where defence was concerned, human weaknesses such as self-deception, complacency, laziness and cowardice, or the propensity of commanders to put show before substance, could easily lead to disaster. Partly for this reason, he sought to raise the technological know-how of the army and the country, just as his handling of Singapore's economy had led to enormous and effective institutions being generated to lead growth and avoid disaster.

Economic development for non-advanced countries required a social revolution of a certain type. First, an educated citizenry was needed. With literacy came an awareness of the 'benefits of economic development' as well as a social discipline that would guide citizens away from 'frivolous pursuits' towards 'a fuller and more cultured life'.

The second important factor for growth was 'the opportunity which a society afforded to those with talent, ability and skills to rise to the position for which they were best fitted'. For this to happen, an able leadership free from corruption was needed.

Later in 1967, he gave a reply in Parliament on the possible opening of a casino in Singapore to boost tourism. He was opposed to it unless two conditions were fulfilled: it would bring 'substantial benefits to Singapore' and 'firm safeguards against Singaporeans using it' were put in place. The human element, especially in fellow Singaporeans, was evidently a source of worry to him.

On Dec 10, 1972, Goh famously warned that the practice among young Singaporeans of copying Western fashions would turn the country into a nation of 'Wogs'.

'Wogs' - short for Westernised Oriental Gentlemen - was a term of contempt originally used by British civil servants for English-educated Indians. 'The brainless young, who follow Western fashions and wear long hair are part of the Wog culture of Singapore. Wog women wear mini-skirts and nylon stockings and think they look smashing.'

However, what he seemed to think was the problem was what he saw to be evidence of a lack of 'a set of sound basic values'. 'An understanding of one's own cultural heritage and a knowledge of the history of one's own people would help to give a man some cultural ballast.'

Goh's concern grew about the negative moral and psychological problems that Singapore's speed of advancement and its need to adapt to global dynamics had generated. Causing worry were two things: 'the wholesale adoption of a foreign language and the chase after money'.

PAP Govt welcomes controversy

IN AUGUST 1978, Goh was tasked by Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew to 'look into the problems of the Ministry of Education with a team of your own choice'.

But in 1967, he had already publicly presented views on the subject.

To start with, there had been 'far too much emphasis on academic performance'. Good performance in exams... did not say much else about the person's integrity and character, which were 'just as important as intelligence and more important than the mastering of examination technique'.

Apart from participation in physical activities, Goh identified three other aspects of education which had been neglected in Singapore: creative imagination, character and moral values.

Later that year, he attacked 'a curious view' held by some and that had been communicated to foreign diplomats and journalists that the Singapore Government disapproved of dissenting opinions, 'even to the extent of dispatching Special Branch agents to search for the heretics and persecute them in one way or another'.

The PAP Government, he said, actually welcomed controversy. The absence of open debate - apart from 'Barisan mid-summer madness' - in Singapore, except on trivial matters, was serious and had to stop. The unfounded fear of the Government, he ventured, was one reason. If that were the only reason, then the intelligentsia in Singapore would count as 'the most cowardly and spineless intelligentsia in the world'. If they really believed that they were ruled by tyranny, then it should be their duty to rebel, 'even to the point of taking up arms against the Government'.

He did, however think that there was a second and more acceptable reason for this 'deplorable absence of articulation', which was that the 'English-educated intelligentsia were uncertain of their position in society and in fact did not understand in all its complexities, the society in which they lived'.

Not pulling any punches, Goh assumed snobbishness to be a reason why the intelligentsia distanced themselves not only from the common man but also from the reality of society itself and from the ability to understand its workings.

His apparent aversion to the intelligentsia may seem odd, given that he was one of the most, if not the most, educated minister in the PAP. But the basis for this sentiment seemed to be the intelligentsia's tendency to find refuge behind a wall of privileges and abstractions. This timidity was what irritated him.

'There is a regrettable habit here to equate political views and action and even nation-building activities with passionate declamation of lofty ideals... or the striking of heroic postures and attitudes. Frankly, I find all this repellent. I am more interested in what people do, not what they say. The important thing is to tackle concrete problems as they exist, not to lay down woolly abstract principles. There are no crusades to mount, only a lot of work and a myriad of problems at all levels of society.'

When Education Ministry is more authoritarian than the army

IN PARLIAMENT on March 27, 1979, Goh claimed that his committee had identified 'real causes of trouble' in Singapore's education system. These were:

# The languages of instruction in our bilingual system are not spoken at home for the great majority of schoolchildren.

# The rapid switch from the Chinese stream to the English stream made necessary the mass production of teachers for the English stream schools, to the detriment of the quality of teaching.

# One system of education, lasting 12 years, has been tailored to suit the brightest 12 per cent.

Basically, the motion was meant to revise the educational structure to 'allow each pupil to study at a pace suited to learning capacity', and which would make him as bilingual as possible. The ultimate goal concerned Singapore's economic future, as well as the relative importance of English vis-a-vis Chinese and other languages used in the country.

But after that came the stage of implementation.

On taking over the ministry, Goh found that although the staff had integrity and were devoted, 'the management was dreadful'. He boiled down the problem to two factors: the cult of obedience and the cult of secrecy. Strangely, the army was less authoritarian than the Education Ministry was. The army had an evidently healthier work culture than in schools where he found 'the bowing and scraping' and the 'desire to impress' too much to bear. He had actually stopped visiting them.

'(In a society without deep roots), minor success brings about overconfidence and the belief the good times last forever; minor setbacks send people into a state of nervousness. In this situation, the Singaporean lends his ears to rumours of all kinds. Nothing is too absurd for him to listen to and pass on to others.'

Dr Goh Keng Swee

'There is a regrettable habit here to equate political views and action and even nation-building activities with passionate declamation of lofty ideals... or the striking of heroic postures and attitudes.

Frankly, I find all this repellent... The important thing is to tackle concrete problems as they exist, not to lay down woolly abstract principles. There are no crusades to mount, only a lot of work and a myriad of problems at all levels of society.'

Dr Goh Keng Swee

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