Goh Keng Swee and the cold, bronze statute

I have always been an admirer of the late Goh Keng Swee, the economic architect and arguably the most important of the pioneering set of men who became the “founding fathers” of modern day Singapore. He died recently and I followed closely the coverage given to him by the local newspapers. The following is a letter I wrote to The Straits Times, but which I did not send because … I was quite sure it will not be published, on its coverage of his life and times. I am quite happy to keep this just as a personal observation, and I further edited it later to include some of my more unpublishable thoughts on him.

The Forums Editor
The Straits Times

Dear Sirs

As someone who has had a deep admiration for Goh Keng Swee as a founding father of modern day Singapore from a very young age, I thought that your coverage of his passing away and the memory of his achievements had a curious approach to it. You had the arduous task of trying to crystallize the full depth of who he really was so that it will be embedded in the psyche of the diverse readers that you cater to. There were parts of your coverage that I thought were brilliant and there were parts that left me with impressions that you probably did not intend.

I want to state at the outset, that I thought that you did not give enough attention to the fact that his divorce and remarriage were probably the most defining episodes in his life. I do understand that in a normal situation it would not be appropriate to discuss such personal things. But it was your newspaper, in a special Sunday supplement on him published last year, that indicated that he resigned from politics because of what was obviously an affair at that time and his concern that the opposition might capitalise on it in an election year.

All profiles of Dr Goh, in Wikipedia and other websites, excludes even alluding to this fact, understandably by editors who are prudish about discussing the private life of a man they plan to revere. I believe that your newspaper struggles with how to describe his obviously interesting and multi-faceted life in as plain a manner as possible, without causing readers to lose their respect for what he has achieved for the country. Yet, I thought that the best tribute that you could have given this obviously incredibly intelligent and complex man was to describe his life as plainly as you would have discussed any other men and let its quality speak for itself.

He stepped down as deputy prime minister in 1984. His subsequent divorce two years later and remarriage a full seven years later would have been a long period of anguish for all those close to him. It may not be our business to even bother discussing that. But the significance to the country was that he forfeited himself the right to enjoy the fruits of his labour as all the institutions he created for Singapore in the 1960s finally came into their own in the 1980s.

By doing so, in a way, he actually set the standard for personal propriety that is today somewhat ingrained into the Singapore social mores. Megalomania may have caused a lesser man to justify that because he created these institutions, and paid the price of standing by his beliefs until they bore fruit, he had the right to live his contradictions out in public. But Dr Goh disqualified himself, because he thought that even he should not stand above public scrutiny. Unless you tell his story as it was, we will forfeit appreciating qualities such as these in the man.

We live in a world today where many well educated and well paid young people imagine that they make an indelible contribution to society, and they probably do. But their sense of entitlement is strong, and is the source of so much of the confusion in values we see in society today. The seeds of the same sense of entitlement are definitely present in Singapore today. The life stories of people like Dr Goh, simply told, can shape the moral fibre of this society in a way that is susainable.

Almost always, when we find real talent, they can come packaged with a dark side. It is truly naïve to expect that the truly talented men and women who shape the world we live in do not have deep contradictions that they struggle with. In fact, it is those very contradictions, as thorns in the flesh, that produces the geniuses who shape our world.

Many such talented people do not come out to do things in public, not because of the money, but because they need to reconcile their personal lives to the public persona that the media and society would like to straight jacket them into.

Over time, the media has developed a picture of all of Singapore’s “founding fathers” and the “mandarins” who served under them as some kind of stoic, colourless, god-like creatures we should worship but never relate to. By doing so, we completely miss what made them the immensely talented and entrepreneurial leaders that they were. We assign them to become cold monuments of bronze, like that of Sir Stamford Raffles, who will sit outside in our public parks but not fire the hearts and minds of future generations.

I think the passing of Dr Goh is the first time that any of the departed “founding fathers” of modern day Singapore has presented an interesting dilemma – the more we try to present his personal and professional life in a clean narrative, the more it throws up yet more contradictions about him than was known before, and refuses to be put into a box.

Your newspaper appears to be struggling in this regard. For example, some of the facts presented on his personal affections for his second wife could not possibly have been acceptable in 1984. Yet, how are they more acceptable today? Your newspaper tries to gloss over them, but to what effect?

The best way to achieve your intention of regard for this man is simply to trust your readers a little bit more and abandon this self-inflicted desire to re-cast his life story in a whitewash.

In fact, you will be surprised how learning more about the contradictions of this man can create the unintended consequence of respecting him even more. I am coming to the conclusion, for example, that he more than almost any of the other founding fathers of Singapore, had this uncanny skill of seeing the full plot in any idea or any story. A better chess player than a mediocre poker player, perhaps.

It was this ability that gave him the confidence in all of the most important decisions he made for Singapore – of gambling a full break from Malaysia, and knowing full well that Singapore will be fine. Also, standing firm on the concept for Jurong, when for years everybody mocked him. I think if we knew some things about him a bit better, we can catch a glimpse of that small but important ingredient that makes a man of vision different from a mere dreamer.

Some of the archieves of speeches and anecdotes reminds us that what we saw in Goh Keng Swee was an arrogance characteristic of the leadership that he and his colleagues gae Singapore, even in the face of uncertainty. It was, in a sense an important arrogance, even cockiness, that set them apart from the distracting opinions of their time.

This gave me the sense that his intense desire for privacy after he stepped down was not so much a spartan virtue, but a plea to be himself, after he had climbed down from that high horse. This man had a complex personality and a wide range of interests borne out of an intimate understanding of human frailty. But for more than 20 years, he had to take on the personality of a maestro.

Anecdotal quotes in your coverage that depicted Dr Goh as a “no-nonsense” man, with whom one had to have all “the facts and figures” before meeting him, says nothing about the real man.

When you think about it, this is what all good and serious bosses are supposed to be, so what are the people you quote saying that they would not have said of any boss? Flattery in this regard is like a big and beautiful coffin, which we hurriedly put great men into, so that we can avoid dealing with what we did not understand about them.

But when the time came for him to live his own life, he wanted that privacy away from scrutiny and even recognition. This in a sense is the price that men like Goh Keng Swee pay, because of their inability to reconcile the high values that they preached and the projections of their own lives.

One of the reasons I came to these conclusions is because bits of Dr Goh’s personality described in your pages actually reminded me of one of my closest friends. Like Dr Goh, my friend was a straight “As” student in school, and could have done medicine if he wanted. Also like Dr Goh, he chose the shortest course (in his case, accountancy) for exactly the same reasons. Like Dr Goh, this friend of mine is intensely efficient in the way he works and thinks about ideas and is a tremendous asset to his employers. His voracious appetite for reading fiction, trash and otherwise, has trained him to see policies and stories in full plots. I have some of the best conversations with him and when we get together, he is an amazing intellectual sparring partner.

But the interesting thing about my friend is that when he is not motivated on a project, brilliant as he is, he succumbs to a voracious appetite of reading volume after volume of trash paperbacks, and watching series after series of cheap Cantonese videos, and yes, the National Geographic channel.

He is very bad at looking after himself but, like any good Straits-born Chinese boy (he is almost but not Peranakan, from Penang), he is surrounded by loving women folk in his family who basically pamper him. To the extent that some of these unworthy comparisons are close to being true, more often than not, people are more predictable than we give them credit for, no matter how accomplished they are.

Understanding and discussing a leader in human terms also saves us from hubris. Time makes us forget that Dr Goh’s amusing ist of one-liners such as “birds are cheaper to feed than animals (in a zoo),” (whic he is often quoted for justifying setting up a bird park) were not at all original ideas in his time. This was the running joke in most zoos, then as it is today, especially in poor countries where they continue to stock more birds than any other animal for exactly that reason.

The genius of Singapore, as mirrored in the genius of the men who created its current economic model, was in taking all of the ideas that existed in their time, stripping them down to their most practical objectives, going straight to the implementation phase with gusto, and winning.

All of the world’s great ideas, from the ideals of Fabian society, to the stewardess in airline advertisement, to casinos, originated from somewhere else, even in neighbouring countries, but were perfected in Singapore.

It has become the Singaporean DNA, and to wish it any greater sense of originality is to be frustrated by the country that is interested in executing on ideas and not in originating them.

Another reason for being able to remember Dr Goh as if he still lives amongst us also because so much of the work he started is far from over. In some literature, Dr Goh is described as not a fan of Keynesian economics. Yet, he created a country where the state did a lot of the work building some of the largest businesses in the country and is now the owner of some the largest of these assets.

His stated reason for the role that the state had in the early years was to create scale and generate the capital that could leapfrog the country into a sustainable phase instead of trying to pull up the economy on the bootstraps of an under-skilled and under-employed people at that time. But if that was what he really wanted, for the work to go one full cycle until the ordinary man came into his fullness, we are nowhere nearer that goal today than when he started. The ability of private businesses to scale up in Singapore is today hemmed in by so many factors.

That is why, although Dr Goh died at a time when the economy is roaring, and Singapore appears to be reaching a zenith of some kind, measured against the ideals that were in his head, I can see why the story of this country’s potential has not even passed its own half way mark.

That is why, now more than ever, the fact and the fiction of this man has to be even better understood in honest and ordinary ways . When we are able to do that, then this society becomes a living, breathing organism, building on the spirit of the men and women who gave it life.

Yours very truly
Emmanuel Daniel


  1. Great blog, ED. But here�s the thing — the human psyche tends to react with irrational emotion to lapses of judgment on the part of their symbols of propriety (however artificial that might be). Being flawed nine ways to Sunday ourselves, we judge and remember deified leaders and institutions for their indiscretions in a way that casts their meritorious contributions to the cesspit. If a few priests diddle little boys we call for the Catholic Church, the Vatican and the Pope to be tarred and feathered. If Tiger Woods gets his leg over a score of Amazonian wenches we immediately dematerialize his golfing and charitable accomplishments. Recent biographical works portray Gandhi as an inadequate husband and father and we speedily breed the theory that perhaps he wasn�t all that he was cut out to be.

    Most times in functioning democracies we exercise our franchise by determining whom we should �not� vote for as opposed to whom we should. Political campaigns are cleverly structured to feed us suitable negative propaganda to feed our paranoia. And, needless to say, all of these processes are helped on their petty, gossipy, sensational way by a compromised and irresponsible press. We have ended up judging political parties for the foibles of their leaders instead of for the strength of their agenda .No wonder then that the preference is for Dr. Goh's “human” side to be quietly interred with his bones.

    You are a honourable man, a mature thinker and an intellectual who comprehends the miracle of the human being, engineering defects and all. I am not sure the hoi polloi of Singaporean society have arrived at that spot � not yet anyway.

    Oh well perhaps the prospect of spending the long weekend delivering on some seriously boring chores has generated knee �jerk cynicism in me.

  2. Goh Keng Swee did not “step down” from office in 1984. By Dr Phua's account, his “romantic interest” in her was plain as day by 1983. The divorce came about 1986. The scandal and forthcoming separation was too much for the Old Man to tolerate – he has this thing about divorce. Goh had to go, pun unintended. The tragedy is the fate of Alice Woon, She was by his side during the golden years; you know the cliche about the good woman behind a successful man. Why was she disposed off like a used rag?

  3. The title and theme of your letter remind me of the final scene in Iron Man, when Tony Stark talks about the ridiculousness of him being a superhero, given his long list of character defects …. but “the truth is, I am Iron Man.

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