Goh leaves behind some unanswered questions

Seah Chiang Nee
The Star

He engineered Singapore’s industrialisation and overall economy, transforming the country from a squatter city into an affluent, modern city state. Ironically, few Singaporeans under 30 know much about him.

As Singapore continues to search for potential leaders, it is bidding a fond farewell to a brilliant pioneer who helped to build its prosperity.

Former Deputy Prime Minister Dr Goh Keng Swee, who was born in Malacca, died at 91 last Friday after a long illness, marking the virtual end of an era.

In 1984, Dr Goh retired from politics, saying it was for personal reasons. By then, he had been in the Cabinet for 25 years, serving the last 11 as Deputy Prime Minister.

He later served as economic adviser to the Chinese government.

With his death, only two members of the core leaders are still alive – Minister Mentor Mr Lee Kuan Yew, 86, and former PAP chairman Dr Toh Chin Chye, who is in poor health. Stalwarts who had died were S. Rajaratnam, Lim Kim San, Hon Sui Sen, Devan Nair, E.W. Barkerr as well as Ong Eng Guan and Lim Chin Siong.

Ironically, despite Dr Goh’s enormous role in history, few Singaporeans who are under 30 know much about him.

He engineered Singapore’s industrialisation and overall economy, built its armed forces and infrastructure that transformed Singapore from a squatter city into an affluent, modern state.

“Without him and a few passionate others, Mr Lee could not have made it,” is a general opinion of old-timers who lived through that period. Today, some Singaporeans are still speculating why the economic icon had left.

One blogger asked: “He seemed to have disappeared completely from Singapore for a quarter of a century. Does anyone know why?”

His exit happened during the People’s Action Party rejuvenation exercise, in which Lee replaced many of his old comrades with younger people, one of them his son. They were asked to leave but not all of them complied happily. Lee himself has remained outside the self-renewal process.

Ironically, Dr Goh quit in 1984 ,which was the year that the current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was made a party candidate for elections that led to his political rise.

That many of today’s youths have not heard of Dr Goh (and other pioneers) is not surprising, given the scant coverage of him during the past 26 years.

A few older Singaporeans feel that he should have been standing next to Lee all these years, and shared his glory together with other prominent pioneers. They include the late Rajaratnam, who was loyal to Lee and remained in his “core team” together with Hon Sui Sen, Devan Nair (until his alleged trouble with alcohol) and Lim Kim San. These were the leaders who dominated Singapore’s political scene from 1959 to mid-1980s.

Yet today, few in the young generation have heard of Dr Goh.

A Singaporean in the 20s said when he heard of his death and the wide interest aroused, he went to the library to read up the archives about him.

“They do not know who Dr Goh is … Everyone knows Lee Kuan Yew, but not Dr Goh, who is as important if not more important,” said one surfer.

Another said he asked his nephew who was in national service (one of Dr Goh’s creations) whether his commander had said anything about Dr Goh’s death. “He replied, ‘No’. I then asked if he knew who Dr Goh is, again he said ‘No’ before returning to his PlayStation.”

Another commented: “The brief history of our nation building seems to have been forgotten. New Citizens (immigrants) and our children know nothing about it. Sad!”

Alive, Dr Goh had kept a low profile, but in death he has re-ignited several issues.

First, would Singapore be a better country today if he had not left the government in 1984? Secondly, under his economic policies, could Singapore have avoided the widening of the gap between the rich and the poor? And thirdly, would he have allowed such a vast intake of foreigners? These questions will now probably never be answered.

Singaporeans who fondly remember Dr Goh have been making their way to Parliament House where his body lies to pay their respect.

“He was paid so little and done so much for the Nation,” said SMT.

“Not motivated by money or power but a calling to serve the country and people.”

Ten years after Dr Goh’s departure, Lee substantially raised cabinet salaries by pegging them to the top private sector here. These salaries skyrocketed further since 1994. Some observers believe that it was unlikely Dr Goh, with his reputation for thrift, would have gone along with such a scheme.

An old family friend recounted how, when using the tissue paper in the ward, Dr Goh (who came from a wealthy family) would tear each sheet in half, saving the other for future use. If his wife used an entire sheet, he would chide her saying, “Its taxpayers’ money.”

Above all, his demise has raised the debate on leadership quality in Singapore and how to produce selfless leaders like those in the first generation.

Some feel that the paying of super-high salaries to scholars with little passion of service has failed to throw up winners who can match leaders like Lee or Dr Goh or Rajaratnam.

A foreign online magazine, Asia Sentinel, said with the dominance of Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore politics had obscured the roles of other pioneers.