Eulogy by PM Lee Hsien Loong at the State Funeral Service for the Late Dr Goh Keng Swee

SM Lee Hsien Loong | 23 May 2010

Eulogy by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the State Funeral Service for the Late Dr Goh Keng Swee at Singapore Conference Hall on 23 May 2010.


The Family of the late Dr Goh Keng Swee

Mr President

Distinguished Guests

Friends and Fellow Singaporeans

May I, on behalf of the government and people of Singapore, convey our deepest condolences to Mrs Goh and the family of the late Dr Goh Keng Swee on his passing at the age of 91.

Great leaders shape and influence the course of events through their actions and ideas. Singapore is a small country with a short history. But we too have had giants in our midst – men who have turned the tide for Singapore, and created a successful nation against the odds.

Dr Goh was one of our nation’s founding fathers. In our formative years, he dealt with the most pressing problems of the day. But more importantly, he introduced sweeping initiatives that set the basis for the country’s long-term prosperity and security. Without him, much of today’s Singapore would not exist.

Dr Goh was a nationalist and a strong advocate for independence from British rule. After earning his PhD in England, he worked for a few years in the social welfare department, while supporting the People’s Action Party (PAP) from behind the scenes. In 1959, Singapore won self-governing status from the British, and general elections were held. Dr Goh resigned as a civil servant to contest as a PAP candidate. When the PAP won, Dr Goh became our first Finance Minister.

Dr Goh soon discovered that the government was almost broke, and expected a budget deficit of $14 million that year. Prudent and thrifty by nature, Dr Goh immediately introduced drastic measures to cut spending, including cutting civil service salaries. This was obviously unpopular, but Dr Goh stood firm. When he delivered the Budget at the end of the year, he proudly declared that the government had achieved a small surplus of $1 million. He had drafted the speech personally, after secluding himself on the remote island of Raffles Lighthouse to concentrate on the task. Dr Goh set the tone for the PAP government, which ever since has steadfastly upheld budget discipline and fiscal prudence.

Dr Goh next turned his attention to jump-starting the stagnant economy. He decided on a strategy of rapid industrial isation, attracting investments from MNCs to create jobs and exports. This was a radical and untested approach. It was contrary to the conventional wisdom then, that poor countries could achieve economic development through import substitution, and that MNCs were new colonial powers out to exploit impoverished workers in the Third World.

Key to the industrialisation programme was an ambitious project to transform the swamps of Jurong into a modern industrial estate. Dr Goh saw this as “an act of faith in the people of Singapore”. He and his friend Mr Hon Sui Sen, then Chairman of the Economic Develop ment Board, set out to develop Jurong with energy and determination.

The strategy did not work immediately. Investors were put off by the instability and mayhem created by the Communists and their sympathisers. There were more troubles after Singapore joined Malaysia, and the federal government in Kuala Lumpur controlled the award of Pioneer Certificates (for tax holidays) to investors. Not a single application for Pioneer Certificates was approved during this period. Given these problems, Jurong made little progress. Cynics mocked the venture, calling it “Goh’s Folly”.

But after independence we left these problems behind. The industrialisation strategy proved its worth, and Jurong industrial estate took off. By 1968, almost 300 factories operated in Jurong, employing 21,000 workers. Today, the Jurong project has far outgrown its geographical boundaries. Jurong Town Corporation was renamed JTC Corporation, because it was managing industrial estates all over Singapore, not just in Jurong. JTC Corporation has also spun off commercial arms, like Ascendas and JTC International, which have planned and built industrial parks and townships in many Asian countries. These successes have won Singa­pore an international reputation as a first class infrastructure provider.

Dr Goh pioneered many other economic institutions. He helped create the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS), where he laid out the policies that produced a stable Singapore Dollar and preserved the purchasing power of Singaporeans, not least their CPF savings. Years after Dr Goh retired, I served as Chairman of MAS. My task was to revise and update MAS’ policies, many of which traced back to Dr Goh. We changed course very cautiously, always mindful of the good reasons and careful analysis that underpinned the original policies. For example, Dr Goh firmly opposed allowing market players free rein to speculate on the Singapore dollar, say by borrowing Singapore dollars in order to short the currency. Our small, open economy depended too much on a stable exchange rate. MAS applied a very strict policy, famously known as “the non-international isation of the Singapore dollar”. By the late 1990s, we needed to relax these restrictions, in order to grow the fund management industry in Singapore. We did so in careful, incremental steps, over several years, loosening the implementation but never giving up the principle.

Beyond economics, Dr Goh helped to steer our nation through its difficult birth. His was often a backroom role, developing strategies and arguments to counter first the communists and then the communalists. But his robust attitude encouraged the whole team to press on against seemingly unwinnable odds, eventually to prevail and create today’s Singapore.

Once Singapore became independent, we faced a pressing need to develop a defence capability and safeguard ourselves in a dangerous world. Although Dr Goh initially knew little about military matters, he took on the heavy responsibility as our first Defence Minister, and built up the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) from scratch.

Dr Goh took a personal interest in all aspects of the SAF. No detail was too small for him. I once followed him to visit a field engineer defence exercise. We passed one site where the troops were digging a large bunker. It was a hive of activity: all the soldiers swarming over the work site, hard at work. This did not escape Dr Goh’s practised eye. He commented that the soldiers should have been divided up into shifts - one third working, one third resting, and one third on guard. They should not all be working at once, and especially not to impress the minister.

Dr Goh understood that what counted most to the SAF was ability and talent. The SAF needed commanders and staff officers with the leadership qualities, intellectual abilities and professional competence to build and operate a modern, high-tech defence force. He created Project Wrangler, a talent management scheme overseen personally by the Minister, to identify promising officers, and systematically track, groom and advance them to key command and staff appointments. He introduced the SAF Scholarship scheme to induct top talent into the SAF. But he did not forget the older officers, mostly non-graduates, who had got the SAF off the ground: so he implemented a programme to enable deserving ones among them to study for Master’s degrees at Duke University in military history and strategy. This is why today we have a cadre of capable and committed SAF leaders who understand defence technology, appreciate the strategic context, and can make sound decisions on and off the battlefield to ensure Singapore’s security. Without such a team, we could not have built up, nor could we operate the 3G SAF, a professional and credible deterrent force respected alike by Singaporeans, partners and other armed forces in Asia and around the world.

I was in the first batch of SAF Scholars. Dr Goh took a special interest in us, and met us before we left for our overseas studies. He presented us each with two military classics: Sun Tzu’s Art of War and Liddell Hart’s Strategy: The Indirect Approach. He had specially ordered the books, and inscribed them to each of the young second lieutenants, “wishing you a successful military career”. Dr Goh’s gesture showed both his grasp of strategy and security issues, as well as his keen interest in nurturing talent for the SAF.

Dr Goh’s last ministry was education. Here too he introduced major reforms, leaving his imprint on a fundamentally changed education system. His approach was systematic, analytical, and results oriented. Today, nearly every student completes secondary education, masters both English and a mother tongue, and attains standards of mathematics and science that are among the highest in any country. As in so many other areas, Dr Goh’s work laid the foundation on which his successors have built, to reach greater heights.

With a creative mind and wide-ranging interests, Dr Goh had a tremendous zest for life and work. He would come up with new ideas every day for the civil servants to study and implement. Submissions to him frequently came back covered with corrections, to polish the language and sharpen the arguments, or sometimes demolish them. Many young officers benefited from his guidance. Their careers and lives were changed by their interaction with Dr Goh, who more than once intervened at critical points to overcome an obstacle or to guide them in the right direction. They included President S R Nathan, Mr Goh Chok Tong, Mr Wong Kan Seng, Mr Mah Bow Tan, and Mr S Dhanabalan, as well as Permanent Secretaries like Ngiam Tong Dow, Lim Siong Guan, Philip Yeo, and Joe Pillay, and many others.

Dr Goh was a hard task-master but also a teacher and mentor. He recognised good work, and would back officers who had done well. He promoted and appointed people on merit, disregarding seniority in order to get the job done. He would fight for their promotions, which were not always within his dispensation because he needed to persuade the Public Service Commission. He would stand up for them publicly. I remember when I resigned from the SAF to enter politics, an opposition MP filed a Parliamentary question which was obviously targeted at me. Dr Goh was then no longer the Minister for Defence, but he nevertheless rose in Parliament to defend me, and the integrity of MINDEF’s personnel and promotion system, in his usual robust style. Many other officers who served him had similar experiences.

Dr Goh also had a fun side to him. In MINDEF, he became frustrated that directives from headquarters to the units were having so little effect. As an experiment, he ordered a directive issued to all units that comprised nothing but the Bible passage on Noah’s Ark. The directive made its way through the organisation – some units simply passed it on to their subordinate units for implementation, others filed it for reference, and only one person asked what it was for. Dr Goh wrote up the results into a paper, which he entitled “Noah’s Ark Progresses through the SAF”.

Dr Goh’s writings and speeches reflected his depth of thinking and broad range of reference. He published three volumes – The Practice of Economic Growth, The Economics of Modernisation, and The Wealth of East Asian Nations. Many of the pieces are gems that remain well worth reading today, decades later. Those wishing to learn about economic management and governance in modern Singapore will gain much from studying them.

A whole generation of Singaporeans has grown up enjoying the fruits of growth and prosperity, because one of our ablest sons decided to fight for Singapore’s independence, progress and future. Instead of pursuing a private career, Dr Goh chose to serve the larger good, and stayed in public service for more than 25 years.

Thousands have paid their last respects to Dr Goh this last week, in gratitude for what he had done for Singapore, and often personally to themselves. The media have reported a few of their stories – the old lady who was visited by Dr Goh when the family was very poor; another lady whom Dr Goh had come across as a little girl weeping in school, and had comforted; the young navy officer who reported to Dr Goh after making a grave mistake, but was forgiven because he owned up. These personal gestures and kindnesses reflected Dr Goh’s character and compassion, which underpinned his enormous contributions to Singapore.

Singapore is forever indebted to Dr Goh Keng Swee.