Goh Keng Swee

May 19, 2010

For a young nation, the passing of any founding father is a delicate affair. Heartfelt desires for collective mourning must resist temptations to slide into unchecked veneration, made all the more seductive given that founding fathers are never mere mortals but embodied ideals of what the nation believes it stands for. When we cry for great leaders we do so with tears of sadness for their demise and also with tears of joy for what they have bequeathed to us.

Indeed, the public outpouring of affection since the passing of Dr Goh Keng Swee on 14 May attests to the immeasurable contributions and sacrifices he had made for the country during his stints as Defence, Finance, Education and Deputy Prime Minister. The now often-repeated remark that there is hardly a public policy today that has not been influenced by Dr Goh is both a testimony to his stature as a policy renaissance man as to the generations of Singaporeans whose lives he has unquestionably improved.

But mourning a founding father is never simple. It is also an opportunity for nation-building. And when orchestrated by state apparatuses like the mainstream media, sensitive portrayals of the man and his ideas have a tendency to give way to easy caricature. Though it is true that greatness is necessarily itself a caricature, it is precisely because we are a young nation that such caricatures are unhelpful. Take for example Dr Goh’s decision to establish the Singapore Symphony Orchestra – a worthy initiative. Even though this initiative alone was enough for the mainstream media to declare him a lover of the arts, deeper analysis would show that Dr Goh was a lover of a particular type of art, specifically of the classical variety. His culturally conservative taste was limited to ‘high culture’ such as western operas and symphonies while showing clear distaste for more experimental or progressive forms of art. At a Peoples’ Action Party sponsored event at the Victoria Theatre on 7 April 1967, Dr Goh gave the following instructions for the creation of plays.

“Firstly, the themes of the plays should be in keeping with the realistic life in Singapore and its multi-racial, multi-cultural and multi-religious spirit. Secondly, they must discard the crazy, sensual, ridiculous, boisterous and over materialistic style of the West. In the same way, the feudalistic, superstitious, ignorant and pessimistic ideas of the East are also undesirable. Thirdly, they must emphasise the spirit of patriotism, love for the people and for sciences, and cultivate diligence, courage, sense of responsibility and a positive philosophy of life. Fourthly, they must be free from crudeness in production, opportunism, monotony, vulgarity, copying and backwardness. Fifthly, they should provide noble, healthy and proper cultural entertainment for the people”.

His formula for art summons the spirit of Soviet Socialist Realism, demanding that the artist produce ‘truthful’ and ‘realistic’ representations of life as a vehicle for the ideological transformation of society. Indeed, it is easy to imagine that Dr Goh would not demure much from Lenin’s exhortation of artists to be “engineers of human souls”.

Why is it important that we point out Dr Goh’s specific taste in arts? Because art is inherently political, and to declare Dr Goh a lover and patron of the arts is to declare the art forms that he did not care for non-art. The death of any founding father demands greater introspection from the mainstream media. Instead we are often left with an unproblematic portrayal of a man who never harboured any biases or idiosyncrasies, thus underlining the truism that blandness is the side-effect of hagiography. Whether driven by the false assumption that to critique is to criticise, or that to point out contradictions in a man is to somehow make him less great, the mainstream media needs to be more self-aware especially in a digital age where Dr Goh’s speeches are but a few clicks away. Another such example was his take on education and examinations. 

“I think there has been far too much emphasis on academic performance…The preoccupation in Singapore with examination results is unnatural and unhealthy, and we should bring it to an end as early as possible. After all, good performance in examinations only proves one thing – ability to answer examination questions” (The Straits Times, 6 March 1967).

And yet it was Dr Goh himself who introduced academic streaming in primary schools where examinations at the age of 10 had the potential to determine your life chances. Chronic exam fever, anxious parents, the rise of tuition culture, sleepless children, all of which turned into well-known signifiers of Singapore life by the early streaming policy under Dr Goh. Pointing all this out does not make Dr Goh’s contributions less significant or worthy of praise. As thinking citizens we would then ask: what made him change his mind? What national challenges compelled him to make such compromises? A thinking media would seek answers to these questions and, in the process, make him more human, more worthy of affection. The end result would be a more profound understanding of our nation’s trajectory and the trade-offs it has had to make in order to enjoy the fruits of success.

Recently published hagiographies of S Rajaratnam and Lim Kim San have gone some way towards cementing the legacies of Singapore’s founding fathers. They are an institutional response to a young nation’s yearning for heroes. Personalities like Lee Kuan Yew, Goh Keng Swee, S Rajaratnam, Toh Chin Chye, and Eddie Barker have been carved into hallowed statues in the great hall of our collective memory. For a nation so bereft of legends, we have transformed our first generation leaders from mere mortals into the embodiment of virtues, such that the mere mention of their names conjures up Old World values like “sacrifice” and “selflessness” believed to have been lost along the way as we forge ahead mindlessly in the name of Singapore Inc.

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3 Responses to “Goh Keng Swee”

  1. CH Says:

    Agree. Esp with the part on the agenda of hero-making. A major problem I have with The Singapore Lion was that the controversial aspects of Rajaratnam’s policies were not adequately discussed or analysed. I respect Dr. Goh and I hope for rigorous scholarly research on him in Singapore one day – research that will help us to understand his contributions, his failings, struggles and legacy.

  2. DC Says:

    You have an extremely succinct yet easily digestible way of writing that is a joy to read. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no PAP supporter, I just feel that you have a tad bit of cynicism within your writing influencing the analysis to side against the government. Nonetheless, I will definitely be tagging your blog for future reading. Keep it up!

  3. The Pariah Says:

    Thought provoking indeed … well, perhaps in another 20 years, there will be research materials that cover both sides of the coin rather than the “spin”!


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