Saturday, 15 May 2010

A Modest Hero

Singapore is in mourning for one of the most influential men in its history; a person that most people outside of the country will never have heard of.

While most people naturally associate the modern miracle that is this country with Lee Kuan Yew, equal kudos should be give to Dr. Goh Keng Swee.

The combination of Lee's political savvy and Dr Goh's 'can do' attitude and economic acumen, made for a winning combination.

A graduate of the London School of Economics, Goh Keng Swee was the government's first finance minister but his influence extended far beyond this initial portfolio.  He founded Singapore's army and introduced National Service, a move at that time which did not meet with universal approval as the thought of a precious son being called up was a step too far for some.  However, as in most things, his vision proved to be the correct one.

Goh Keng SweeWhen Singapore succeeded from the Malaysian Federation in 1965 he had to quickly find an alternative economic model and did so.  The transformed a swamp in Jurong into the industrial heartland it is today and made manufacturing the secure base Singapore needed to survive and thrive.

Born into a wealthy Straits Born Chinese family in Malacca he moved with his family at the age of two to re-establish themselves in Singapore. His father later became manager of the Pasir Panjang rubber estate.

Apparently he had a dislike for his Christian name Robert and he shared this trait with his later collaborator Lee Kuan Yew, whose Christian name is Harry.

Keng Swee was a shy boy who buried himself in books but this quest for knowledge and ideas was the building blocks upon which he built his life.

Singapore zoo, Jurong Bird Park, Sentosa and the Singapore Symphony Orchestra were all formed under his stewardship.

His official biography states that he left politics in 1984 for personal reasons.  I am informed by people around in the '80's that he had  a marked divergence of opinion with his colleagues on using the people's CPF money to fund the soon to be launched MRT system.  Whether this had an influence on his departure I do not know but being a man of principle, I suspect that it did.

The MRT has since developed to be Singapore's most important public transport system so these fears proved to be unfounded. But at the time it was first promoted, investing in this transport scheme was perceived by some to be a risky venture.

After leaving the Singapore political scene he was invited to provide guidance with housing policy development in China.  I am sure that country will also be mourning his passing.

So I, like others this week, are paying tribute to a man who we never met in person but whose country we now enjoy thanks to his dedication and vision.
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