May 17, 2010
Dr Goh, the pragmatic intellectual
IN THE past three years, I have been hunting down the writings of Dr Goh Keng Swee. There are three collections of his speeches and articles published by Federal Publications, but his writings go beyond these.
There were, for example, pieces he published as a student at Anglo-Chinese School (ACS) and speeches he made as one of Asia's most respected personalities in the mid-1990s.
We tend to think of Dr Goh as an economist, but he was more than that. The earliest piece of work he ever published was not directly about economics.
Titled My Ambitions, it appeared in the ACS Magazine in 1931. Although only two paragraphs long, it expressed a young man's deep ponderings on his future and his sense of self.
'He who has ambition will do his best in order to satisfy himself. He will stick to his work and see that he is the best man that ever has done that work,' he wrote.
Today, everyone who has benefited from the genius and dedication of Dr Goh will agree that this boy did have ambitions, and he did fulfil them.
Dr Goh, like other founders of the People's Action Party, was considered a socialist - but he also had a strongly strategic mindset that would not take simple short cuts.
In lieu of ideology, Dr Goh placed strong emphasis on searching for solutions. His early professional years were fully taken up with concrete research on the dire social conditions in Singapore then.
He studied how workers were housed, how the sickly fared, how the poor schooled or did not school their children, and what meagre incomes the lowest classes earned.
Perhaps because of these ground experiences, Dr Goh often expressed disdain for certain scholarly experts.
His attitude seemed provoked by what he saw as the latter's blind reliance on and respect for theories merely because they were Western or fashionable. He derided as 'cowardice' their preference for moralistic postures over getting their hands dirty, and their unwillingness to fathom local conditions and construct practical solutions.
His own practical sense was legendary. Understanding a problem meant identifying the specifics of the dynamics generating it.
This was vital, because a solution was workable only if it was responding directly to the network of local factors.
This approach was at work when Dr Goh discussed the wartime economic front in 1940; when he created export industries in the 1960s; when he developed the tourism industry; when he devised Singapore's national service and defence science organisations; when he envisaged the financial strategy of the country; when he helped reform the education system in the 1980s; and when he was advising Deng Xiaoping's China after his retirement.
Even as an economist, Dr Goh was economical in his reliance on mainstream thought. Although he preferred the free market economics of Adam Smith and David Ricardo, he often highlighted their limitations, once proclaiming that anything later than Ricardo was of 'doubtful value'.
To him, blind loyalty to Keynesian thinking was the bane of modern Western economic policies.
As was obvious from the portfolios that he held, his most manifest contributions were in the fields of economics, finance, defence and education.
Being holistic in his attitude, he had strong views on cultural issues as well. If there was anything he had mixed feelings about where Singapore's phenomenal economic success was concerned, it was Singaporeans' fixation with business opportunities and wealth.
He found their subsequent parvenu behaviour disturbing, but accepted it as a necessary stage in the country's rise from chaotic trading port to thriving global city.
The pop culture of the late 1960s and early 1970s he found insufferable, calling the music of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones 'barbarous'.
By today's measure, here was where Dr Goh the pragmatist was most conservative. He reacted against the 'music produced by the steel guitar linked to an ear- shattering system of sound amplification' accompanied by 'inane tasteless wailing', that propelled him to call for a Singapore Symphony Orchestra to be formed.
In fact, his contributions in the field of culture were substantial, and his propensity to found institutions extended into most areas of Singapore life.
Dr Goh's intellectual genius and productivity cannot but awe and inspire Singaporeans. With his passing, his writings are bound to be increasingly revisited.
The world has changed much since his day, partly thanks to him. Hopefully, his open-mindedness will inspire Singaporeans and others to be as original as he was.
That would surely be what he would have wanted.The writer is a fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. His intellectual biography of Dr Goh Keng Swee, tentatively titled In Lieu Of Ideology, is expected to be published by August.