Goh Keng Swee

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Dr Goh Keng Swee walks alongside fellow Cabinet members towards Parliament in 1963Legislative Assembly members including former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, Deputy Prime Minister Toh Chin Chye and Finance Minister Dr Goh Keng Swee, march towards Parliament back in 1963. (c.1963. Image from National Archives of Singapore)

Goh Keng Swee
Dr Goh Keng Swee (b. 6 October 1918, Malacca, Malaysia – d. 14 May 2010, Singapore) is often referred to as the architect of modern Singapore. He played a key role in the founding of the People’s Action Party (PAP), and has held the post of Deputy Prime Minister, Minister for Finance, Defence, Education, as well as the being the chairman of the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) and other government-led companies (GLCs).

Early Years
Goh began his education in Malacca before coming to Singapore in 1920, where he studied at the Anglo-Chinese School (1927-1936) and subsequently at Raffles College (1936–1939). He initially entered the colonial service in 1939, but had his work disrupted due to the Japanese Occupation.

He returned to the civil service at the end of 1945 to help run the Social Welfare Department (SWD), organising causes like the People’s Kitchens during the British Military Administration. He was soon awarded a scholarship to study at the London School of Economics (LSE) in 1947.

In London, Goh started the Malayan Forum Group, an anti-colonial group that would come to include lifelong comrades Lee Kuan Yew and Toh Chin Chye. He served as its first chairman before handing over the reigns to Toh Chin Chye in 1953 upon his return to Singapore.

Dr Goh Keng Swee alongside Lee Kuan Yew, Toh Chin Chye at the opening of Rumah TemasekDr Goh Keng Swee alongside former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and Deputy Prime Minister Toh Chin Chye at the opening of Rumah Temasek. Standing with them is former Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak. (c.1963. Image from National Archives of Singapore)

Back in Singapore, Goh continued his work at the SWD. Together with K. M. Byrne, he formed the Council for Joint Action to fight for equal working pay for Asian civil servants. He became the director of the SWD in 1958, but soon left to join the PAP to contest in the 1959 general elections.

Career & Accomplishments
Upon winning his Kreta Ayer seat at the 1959 elections, Goh took on the role as the first Minister of Finance; a daunting task considering that the nation was almost broke, and was expected to hit a deficit on S$14 million in the same year.

Dr Goh Keng Swee celebrating victory at 1963 Legislative Assembly General ElectionsPeople's Action Party candidate for Kreta Ayer constituency Dr Goh Keng Swee being chaired after his election victory at the Legislative Assembly General Elections (c.1963. Image from National Archives of Singapore)

Goh would go on to establish key economic institutions such as the Economic Development Board (1961), Development Bank of Singapore (1968) and Monetary Authority of Singapore (1971).

Goh was also influential in the setup of the Jurong Industrial Estate in 1962, transforming the former swampland into a booming industrial haven that he saw as ‘an act of faith in the people of Singapore’. The strategy did not work immediately, and many cynics labeled it as ‘Goh’s Folly’. Come 1968 however, Jurong was home to almost 300 factories that employed 21,000 workers, and the Jurong Town Corporation would receive international acclaim.

Dr Goh Keng Swee's plans for the Jurong Industrial EstateIn 1962, Dr Goh Keng Swee, led a team to convert the swamplands of Jurong into a booming industrial estate that eventually took off to become a model benchmark of industralisation and innovation. (c.1967. Image from National Museum of Singapore)

Shortly after Singapore gained independence in 1965, Goh become the Minister of Defence and was handed the daunting task of building up the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) from scratch. He introduced the 1967 NS (Amendment) Bill, as he believed it was the best way to go given Singapore’s limited resources.
Dr Goh Keng Swee at the opening of an army camp in JurongDr Goh Keng Swee seen here at the opening of an army Camp in Jurong back in 1966. In 1965, Goh was appointed the Minister of Defence and was handed the daunting task of building up the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) from scratch. This would lead to the introduction of the 1967 NS (Amendment) Bill that made National Service (NS) compulsory for all 18-year-old male Singapore citizens and permanent residents (c.1966. Image from National Archives of Singapore)

Goh was also visionary in his understanding for the need to nurture talent and technology in the military. In 1971, he helped lay the foundations for the DSO National Laboratories and introduced the SAF Overseas Scholarship (SAFOS) to groom top military talent in the same year.

Along the way, Goh also championed the establishment of numerous institutions, such as the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (1968), the Jurong Bird Park and the Singapore Zoological Gardens (1971, 1973) and in 1968, he even conceived the idea of turning the island of Pulau Blakang Mati, a former military base, into the tourist and leisure destination known today as Sentosa.
Dr Goh Keng Swee helped start the Singapore Zoological Gardens and Jurong Bird ParkBuilt in 1971 and 1973 respectively, the idea of the beloved Jurong Bird Park and Singapore Zoological Gardens were also initiatives spearheaded by Dr Goh Keng Swee. (c.1980s. Image from National Museum of Singapore)
Dr Goh Keng Swee's plans for SentosaThe idea behind turning the former military base on Pulau Blakang Mati into the tourist and leisure destination we know today as Sentosa was conceived by Dr Goh Keng Swee back in 1968. (c. Mid 1980s. Image from National Museum of Singapore)

As the Minister of Education in 1979, Goh introduced the influential ‘Goh Report’ that led to a major overhaul in primary and secondary schools across Singapore, most notable was the introduction of the streaming system that allowed student to learn at their own pace, and help arrest the high dropout rates that schools were facing.

As the chairman of the MAS in 1980, Goh placed a focus on promoting Singapore as an international financial centre, and made major amendments to the Banking Act, the Monetary Authority of Singapore Act and the Finance Companies Act in 1984.
Dr Goh Keng Swee at the first National Trade Union Congress conference in 1962National Trades Union Congress First Annual Delegates Conference 1962 - Delegates at the dinner reception, with Deputy Prime Minister Toh Chin Chye and Minister for Finance Goh Keng Swee seated at the table (c.1962. Image from National Archives of Singapore)

Dr Goh Keng Swee at a reception at the Istana in 1985By 1985, Dr Goh Keng Swee had retired from politics but remained the Deputy Chairman of the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS). Here he stands beside Lim Kim San (Chairman of Port of Singapore Authority) and Jek Yeun Thong (Member of Parliament – Queenstown) at a reception after the swearing-in ceremony of cabinet ministers in the Istana. (c.1985. Image from National Archives of Singapore)

Later Years
Goh was initially diagnosed with bladder cancer in September 1983 and stepped down from politics in 1984. A series of strokes in the late 1990s and early 2000s soon took a toll on his health, and he passed away on 14 May 2010.

In recognition of his outstanding contribution to the nation, Goh was awarded the prestigious Order of Temasek (First Class) in 1985. Over the years, numerous scholarships and foundations were made in his name, including the Goh Keng Swee Professorship and Master’s Scholarship in Economics, established by the National University of Singapore in 1996, and the Goh Keng Swee Foundation, setup in 2008 by his wife, Phua Swee Lian to help the disadvantaged.