Singapore Loses a Visionary
The death on May 14 of Goh Keng Swee is a reminder that of the original group behind the formation of the PAP and the independence movement in Singapore, only Lee Kuan Yew and Toh Chin Chye now survive and only Lee himself is still heard from. The death is a reminder that Lee Kuan Yew did not build Singapore by himself.
Gone are the likes of Lim Chin Siong, Devan Nair, Ong Eng Guan, S. Rajaratnam, all of whom played critical roles in the early years of the PAP and most as ministers in the 60s and 70s.
Of the group, only Goh was regarded as the intellectual equal, if not superior, to Lee. But as a civil servant before he became a politician, he had neither the skill nor the taste for Lee's brand of ruthless street politics. So it was his skills as an administrator and clear-headed thinker about economic development that he was to prove his worth forging new institutions and policies. Meanwhile, Lee kept command of the centre of power and the PAP.
Goh's work was the bedrock of the industrialization force-fed by a government facing the consequences of the withdrawal of Britain's military garrison, once a key part of the Singapore economy, and the rapid growth in the workforce due to a post 1945 surge in the birth rate.
Goh also played a key role as Defense minister in the creation of the Singapore Armed Forces and later still as education minister and deputy prime minister prior to the elevation of the then young Goh Chok Tong to that post in 1985. Although he remained on various boards and committees,
Goh was almost invisible for the past 25 years of his life so for most Singaporeans under 45 years of age his accomplishments are little known. Even less is known about his relationship with Lee, a man of very different character from the discreet, reserved Goh. Nor has Goh – as far as is known – written memoirs which would give his version of events between 1950 and 1980, the formative years of modern Singapore.
The Lee Kuan Yew version as related in his two volume biography may be factually accurate but obviously others, Singaporean and Malaysian, saw things from very different perspectives. But Lee still rules, the others are almost all gone.
Devan Nair became president before being publicly disgraced by Lee and exiled in 1985. He died in 2005. Toh Chin Chye, the same age as Lee and first chairman of the PAP left the cabinet in 1981 and after several years as a disgruntled backbencher retired from politics altogether in 1988.
Lim Chin Siong, the Chinese-educated workers' leader who founded the PAP with Lee, was detained as an alleged Communist (an allegation for which there was no evidence, according to British intelligence) from 1964 to 1969 before being forced to renounce politics. He was in exile in London for 10 years returning to Singapore 1979 and dying in 1996. One Eng Guan, another fiery Chinese-educated politician and mayor of Singapore, whom Lee only just beat in a party committee vote to become prime minister in 1959, formed another party after clashing with Lee and left politics in 1964 .
Those who stayed with Lee all through included Rajaratnam, who died in 2006, and important but lesser figures such as Lim Kim San, the force behind the Housing Development Board, who died in 2006, Hon Sui Sen, first head of the Economic Development Board and then Finance Minister who died in 1983, and Ong Pang Boon who was forced into retirement in 1984 at the early age of 55 .
As time as passed and these names have slipped into the dim distance the continued dominance of the Lee family in Singapore politics has tended to obscure the roles of other pioneers. In politics as in war, history is written by the victors. But as Stalin's ghost will have learned, history can also be re-written. So expect some future revision of Singapore history to make more mention of the above names.