Pwee Foundation holds talk on Dr Goh Keng Swee

Submitted by Pwee Foundation for the talk held by the foundation on 20th April 2013


Last Saturday morning, the Pwee Foundation held one of its monthly in-house talks, titled ‘The Social Concern of Dr Goh Keng Swee, the civil servant and politician’.

Pwee foundation talk
The talk was by four guest speakers: Dr Goh’s daughter-in-law and biographer Ms Tan Siok Sun, former PAP cabinet minister for community development Dr Seet Ai Mee, NUS Social Work don Prof Ann Wee, and former Chief Minister David Marshall’s wife and former social worker Mrs Jean Marshall.

The closed-door, by-invitation-only, no-media event was attended by 40 people, consisting of finance and legal professionals, senior civil servants, heads of social services and social enterprises, architects and builders, and businessmen, all leaders in their own fields.

Ms Tan shared several photos and anecdotes highlighting key aspects of Dr Goh’s life: his childhood, his stint in the civil service, his time studying in London, and his entry into politics.

“Dr Goh came from a staunch Methodist background,” she said. “His uncle was a pastor. His father translated hymns into Malay.” She said this background influenced his later life, as he was committed to improving the lives of the common Singaporeans.

During his time as a tax collector in the War Tax Department, Ms Tan said, “He was a bad tax collector. His boss didn’t like him,” to much laughter. Later, after joining the Social Welfare Department, Dr Goh helped to set up ‘People’s Restaurants’, which were canteens where people could buy cheap meals during the working day.

“He was always involved in social work,” she added.

“He could have been an academic or stayed in the civil service,” Ms Tan said. “But he really cared for the people. As a politician, he made a difference.” Ms Tan showed a photo of Dr Goh in a Meet-the-People’s session: “These were the days when the people and the ministers were one. The ministers solved the people’s problems. He believed in using his brains for the betterment of the people.”

Dr Seet shared that Dr Goh was very frugal and counted every penny. Once, while head of the Food Standards Board, she learned how to make yoghurt, because he did not want to buy a yoghurt-making machine, which cost several hundred dollars.

Mrs Marshall shared that “Dr Goh and David [Marshall] showed an awareness of non-achievers in society. Dr Goh developed technical education for people who were valuable citizens, people who have potential for contributing to society.”

Prof Wee shared how, when a visiting guest commented on the increase in the number of motorcars in Singapore as an indicator of economic growth, Dr Goh had replied that he cared more about the increase in the number of motorcycles than motorcars, because motorcycles reflected the levelling-up of the common masses.

These personal stories led to a discussion by the audience of how Dr Goh would have responded to present-day challenges. They asked questions ranging from whether Dr Goh would have approved of the Integrated Resort or the latest workfare schemes, to the role of the private sector in helping the social sector, to the increase in social enterprises and social entrepreneurs.

When describing the present state of affairs in Singapore, a participant said, “In the last 10 to 15 years, the income growth of the lowest income segment experienced negative growth.” One participant from the social impact investing sector added “People have lost their connection. People [like Dr Goh] who came from humble beginnings knew what it was like being poor, and were connected to the ground. We need to think about how to incentivize people without inspiration to deploy resources to help people.”

An architect involved with ground-up initiatives, said, “People build to demand. We need to change what people want, to teach and educate them about responsible design and living sustainably. Then people will demand different things of their built environment.”

The discussion closed with comments from various speakers. Ms Tan provided the last word, about what Dr Goh her father-in-law said to her son: “It doesn’t matter what job you are doing. Give your employer your best, your employer will see value in you, and you will be of value to society. That’s all that matters.”

This talk and forum provided an opportunity for various stakeholders to meet and network, and to be inspired anew by our founding forefathers’ vision of Singapore. The Pwee Foundation has more talks scheduled over the following months, and hopes to bring together more people to discuss and discover better and more innovative ways to face Singapore’s unmet social needs.