𝐈𝐧 𝐑𝐞𝐦𝐞𝐦𝐛𝐫𝐚𝐧𝐜𝐞 𝐨𝐟 𝐃𝐫 𝐆𝐨𝐡 𝐊𝐞𝐧𝐠 𝐒𝐰𝐞𝐞 𝐨𝐧 𝐭𝐡𝐞 𝐄𝐥𝐞𝐯𝐞𝐧𝐭𝐡 𝐀𝐧𝐧𝐢𝐯𝐞𝐫𝐬𝐚𝐫𝐲 𝐨𝐟 𝐇𝐢𝐬 𝐏𝐚𝐬𝐬𝐢𝐧𝐠
by Leong Mun Wai
I know Dr Goh when I was still a child by his Cantonese name (Ng Heng Shue) as the MP of Kreta Ayer, the constituency that Chinatown belonged to in those days. My father told me that he was a PhD in Economics and that sounded great to me although I did not know what economics was about and what this man was really doing for Singapore. However, my little brain has a good memory for storing vital information. So when I was choosing my subject combination for my pre-university (the old form of junior college) course in 1976, I promptly included economics as one of the subjects because I thought following Dr Goh cannot go wrong.
My respect for Dr Goh grew over the years as I matured from an economics student to a fund manager at GIC and then a senior financial executive at global investment banks. When I was an economics student in Tokyo, I was constantly asked by my Japanese schoolmates and friends about Singapore, so I started to read more. The more I read, the more I was inspired by Dr Goh as the tireless socio-economic architect of Singapore.
I was lucky to be able to see him in action when I joined GIC just a few months before his full retirement from public service, although I was not lucky enough to have the opportunity to work under him.
Such was my intriguing “relationship” with Dr Goh, just a little glimpse of him; yet there seems to be cosmic medium between us, for me to relate what I am doing on a small scale to the great work that he has done for Singapore.
My respect for Dr Goh grew even more when I took up a leadership role at one of our leading local stockbrokers. I had steered the stockbroking company through the Asian Currency Crisis, and then transformed it, first, by scale through mergers and acquisitions and second, by changing its business model, introducing online trading and wealth management to the remisier sales force that was resistant to change.
Through that six-year change management experience, I became enlightened by the secrets of Dr Goh’s leadership and management.
First a strategic mind and the guts to change the paradigm
Many corporate executives try to use the same old rule book. Hence the cliché, “if it ain’t broke, why change it”. However, when you want to climb to the next level of excellence, you must have the guts to venture into unchartered territory.
Dr Goh did that in 1961 when he pushed through the First State Development Plan (1961-65) in 1961. The total development amount was $871M. In keeping with his prudent financial management principles, $360M which was raised from the sale of state assets was used to build HDB flats and other social infrastructure; and $511M which was borrowed money was used to build Jurong Town and other economic infrastructure of an industrial estate because these are investments that will generate clear economic benefits.
As a breakthrough plan is often considered risky by conventional thinking and many public servants who do not want to move out of their comfort zone would resist it, Dr Goh’s plans were met with a host of resistance and skepticism.
However, despite being dubbed “Goh’s Folly” at the beginning, Jurong Town was established by 1968 when 150 factories successfully operated there. The rest was history.
Second, a set of strong values and principles
Dr Goh believed that the Government should nurture the private sector but never to lead it. According to him, “…..the free enterprise system, correctly nurtured and adroitly handled, can serve as a powerful and versatile instrument of economic growth. (However) One of the tragic illusions that many countries of the Third World entertain is the notion that politicians and civil servants can successfully perform entrepreneurial functions….” 1
Third, an inquisitive mind and common sense.
Dr Goh considered every issue and policy in detail from many angles but he ensured that the conclusions are rooted in common sense.
In a big GIC meeting with him, a Western expert had talked for an hour on how portfolio insurance techniques could be applied to the management of our sovereign assets before Dr Goh asked a simple common sense question, “Are you sure that the insurance mechanism still work when there is a systemic collapse” and that guy turned speechless.
Fourth, pay attention to details
Dr Goh was a diligent manager who paid attention to details. He does not micro-manage but check the progress of the various projects very closely. He believes in the management cliché, “whatever that is not checked, will not be done”.
This “attention to details” attitude will affect the quality of the people working with him too. If someone does not have the ability and attitude, he would not dare to join Dr Goh’s team. Hence Dr Goh always has the best and committed people around him.
Fifth, a continuous learning mindset
Dr Goh was reputed to be an avid and voracious reader.2 He would read good publications on many topics – world affairs, history, military technology, education, classical music and many others.
Every time he started on building one aspect of Singapore, and this stretches from finance, industrialization, banking system, SAF and national service, education, and GIC, to name the main ones, he would do a lot of learning on his own first. And after he has decided what to do, he will appoint suitable Singaporeans to head the initiative.
So what will Dr Goh think about the state of socio-economic affairs in Singapore today? From his leadership style and guiding principles and the many speeches that he had made, we can fathom the following…..
Firstly, he would not agree to having foreigners account to 40% of our total workforce and population
As early as 1972, he had said, “Last year, we had to import more than 40,000 workers from Malaysia. This year the figure is likely to be around 60,000. And we shall continue to need them if we continue to grow fast…. The question that we must answer sooner or later is this: ‘When do we stop growing?’…… Because of our limited land area, industrial expansion together with the concomitant population expansion with the import of foreign labour and new citizens, it will result in overcrowding to increasingly uncomfortable limits.”4
He even cautioned the tourist numbers. “…. can we keep on growing (tourist number) forever? …. sooner or later, as the Singaporean finds that he gets crowded out by overseas visitors in available places for recreation and relaxation, he will wonder whether all this is really a good bargain. What I am proposing is that we should look closely at the long-term problems which will arise from limitation of space, slow growth of population, and the requirements of our own citizens when they have to compete with the demands of the overseas visitors.”5
Secondly, he would focus more on the Singaporean Core.
He believes that, “We should not lose sight of the principal objective – that is, to ensure that our sole natural resource, productive labour by brain and brawn, is used to the maximum advantage.”6 Interestingly, he mentioned brawn also and I think it is equally good policy to attract some Singaporeans to be general construction workers provided they are paid well and have the opportunities to work their way up. This compares with the unhealthy situation now when we cannot close our borders to fend off the Covid-19 health risk because we are completely dependent on foreign work permit holders to do the construction work.
Third, he would be more supportive of an entrepreneur-driven economy.
“Dr Goh was a firm believer of the free enterprise system. That was why the Government did not manage the enterprises that it had co-invested in. Instead, he set up Temasek Holdings to take over the ownership and management of the Government start-up companies. According to Dr Goh, the Government as a policy maker, should not be shareholders of the companies it had initiated. Dr Goh’s view was that the Government should only provide the necessary support ….” 7
How I wish Dr Goh is still here to advise us on how to tackle the current problems of low productivity growth, dearth of innovation and entrepreneurship, struggling Temasek-linked companies, escalating healthcare costs and social inequality.
What will Dr Goh’s advice be on how to transform Singapore into a digital economy run by highly skilled, financially secured and motivated Singaporeans with the help of a much smaller pool of foreign talents.
However, I can also sense what he is going to say, “not to worry, you can do it because Kuan Yew and us have laid down a strong foundation for you, don’t squander the opportunities away by doing nothing or doing the same old thing over and over again.”
Dr Goh, we shall not fail you and you will forever be in the hearts and minds of Singaporeans.
For Country, for People.