From the archives: Goh Keng Swee’s legendary thriftiness

Extracts from Men In White: The Untold Story Of Singapore's Ruling Political Party

This article was first published in The Sunday Times print edition on Sept 6, 2009.

It was one of those sweltering days in May when the PAP candidate for Kreta Ayer and his canvassers went campaigning in the squatter slums and labyrinthine lanes of gu chia chwee ("bullock cart water" in Hokkien), the colloquial term for Chinatown.

Dripping in sweat and hoarse from making incessant pleas to residents to vote for the party, the group was relieved when Goh Keng Swee stopped by a sugar cane stall. As they huddled around the oasis expectantly, the former senior civil servant placed 10 cents, gulped down his drink and mumbled "I have paid for my drink. If you want to have a drink, go ahead", before walking away. They were stunned.

"We looked at him, the stallholder looked at us. We thought he would be giving all of us a drink." Chan Chee Seng, who accompanied Goh on his 1959 election rounds, was recounting yet another anecdote about the legendary thriftiness and frugality of Singapore's famed finance minister.

If that was not ample proof of Goh’s parsimony, Chan found it when he rode in his car, a rattling Vauxhall which had seen better days. It was with a gasp of disbelief when he realised that part of the vehicle’s floor panel had corroded to such an extent that "you could see right through to the road". "You see," he shook his head, "Goh did not even want to pay for a rubber mat to cover the gaping hole, let alone repair it!"

S R Nathan, who worked with Goh in the defence ministry in the 1970s, said that Goh was so averse to spending that whenever he travelled overseas he would carry soap flakes to wash his underwear in the hotel bathroom. Former diplomat Maurice Baker visited Goh in his hotel room during a trip one day and saw him drying his one and only piece of underwear on the heater.

To today's Singaporeans, these penny-pinching habits would seem ridiculous and laughable but they formed the hallmark of PAP's founding fathers. Thrift was their name. Nothing was more repulsive than waste and extravagance. "I can count the number of treats they gave me on my fingers," Chan reminisced with a grimace. "If a minister offered us a cup of coffee, it meant a cup. He would not offer another cup and we wouldn’t dare ask."

If you could not get a treat from them, it was even less likely you could get a loan. That Shakespearean maxim "Neither a borrower nor a lender be" would sum up their attitude towards money to a T. As an up-and-coming lawyer, Lee Kuan Yew would often receive an appeal for a loan and his Hamlet-like reply would be: "I am afraid I will not be able to make you a loan. It is against my principles to lend money to a friend because I have found from my personal experience that when I gain a debtor, I lose a friend."

On that sultry day in Kreta Ayer, Chan and fellow party members felt much disconcerted by Goh's close-fistedness. Now with the benefit of hindsight, Chan realised that it embodied the qualities that made the man such a great steward of Singapore's hard-earned finances. "He wasn't squeezing us. He just didn't want to squander money. Every cent counted. We were lucky we had ministers like Dr Goh. That's why Singapore could save a lot of money and become one of the most affluent countries in the world," ruminated Chan.

Toh Chin Chye was lost in thought on a drive around the city in 2003.

Many of the gleaming towering edifices were unrecognisable to him.

What on earth was that, he asked pointing suddenly to the spiky durian-shaped structure on Marina Bay. As the car cruised around the Rochor Road area where he used to be member of parliament, the sight of the teeming crowds at Bugis Village snapped him out of his reverie. "For what you have now, you’ve got to thank Dr Goh," he blurted out.