From the archives: Goodbye Dr Goh - A man the nation is forever indebted to

Tributes flow at state funeral for one of Singapore’s founding fathers

This article was first published in The Straits Times print edition on May 24, 2010.

To the nation, Dr Goh Keng Swee was former deputy prime minister and a great thinker and visionary, a man of action, economic architect of Singapore.

To Goh Ken-Yi, 37, he was a doting Ah Kong, or grandfather, who told him bedtime stories – sometimes falling asleep before the young boy did.

“Being the spoilt child that I was, I would nudge him awake and he would always continue despite his own fatigue.

“I did not appreciate then, as I do now, that this was occurring at a time, during the mid-70s, when he was working tirelessly towards building some part of the nation that is the Singapore we know today and that I was selfishly depriving him of much needed weekend rest.”

In a moving tribute, Mr Goh shared stories of his time with Dr Goh, giving Singapore a glimpse into the family life of a man who always valued his privacy and despite his political career, shunned the spotlight. 

The image of Dr Goh as a selfless, humble man who gave of himself to family and nation and had a great sense of responsibility, is one he will share with his own three sons, said Ken-Yi, who studied engineering but became a banker.

His father Kian Chee, 66, was Dr Goh’s only son. 

Dr Goh died on May 14, aged 91, after years of ill health, during which he was nursed by his devoted widow Phua Swee Liang, 71. 

The younger Mr Goh’s loving tribute was among five eulogies delivered during the 90-minute state funeral for one of Singapore’s founding fathers. 

To Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, Dr Goh was an old friend he had known for 60 years and a doughty political comrade. As prime minister, he sent Dr Goh to helm the toughest ministries at the most critical time: first finance; then defence, when Singapore became independent in 1965; and in the late 1970s, education, to arrest the high dropout rates in schools.

“He was my trouble-shooter. I settled the political conditions so that his tough policies, which we together had formulated, could be executed,” said Mr Lee.

The older man who had once been Mr Lee’s tutor at Raffles College, was also Mr Lee’s intellectual foil who would challenge him on his ideas so that better decisions emerged for Singapore.

Said Mr Lee: “Of all my Cabinet colleagues, it was Goh Keng Swee who made the greatest difference to the outcome for Singapore.”

Holding his emotions in check, Mr Lee reminisced briefly on their early struggles for Singapore’s independence and against communist activists infiltrating the People’s Action Party (PAP) that both were instrumental in starting.

“In the middle of a crisis, his analysis was always sharp, with an academic detachment and objectivity that reassured me. His robust approach to problems encouraged me to press on against seemingly impossible odds.”

The arts-loving Dr Goh also persuaded his more prosaic political colleague to subsidise the construction of the birdpark, the zoo, the setting up of the symphony orchestra, the Chinese and Japanese gardens, and the setting aside of Sentosa as a recreational isle, to give Singaporeans “a feel for beauty and the arts”.

“With his passing, we have lost a remarkable and outstanding Singaporean,” said Mr Lee, in his first public remarks on his old friend’s passing.

Mr Lee was overseas in China and Japan when Dr Goh died and had asked that the state funeral be held, if possible, at a time he could attend. Mr Lee returned to Singapore on Saturday.

Speaking on behalf of the Government and Singaporeans, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong described Dr Goh as one of the “giants in our midst” – among those who turned the tide for Singapore and created a successful nation against the odds. 

PM Lee also shared moments of his time with Dr Goh and concluded: “Without him, much of today’s Singapore would not exist... Singapore is forever indebted to Dr Goh Keng Swee.” 

Temasek Holdings chairman S. Dhanabalan described Dr Goh as a visionary and “a man of action, with a great mind”. He had anecdotes to share of how Dr Goh intervened at judicious moments to give advice or influence young officers to take up public service.

After the eulogies, the flag was undraped from the casket, folded and presented together with Dr Goh’s medals to his widow by President SR Nathan.

The cortege left after the funeral for a private ceremony for family members at the Mandai Crematorium.

The solemn state funeral came after Dr Goh’s body had lain in state at Parliament from last Thursday. More than 18,000 people came over four days to pay their respects.

Yesterday morning, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, in Singapore for a two-day visit, also paid his respects with his wife Rosmah.

From Parliament, Dr Goh’s body was escorted on a gun carriage to the Singapore Conference Hall. The procession wound its way down streets Dr Goh would have pounded many times, like North Bridge Road and Shenton Way, and past buildings belonging to institutions like DBS Bank, which Dr Goh set up.

Hundreds of Singaporeans lined the streets to say a final goodbye. Cleaner Tan Kai Bang, 67, got a day off and travelled over an hour from Yishun to watch the cortege go by. She said: “It’s okay if I cannot attend the funeral, it is enough to say goodbye here.”

One student did get a chance to attend the state funeral. Chan Jia Le, 16, of Bukit Merah Secondary School, said: “One thing I learnt from Dr Goh is that I shouldn’t just dream, I should make the dream come true.” 

His dream? To be an air force pilot.

Speaking for her peers, Dr Goh’s grand-niece Marian Hui, 17, who was the youngest to deliver a eulogy at the state funeral, said: “On behalf of young Singaporeans, thank you for the selfless gift of yourself... as a founding father of our nation.”

Or as Dr Goh himself once told PAP MPs retiring in 1984 with him, in words a nation will now echo: “Thank you for your contributions. It has been greater than you imagine.”

muihoong@sph.com.sg