Goh Keng Swee

Singapore's astute planner, who led his people to achieve the dream of highly progressive city-state, a model for the Southeast Asian region
  • As Minister of Finance, GOH pursued the dreams of the People's Action Party (PAP) by applying austere economics including salary cuts for all government officials. This achieved a balanced budget within his first year. The savings provided funds to start a massive public housing, expansion of education, construction of community centers, and the spurring of industrialization by the new Economic Development Board.
  • In the mid-1960s, as Singapore was precariously separated from the Federation of Malaysia, GOH worked with young government technocrats in realizing the dream of an industrialized, trading city-state. Jurong Town Corporation, a 17,000-acre reclamation area had a deep water port and town pier, and supporting infrastructure for the rapidly rising factories and apartments complete with recreation areas.
  • Singapore achieved full employment and over one billion U.S. dollars in foreign reserves from an economy that exported high value products to Europe and Japan; saw large-scale poultry and swine growing; and the refitting of the world's supertankers in its ports.
  • The RMAF board of trustees recognizes him as chief economic architect in transforming Singapore during the 1960s into Southeast Asia's most industrially and socially vibrant state, where all benefit from prosperity.

Most of Asia’s democratically oriented countries are burdened with values borrowed from affluent societies in the West and Japan. Concerned with liberty, they also emphasize egalitarianism and welfare state concepts. Yet at this stage these developing countries usually lack adequate economic productivity to afford such programs. Recognizing this quandary, GOH KENG SWEE treats with iconoclastic courage and skepticism “all books on economics published since World War II.” Instead, he emphasizes that in developing countries no amount of foreign loans can compensate for cultivation of those virtues propounded by that 19th century Scottish essayist, Samuel Smiles: “thrift, industry, ambition, honesty, perseverance….”

The thinker who helped Singapore’s Peoples Action Party (PAP) make of these hard necessities a compelling political program was born 54 years ago in Malacca. A career civil servant for much of two decades, he also took time out to earn a doctorate at the London School of Economics. In 1958 he resigned from government service to join in building the PAP. The next year, when the PAP won the general election and control of the Singapore Government, GOH was elected a member of parliament and named Minister of Finance.

As keeper of the public purse, GOH’s task was unenviable; government finances were in a sorry state, reflecting dwindling trade and rising unemployment. By austere economics, including salary cuts for ministers and civil servants alike, he balanced the budget within the first year. From such savings were mustered funds to initiate, in 1960, Singapore’s massive public housing, expansion of education, construction of community centers and the start of the industrialization spurred by the new Economic Development Board.

Despite such dedicated leadership, Singapore’s survival was repeatedly threatened. Local leftists collaborated with Indonesia’s late President Sukarno in his konfrontasi to sabotage and militarily destroy the Federation of Malaysia that Singapore joined in founding in 1963. Separation from the Federation in 1965 left Singapore precariously isolated; a vulnerability compounded by the drastic reduction in Britain’s defense forces and expenditures “east of Suez.”

Throughout these vicissitudes, GOH, alternately Defense and Finance Minister, worked with rising young, government technocrats to realize the national dream of an industrialized, trading city-state. Jurong Town Corporation symbolizes this new Singapore. Covering 17,000 acres, it is being reclaimed from mangrove swamp, hills and prawn ponds. Already completed are a deepwater port and town pier, a railway, and roads and services—including water, drainage and electricity—for the rapidly rising factories and apartments. Also included are a 50-acre bird park, a town center with a 700-acre recreation area containing Chinese and Japanese gardens of world class, restaurants and other popular attractions.

With full employment and over one billion U.S. dollars in foreign reserves, Singapore’s economy continues to burgeon. Orchids and ornamental fish are airfreighted to Europe and Japan, large-scale poultry and swine growing now are complemented by hydroponic gardening, while the world’s supertankers are refitted nearby and industrial exports become more sophisticated. All are visible proof of a philosopher-official’s sound planning.

In electing GOH KENG SWEE to receive the 1972 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Government Service, the Board of Trustees recognizes him as chief economic architect in transforming Singapore during the 1960s into Southeast Asia’s most industrially and socially vibrant state, where all benefit from prosperity.

There is reputed to be an old and wise Chinese proverb which says, “we cannot help the birds of sadness flying over our heads, but we need not let them build their nests in our hair.” Tender and subtle as the saying may be, its message is clear and relevant. It calls upon us to ensure that our minds are not submerged in pessimism in the face of the arduous task of development. At the same time it acts as a little expression of hope that we must carry with us as we pace our way through what Professor Gunnar Myrdal has aptly called “the Asian Drama.”

The hope that we carry with us must, however, be based on a solid commitment—a commitment to build a just, equal and prosperous society for all of us. It has been my belief that there are no easy solutions to the numerous problems that all of us encounter in the developing world. As I have said on previous occasions, and as the Board of Trustees of this Award have kindly reminded me, the virtues that we need to cultivate in ourselves are the simple virtues propounded by the 19th century Scottish essayist, Samuel Smiles: “thrift, industry, ambition, honesty and perseverance.” Simple as they may be, they can form the bedrock for a consolidated national effort. I hope that I am not being too bold if I say that Ramon Magsaysay’s life in many ways portrayed these simple and yet enduring qualities.

Carlos P. Romulo, in his inspiring biography of Ramon Magsaysay, said that from his village Magsaysay carried his native earthiness, deep-seated honesty, capacity for hard work, and disarmingly naive sense of country humor into the highest office of the land. Out of these simple qualities Ramon Magsaysay created a life of dedication and devotion to the task of nation-building that will long be a rich source of inspiration for many of us in Asia. To receive an award in the name of such a man is indeed a great honor.

In all fairness I must share this honor with colleagues of mine, all of whom have tried to encourage and emulate the qualities of dedication and devotion that Ramon Magsaysay has inspired.

The Ramon Magsaysay Award will also undoubtedly spur all of us in Singapore toward our aim of bringing about a more just and equal society, wherein every citizen will have the right to live in liberty and happiness and be given equal opportunities and education for a better life. The recipients of the Ramon Magsaysay Award over the last 14 years have come from various parts of Asia and the world.

The Award weaves a common theme into the various endeavors of government and community leaders, teachers and social workers, journalists and artists, all of whom are striving in their own way to make this world a better place to live in. By spreading the name and spirit of Ramon Magsaysay over the world, the Board of Trustees is making a valuable contribution to understanding between nations of Southeast Asia.

It is my hope that the Award will continue to symbolize the ideals that Ramon Magsaysay exemplified and act as a beacon of hope for the developing world as well as promote a spirit of international understanding.