Letters from Grandpa: Goh Kian Chee – What Gives Us Inner Calm & Fortitude

Goh Kian Chee, aged 63, is now retired and enjoys leisurely tennis and golf. He had a varied career, serving in the Administrative Service, as a journalist, and setting up a stock broking firm. He has three grandsons aged one to five.

My dear Ethan, Sean and Julien,

tree8All of us come from a very special family in Singapore. Much of what ordinary citizens take for granted in our country’s success is due in no small measure to one man – your great grandfather, Goh Keng Swee. He was born to middle-class parents in Malacca, in 1918, the son of a rubber estate employee. He grew up to be a brilliant scholar in economics, first at Raffles College and later at the London School of Economics. He was a problem-solver and strategic thinker par excellence. His guiding philosophy was to do something good to help people improve their lives.

In the 1950’s he joined the fight for political freedom in Singapore and Malaya together with a group of tough-minded politicians led by Lee Kuan Yew.  The People’s Action Party (PAP) swept to electoral victory in June 1959. Goh Keng Swee became self-governing Singapore’s first Finance Minister.

On so many fronts, your great grandfather contributed enormously to the nation’s development, perhaps much more than is widely recognized today. When Singapore became independent in 1965, he was the chief architect of our armed forces and defence policy. He was as conversant with Clausewitz and Thucydides (of The Pelopenesian Wars) as with Sun Tzu and Mao’s doctrines of guerilla war.  The foundations of Singapore’s security were firmly established by him and a team of dedicated civil servants.

If there is one thing I have learnt from his years of holding high office, it is that he never abused his power or authority, and never compromised his integrity for private gain or advantage. Niccolo Machiavelli, an Italian thinker and writer in the 16th Century, advised that it was better to be feared than to be loved. Although your great grandfather clearly understood what Machiavelli meant, he never wanted power for himself. Nor had he sought power by pandering to popular options or by trying to instill dread in the populace. His grasp of the mechanics and basis of power meant he could operate well within the modern cabinet system and was very prepared to relinquish whatever power he shared in the PAP hierarchy when it was time to do so. And in wielding power when he was in office, he was fearless in doing what he saw was right.

What Goh Keng Swee did for Singapore made him a towering figure. That is why we have to remember our special heritage, to be proud of it, but yet humbled by it.

I now want to focus on my own experiences. You may perhaps draw lessons from them for yourselves.

When my parents went abroad to England to study, I was left in the care of relatives.  As a young boy, I was sickly and asthmatic. In primary school, I virtually made no friends, as I shunted from school to school, following my aunts who were then teachers. The person I related very comfortably to was my grandfather, Goh Leng Inn, who taught me chess.

I was growing up quite a lonely soul. I developed an independent streak, perhaps ahead of others my age. When I was 10, I had to go the dentist. At Lim Eng Bee’s clinic in Hill Street, he was doing things I didn’t like. I bit him. First he pleaded with me to let go. I didn’t. He bled profusely and started getting angry. I continued to bite, very hard now. He jabbed me with a needle with his free hand and I passed out. So, when you are trying to be strong-minded, you must be very sure you are doing the right thing.

Secondary school at Raffles Institution turned out to be a better experience.  I began to make firm friends, and became more socially adept, going to the Capitol cinema, playing badminton and later billiards at the Singapore Recreation Club. I learnt how to work together with others as a team, and to organise and manage with some degree of competence.

To me, my tale isn’t just one filled with some sound and a little fury. With you around, life takes on a new significance, and added happiness. As you grow older, you will learn that the most important things are not academic or career success, not material wealth, perhaps not even good health, important though they all are. What will give us inner calm and fortitude are the abiding values we grow up to have, of love, friendship and the decency of the human spirit in a world where people will trust and respect each other. If we cannot bond together as a community, wherever we may be, then we condemn ourselves to a Hobbsian hell, where life is nasty, brutish and short.

Your loving grandfather.


This letter is republished with permission from the National Library Board. Letters From Grandma and Grandpa (2008) is an initiative to create opportunities for youth and seniors to strengthen ties, enhance understanding and appreciate each other. Singapore grandpas and grandmas share their stories from the past, their hopes for the future, their love from their hearts, and their values for the soul. The letters capture their thoughts and feelings on important values, such as family and heritage, respect for the elders, generosity, love, courage and responsibility.


First published on 14-02-2011.

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