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Passing the baton to the next generation. Are we ready? What can we learn from each of them?




Dr Toh Chin Chye

Less than six decades ago, the flag that flew over this nation was the British Union Jack. Today, it is the crescent and five stars. But if it weren’t for the late Dr Toh Chin Chye, the red-and-white symbols of Singapore may have taken a very different form.

The flag was unveiled on Dec 3, 1959, at the Padang. It was the result of a two-month design process involving Dr Toh and an artist from the then Ministry of Culture. Dr Toh took great care to ensure the flag was as inclusive as possible. In a 1995 interview with The New Paper, he explained that the crescent moon took into account Malay sentiments, since “there are also five stars on the flag of the People’s Republic of China”. There was also a need to “remove any apprehension that we were building a Chinese state”.

As for the choice of white, he meant for it to symbolise the unity of the different races since the seven colours of the rainbow, when mixed together, produce white. Fittingly, Dr Toh led the men in white and was the founding chairman of the People’s Action Party.

For 27 years, from 1954 to 1981, Dr Toh served as the party’s chairman. He steered the PAP through some of its darkest days, including a split in 1961 when the left-wing Barisan Sosialis was formed, the merger with Malaysia in 1963 and the subsequent painful separation in 1965.

After 22 years as a minister, he left the Cabinet in 1981 but continued to be a vocal backbencher.

“In this last term, I hope I will be of public service and not be a wallflower in the chamber of Parliament or a dumb cow,” he said before stepping down. He remained a Member of Parliament until 1988 and during this period, he spoke out against the Government on issues like Central Provident Fund payments, press freedom and killer litter.

He died in 2012 at the age of 90.

In essence, Dr Toh was with the PAP at the start, kept it together, served it faithfully, and then became its most outspoken internal critic.

Dr Toh was a man with humble beginnings – a hawker’s assistant in his teenage years. But his life was forever changed when he witnessed a starving man die before him.

“(The man) looked worn out. I saw him lie down. I thought he was taking a rest,” Dr Toh said. “The next thing, I saw flies buzzing around him. Well, it really struck me. He is a human being! How could we leave him to starve?”

That memory of the hardship ordinary people suffered during the Japanese Occupation lit an unquenchable fire in his belly. The hawker’s assistant eventually rose up the political ladder to become Deputy Prime Minister and a giant of Singapore’s history.

Dr Goh Keng Swee

He knew how to make cool things on the cheap. He liked the wildlife, music, creativity and courage. Dr Goh Keng Swee was one of Singapore’s first generation leaders who not only built the Silicon Valley of his time (Jurong Industrial Estate was unprecedented in the 1960s), but also brought an inventive spirit to problem-solving in Singapore and was ahead of his crowd.

How far ahead? So far ahead that he could have been a hipster who knew what was cool before it became cool.


Here are 7 “hipster” ideas he mooted

 1. The idea of letting Singaporeans get close to nature and wildlife. 

Dr Goh’s trip to a free-flight aviary in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1968, gave him the idea of setting up something similar in Singapore. He said a bird park will “add to the enjoyment of our citizens, especially our children”.

The western slope of Jurong Hill was chosen for the bird park, but why didn’t we build a zoo or any other attraction first? It was a matter of dollars and cents.

At the grand opening of the River Safari in February 2014, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said: “Soon after independence, Dr Goh Keng Swee felt that our families needed spaces to enjoy themselves amidst wildlife and nature. As a true economist, he started with a bird park because he said bird seeds cost much lesser than meat for lions and tigers!”

While Jurong Bird Park was being built, planning began on the Singapore Zoo. The zoo opened two years later, on 27 June 1973. While both attractions were built with Singaporeans in mind, they were later promoted as tourist attractions to develop the tourism industry.

2The idea of getting away from this island to…another island.

Dr Goh’s plans to grow the tourism industry also included a bold move to turn Pulau Blakang Mati, or “the island behind which death lurks” in Malay, into a holiday resort. In the late 1960s, the ominously-named island was home to SAF units like the 30th Combat Engineers Battalion and Bomb Disposal Unit. The first batch of recruits from the Singapore Navy trained there too.

But Dr Goh suggested that the island be developed into an attraction for both Singaporeans and tourists. The government went ahead with his suggestion, and the island was renamed “Sentosa”, or “peace and tranquillity” in Malay. Today, Sentosa may not be entirely peaceful and tranquil, but it is one of Singapore’s top tourist attractions.

3. The idea of letting our youths take to the sky.

As the Minister for Defence from 1965 to 1967 and 1970 to 1979, Dr Goh came up with different ways to build a credible defence force. With the British planning to withdraw all their troops by the mid-1970s, Dr Goh felt that air defence was a top priority. When the Singapore Air Defence Command (which would later become the Republic of Singapore Air Force) was set up in 1968, Dr Goh saw a need to recruit pilots who could defend our skies.

Instead of launching a recruitment drive, Dr Goh set up the Junior Flying Club in 1971 to promote flying among secondary school and tertiary students, and nurture potential pilots for the Air Force. Today, it is known as the Singapore Youth Flying Club (SYFC).

 4. The idea of letting our youths take to the sky, land and sea.

It was then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s idea to have a scholarship scheme for the SAF, but it was Dr Goh who turned this idea into reality, allowing young men and women to soar as soldiers, sailors and airmen.

According to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, within a month of Mr Lee’s suggestion in March 1971, MINDEF had already interviewed and selected candidates, offering them fully-sponsored education abroad. This scheme became known as the SAF Overseas Scholarship. In 1973, Dr Goh started a scheme called Project Wrangler to track and plan the careers of promising and capable scholars.

 5. The idea of letting people develop ideas for the SAF.

In the same year that Dr Goh set up the Junior Flying Club and worked on the SAF Overseas Scholarship scheme, he also thought about war. He felt that in the future, wars would be won by countries with the best defence technology. And because no country would sell its defence technology, Singapore had to develop its own.

In 1972, Dr Goh picked three officers to work secretly on electronic warfare, under a cover called “Electronic Test Centre” (ETC). Their office? The second floor of a former detention centre on Onraet Road. By 1976, the group of three had grown to 20, and the following year, ETC was renamed the Defence Science Organisation (DSO), but the public knew nothing about it until 1989.

While most of DSO’s work remains under wraps, some of their achievements have been made public over the years, like developing unmanned systems for land, air and sea. Check out this video of the Skyblade III Mini Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, which was jointly developed by DSO and ST Aerospace.

6. The idea of making Singaporeans more cultured.

 To Dr Goh, artistic development was as important as defence development, which led to the opening of the Japanese Gardens in February 1973. he said it was “a minor scandal” that Singapore did not have a symphony orchestra.

The then-Ministry of Culture followed up on this, and submitted a proposal to the Ministry of Finance to ask for funding. Their idea? To get overseas Singaporean musicians to come home and form the orchestra. But it was turned down by the Ministry of Finance in June 1973.

There was little progress on this until 1976, when Dr Goh quietly revived this project by working out how the symphony would be run and organised. He then got the Ministers of Culture, Finance, Education and Law on board, and submitted a joint paper to the Cabinet. This plan worked. The Singapore Symphonia Company was formed in 1978, and gave its first concert at the Singapore Conference Hall on 24 January 1979.

 7. The idea of legalising (gasp!) betting and gaming.

Even after retiring in 1984, Dr Goh continued to contribute ideas. Around 1986, Mr Lee Kuan Yew asked him to come out of retirement, and look into a possible problem at the Singapore Turf Club, which organised horse racing.

It was brought to Mr Lee’s attention that as a private club, it was possible for members of the Singapore Turf Club to dissolve the Club at any time and distribute the assets among themselves.

Dr Goh’s solution? Create a legal entity to oversee operations of the Singapore Turf Club and all aspects of legal lottery, like TOTO and Singapore Sweep. The Singapore Totalisator Board was established after the bill was passed by Parliament on 1 January 1988.

Besides overseeing the Singapore Turf Club’s operations, the Board would ensure that surplus funds are distributed in the interest of the general public, like education, healthcare and the performing arts. With this task completed, Dr Goh returned to retirement.

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