Wednesday, October 10, 2012

In Lieu of Ideology: An intellectual Biography of Goh Keng Swee

This in a sense is a very different book about someone famous. It is not written like a biography but seeks to interpret the key character through the many speeches and articles that the key character has written - often lifting portions of the text. It is a bit heavy reading like an academic paper. 

A things struck me in this book:

1. As a boy, Goh Keng Swee was already determined to be useful with his life, as one may read here:

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2. He had a disgust for academics who stay within their ivory towers and idealists who proclaim lofty principles. He believed in getting things done and rejected dogma that does not work.  As the man puts it:

Why is fashionable in the west is not necessarily good for Singapore need to distinguish the peripheral from fundamental , transient fads from permanent values.

It helped that he lead an social survey to the actual living conditions of Singaporeans when he was a researcher and that provided him with lots of on the ground information of the actual state of the population. 

1953- 1954 survey showed that the half the the wage earners in the destitute household actually worked full time -  they were just not paid enough.   His survey that showed that the poor were working hard but just that they are not fairly compensated, similar findings as that of Mohammed Yunus. 

3. I knew that Dr Goh was responsible for many important sectors in Singapore such as Jurong Industrial Estate (Goh's Folly) , defence and even the education sector review, but I didn't know that he also started the DSO and the Singapore Symphony as well.  Include in Jurong Bird Park and you have one man with multifaceted interets. 

Let us end with this section of a speech by Dr Goh at a Seminar on modernisation in Southeast Asia  (1971):

Many of the ex colonial countries wanted offset the inherited imbalance where the colonies supplied the raw materials and acted as the market for finished goods, import substitution was hence the path chosen for development.   It appeased demands for genuine national independance and made economic sense to the national economists.

However, it did not work because import substitution required heavy investments in machinery and equipment that came from overseas. Second, local demand for import-substituting goods were low. In order to right this weakness, governments had to protect certain firms through tariffs or monopolies. This resulted in producing local goods that were more expensive than the earlier imported versions. 

Success in business in such milleu would depends on getting permits and licenses instead of more efficient production method, paving the way for more corruption. The government became the sole arbirtator of what can be imported, how much to import and who can import them.  This endowed government with powers of patronage immeasurably greater than as appropriate.

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