What I wished my grandfather had said to me
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What I wished my grandfather had said to me

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Yesterday was the state funeral of Dr Goh Keng Swee, the former deputy prime minister of Singapore. I never knew him or met him – he retired from politics in 1984, before I moved to Singapore – but I wish I had

That’s the feeling I got from reading all that’s been written about him as well as what I have been hearing about him in the past week after he passed away on May 14 at the age of 91. 

I know it’s got nothing to do with travel and tourism or technology or the Internet, but it’s got everything to do with life and work.

It’s amazing how many lives he touched personally, even in the circle of someone like me who was not born in Singapore.

My brother, who was in the Singapore Air Force when Dr Goh was in charge of defence, took time off to watch the state funeral. He recalls a tough but humble man.

Over lunch yesterday, I was with Singaporean friends in their 40s who said they didn’t know how much he was responsible for.

Over breakfast this morning, an Israeli businessman, Avi Liran, who met Dr Goh, told me there were crucial lessons Israel could learn from Dr Goh – “how to be more humble, for one.”

I think politicians everywhere could learn from Dr Goh. 

Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, in his eulogy, said that of all his Cabinet colleagues, Dr Goh made the greatest difference to the outcome of Singapore.

He was given the toughest jobs in government: the Ministry of Finance from 1959 to 1965 when economic survival was critical; Ministry of Defence in 1965 at the most vulnerable point in Singapore’s history; and back to the Ministry of Finance in 1967 when the British withdrew their armed forces and took with them 20 percent of Singapore’s GDP.

He was responsible for many of Singapore’s institutions – the Air Force, Singapore Technologies Group, National University of Singapore, Monetary Authority of Singapore, Economic Development Board and so on …

Beyond these, he wanted Singaporeans to have a feel for beauty and the arts and so persuaded Mr Lee to subsidise things like the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, Singapore Zoological Gardens, Jurong BirdPark, Sentosa, the Chinese Garden and the Japanese Garden.

“He lived a simple and frugal life and managed Singapore’s assets in the same way, avoiding waste and maximizing value for money. His prudence built up Singapore’s reserves,” said Mr Lee in his eulogy.

The eulogy that moved me most was that delivered by his first grandson, Goh Ken-Yi, the son of Jennie Chua, who was married to Dr Goh’s only son, Goh Kian Chee.

As he was about to begin his career in the investment industry, Ken-Yi was called in for a meeting with grand-dad. He braced himself for a long explanation as to why he had taken an engineering degree and instead of minoring in economics as had been advised, had spent an extra year acquiring a second degree in literature.

In the middle of his explanation, his grandfather stopped him and said, “Ken-Yi, all this doesn’t matter. In working life, first and foremost, what you need to be is a reliable and responsible person. At first, you may be given some tasks to complete; later in your career, you will be setting these tasks yourself as you rise through management. Whichever the case, you must always be a person others can count on to do a good job, whether the end result is successful or not.”

I never knew both my grandfathers. They died in China long before I was even an idea. But if I had, these would be the words I wished they had spoken to me, when I was starting out in my career.

So for all those who didn’t have grandfathers to share words of wisdom with us, heed Dr Goh’s and learn from a great man whom I wished I had known.