Monday, May 17, 2010

The late Dr. Goh Keng Swee and I (part 1)

No, I do not know the late Dr. Goh Keng Swee personally.

But after the past few day's stories and commentaries in the The Straits Times, I now have a deeper appreciation of just how much his vision and work has influence my life. Dare I say, a stronger connection to him than before.

Goh Keng Swee
NLB Call No. 959.5704092 TAN (SINGAPORE Collection)

Initially, what I did know of Dr. Goh was from The Singapore Story: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew. From the book, it was clear that Dr. Goh was one of the Old Guards, who were the architects of post-Independence Singapore.

The connection went as far as that, however. He was of an earlier generation of leaders, from a time before I was born. And when I was mature enough to know who he was, he was someone far beyond my ken. I could not really relate to Dr. Goh, the man, and did not think I ever will.

But maybe time, and biological age, has a way of making one see links that were previously beneath one's consciousness.

Of the many ministerial portfolios undertaken by the late Dr. Goh, two things stood out for me now: Education and Defence.

Here's part 1, about Education. Specifically, I'll talk about the now defunct Religious Knowledge curriculum that Dr. Goh introduced in the early '80s.

From The Straits Times, Saturday Special Report, May 15, 2010. "Shaking up the Education Ministry" by Susan Long & Ho Ai Li:
(Dr. Goh Keng Swee) long believed that religion was a systematic way to inculcate values, temper Singaporeans' individualism and build social cohesion. In 1982, he introduced religious knowledge to the secondary school curriculum, in spite of widespread reservations that this would lead to overzealous proselytising.

But barely seven years after Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Confucian ethics classes were offered, they were phased out because of a 'heightened consciousness of religious differences and a new fervour in the propagation of religious beliefs'.

...'The rationale to develop the student's character was good, but implementation was difficult. Since then, the MOE has never brought up religious education again.'

They still had Religious Studies when I was in Secondary school, which was about two decades ago. It was only now that I'm making the connection that what I went through in school arose from the late Dr. Goh's policy.

I remembered having to choose a 'religion', so to speak. I did not have a religion then (I still don't have one now).

Students could opt for "Buddhist Studies", "Bible Studies", "Confucian Ethics", "Islamic Religious Knowledge", and "Sikh Studies". I chose Buddhist Studies because it was the closest religion I had been exposed to as a child (my grandmother was Buddhist).

From my classes, I learned of the origins of Buddhism. I remember being struck by the very profound and simple observation that "Life is Suffering", meaning: life and suffering is very much intertwined.

My young and impressionable mind was also introduced to concepts like "cause and effect", "mindfulness", "compassion" and how desire was often the root cause of greed, anger, and suffering.

When I learned of something called the Five Precepts, I remember thinking they sounded rather similar to what I vaguely knew of Christianity's Ten Commandments (e.g. "thou shall not kill", "thou shall not commit adultery").

MOE decided to terminate the Religious Knowledge curriculum. The failure was in the implementation, as reported.
The programme proved divisive because students studied only one of the religions. Some quarters felt the teachers were not adequately trained, while others used the classes to promote their faiths.
Source: Fri, Sep 18, 2009. "Best not to bring back religious classes in schools" by Tan Hui Yee". The Straits Times.

There were problems, for sure. Even back then, when I wasn't too aware of what was happening or the intent of the classes, it was clear to me that religious lines became more apparent.

My peers who were Christian/ Muslims/ Taoists/ Hindus took up classes that were closest to their religion of their upbringing. Come Religious Studies period, the 40 plus students in each class would break out to different classes, to attend their respective religious studies class.

Now that I have two decades of hindsight, what do I think of this the late Dr. Goh's "Religious Knowledge in Secondary Schools" policy?

I think he was right.

Let me put in more specific terms: Dr. Goh's vision IS still a right one. Its implementation might not have been perfect, but I can attest to positive outcomes for myself.

Till today, I remain a Free-thinker. Admittedly, I'm partial to some Buddhist philosophies. But that does not make me a Buddhist any more than believing in the "Thou shall not kill" commandment would make me a Christian.

My Religious Studies class teacher wasn't a Buddhist either, as I remembered. It might seem that the non-partisan educator is the key to making Religious Studies work.

I did not have less friends or make enemies because they were of different religions and chose different Religious Studies classes. We accepted that we had different paths to take -- and come to think of it, all positive religions preached the same positive values anyway.

While I hated the need to regurgitate and exhorts by my teacher to memorise the Five Precepts, thanks to my Buddhist Studies classes I dare say I am who I am because of those foundation years. I was made more aware of positive values of being a good person.

Perhaps MOE should re-consider and revisit the late Dr. Goh's vision of religious knowledge in schools. I'm not the first to make a similar call either (see section on "Religious Knowledge"; MOE's parliamentary replies, 9 Mar 2005).

Mind you, it's "knowledge" and not "indoctrination".

Rather than let students choose their particular religious topic, there should only be one common curriculum, comprising of the major religions in Singapore. An "Inter-Religious Knowledge Studies" curriculum. Again, emphasis on "knowledge" and not "indoctrination".

We already have the Inter-Religious Organisation, Singapore (IRO). A "Inter-Religious Knowledge Studies" curriculum would aim to promote mutual respect, understanding and exposure of ideas to the different faiths. All students would learn of what the major religions in Singapore represent, perhaps clarifying certain misconceptions in the process.

Yes, it will be a ultra-sensitive topic to introduce in schools. Carry it out badly and we will scar entire generations. Still, the same could be said about education as a whole, right?

Now if done well (and we Singaporeans have a track record for doing things well too), it will mean a generation who goes beyond "religious tolerance" to "religious understanding and acceptance.

To the late Dr. Goh, I thank you.

Particularly for introducing Religious Knowledge when I was in Secondary School.

I may not be the best person that I can be now (it's my excuse for being human). But I am certainly mindful about a lot of things -- particularly about being human.

[Next: Part 2 - Dr. Goh and National Service]


  1. Thanks for sharing, Ivan. KE was removed from the syllabus before I got to secondary school.

    Perhaps they should bring back the subject, but as Comparative Religion. We should celebrate the similarities and understand the differences.

  2. It was thanks to your prompting that I thought about my personal connection with the late Dr. Goh Keng Swee (albeit an indirect one). Yeah, that's the point I was trying to make. I wouldn't call it "comparative religion" since the word "comparison" inevitably implies "which one is better" (human nature!) Perhaps "Religious Understanding Classes"? Cheesy, I know. But more accurate.

  3. Dear Ivan, that was an interesting post. Made me think about asking my parents about their religious class experiences.

    I actually chanced upon your blog because i had google alerts for "interreligious".

    I'm working for an NGO called Religions for Peace ( and we're having a campaign, a signature petition called the Arms Down! campaign ( which calls for all governments to divert 10% of military spending towards development goals.

    Was wondering if you could help by writing an article about defense spending in Singapore and the region, and asking your readers who support this cause to sign the online petition. Please contact me at if you're interested.
    Many thanks.

    Louisa Zhang

  4. Hi Louisa, thanks for the invite to write but I shall have to pass. Thanks for reading and commenting. Cheers.


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