Dr Goh Keng Swee: The Anomie Within Us (from 1980)

Dr Goh Keng Swee, the nuts-and-bolts architect and builder of modern Singapore and much of its hallowed institutions, including the civil service, in a Straits Times article from 1980:


The Anomie Within Us
Dr Goh sees two ingredients that may spell trouble in the future
3 August 1980

The First Deputy Prime Minister, Dr Goh Keng Swee, last night warned of the “anomie” within Singapore society.

First, there is the threat from our learning of foreign languages like English at the expense of folk tongues.

Second, there is relentless pursuit of wealth, resulting in the abandoning of “accepted social norms of conduct such as honesty and moderation.”

This, if it becomes widespread, will endanger the health of society.

No more standards

“Anomie,” Dr Goh points out, is a word coined by sociologists to signify the “state of mind of one who has been pulled up from his moral roots, who has no longer any standards but only disconnected urges, who has no longer a sense of continuity, of folk, of obligation.”


He sees two ingredients for trouble in the future: One is the wholesale adoption of a foreign language and the other is the chase for money.

“What people are concerned about is whether future generations of Singaporeans will lose the traditional values of the Oriental cultures in which their forefathers were nutured.

“This fear is reinforced by the spectacle of Singaporeans who, in their quest for material success, become less and less aware of their responsibilities to their fellow citizens, and more and more concerned only with their immediate gains,” he said.
[Strange thing for him to say, as an economist who favoured the classicists, especially Ricardo.
Read: relative advantage.]

There are no easy answers to this dilemma, he said.


“Moral education in schools may help, but only up to a point, and only if it is properly done. What is obvious is that we must not abandon our cultural past.”

That, he said, was the real reason for enforcing bilingual education in schools.

The bilingual policy has placed a tremendous burden on children since most of them have to master two languages not always spoken at home, Dr Goh said, but efforts to rectify this are being made.


“It will not be long before English will emerge as the dominant language in Singapore, spoken not only by those in well-paid jobs, but by almost everybody…it is unlikely that this trend can be arrested.

“Thinking people are wondering what kind of society will emerge out of this linguistic trend.

“To my knowledge, there has been no example in history when a whole society voluntarily drops its various mother tongues to adopt a foreign language.

“Singapore’s experience is unique in the history of mankind. So we can only speculate about future consequences,” he said.
[True, it may be unique, but there have been national experiments/transformations in language+culture of rather more far-reaching consequences.
For example: Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s Kemalism in modern secular Turkey;
Japan’s Nihonjinron from its rather flimsy mythical beginnings, to their begrudged debt to Sinic imports of language+culture+religion from the 8th century, and in the modern era revisionism and literally ‘white-washing’ themselves into ex-Asians and attempts at ‘geo-cultural transplantation’ from the Meiji period on. At least the Koreans are honest about their cultural and language antecedents and influences even while attempting to produce their own independent script Hangul away from the Sinic-based Hanja, during the Joseon era.

But both Dr Goh and LKY understandably shared concerns that their ‘market-based’ push for the English language in Spore may result in an ‘anomic’ and discombobulated Man, a person disoriented and without a sense of self culture and history. I think they spoke of this fear elsewhere, describing it as the “Caribbean Englishman”.]



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