News Reports

FOR CIRCULATION from today: The George E Bogaars story

I generally do not like writing “long’’ stories. I am a deadline journalist. I prefer to collect information quickly and produce a fast-paced article in as short a time as possible. So I had to be arm-twisted to write Not for Circulation: The George E Bogaars Story. 

Late last year, a very determined and pugnacious Herman Hochstadt wrote to almost every one of my academic superiors to demand/request/suggest that I be allowed time off to write the book – and that was even before I said yes. The former top civil servant even tried to invoke our shared heritage as Eurasians. Surely, as a member of the community, I would be remiss – or downright irresponsible – to not take up the offer to write about such an illustrious fellow Eurasian? 

I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I have never really considered myself a “typical’’ Eurasian; my mother is a Straits-born Chinese. I also balked at the tight deadline. It was already December and I had to produce a book manuscript about a man whom I knew nothing about in six months so that the publishers, NUS Press, could get it into the bookstores by October 25, the 95th birth anniversary of the late Mr Bogaars. That’s today, by the way.

Mr Hochstadt, who has published his own memoirs, life and times of hrh, berated me for having qualms about meeting the deadline. He was also miffed that I knew nothing of the Bogaars name – former Head of Civil Service, former head of Special Branch during the Malaya days, former permanent secretary for defence, foreign affairs and finance, former Keppel chairman… 

But when did he die, I asked timidly? 

The answer? 1992.

 

I am no spring chicken but I can be forgiven, I think, for not knowing anything about this person whom Mr Hochstadt and a bunch of retired civil servants had reported to while they were in their prime. He was their GEB – Greatest Ever Boss.  They would be paying for the book.

I said okay, while wondering if there was really enough information about him stored anywhere, or whether he still had contemporaries who could talk about him. 

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A few key points about the man which made me say okay : He was the head of the Special Branch which conducted the now-infamous Operation ColdStore of 1963 which rounded up the pro-communists. He was in charge of internal security during the tumultuous communal riots of the 60s. He helped the late Goh Keng Swee start the Singapore Armed Forces from scratch. He was one of a handful of Singaporeans whose work straddled the colonial days, the Malaysia days and the newly independent Singapore. While the politicians took the front stage, he was a key backstage hand. 

I wanted to call the book, Looming Large in the Shadows, because he was this shadowy person who acted like the politicians’ consigliere in those early days, passing on and analysing information he collected to guide their actions. Yet, unlike a consigliere, he didn’t take part in their politics, preferring to focus on national priorities like security and economic development. He thought politics was “an unsavoury business’’. He hovered on the edges of memoirs of Singapore’s great and good, meriting a mention here and there. Even so, it was clear that even among them, he commanded a great deal of respect and induced awe. In the bureaucracy, dropping his name was enough to get things moving. 

So, what was he like as a spymaster, a civil servant and corporate chieftain? 

Save for his teenage days as a resident of the Bahau settlement in Negri Sembilan in Malaysia during the Japanese Occupation, much of his own oral recordings in the National Archives are “closed’’ to the public and not for circulation. The NUS Libraries, however, did a brilliant job of unearthing documents from the foriegn archives, particularly the British, which told a story of tense meetings to discuss the internal security situation in the 60s. The People’s Action Party leaders, Malaysia’s premier Tunku Abdul Rahman and his lieutenants, and the British overlords were at odds over so many security details which were influenced by their own political considerations. Mr Bogaars seemed at times forced into a corner to give a “professional opinion’’.  

Then there were documents recounting the wrangling between Singapore and Malaysia in the immediate aftermath of the 1965 separation. They had mainly to do with how much “sovereignty’’ Singapore should have, in terms of taking care of its own defence needs, for example, or pursuing its own economic development path. For me, they made real the oft-heard phrase about Singapore’s “birth-pangs’’ – like how difficult it was to get the Malaysian military off Singapore land and doing business with Indonesians without Malaysian interference.

If there is a lacuna in our teaching of Singapore history, it is this Merdeka period which plunged us into such economic, social and political chaos. My undergraduate students tell me that there is little emphasis on Singapore history in their school civics or social studies curriculum. For that, they have to read memoirs of politicians, which can be self-serving or politically motivated, or books produced by companies and institutions which would always put a good spin on how they developed. 

It is not enough to celebrate that we have gone from Third World to First in material terms. But that we did so despite the odds. The oft-heard “vulnerability’’ narrative about Singapore would have much greater resonance today if more were apprised of the specific facts of history. How, for example, were young men persuaded to join a conscription army in 1966 or how did Singapore manage to turn the departure of the British in 1971 into an economic advantage?    

Back to Mr Bogaars. 

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While he kept a stiff upper lip on his spymaster past, he wasn’t averse to speaking up post-independence, especially about the running of the civil service and his expectations of civil servants. He lamented that the younger civil servants in those days were more concerned about policy implementation, rather than coming up with policy options for their political masters to consider. 

He had a personality which made fans of his subordinates, but not so much among his contemporaries. He had a sharp wit and a way with words which he used to devastating effect, especially when he had to assess calls on the public purse while he was in the Finance ministry. 

Here’s one example from the days when pigs were being reared in Singapore. The then Primary Production Department asked for money to conduct research on what to do with the waste which pigs produce. He said that the agency got its research priority wrong – it should breed constipated pigs. That was just one of several jocular examples which his ex-subordinates could still recall. But in the main, he was tough, assessing every need for money. Before he retired, he changed the budgeting process to include key performance indicators to be attached to requests for funds. One ministry declined to make this change, requiring the Cabinet to step in. 

The baby boomers would know him better as the non-executive chairman of Keppel Shipyard, a powerful player in the corporate world. Mr Bogaars sat on the boards of at least 10 government-linked companies during his civil service sojourn.  Even though he retired from the civil service at age 55 in 1981, he was still steering Keppel. Under his stewardship, it decided to branch into other areas besides ship repair. It made what was then known as a “bad buy’’, Straits Steamship, which depleted its coffers greatly.

For Keppel, the attraction was the company’s property holdings rather than its marine business which it believed would round up its portfolio and make good returns in the long-run. But the corporate world panned it and Mr Bogaars was replaced in 1984 by another civil service hot shot – Mr Sim Kee Boon. 

He had effectively been put out to pasture. It did not help that in the next two years, he had three strokes in quick succession which landed him in hospital for more than a year, confined him in a wheelchair and affected his speech. He wasn’t even 60. He was then a divorcee living alone. His three children were abroad most of the time, for study or for work.

The chapter on the last 10 years of his life was the most difficult to write. People who spoke about this period could not help shedding tears when they recalled how the big bluff man who played tennis in the mornings, liked exotic cars and collected clocks became a pale shadow of himself, staying in a ground floor apartment and looked after by a Filippina maid. 

A few admitted that they couldn’t bear visiting him while he was in such straits. This wasn’t because Mr Bogaars elicited any sympathy. His children told of how he taught himself to write with his left hand when his right hand failed him, and how he would always accommodate visitors. A few friends rallied around him. They supplemented his pension – which was paltry in those days. They took him out for drives, brought him snacks to eat and kept him up-to-date with the news. His correspondence with his children (using his left hand or a typewriter) revealed a man determined to overcome his disabilities. 

I have no regrets writing this particular long story. I was filled with admiration for Mr Bogaars and the conviction of pioneering civil servants who simply charged ahead, took risks and found creative ways to solve problems which would have confounded others. Like the first-generation politicians, they were a breed apart. 

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Mr Bogaars didn’t have quite the fairy-tale ending of retired senior civil servants, ensconced in big homes with directorships in companies.  But his life was a rich tapestry to behold. Although he had moved out of the public eye and into the great beyond,  he remained in the hearts of the people he touched. Like those who commissioned the book. In fact, the book’s prime movers were very much like him; they wouldn’t take no for an answer. 

So, yes, buy the book and get to know this man. 

Further reading

© 2022 Bertha Henson

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