Goh Hood Keng
by Sutherland, Duncan
Goh Hood Keng (b. 27 February 1888, Singapore–d. 30 January 1961, Singapore) was the first Straits Chinese to be ordained a Methodist minister. He taught at the Anglo-Chinese School for almost 20 years and spent nearly four decades preaching at the Straits Chinese Methodist Church.1
Early life and conversion
Goh’s parents were devout Buddhist Peranakans who nonetheless enrolled him at the Methodist-run Anglo-Chinese School when he was six years old. Curious about Methodism, he attended chapel, read the Bible and concluded that Christianity offered truth and the path to self-improvement. Many Chinese back then despised Christianity for prohibiting ancestor worship and his decision to convert angered his friends and family. His mother accused him of trying to be Westernised and made him worship idols three times daily, while his father shunned and threatened to disown him. However, Goh’s initially secret conversion in 1905 was eventually accepted. His father and three of his four siblings followed his lead, and his mother acknowledged that Christianity had made him a better person.2
Upon graduating in 1905, Goh recognised the school’s need for teachers and joined its staff, going from being one of the school’s top students to being its youngest teacher. This delayed his planned pastoral career, but he still preached as a layman on weekends. Despite his youth, Goh raised the school’s reputation and standards through the quality of his efficient, methodical instruction. Many boys who enjoyed his classes joined his Sunday school and eventually became members of the church.3 Goh was promoted higher than any Asian teacher in the school’s history: By 1916, he had become responsible for Standards V, VI and the important Standard VII; in 1920, he was named head of the school’s new branch, the Serangoon English School.4
In the mid-1920s, Goh contracted leprosy and sought specialist treatment in Calcutta, India. There he conducted Sunday services in the hospital and taught Bible class at the request of local Christians. He was cured and returned home in 1927.5 He decided not to resume teaching, but when the Anglo-Chinese School introduced a house system in 1930, it named a house in his honour. His long tenure in a mission school was remarkable as government schools offered more attractive pay and benefits.6
In 1912, he became an unpaid supply preacher at the Middle Road Church (later renamed Straits Chinese Methodist Church and then Kampong Kapor Methodist Church), which served the Straits Chinese community. Goh revived the Baba Epworth League for young Methodist men and gave it an evangelical bent, organising pastoral visits to the poor, the sick, prisoners and lepers (which was probably how he was infected). It grew to become the largest Methodist youth group in Singapore.7 Goh was ordained a deacon in 1915, chosen as conference president in 1917, and appointed pastor of Middle Road Church in 1918. After a four-year course, he became an elder with the title of Reverend in 1919.7 The following year, he was the first Asian elected to represent Malaya at the Methodist General Conference meeting in America. Malaya’s two delegates succeeded in persuading the conference to appoint general superintendents for Singapore and the Philippines.8
Goh’s congregation outgrew its Middle Road premises and moved to a new home at Kampong Kapor in January 1930. The church flourished, enjoying Singapore’s largest Sunday school, one of its best choirs, and an eloquent, dedicated pastor. Goh’s style was influenced by his teaching background and he spoke in a clear, partly English, partly American accent. Besides English, he also preached in Chinese and Baba Malay.9 A formal, serious figure dressed in bow-ties and plain black and white,10 he frequently assailed vices such as opium, alcohol and tobacco, but also shared the experiences of parishioners who were helped by God. Goh never took leave and was close to his congregation, checking on parishioners who missed a service and rushing to see those who were ill.11
Regional missions and Japanese Occupation
Under Goh, the Straits Chinese Methodist Church recruited aggressively and he accepted invitations to evangelise around the region. His 1933 Penang tour drew large crowds who had heard of his own conversion experience, and a year later, he helped Christians in nine Javanese towns form an organisation. During his three-week Javanese mission of 1937, Goh visited a new town every two days, preaching daily and at least twice on Sundays. Missions to Java generally made little headway, though his final service in Batavia saw 23 conversions.12
Goh ignored warnings to flee the Japanese invasion in 1942 and stayed with his congregation during the occupation. The Japanese viewed Methodists with particular suspicion and requisitioned some Methodist churches for other uses, banned church activity from Monday to Saturday and censored Sunday sermons which, when allowed, were monitored by spies. The authorities wanted a representative body for the Methodist community, and Goh became the vice president of the new Malaya Methodist Church Council in Singapore. After liberation in 1945 he oversaw his parish’s recovery.13
Goh was a leading figure in the Peranakan community as well as the church. During the 1910s, he edited the Straits Chinese Literary Society’s bimonthly publication, Recorder,14 and served as secretary of the Singapore Social Purity Union.15 He also held public appointments as a justice of the peace (1937)16 and adviser to the Juvenile Court (1946).17
Retirement and death
Goh retired in early 1952, ending a long incumbency. The bishop appointed him as District Evangelist and he continued lecturing and speaking out on matters of concern. Not long after broadcasting a sermon on New Year’s Day of 1961, Goh became ill and died on 30 January at the age of 72. He was buried before 500 mourners including many he had baptised or married.18
Wife: Swee Loo (d. 1924)19
Children: The Gohs had nine children. The youngest son died in 1924,20 and another son was killed during the Japanese invasion.21 Upon his death, he was survived by his daughter, two granddaughters, as well as his brother and sister.22 Singapore’s first deputy prime minister, Goh Keng Swee, was Goh’s nephew.23
1. Lau, E. (n.d.). Goh Hood Keng. Retrieved 2016, March 15 from website: http://www.trac-mcs.org.sg/images/pdf/boardofministry/Goh%20Hood%20Keng.pdf
2. Ang, D., et al. (1986). Hearts, hopes and aims: The spirit of the Anglo-Chinese School. Singapore: Times Books International, p. 75. (Call no.: RSING 373.5957 HEA)
3. Lau, E. (1994). Lest we forget 1894–1994. Singapore: Kampong Kapor Church, p. 99. (Call no.: RSING 287.095957 LAU)
4. Doraisamy, T. R. (Ed.). (1988). Heralds of the lord. Singapore: Methodist Book Room, p. 43. (Call no.: RSING 287.09 HER)
5. Lau, E. (1994). Lest we forget 1894–1994. Singapore: Kampong Kapor Church, p. 99. (Call no.: RSING 287.095957 LAU)
6. Lau, E., & Teo, P. (2003). The ACS story. Singapore: Concordia Press, pp. 28–30. (Call no.: RSING 371.0095957 ACS)
7. Song, O. S. (1984). One hundred years’ history of the Chinese in Singapore. Singapore: Oxford University Press, p. 443. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 SON-[HIS])
8. Wong, H. H. (Ed.). (1978). The memoirs of the late Rev. Goh Hood Keng. Singapore: W.H. Hee, pp. 68, 72. (Call no.: RSING 287.092 GOH)
9. Lau, E. (1994). Lest we forget 1894–1994. Singapore: Kampong Kapor Church, pp. 69, 71. (Call no.: RSING 287.095957 LAU)
10. Doraisamy, T. R. (Ed.). (1988). Heralds of the lord. Singapore: Methodist Book Room, p. 44. (Call no.: RSING 287.09 HER)
11. Wong, H. H. (Ed.). (1978). The memoirs of the late Rev. Goh Hood Keng. Singapore: W.H. Hee, pp. 9–10, 93–96. (Call no.: RSING 287.092 GOH)
12. Lau, E. (2008). From mission to church: The evolution of the Methodist Church in Singapore and Malaysia: 1885–1976. Singapore: Genesis Books, p. 42. (Call no: RSING 287.095957 LAU)
13. Doraisamy, T. R. (1986). Forever beginning: 100 years of Methodism in Singapore (Vol. 1). Singapore: Methodist Church in Singapore, p. 81. (Call no.: RSING 287.095957 FOR)
14. Song, O. S. (1984). One hundred years’ history of the Chinese in Singapore. Singapore: Oxford University Press, p. 502. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 SON-[HIS])
15. Fifty years ago. (1959, March 14). The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
16. New J. P.s for the colony. (1937, June 10). The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
17. ‘Dead end for kids’ of Singapore. (1946, December 20). The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
18. Wong, H. H. (Ed.). (1978). The memoirs of the late Rev. Goh Hood Keng. Singapore: W.H. Hee, pp. 71–79. (Call no.: RSING 287.092 GOH); Death of the Rev. Goh Hood Keng. (1961, January 31). The Straits Times, p. 16. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
19. Yeo, S. S. (1990). Tan Cheng Lock, the Straits legislator and Chinese leader. Petaling Jaya: Pelanduk Publications, p. 3. (Call no: RSING 324.22092 YEO); Death. (1924, July 21). The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
20. Death. (1924, September 12). The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
21. Wong, H. H. (Ed.). (1978). The memoirs of the late Rev. Goh Hood Keng. Singapore: W.H. Hee, p. 69. (Call no.: RSING 287.092 GOH)
22. Death of the Rev. Goh Hood Keng. (1961, January 31). The Straits Times, p. 16. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
23. Yeo, S. S. (1990). Tan Cheng Lock, the Straits legislator and Chinese leader. Petaling Jaya: Pelanduk Publications, p. 3. (Call no: RSING 324.22092 YEO)
Mainly about Malayans. (1937, June 27). The Straits Times, p. 9. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
The information in this article is valid as at 2016 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.