The Early Pioneers of ACS
Rev Goh Hood Keng 
by Mr Earnest Lau, Archivist of The Methodist Church in Singapore

Rev Goh Hood KengPerhaps one of the most outstanding Old Boys of the ACS was Goh Hood Keng, of whom many ACSians know only as one of the names of the House system. But, there is much more about the man and his eventful and outstanding life.

The eldest son of Mr Goh Kim Swee, who strictly enforced a daily discipline of worshipping the idols at the family altar, the young Hood Keng, born on Feb. 27, 1888, was enrolled at the age of seven at the ACS at Coleman Street. A bright boy, he had no trouble with his lessons, and enjoyed his school life, studying and squabbling with his school mates and, at some point, picking up the gambling habit.

Taught by missionaries and attending chapel services every day, his alert mind was curious to discover the rationale behind what the American missionaries were sharing with people here. He therefore began to study the New Testament at home and went to church on Sundays. Although his parents did not object, they were antipathetic towards Christianity because they thought that being a Christian meant becoming an ‘orang putih’ a ‘white man’. But the young Hood Keng became ‘painfully conscious of the fact that I was not the man I might have been, and I yearned to know of a way in which my sins might be blotted out…’ to quote him. For him, to be a Christian is when a person ‘through the agency of the Holy Spirit of the Holy Spirit, is convicted of his sins and feels their great load upon his heart; and comes in lowliness of heart to the Lord confessing his sins and believing in the Lord Jesus Christ as his Saviour, then he has the sure promise of God Himself that his sins are forgiven, and he is adopted into the great family of God’s children, and becomes a Christian.”

Fortunately, there were teachers like Tan Ah Lok (later known as Chen Chang Lock ), who was an assistant at the Middle Road Baba Church, and who guided the young Hood Keng. Just after sitting his Senior Cambridge examinations in 1903, the 15 year old Hood Keng took the fateful step of being baptised, although without his parents’ express consent.

When his father heard of this, he flew into a rage and threatened to disown him and shoot him with a hunting rifle. His anger arose from the concern that, as eldest son, Hood Keng had certain filial responsibilities to his parents.

 After his father’s outburst had settled down, the young man completed his studies at ACS while living at home as a Christian for a the best part of one year, facing daily persecution without complaining, thereby showing by personal example what it means to be a disciple of Christ. He had given up his awful habit of gambling, but remained a filial son. His mother, especially, was moved to exclaim, when she heard that he had been baptised, ‘Son, I wish you could be a Christian ten times over.’ She was convinced that her son had, indeed, found the Way, but it was some time before she accepted Christ, and her husband just before he died.

Still in his teens, he was anxious to begin preaching, but was in no position to do so. In the meantime, the school offered him a teaching appointment, noting his keen intellect and promise as an asset to the school. This he accepted, despite receiving other job offers. For two decades, he taught on week days, and preached on weekends in an honorary capacity.

Professionally, his sharp mind and teaching method established him as an outstanding teacher and enhanced the reputation of the school. He was rapidly promoted first, as classmaster of Standard Seven, then as Supervisor of the Serangoon English School which had become a branch of ACS. His promotions can be better understood as these posts were usually meant for expatriate personnel.

Standard Seven was the conclusion of formal education for most boys, and as Supervisor, he had charge of the academic and spiritual life of that section of the ACS in Perumal Road. It is interesting to note that the late Bishop Theodore Doraisamy was a pupil and remembered the clear and compelling diction of Rev Goh Hood Keng when he preached to the boys every day at the outdoor assembly in the school yard. On Sundays, he taught Sunday school which attracted many students to the Church at Middle Road. They were inspired by his teaching and preaching, and many remembered him as they became leaders in modern Singapore.

In 1912, he was appointed an assistant to Rev F.H. Sullivan, pastor of the Middle Road Church. Fluent in English and Baba Malay, he was well qualified to serve at a time when there was a shortage of American missionaries. To strengthen his calling to preach, he undertook a Methodist Annual Conference course of study, and was formally ordained a Local Elder in 1919, thereby earning him the right to be known as “Rev Goh Hood Keng” when he was formally invested as pastor of the Church. Something of his emerging dynamism can be gauged by his being elected in the following year as lay delegate to the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church that met in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

As President of the Middle Road Church’s Epworth League, he busied himself with street preaching and distributing tracts, visiting hospitals and the leper colony. Street meetings were held in various parts of the town every Friday night. Working extremely hard, especially with the young people whom he led and influenced, he never complained, as preaching the gospel was, for him, ‘meat and drink’.

In 1927, having given up his teaching appointment, he joined the Malaya Annual Conference as a full-time minister at half of his former income. He enjoyed the distinction of being the first locally ordained minister of the gospel and served the Straits Chinese Methodist Church (now Kampong Kapor Methodist Church) from 1916 until he retired in 1952 after nearly 40 years.

But, being a devoted preacher, Rev Goh was not spared the vicissitudes of life and met with two personal crises in1924. His wife, Swee Liew, the second of three daughters of Mr Tan Kiong Keng of Malacca who married three Singapore ‘boys’, one of these being Goh Hood Keng , passing away after a short illness, leaving three children for him to care for. Shortly afterwards, he was diagnosed with Hansen’s Disease (leprosy) contracted, it is thought, while ministering to the leper colony. He was sent to Calcutta for specialist treatment that lasted two years and was miraculously cured, but even in illness, he continued to preach and teach the Word among the European inmates, and then at the James Thoburn Methodist Church in Calcutta.

Returning to Singapore, his zeal and determination to preach was accompanied by a remarkable ministry that included the building of a new sanctuary for his church at Kampong Kapor (where the congregation moved from Middle Road), three evangelistic trips to Malaya and Java, besides being pastor of the Straits Chinese Methodist Church, for many years the largest Methodist Church in Malaya with the largest Sunday School which had an attendance of over 400 students.

Rev Goh’s services to the community were recognised by the Colonial Government which appointed him a Justice of the Peace in 1937, the first Asian minister in Malaya to be so honoured.

The Pacific War which broke out in December 1941 was a trying time for all. A narrow escape for the Rev Goh and his family occurred during a heavy air raid on January 21 1942 when a bomb landed just outside the wall of the church garage, barely ten feet where they were sheltering. Adding to the tale of sorrow for Rev Goh was when his youngest (and only surviving) son, John, died shortly after the surrender of Singapore on February 15, 1942, while his son-in-law, a Volunteer with the Colonial defence forces was taken away by the Japanese, leaving his daughter, Mary and two children, Gladys and Joyce, to live with him in the church parsonage at Kampong Kapor.

He retired from the active ministry of the church in 1952, but, appointed by the Bishop as District Evangelist, continued ‘to preach Christ crucified.’ When Rev Goh Hood Keng met his Master on Jan 30, 1961, he had been ‘faithful over a few things’ but an example worthy of emulation.

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