Goh Hood Keng was born in Singapore on February 27, 1888, the eldest son of Goh Kim Swee and Seet Soon Neo. His parents were Peranakan or Straits Chinese and devout Buddhists. At the age of seven, his father sent him to study at the Anglo-Chinese School at Coleman Street. The principal at that time was K.E. Pease, an American missionary. This was the turning point in his life as he became interested in Christianity through the influence of missionary teachers. He attended chapel service and went to church on Sundays.
However, to most Peranakan, Christianity was a western religion that belonged to the “orang putih” (white people). The prohibition of ancestral worship was a major stumbling block in their becoming Christians. The eldest son, especially, had the responsibility of carrying on the filial tradition of worshipping their parents once they passed away.
Before long, Goh’s study of the Bible and attendance at church started to have a profound effect on him. In 1903, at the age of 15, he secretly converted to Christianity and was baptised without his father's consent. His teacher, Tan Ah Lok, who also served as an assistant pastor at Middle Road Church, was instrumental in Goh’s baptism. When his father found out about it later, he was so furious that he threatened to disown him and shoot him with his hunting rifle.
Nevertheless, Goh persevered. He gave up gambling and continued to show filial piety. After one year of facing rejection at home, his mother became impressed by his transformed life. With tears in her eyes she exclaimed, “Son, I wish you could be a Christian ten times over.” Shortly after, both parents were also converted and baptised, followed by three of his four siblings. This momentous event was recorded in a 1994 article by Earnest Lau for The Board of Christian Education titled “Goh Hood Keng: The boy who disobeyed his parents but became a legend in his time”.
In 1905, at the age of 17, he completed his Senior Cambridge as one of the top students and joined his alma mater as its youngest teacher. He was a good teacher and produced excellent results in his students, making ACS a top school. During the 1910s, he was also the editor of the Recorder, a bimonthly magazine of the Straits Chinese Literary Society. In 1920, he was promoted to head the Serangoon English School, a new branch of the Anglo-Chinese School, as supervisor.
On weekends, he would preach as a lay person. His effective preaching and upright moral conduct attracted many students to his Sunday School class at the Peranakan Church at Middle Road (later Straits Chinese Methodist Church before it was renamed Kampong Kapor Methodist Church in January 1930 at its new location). In 1912, the church made him the assistant supply pastor (an unpaid position) to Reverend F.H. Sullivan. Goh revived the Peranakan Epworth League (later Methodist Youth Fellowship or MYF) and conducted street evangelism to the poor as well as visited the sick in hospital, prisoners and lepers. He kept an extremely busy schedule – preaching the gospel to him was his “meat and drink”.
In the meantime, he took a four-year theological course under the Methodist Annual Conference. In 1919, he was appointed as a pastor with the title Reverend, the first Straits Chinese to be ordained as a Methodist minister. In 1920, he represented the Malayan churches at the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church at Saratoga Springs in the United States.
In his personal life, he experienced both sickness and sorrow. In 1924, his wife, Tan Swee Loo, passed away after a brief illness. A year later, he was diagnosed with leprosy (Hansen’s disease) which was likely contracted from his frequent visits to the leper colony. He travelled to Calcutta, India to receive specialised care and while staying at the hospital, he conducted worship services on Sundays. He also taught Bible classes at the James Thoburn Methodist Church nearby. Even in sickness, he continued to impact many lives. His disease went into remission after two years.
In 1927, he was back in Singapore and became pastor of the Straits Chinese Methodist Church, part of the Malaya Annual Conference. This meant that he had to quit his school master job and become a full-time minister. It did not bother him that his minister’s salary was half of his teacher’s wages. Altogether, he spent two decades as a teacher at the Anglo-Chinese School and four decades preaching at the Straits Chinese Methodist Church. During this time, his church became the largest Methodist church with the largest Sunday school in Malaya. He was without doubt a leading figure with tremendous influence in the Straits Chinese community.
His evangelistic tour of Penang in 1933 drew large crowds, especially among the Straits Chinese. As a preacher, he portrayed a serious formal figure, wearing a bow-tie with black and white attire. He also made a three-week mission trip to Java in 1937 where he visited a new town every two days and preached daily and twice on Sundays.
Goh was seen as “one of the most forceful pulpit personalities in the Peninsula”.]. The Straits Times in June 1937 acknowledged that although some might consider his theological views old-fashioned, “the strict code of morality that he preaches in a city with many contrary influences has wrought immense good among the young generation of English-speaking Chinese men and women.”[] A man of fearless opinion, he had courted controversy in the press in 1934 over his firm stand against dancing in nightclubs. This arose from his utmost displeasure about the rising popularity of cabarets and nightclubs in the city which attracted young people and had a negative impact on morality. Earlier in his life, he had started and became the secretary of the Singapore Social Purity Union. On March 11, 1909, The Straits Times newspaper reported that at the annual meeting, the membership of the society had risen from three to 75, and 500 tracts on social purity were distributed.
In recognition of his service to the community, Goh was made a Justice of the Peace on June 10, 1937, the first Asiatic Christian minister to be appointed. In 1946, he became an advisor to the juvenile court.
During World War II and the Japanese occupation of Malaya from 1942-1945, Reverend Goh chose to stay put with his congregation. It was a risky decision as Christian ministers with western influence were viewed with great suspicion. His only son, John, died on February 15, 1942 while his son-in-law was abducted by the Japanese. During this time, Reverend Goh became the vice president of the new Malaya Methodist Church Council in Singapore.
He retired from active service in 1952 and was appointed district evangelist by the bishop. Goh continued to teach and preach and preached his last sermon at the Wesley Church in Fort Canning on New Year’s Day 1961. He died on January 30, 1961 at the age of 72, after a short illness.
The late Bishop Emeritus T.R. Doraisamy, who had been one of Goh’s students, wrote in Heralds of the Lord, a book edited by him, that “Goh Hood Keng was a legend before his time and his message had the hallmark of the eternal. His motto was ‘I have one dominating passion to preach Christ and Him crucified. I ask for no greater work. I covet no greater honour.’ ”
- ^ Earnest Lau. Goh Hood Keng: The boy who disobeyed his parents but became a legend in his time, accessed February 3, 2021, http://www.trac-mcs.org.sg/images/pdf/boardofministry/Goh%20Hood%20Keng.pdf.
- ^ "Mainly about Malayans", The Straits Times, June 27, 1937, 9, accessed February 3, 2021, https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/newspapers/Digitised/Article/straitstimes19370627-1.2.70.
- ^ "Mainly about Malayans", 9.
- ^ T. R. Doraisamy, ed., Heralds of the Lord: Personalities in Methodism in Singapore and Malaysia (Singapore: The Methodist Book Room, 1988), 44.
Anderson, Gerald H. “Goh Hood Keng” in Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions. New York: Simon & Schuster Macmillan, 1998, 247.
“Death of the Rev. Goh Hood Keng”. The Straits Times, January 31, 1961, 16. Accessed February 3, 2021.
Doraisamy, T. R., Heralds of the Lord: Personalities in Methodism in Singapore and Malaysia. Singapore: The Methodist Book Room, 1988, 43.
“Fifty years ago”. The Straits Times, March 14, 1959, 6. Accessed February 3 , 2021,
Lau, Earnest. From Mission to Church: The Evolution of the Methodist Church in Singapore and Malaysia, 1885–1976. Singapore: Genesis Books, 2008, 41-42.
Lau, Earnest. Goh Hood Keng: The boy who disobeyed his parents but became a legend in his time, accessed 3 February 2021,
Lau, Earnest. The Early Pioneers of ACS: Rev Goh Hood Keng.
“Mainly about Malayans”. The Straits Times, June 27, 1937, 9. Accessed February 3, 2021.
“New J.P.'s For the Colony”, The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, June 10, 1937, 6.Accessed February 3, 2021.
Tong Hoo Ing, “The Rev Goh Hood Keng: A legend before his time”, Methodist Message, May 2016, 21, accessed February 3, 2021, https://issuu.com/methodist.message/docs/mm_may16/21.