Goh Poh Seng



Goh Poh Seng (b. 1936, Kuala Lumpur, Malaya–d.10 January 2010, Vancouver, Canada) was a physician, poet, laureate, award-winning writer and entrepreneur. He played an active role in the arts scene of post-independence Singapore.1 Goh was a pioneer of local English drama and the author of the first local novel, If We Dream Too Long. The book won the National Book Development Council of Singapore’s (NBDCS) Fiction Book Award in 1976, and has been translated into other languages including Russian and Japanese.2 Goh received the Cultural Medallion in 1982.3

Early life
Goh was born to a middle-class family.4 He was educated at Victoria Institution in Kuala Lumpur, and went on to study medicine at the University College, Dublin, Ireland.5 Dublin was a significant part of Goh’s life because it was where his passion for writing had begun and blossomed.6 His poetry was published in his university magazine.7 Encouraged by this, Goh left medical school for a year and devoted himself to writing. He lived out his passion in London as a struggling writer.8


Eventually the struggle to make ends meet drove him back to medicine.9 Upon receiving his medical degree, he moved to Singapore in the early 1960s to become a doctor, and stayed in this profession for over two decades.10

Writing career
Goh was among the pioneer Singapore writers who attempted to define post-independence Singapore literature.11 In the 1960s, he delved into English dramas, producing and writing three plays of his own: The Moon is Less Bright (1964),12 When Smiles Are Done (1965)13 and The Elder Brother (1966).14

His fascination with the question of self amid the dreariness and aimlessness in an increasingly urbanised and materialistic Asian society was a theme he explored in his first novel, If We Dream Too Long (1972).15 Considered the first local English novel, the work pioneered the use of local colloquial English in the dialogue.16 Following his debut, Goh was to feature the theme of man’s endless search for self-realisation prominently in his future works.17 He also set up the literary magazine, Tumasek, and established the literary association Centre 65 to promote the local drama.18

If We Dream Too Long has been used as a text by the Department of English at the University of Malaysia, the National University of Singapore and the University of the Philippines.19 His poetry have been published in numerous magazines and anthologies and translated into many languages including Chinese, Malay, Tagalog, Russian and German.20

Goh also formed his own publishing company, Island Press, which published his poetry collection, Bird with One Wing (1982).21 He felt the need to set up Island Press because he wanted to have editorial control.22 In addition, Goh was keen to publish the works of other local and Asian writers to bring them to the attention of a wider readership within and beyond Asia.23

In 1995, Goh was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease and had to retire from his medical practice. Since then, he turned to writing fulltime.24 Despite his illness, he was able to produce two collections of poetry and novels. With physical difficulty, he embarked on the first of four volumes of an “imaginary autobiography”. He spent time in both Newfoundland and Vancouver after he emigrated to Canada in 1986 due to his disillusionment with the state of cultural politics in Singapore then. Goh did not return to Singapore until 2007 when he was invited by the National Arts Council to be the keynote speaker for the 2007 Singapore Writers Festival.25

He participated in art activities like writers’ festivals outside of Singapore. In 2000, he was invited to the Winnipeg Writers’ Festival. The following year, he read at the Doe Library of the University of California at Berkeley under the direction of Robert Hass, a former poet laureate of the United States. He was also a participant at the Standard Chartered International Literary Festival in Hong Kong, where he read his work alongside Timothy Mo.26

Medical practice
Together with his family, Goh moved to Canada in 1986, and then settled at the remote shores of the Canadian province of Newfoundland.27 He worked as an outpost doctor, attending to patients residing in Cow Head, a small outport town. After Goh was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and was told that he might not be able to continue practising medicine, he returned to live in Vancouver.28

Contributions to performing arts in Singapore
Goh was an avid promoter of the arts in Singapore.29 As one of the first chairmen of the National Theatre Trust, he was responsible for the country’s arts policy in the immediate post-independence years, and laid the groundwork for cultural institutions such as orchestras and conservatories for music and dance.30 After six years with the National Theatre Trust, he stepped down in 1973.31

Goh also served in other portfolios including the board of governors of the People’s Association, the board of the National Youth Leadership Training Institute, director of the Singapore Tourist Promotion Board and vice-president of the Singapore Arts Council.32

Goh was a great promoter of music as well. He opened Singapore’s first theatre disco lounge, Rainbow Lounge.33 In 1983, he organised the only concert that British rockstar David Bowie ever played in Singapore. However, the event met with poor attendance and incurred huge expenses.34 His failure to apply for a licence for Bowie’s appearance at Rainbow Lounge, resulting in a no-show by Bowie at his club, compounded his troubles.35 The authorities subsequently revoked his licence to run the Rainbow Lounge because a member of its resident band, Speedway, had made an indecent remark on stage.36

In the 1970s, Goh also envisioned a livelier and trendy Singapore River that included restaurants, shops and a bustling night life. Today, the Singapore River manifests his vision, validating Goh as a man with ideas that were ahead of his time.37

Awards
1976: NBDCS Fiction Award for If We Dream Too Long38
1982: Cultural Medallion (Literature)39

1996: NBDCS Fiction Award for Dance of Moths40

Works
Plays
1964: The Moon is Less Bright
1965: When Smiles are Done
1966: The Elder Brother

Poetry

1976: Eyewitness41
1978: Lines from Batu Ferringhi42
1982: Bird With One Wing
1998: The Girl From Ermita & Selected Poems43
2000: As Though the Gods Love Us44

Fiction
1972: If We Dream Too Long
1977: The Immolation45
1995: A Dance of Moths46
2001: Dance With White Clouds47

Family
Goh had four sons with his wife, Margaret.48



Author

Nureza Ahmad



References
1. Lee, A. (2000, April 22). Poetry from the heart. The Straits Times, p. 17; Nanda, A. (2010, January 13). Pioneer Singapore writer Goh Poh Seng dies. The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; About Goh Poh Seng [Blogpost]. (2010). Retrieved 2017, January 11 from Crazy to Sing Strange Songs website: https://gohpohseng.wordpress.com/; Suryadinata, L. (Ed.). (2012). Southeast Asian personalities of Chinese descent: A biographical dictionary. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, p. 296. (Call no.: RSING 959.004951 SOU)
2. Lee, A. (2000, April 22). Poetry from the heart. The Straits Times, p. 17. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; About Goh Poh Seng [Blogpost]. (2010). Retrieved 2017, January 11 from Crazy to Sing Strange Songs website: https://gohpohseng.wordpress.com/
3. Nanda, A. (2010, January 13). Pioneer Singapore writer Goh Poh Seng dies. The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
4. Suryadinata, L. (Ed.). (2012). Southeast Asian personalities of Chinese descent: A biographical dictionary. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, p. 296. (Call no.: RSING 959.004951 SOU)
5. Lee, A. (2000, April 22). Poetry from the heart. The Straits Times, p. 17. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Suryadinata, L. (Ed.). (2012). Southeast Asian personalities of Chinese descent: A biographical dictionary. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, p. 296. (Call no.: RSING 959.004951 SOU)
6. Suryadinata, L. (Ed.). (2012). Southeast Asian personalities of Chinese descent: A biographical dictionary. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, p. 296. (Call no.: RSING 959.004951 SOU)
7. Goh, P. S. (2015). Tall tales and misadventures of a young westernized oriental gentleman. Singapore: NUS Press, p. 58. (Call no.: RSING S823 GOH)
8. My starving days in Dublin. (1974, February 5). The New Nation, p. 7; Lee, A. (2000, April 22). Poetry from the heart. The Straits Times, p. 17. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
9. My starving days in Dublin. (1974, February 5). The New Nation, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
10. Lee, A. (2000, April 22). Poetry from the heart. The Straits Times, p. 17; Nanda, A. (2010, January 13). Pioneer Singapore writer Goh Poh Seng dies. The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
11. Suryadinata, L. (2012). Southeast Asian personalities of Chinese descent: A biographical dictionary. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, p. 296. (Call no.: RSING 959.004951 SOU)
12. Goh, P. S. (1964). The moon is less bright. Retrieved from NORA website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/arts
13. Goh, P. S. (1965). When smiles are done. Retrieved from NORA website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/arts
14. Suryadinata, L. (Ed.). (2012). Southeast Asian personalities of Chinese descent: A biographical dictionary. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, p. 296. (Call no.: RSING 959.004951 SOU); About Goh Poh Seng [Blogpost]. (2010). Retrieved 2017, January 11 from Crazy to Sing Strange Songs website: https://gohpohseng.wordpress.com/; Goh, P. S. (1966). The elder brother. Retrieved from NORA website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/arts
15. Nanda, A. (2010, January 13). Pioneer Singapore writer Goh Poh Seng dies. The Straits Times, p. 6; Koh, B. S. (1995, September 9). Bleak vision of man trapped in futile quest. The Straits Times, p. 18. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Goh, P. S. (1972). If we dream too long. Retrieved from NORA website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/arts
16. Suryadinata, L. (Ed.). (2012). Southeast Asian personalities of Chinese descent: A biographical dictionary. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, p. 296. (Call no.: RSING 959.004951 SOU)
17. Koh, B. S. (2001, July 21). A winner of discontent. The Straits Times, p. 12. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
18. A candlelight party to raise funds for Centre 65. (1965, July 15). The Straits Times, p. 5; Nanda, A. (2010, January 13). Doctor’s heart for arts. The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
19. Nanda, A. (2010, January 13). Pioneer Singapore writer Goh Poh Seng dies. The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; About Goh Poh Seng [Blogpost]. (2010). Retrieved 2017, January 11 from Crazy to Sing Strange Songs website: https://gohpohseng.wordpress.com/
20. Lee, A. (2000, April 22). Poetry from the heart. The Straits Times, p. 17. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
21. Suryadinata, L. (Ed.). (2012). Southeast Asian personalities of Chinese descent: A biographical dictionary. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, p. 296. (Call no.: RSING 959.004951 SOU); Goh, P. S. (1982). Bird with one wing. Retrieved from NORA website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/arts
22. My starving days in Dublin. (1974, February 5). The New Nation, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
23. Suryadinata, L. (Ed.). (2012). Southeast Asian personalities of Chinese descent: A biographical dictionary. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, p. 296. (Call no.: RSING 959.004951 SOU); My starving days in Dublin. (1974, February 5). The New Nation, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
24. Nanda, A. (2010, January 13). Pioneer Singapore writer Goh Poh Seng dies. The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG
25. Suryadinata, L. (Ed.). (2012). Southeast Asian personalities of Chinese descent: A biographical dictionary. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, p. 296. (Call no.: RSING 959.004951 SOU); Nanda, A. (2010, January 13). Pioneer Singapore writer Goh Poh Seng dies. The Straits Times, p. 6; Yap, S. (2007, December 16). A visionary looks back. The Straits Times, p. 48; Chia, A. (2007, December 1). Dramatic start to S’pore Writers Festival. The Straits Times, p. 55. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
26. Lee, A. S. Y. (2001, November 24). Moments of pure beauty and joy. The Straits Times, p. 18. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
27. Loh, C. (2007, December 8). Blast from the past. Today, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Goh, P. S. (2015). Tall tales and misadventures of a young westernized oriental gentleman. Singapore: NUS Press, p. xv. (Call no.: RSING S823 GOH)
28. Goh, P. S. (2015). Tall tales and misadventures of a young westernized oriental gentleman. Singapore: NUS Press, p. xv. (Call no.: RSING S823 GOH)
29. Nanda, A. (2010, January 13). Pioneer Singapore writer Goh Poh Seng dies. The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
30. Suryadinata, L. (Ed.). (2012). Southeast Asian personalities of Chinese descent: A biographical dictionary. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, p. 296. (Call no.: RSING 959.004951 SOU)
31. Yap, S. (2007, December 16). A visionary looks back. The Straits Times, p. 48. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
32. Suryadinata, L. (Ed.). (2012). Southeast Asian personalities of Chinese descent: A biographical dictionary. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, p. 297. (Call no.: RSING 959.004951 SOU); Minister is elected SAC chief. (1967, March 30). The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
33. Nanda, A. (2010, January 13). Pioneer Singapore writer Goh Poh Seng dies. The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
34. Lee, Y. L. (1995, April 9). More losers than winners in promoting concerts. The Straits Times, p. 15. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
35. Suryadinata, L. (Ed.). (2012). Southeast Asian personalities of Chinese descent: A biographical dictionary. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, p. 296. (Call no.: RSING 959.004951 SOU); Yeow, M. S. (1983, November 30). Rainbow Lounge fans are disappointed by its closure order. The Singapore Monitor, p. 23. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
36. Yeow, M. S. (1983, November 30). Rainbow Lounge fans are disappointed by its closure order. The Singapore Monitor, p. 23; Yap, S. (2007, December 16). A visionary looks back. The Straits Times, p. 48. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
37. Yap, S. (2007, December 16). A visionary looks back. The Straits Times, p. 48. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
38. About Goh Poh Seng [Blogpost]. (2010). Retrieved 2017, January 11 from Crazy to Sing Strange Songs website: https://gohpohseng.wordpress.com/
39. Nanda, A. (2010, January 13). Pioneer Singapore writer Goh Poh Seng dies. The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
40. Gwee, E. (1996, October 12). Judges, swamped by horror, hold back top prize for fiction at Book Awards. The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
41. Goh, P. S. (1976). Eyewitness. Singapore: Heinemann Educational Books. (Call no.: RCLOS 828.995957 GOH)
42. Goh, P. S. (1978). Lines from Batu Ferringhi. Singapore: Island Group. (Call no.: RCLOS 828.995957 GOH)
43. Goh, P. S. (1998). The girl from Ermita & selected poems, 1961—1998. Gibsons, B.C.: Nightwood Editions. (Call no.: RSING S821 GOH)
44. Goh, P. S. (2000). As though the gods love us. Roberts Creek: Nightwood Editions. (Call no.: RSING S821 GOH)
45. Goh, P. S. (1977). The immolation. Singapore: Heinemann Educational Books. (Call no.: RCLOS 828.995957 GOH)
46. Goh, P. S. (1995). A dance of moths. Singapore: Select Books. (Call no.: RSING S823 GOH)
47. Goh, P. S. (2001). Dance with white clouds: A fable for grown-ups. Hong Kong: Asia 2000. (Call no.: RSING S823 GOH)
48. Suryadinata, L. (Ed.). (2012). Southeast Asian personalities of Chinese descent: A biographical dictionary. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, pp. 296, 298. (Call no.: RSING 959.004951 SOU)



The information in this article is valid as at 2017 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.

 

Subject
Authors, Singaporean--Biography
Goh, Poh Seng, 1936-2010
Poets--Biography
Arts>>Literature>>English (Singapore) Literature>>Poetry
Cultural Medallion Recipients (Literature)
Dramatists--Biography
Poetry
Award winners--Singapore--Biography
Language and literature>>Literatures>>East and Southeast Asian literature>>Singapore literature
Personalities>>Biographies>>Authors>>Cultural Medallion Recipients