Goh Poh Seng


Goh Poh Seng (Dr) (b. 1936, Kuala Lumpur, Malaya -d.10 January 2010, Vancouver, Canada) physician, poet, laureate, prize-winning writer and entrepreneur, played an active role in Singapore arts following the country's independence. He was a pioneer of Singapore English drama as well as the author of the first Singaporean novel, If We Dream Too Long. It won the National Book Development Council of Singapore's Fiction Book Award in 1976, and has been translated into other languages like Russian and Japanese. He was the Cultural Medallion winner for Literature in 1982.

Early life
Goh Poh Seng was born to a middle-class family. He was educated at Victoria Institution, Kuala Lumpur, and went on to study medicine at University College, Dublin, Ireland. Dublin was also significant because Goh's passion for writing began and blossomed in this literary city. By the time he was 19, he was writing poetry while frequenting the pubs of Dublin where he met writers Patrick Kavanagh and Brendan Behan. His poetry was also published in his university magazine. Encouraged by this, he left medical school for a year and devoted himself to writing. Ever the maverick, he lived out his passion in London, as a struggling writer. Eventually, starvation was a main factor that drove him back to medicine. A weakened physical condition was not the best motivation for writing. 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.

The writer
Goh was among the pioneer Singapore writers who attempted to define post-independent Singapore literature. In the 1960s, he started English dramas, producing and writing three plays of his own; The Moon is Less Bright , When Smiles are Done and The Elder Brother.

His fascination with the question of self amidst the dreariness and aimlessness in an increasingly urbanised and materialistic Asian society was a theme explored in his first novel, If We Dream too Long. It was considered the first true Singaporean novel, apart from it being set in Singapore. He was to feature such theme, man's endless search for self-realisation, prominently in his future works.

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

Goh also formed his own publishing company, Island Press, which published his poetry collection, Bird with One Wing. He felt the need to set up his publishing company as he wanted to have control over its editorial slant. In addition, he wanted to publish the works of other local and Asian writers to bring them to the attention of a wider readership within and beyond Asia.

In 1995, Goh was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease and had to retire from medicine, his other great love. Since then, he had turned to writing full-time. Despite his illness, he was able to produce two collections of poetry and novels. With physical difficulty also, he started on his four or five volumes of "loosely-based fictionalised autobiography". He currently lives part of the year in Vancouver and the other in Newfoundland, and has not returned to Singapore since his self-imposed exile in 1986.

He participated in art activities like writers' festivals outside of Singapore. In 2000, he was invited to the Winnipeg Writers' Festival. In 2001, 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 Hongkong, where he read his work alongside Timothy Mo.

The physician
In 1986, Goh decided to emigrate to Canada, a decision partly influenced by his disillusionment with the state of cultural politics in Singapore at the time. Together with his family, he went to Vancouver, Canada, and then moved to the remote shores of the Canadian province of Newfoundland. He worked as an outpost doctor, attending to patients of three small villages. After receiving his Canadian medical licence, he returned to practice in Vancouver.

Contributions to performing arts in Singapore
Goh was an avid promoter of the arts in Singapore. As one of the first chairman of the National Theatre Trust, he was responsible for the country's art policy following independence and laid the groundwork for cultural institutions such as orchestras and conservatories for music and dance. These included the Singapore National Symphony, the Chinese Orchestra and Singapore Dance Company. After six years with the National Theatre Trust, where the work left him disillusioned and cynical, he stepped down.

Goh also served in other portfolios; 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 Arts Council. In addition, he was a member of the Termination of Pregnancy advisory board of the Ministry of Health.

Goh was a great promoter of music as well. He opened Singapore's first theatre disco lounge, Rainbow Lounge, opposite the Hard Rock Cafe. He organised the first David Bowie concert in Singapore in 1983, an event that incurred huge expenses but was poorly received by the public. He lost his company, Hujong Enterprise, and failure to apply for a licence for Bowie's appearance at Rainbow Lounge which resulted in a no-show by Bowie at his club added to his difficulties. The authorities later revoked his licence to run the Rainbow Lounge due to an alleged indecent performance of its resident band, Speedway.

Goh also envisioned a livelier and trendy Singapore River in the 1970s, which included restaurants, shops and a bustling night life. Despite submissions of plans to the government, Goh's vision was not taken seriously. Today, the Singapore River had embraced his vision, making Goh a man with ideas that were ahead of his time.

1976 : NBDCS Fiction Award for If We Dream Too Long.
1982 : Cultural Medallion (Literature).
1996 : NBDCS Fiction Award for Dance of Moths.

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

1976 : Eyewitness.
1978 : Lines from Batu Ferringhi.
1982 : Bird With One Wing: A Sequence of Poems.
1998 : The Girl From Ermita & Selected Poems.
2001 : As Though the Gods Love Us.

1972 : If We Dream Too Long.
1976 : The Immolation.
1995 : Dance of Moths.
2001 : Dance With White Clouds.

Wife: Margaret.
Children: Four children. Son, Kasan, wrote a collection of short stories and poems in H20 and Other Proselyrics.

Nureza Ahmad

Fernando, C. (1982, August 25). On wings of poetry. The New Nation.

Gwee, E. (1996, October 12). Judges, swamped by horror, hold back top prize for fiction at book awards. The Straits Times.

Lee, Y. L. (1995, April 9). More losers than winners in promoting concerts. The Straits Times.

Lim, R. (1982, August 26). Lines penned on the run. The Straits Times.

Lim, R. (1982, August 26). Winging home.The Straits Times.

My starving days in Dublin. (1974, February 5). The New Nation.

Nanda, Akshita (2010, January 13) Pioneer Singapore writer Goh Poh Seng dies. The Straits Times, Retrieved January 14, 2010, from Factiva database.

Pereira, B. (1984, December 2). Goh unhappy with Bowies comments. The Sunday Monitor.

Singapore Festival '68 to be the biggest ever. (1967, October 25). The Straits Times.

Stevens, H. (1993, September 6). From Singapore slings to the pub with no beer. Bangkok Post, p.37.

Yeow, M.S. (1983, November 30). Rainbow Lounge fans are disappointed by its closure order. The Sunday Monitor, p.24.

Further Readings
Bowie has a change of heart. (2004, March 1). The Straits Times.

Koh, B. S. (1996, September 9). Bleak vision of man trapped in futile quest. The Straits Times, Life, p.18.

Koh, B.S. (2001, July 21). A winner of discontent. The Sraits Times.

Lee, A. (2001, November 24). Moments of pure beauty and joy. The Straits Times.

Lee. A. (2000, April 22). Poetry from the heart. The Straits Times.

Ong, S. F. (2000, December 30). Hush now, work in progress. The Straits Times.

Phair, D. (2001, May 19). Living in exile, but the Dance never ends. The Straits Times.

National Arts Council. (n.d.). Recipients of Cultural Medallion. Retrieved April 4, 2004, from www.nac.gov.sg/local_arts_scene/CMwinners.htm

National Book Development Council of Singapore. (n.d). Goh Poh Seng, Dr. Retrieved April 4, 2004, from www.nbdcs.org.sg/Writers/GohPohSeng.htm 

The information in this article is valid as at 2010 and correct as far as we can 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.

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

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