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Literary Arts

Goh Poh Seng

Pioneering Singapore writer, playwright and poet.

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Published: 12 Oct 2016


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I realised that all the books I enjoyed were about somewhere else, not my own hometown. I thought that we needed our own literature in order to know about ourselves.

– On his motivation for writing.

Goh Poh Seng was a pioneering Singapore writer, playwright and poet. The first to introduce Singlish to the theatre stage, he also wrote the first post-independence Singapore English-language novel If We Dream Too Long, which received the National Book Development Council of Singapore Book Award for fiction in 1976. A doctor by profession and a fearless champion of the arts, Goh served as chairman of the National Theatre Trust and co-founded Centre 65 and literary journal Tumasek. In 1982, he received the Cultural Medallion for his contributions to literature in Singapore.

Born in 1936 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Goh Poh Seng wanted to be a writer from a young age. Completing his early education at Batu Road School and Victoria Institution, he pursued medical studies at University College in Dublin, Ireland.

In Dublin, after an initial culture shock had turned into a cultural awakening, he started writing poetry in 1958, influenced by the thriving literary scene and poets whom he met such as Patrick Kanavagh and Brendan Behan. He left his medical studies midway to become a writer in London, UK but found it a struggle to make ends meets. A year later, he returned to Dublin and graduated with a Medical degree.

In 1963, Goh moved to Singapore and set up his medical practice. Soon, he felt the need to contribute to the literary development of the nation and started the literary journal Tumasek in 1964. Tumasek gave Singapore and Malaysian writers a valuable platform in which they could publish their works, and featured budding poets such as Edwin Thumboo and Robert Yeo, who had earlier only published his poems in school publications.

The next year, Goh, together with Lim Kok Ann, co-founded Centre 65, an arts and culture group to promote the arts in Singapore. Serving as the group's president, he and the members, comprising English-language writers and artists, met regularly for forums, talks, readings, exhibitions and plays. Goh also began writing plays that year, starting with The Moon is Less Bright. In 1967, he wrote The Elder Brother, which introduced Singlish for the first time to the theatre stage. In a time where English-language theatre in Singapore was predominantly represented by the Singapore Eurasian community, Goh was a pioneer who proudly wielded a distinctive Singaporean voice in his works.

In 1968, Goh began contributing his expertise and services to various arts and cultural organisations in a newly independent Singapore. The arts advocate served as chair of the National Theatre Trust and the vice-chairman of the National Arts Council, helping to lay the groundwork for the formation of institutions such as the Singapore National Symphony, the Singapore Chinese Orchestra and the Singapore Dance Company. He also served as a member of the Board of Governors of the People's Association, a board member of the National Youth Leadership Training Institute, and a director of the Singapore Tourism Promotion Board.

During this period, he set up a publishing company—Island Press—with his wife, Margaret, to publish his first novel If We Dream Too Long and bring those of other Asian writers to a wider audience. Its story of a young Chinese man's search for self-realisation in an increasingly urban and materialistic post-independent Singapore resonated with local readers, and it became known as the first Singapore English-language novel.

In 1976, Goh received the inaugural National Book Development Council of Singapore Book Award for fiction for If We Dream Too Long. The book went on to be translated into other languages including Russian, Tagalog and Japanese, and used as a literature text by the University of Malaysia, National University of Singapore and University of the Philippines.

Goh also wrote and published his first poetry collection Eyewitness in 1976. Other successful books of poetry and fiction followed, including Bird With One Wing: A Sequence of Poems (1982), which sold out within three months of its release.

In 1982, Goh received the Cultural Medallion for his contributions to literature in Singapore.

The ’80s saw Goh spearheading the Boat Quay Conservation Scheme to preserve the historical buildings along the Singapore River, envisioning a revitalised Boat Quay as a lifestyle and entertainment area. He also set up the Bistro Toulouse-Lautrec, a poetry and jazz café, and the Rainbow Lounge, which was Singapore's first live disco and music venue.

Goh also presented and organised the first David Bowie concert, which was held at the National Stadium. It was the first time Singapore hosted a concert at such a scale. Despite mounting difficulties faced with the authorities who were against the concert, Goh ensured that the show was not cancelled.

In 1986, after being forced to close down the Rainbow Lounge, Goh moved to Canada with his family, eventually setting up a medical practice in Vancouver, splitting his time between his day job and writing. In 1995, Goh was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease and he retired from medicine, focusing his energy solely on writing.

He went on to publish two books of poetry and two novels in the next 15 years. He again received the National Book Development Council of Singapore Book Award for fiction for his novel Dance of Moths in 1996, and his works were met with acclaim in Canada and internationally. Goh made appearances at literary festivals around the world, and returned to Singapore for a visit to be a keynote speaker at the Singapore Writers Festival in 2007.

On 20 Jan 2010, Goh passed away at the age of 73 from pneumonia in Vancouver, Canada. Described by Asiaweek as a "top-notch playwright, novelist and poet" and by Asia Magazine as "one of Asia's finest living poets", Goh's pioneering legacy lives on in Singapore English-language literature.

Timeline

1936

Born in Kuala Lumpur, Malaya.

1961

Graduated from University College, Dublin with medical degree.

1963

Moved to Singapore.

1964

Published play The Moon is Less Bright.
Founder and editor, Tumasek.

1965

Co-founder, Centre 65. With Lim Kok Ann. Appointed as President of Centre 65.

1966

Published play When Smiles are Done.

1967

Published play The Elder Brother. The first Singapore play to use Singlish on stage.

1967 to 1973

Chairman, National Theatre Board of Trustees.
Vice-chairman, National Arts Council.
Member, Board of Governors, People's Association.
Board member, National Youth Leadership Training Institute.
Director, Singapore Tourism Promotion Board.

1972

Published novel If We Dream Too Long. Set up publishing company Island Press.

1973

Invited to Russia by the Writers Union of the U.S.S.R.

1975

Participated in the Afro-Asian Writers Symposium in Manila, Phillipines

1976

Received inaugural National Book Development Council of Singapore Book Award for fiction for If We Dream Too Long. Published poetry collection Eyewitness.

1977

Published novel The Immolation.

1978

Published poetry collection Lines from Batu Ferringhi.

1982

Received Cultural Medallion for contributions to literature.
Published poetry collection Bird With One Wing.

1983

Headed the Boat Quay Conservation Scheme. Published A Conservation Proposal for Boat Quay. Opened Rainbow Lounge, Ming Arcade. Singapore's first live disco and music lounge. Opened Bistro Toulouse-Lautrec, Tanglin Shopping Centre, Singapore. Presenter, the first David Bowie concert in Singapore.

1985

Participated in the 3000th Anniversary of the Birth of Valmiki World Poetry Festival and the International Symposium of Poets in India.

1986

Headed the conservation project and conversion of the Kuala Lumpur Central Market into a shopping and cultural complex. Moved to Canada. Participated in the Seoul Writers Festival, Korea.

1990

Participated in the Wheatland Conference on Literature, San Francisco, USA.

1991

Participated in the San Francisco Poetry Festival, USA.

1995

Published novel Dance of Moths.

1996

Received National Book Development Council of Singapore Book Award for fiction for Dance of Moths.

1998

Published poetry collection The Girl from Ermita & Selected Poems. Participated in the San Miguel de Allende Poetry Festival, Mexico.

1999

Participated in the Scream Literary Festival in Toronto, Canada.

2000

Published poetry collection As Though the Gods Love Us. Participated in the Winnipeg Writers' Festival, Canada.

2001

Published novel Dance with White Clouds. Participated in the University of California Berkeley, USA, at the invitation of poet laureate Robert Haas. Participated in the Standard Chartered International Literary Festival, Hong Kong.

2003

Participated in the March Hare, Newfoundland, Canada.

2004

Participated in the Dublin Writers Festival, Ireland.

2007

Keynote speaker, Singapore Writers Festival.

2009

Participated in the Trois-Rivieres International Poetry Festival, Quebec, Canada.

Jan 2010

Passed away at age 73 from pneumonia in Vancouver, Canada.


TributeSG

TributeSG celebrates the arts community’s most senior members, and those who have made a lifetime of contribution to the arts. These artists, administrators, educators, patrons, and champions include many Singapore arts pioneers who laid the foundations of the vibrant arts and cultural scene we enjoy today. The many profiles in TributeSG let us into the minds and worlds of these pioneers, and help us understand our shared arts heritage. When we revisit their works and rediscover their journeys, we learn where we came from and how we came to be. Collectively, their stories tell the tale of the making of a nation’s artistic identity.

In putting together this collection, the TributeSG team consulted an external advisory panel, consisting of Arun Mahiznan, Choo Thiam Siew, J. P. Nathan, K. K. Seet, Kwok Kian Chow, and Iskandar Ismail. Those selected to be profiled in TributeSG met one of the following criteria: they were at least 60 years of age as of 12 Oct 2016, or deceased, or had received national recognition in the form of the Cultural Medallion. This journey of arts archival officially came to a close on 12 Oct 2016, after four years of extensive research, interviews and collation of information graciously provided by the TributeSG pioneers, their families and peers. TributeSG also benefited from enthusiastic help from like-minded friends and organisations who supported Esplanade’s cause—to remember, honour and celebrate Singapore’s arts pioneers.

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