The doctor who was an artist: Singapore Writers Festival 2023 spotlights late literary pioneer Goh Poh Seng

Published on 23 November 2023
By Team Catch

In 1972, a slim novel of roughly 200 pages was published in Singapore. Titled If We Dream Too Long, it was written by a doctor by the name of Goh Poh Seng. 

Widely considered to be Singapore’s first novel in the English language, If We Dream Too Long follows its young hero Kwang Meng as he navigates the fine line between the idealistic dreams of his youth and the pressures of a rapidly industrialising nation in the 1960s. It was the first novel written by Goh, then 36 years old. 

This novel, along with other notable achievements like the co-founding of Centre65 in 1965, and the three plays he wrote and produced himself in the 1960s, marked the birth of a prolific writer, poet, playwright and activist who would take our local arts scene to the next level—all in addition to being a doctor. 

While Goh’s list of achievements assured him a place in Singapore’s literary hall of fame, some may wonder: who was the man behind the words? In Tell Bowie He’s Only a Rock Star. I, However, Am A Poet., audiences may just find out. The exhibition, which chronicles Goh’s work and impact on Singapore’s art scene, is part of the Singapore Writers Festival’s (SWF) signature Literary Pioneer series.

The multi-hatted maverick

Visuals of Goh Poh Seng’s Novels

Goh Poh Seng takes on larger-than-life themes in his most ambitious novel, The Immolation, and changed the game for our local literary scene with his debut novel, If We Dream Too Long.

In his lifetime, Goh published four novels, three plays, and five collections of poetry. His first novel, If We Dream Too Long, won the inaugural Singapore Literature Prize, then known as the National Book Development Council of Singapore Award for Fiction. 

Writing aside, Goh was also a board member of government establishments such as the National Theatre Trust and the National Arts Council. 

Despite challenges in the past surrounding strict regulations around "unsavoury" elements in the 1970s and 1980s, he continued to push the boundaries of our local arts scene, which eventually contributed to Singapore’s cultural growth.  

For instance, Operation Snip Snip was launched in the 1960s to nip hippie tresses in the bud. This anti-long-hair campaign, active till the 1980s, led to global music sensations like Led Zeppelin and the Bee Gees cancelling their gigs in Singapore.

Alt text: Dr Goh Poh Seng (Left) and David Bowie (Right)

Steadfast and witty, Dr Goh Poh Seng managed to get the renowned English singer, songwriter, musician and actor David Bowie to accept an invitation that the latter initially rejected

Goh was undeterred. In 1983, he staged the Singapore leg of British rock ‘n’ roll sensation David Bowie’s Serious Moonlight World Tour. Only about 1,000 people showed up, and the performance almost bankrupted Goh, but it put Singapore on the world map. Bowie himself even mentioned the island in his book Serious Moonlight: The World Tour. 

The rock ‘n’ roll didn’t stop there. When Goh invited Bowie to his home for a performance by classical Chinese musicians, the musician rejected him, saying he did not “fraternise with concert promoters”. 

Goh’s clapback was swift. “Tell Bowie he’s only a rock star. I, however, am a poet,” he said. The rock star eventually showed up. 

Starving artists are a myth

Unveiling the passion that fueled a literary revolution

Unveiling the passion that fueled a literary revolution

To understand the lengths to which Goh went to galvanise the arts in Singapore, the exhibition takes us back to his past. Born to a middle-class family in Kuala Lumpur, Goh attended the Victoria Institution in Kuala Lumpur, and received his medical degree from University College Dublin, Ireland.

There, he fell in love with writing, and even took a gap year to write exclusively. The result of that was a wry article published in New Nation in 1974, in which Goh wrote, “That one year certainly dispelled any romantic visions I had of geniuses…All I did was write and starve. It was no fun I assure you.”

It solidified Goh’s position on the myth of the starving artist: no such thing existed. Artists, like anyone else, needed to be able to earn a living from their work if they were to continue doing it.

To support local artists, Goh set up the Bistro Toulouse-Lautrec, a poetry and jazz cafe, and the Rainbow Lounge, Singapore’s first live disco and music venue. There, bands and bohemians could showcase their music, poetry, and more.  

Both outfits eventually closed down, unable to turn a profit. But the exhibition rightly points out that Goh was ahead of his time. Today, live bands and poetry readings are a thriving part of the island’s cultural core. 

“No cause for grief” 

In 1986, after his businesses failed, Goh moved with his wife and family to Vancouver, Canada, where he died in 2010.

Despite this, one could surmise Goh had no regrets. “So full of joy,” he wrote in a 2002 poem, titled Epitaph. “There’s no cause for grief.” 

As a literary pioneer, Goh might have helped paved the way for the arts in Singapore—but he is far from a relic of the past. In an age where art often finds itself on the losing end of utilitarian debates, any interpretation of his work and legacy begs larger, timely questions: What place do the arts have in the world, and in Singapore? Is there a space for dreams, and what happens if we dream too long? 

If Goh is anything to go by, the answer to that is, perhaps: good things. 

Tell Bowie He’s Only A Rock Star. I, However, Am A Poet. is a free exhibition (as part of Singapore Writers Festival 2023) on display at Funan, B2, until 10 December 2023, after which it will move to Heartbeat @ Bedok, Atrium 2, from 11 December - 27 December 2023. An audio recording of the exhibition is also available on Spotify


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