Mon, Aug 10, 2009
The Straits Times
Poet in 'exile' makes peace with homeland

HALFWAY across the world in Vancouver, Canada, where he now lives, Dr Goh Poh Seng spends his days toiling at his desk, snowed under by a mountain of handwritten notes.

One of Singapore's pioneer writers, the 73-year-old poet and novelist is planning and drafting an ambitious quartet of four novels, loosely based on his own personal and family history.

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'I admit I am a workaholic but I have so much to do. At 73, one feels the urgency to put things down,' he says in an e-mail interview.

The shadow of Parkinson's disease, which has hovered over him for about 10 years, makes his prose and verse burn all the more luminously. The illness forced his retirement from medical practice and requires him to use a walking stick, but his mind has never been more animated.

He found time to write a poem for Insight, in between slaving over his final magnum opus and collecting all his poetry for a separate 600-page volume, Crazy To Sing Strange Songs, to be published at year's end.

The poem published here, Singapore: Home At Last, sees Dr Goh making peace with the country he lived in for 27 years before leaving in 1986 in a fit of disillusionment with the conservative climate.

He broke his long self-imposed exile for a nostalgic visit two years ago, when he was featured in the Singapore Writers Festival. 'I am always here, even though not physically,' he had quipped then.

The Kuala Lumpur-born, Dublin-educated doctor, who came here in the early 1960s, was a cultural visionary of sorts. As a playwright in the 1960s, he was one of the first to use Singlish on stage.

He later concentrated on poetry and novels, and his 1972 novel, If We Dream Too Long, is widely regarded as the first Singaporean English-language novel.

Dr Goh was also an impresario who produced many cultural and pop concerts by local and foreign acts, including David Bowie and Russia's Bolshoi Ballet. He set up Singapore's first disco and live music venue, Rainbow Lounge, at the Ming Arcade in 1983.

In the early 1980s, he drew up the first blueprint to turn Boat Quay into a lifestyle and entertainment hangout.

Though he received the Cultural Medallion in 1982, his freewheeling spirit got him into trouble with the authorities who shut down Rainbow Lounge in 1986 after a member of the house band made a risque remark in Hokkien onstage.

Dr Goh suffered heavy financial losses as a result, and in frustration decided to migrate to Canada with his family.

Asked to recount his biggest struggle as a pioneer writer here, he says it was simply to be recognised and accepted by society at a time when 'there were no precedents'.

'One would imagine that there should be keen encouragement, especially in a new nation with its polyglot characteristics. We never got it in Singapore. We received only benign neglect and the universities were not exciting.

'I was in a situation where the more I wrote, the poorer I became,' says the author of four published novels and five volumes of poetry.

He recalls hearing then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew speak in the 1960s to an audience of mainly medical professionals - in Dr Goh's own words, 'fat cats in white coats who listened reverently'.

'For some reason, Lee Kuan Yew chose the occasion to let it be known that he wasn't keen on reading literature. He would rather read something more useful. I am a great fan of his but I disagree with him on this one account,' he says.

If that is the attitude of Singapore's leaders, then 'it's not surprising that literature is in the doldrums in Singapore'.

Literature is fundamentally about humanity, and what it can do that the rat race cannot is 'engender understanding and tolerance', he argues.

'Yes, we can excel in cleanliness, develop a green thumb, a great airport and seaport, but we can fall short of becoming a caring society.

'To read literature is to cultivate a caring nation. Majulah Singapura!' The veteran poet in him ends with a flourish.

This article was first published in The Straits Times.

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Poet in 'exile' makes peace with homeland

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