Goh Poh Seng

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Goh Poh Seng
Goh Poh Seng.jpg
Native name
Bornca. July 1936
Died10 January 2010 (aged 73)
Cause of deathParkinson's disease
Alma materUniversity College Dublin
Awards1982 Cultural Medallion

Goh Poh Seng (simplified Chinese: 吴宝星; traditional Chinese: 吳寶星; pinyin: Wú Bǎo Xīng; July 1936 – 10 January 2010), Singaporean dramatist, novelist, doctor and poet, was born in Kuala Lumpur, British Malaya in 1936.[1] He was educated at Victoria Institution in Kuala Lumpur, received his medical degree from University College Dublin, and practised medicine in Singapore for twenty-five years.

Writing career[edit]

His writing blossomed in Ireland, where he met writers Patrick Kavanagh and Brendan Behan, published his poetry in the university magazine, and took a year off school to write. In his time living in Singapore, Dr. Goh held many honorary positions including the Chairman of the National Theatre Trust Board between 1967 and 1972, and Vice-Chairman of the Arts Council from 1967 to 1973. He was committed to the development of Art and cultural policies of post-independent Singapore, as well as the development of cultural institutions such as the Singapore National Symphony, the Chinese Orchestra and the Singapore Dance Company. Goh also opened Singapore's first theatre disco lounge, Rainbow Lounge at Ming Arcade, and Bistro Toulouse-Lautrec at Tanglin Shopping Centre for live jazz and poetry readings, organised Singapore's first David Bowie concert in 1983,[2] and envisioned a livelier Singapore River in the 1970s, a proposal that was only taken seriously decades later.[3]

He was a founder of the literary magazine Tumasek (which lasted for three issues)[4] and co-founded Singapore's first multi-disciplinary arts centre, Centre 65, to promote the arts. Centre 65 inspired the name of Centre 42, an institution for playwriting which opened in 2014.[5]


Goh's first novel, If We Dream Too Long (1972) won the National Book Development Council of Singapore's (NBDCS) Fiction Award in 1976 and has been translated into Russian, Japanese and Tagalog. While the novel was criticised by The Straits Times upon publication,[6] it enjoyed a first print run of 3,000 copies, is considered the first English-language Singaporean novel, and has been used as a Literature text in various universities.[7] His other books include the novels The Immolation (1977) and A Dance of Moths (1995), which received the NBDCS Fiction award in 1996, and poetry collections Eyewitness (1976), Lines from Batu Ferringhi (1978) and Bird With One Wing (1982). Goh's play When the Smiles are Done (1972) was the first to use Singlish on stage,[8] while his debut play The Moon is Less Bright (1964) was revived by Theatreworks (dir. Ong Keng Sen) in 1990 and The Second Breakfast Company (dir. Adeeb Fazah) in 2018.[9][10] In 1982, Goh received the Cultural Medallion for his contributions to Literature.

Move to Canada[edit]

Goh emigrated to Canada in 1986. In 2007, Goh returned to Singapore for the last time to attend the Singapore Writers Festival. A 15-minute documentary about Goh, directed by Almerinda Travasoss, was released in the same year.[11] In 2009, Goh announced his plan to write a quartet of novels loosely based on his personal and family history.[12] He died on 10 January 2010 in Vancouver, after suffering from Parkinson's Disease in his later years. Paying tribute to Goh, playwright Robert Yeo said, "He is someone who not only believed in literature, but also believed in lifting the cultural aspirations of Singaporeans."[13]


In 2012, his son Kagan Goh published Who Let In The Sky?, a family memoir about Goh's struggle with Parkinson's.[14] In 2014, the Centre for Southeast Asia Research at the University of British Columbia acquired the Goh Poh Seng Collection, a set of 110 volumes from Goh's library.[15]

In 2015, If We Dream Too Long was selected by The Business Times as one of the Top 10 English Singapore books from 1965–2015, alongside titles by Arthur Yap and Daren Shiau.[16] His play, When Smiles Are Done, was also selected as one of the "finest plays in 50 years" with productions by Michael Chiang, Kuo Pao Kun and Alfian Sa'at.[17] In the same year, The Straits Times' Akshita Nanda selected If We Dream Too Long as one of 10 classic Singapore novels. "Widely considered the first true Singaporean novel," she wrote, "it should be enjoyed for the lightness of its prose and the wit and insight of the author.[18]

Later in 2015, a collection of Goh's short stories based on his adventures in 1950s Ireland, Tall Tales and MisAdventures of a Young Westernized Oriental Gentleman, was posthumously published by NUS Press.[19] The memoir, written in the last years of Goh's life, includes reflections of his formative encounters with Irish literary giants Patrick Kavanagh and Samuel Beckett.[20] Reviewing the book in Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, Zhang Ruihe called it "a valuable addition to Singapore literature, a record of a writer's coming of age in a time of global transition and revolution."[21]

In 2016, If We Dream Too Long was adapted into an interactive dinner theater event by pop-up events company AndSoForth and the National Arts Council.[22]

Works by Goh Poh Seng[edit]


  • Eyewitness (Heinamann Educational Books (Asia) Ltd, 1976)
  • Lines from Batu Ferringhi (Island Press, 1978)
  • Bird With One Wing (Island Press, 1982) ISBN 9971835061
  • The Girl from Ermita & Selected Poems (Nightwood Editions, 1998) ISBN 0889711674
  • As Though the Gods Love Us (Nightwood Editions,2000) ISBN 0889711712



  • The Moon Is Less Bright (Singapore, 1964, 1990, 2018)
  • When Smiles Are Done (Singapore, 1966; retitled Room With Paper Flowers Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 1969)
  • The Elder Brother (Singapore, 1967)

Short Stories[edit]

Autobiographical Essays[edit]

  • ‘A Star-Lovely Art’, in Vol 10 No. 1 2010 issue of Moving Worlds: A Journal of Transcultural Writing, University of Leeds


  • National Book Development Council Of Singapore Fiction Award, 1976
  • National Book Development Council Of Singapore Fiction Award, 1996
  • Cultural Medallion for Literature, 1982


  1. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2012-03-07. Retrieved 2012-03-06.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link)
  2. ^ Chew, Hui Min (12 January 2016). "David Bowie's Singapore friend: Son of late literary pioneer Goh Poh Seng writes about friendship between dad and Bowie". Singapore Press Holdings. The Straits Times. Retrieved 3 February 2016.
  3. ^ "Singapore Literary Pioneers: Goh Poh Seng". National Library Board. Archived from the original on 2008-03-25. Retrieved 2008-04-07.
  4. ^ Yeo, Robert (Jan 20, 2010). "The writer, the dreamer, my friend", The Straits Times
  5. ^ "A new page for playwriting". The Straits Times. 24 April 2014. Retrieved 21 August 2014.
  6. ^ "A novel that doesn't get through..." The Straits Times. 4 December 1972. Retrieved 21 August 2014.
  7. ^ "Goh Poh Seng". Infopedia. 2010. Retrieved 21 August 2014.
  8. ^ "Freedom and Fearlessness: The 1970s Novels of Goh Poh Seng". QLRS. October 2013. Retrieved 21 August 2014.
  9. ^ "The Moon is Less Bright". TheatreWorks. Retrieved 21 August 2014.
  10. ^ http://centre42.sg/the-moon-is-less-bright-by-the-second-breakfast-company/
  11. ^ "Goh Poh Seng (Part 1/2)". Vimeo. 2010. Retrieved 21 August 2014.
  12. ^ "Poet in 'exile' makes peace with homeland". The Straits Times. 10 Aug 2009. Retrieved 21 August 2014.
  13. ^ "Literary pioneer Goh Poh Seng dies". my Paper. 13 Jan 2010. Archived from the original on 22 August 2014. Retrieved 21 August 2014.
  14. ^ "Who Let In The Sky? A Son's Tribute To His Father Goh Poh Seng's Courageous Struggle With Parkinson's Disease". Select Books. 2012. Archived from the original on 21 August 2014. Retrieved 21 August 2014.
  15. ^ "The Goh Poh Seng Collection at the Centre for Southeast Asian Research". Centre for Southeast Asia Research. 2014. Archived from the original on 21 August 2014. Retrieved 21 August 2014.
  16. ^ Yusof, Helmi. "Tomes that show us how we live". The Business Times. Singapore Press Holdings. Retrieved 5 January 2015.
  17. ^ Yusof, Helmi. "The finest plays in 50 years". The Business Times. Singapore Press Holdings. Retrieved 5 January 2015.
  18. ^ Nanda, Akshita. "10 Singapore stories to ponder". The Straits Times. Singapore Press Holdings. Retrieved 28 January 2015.
  19. ^ "Tall Tales and MisAdventures of a Young Westernized Oriental Gentleman". NUS Press. National University of Singapore. Retrieved 23 June 2015.
  20. ^ Koh, Jee Leong. "A Star-Lovely Art". Singapore Poetry. Archived from the original on 23 June 2015. Retrieved 23 June 2015.
  21. ^ "His Master's Voice". QLRS. Retrieved 3 February 2016.
  22. ^ http://www.straitstimes.com/lifestyle/arts/goh-poh-sengs-novel-if-we-dream-too-long-adapted-as-dinner-theatre-for-three-weekends

External links[edit]