Freedom and Fearlessness: The 1970s Novels of Goh Poh Seng
"Do things fearlessly. Steal, beg, grovel and conquer for the grasp of language."
– Goh Poh Seng, at a talk during Singapore Writers Festival 2007
By Clarissa Oon
In his introduction to a volume of essays on contemporary Singaporean-Malaysian literature, Sharing Borders (2009), the literary critic Gwee Li Sui bemoans the dearth of historical and biographical compasses and the consequent yawning gaps in interpretation and meaning-making. As he noted, "the reading of early writing is losing its historical nuances, seeing how the bulk of regional criticism simply leapt from close readings to postcolonial mappings, with often weak concern for literary history and none for biographies." Such lacunae in the popular and intellectual consciousness, as Gwee identifies, include Lee Tzu Pheng's once-banned poem, 'My Country and My People' – an ambivalent reflection on nationhood and belonging that could not be read over the airwaves in the 1970s – the out-of-print though groundbreaking pioneer poet Arthur Yap (1943–2006), and another of his contemporaries, the bold and prolific poet, playwright, novelist and cultural activist Goh Poh Seng (1936–2010). A major cultural force from the 1960s up until he migrated with his family to Canada in 1986 (he received the Cultural Medallion for Literature in 1982), Goh was all but forgotten until a 2007 invitation to speak at the Singapore Writers Festival reconnected him with the Singapore literati. Unfortunately he died three years later, capitulating after a 15-year battle with Parkinson's Disease.
There are various reasons for the relative neglect of Goh by scholars and researchers in this part of the world, compared with other pioneer writers like poets, Edwin Thumboo, Lee and Yap, the novelist Lloyd Fernando and poet-playwright Robert Yeo. One could be that, in terms of literary craft, some of Goh's strongest works were published after he had left Singapore. These include the many incandescent poems in his last two verse collections, The Girl from Ermita & Selected Poems (1998) and As Though the Gods Love Us (2000), as well as his fourth and final novel, Dance With White Clouds (2001), a taut, whimsical tale about an old man starting over and making a new life in a distant town. Another reason may be that, because Goh's If We Dream Too Long (1972) is the first Singaporean English-language novel, and When Smiles are Done (1965) the first play to use the local version of English, these works had no precedents.
Whatever their flaws in construction, they needed to be read not just as literary texts but also for their socio-historical significance. Ironically, if critics back then lacked the distance of time to assess their worth, large swathes of historical context elude today's critics. Now that the young Singaporean rebel without a cause and the HDB setting of If We Dream Too Long (henceforth Dream) have become familiar territory for countless Singapore short stories, novels and films – as Professor Koh Tai Ann noted in her introduction to the 2010 reprint of the novel – Goh's achievement in nailing for the English-language reader the earliest stirrings of alienation amidst society's unrelenting embrace of wealth and urbanisation has been forgotten.
A third reason is that, as with the bilingual dramatist Kuo Pao Kun (1939–2002), Goh's writings cannot be fully understood without a study of his cultural activism, of which there is a lack of documentation. Kuo and Goh moved in largely different worlds back in the 1960s and 1970s – one in Chinese-speaking, working-class, left-leaning circles, and the other among more affluent English-speaking liberals, the minority at the time – but were similar in that they were extremely passionate artists who, faced with a cultural desert, rolled up their sleeves and built the early infrastructure for the arts to bloom. Thus Kuo and his wife, dancer Goh Lay Kuan, started a theatre and dance school and company, the Practice Performing Arts School, in 1965. Twenty-five years later, the dramatist founded a small independent arts centre, The Substation. With the income from his day job as a physician, Goh Poh Seng started – at various points in his life – a literary journal, arts organisation, publishing firm and jazz club. The difference between Kuo and him is that the institutions the former created survived him, while the latter's were shortlived – yet another reason why Goh Poh Seng is not a household name today.
Where does one begin to address such neglect? His three plays, written and staged in the 1960s but never published, cry out to be documented and written about in greater detail, as does the development of his poetry. For this essay, I will look at his first two novels, Dream and The Immolation (1977) – both of which have been republished by NUS Press and Epigram Books respectively in the last few years. The sociopolitical context of the late 1960s and 1970s is key to understanding these novels – Singapore was then a developing state which had taken a decisive shift away from the idealism and contestation of possibilities present in early nationhood, towards top-down control, intensive planning and a trajectory of breakneck economic growth built on investment by multinational companies. Dream is an obvious reaction to that, set in the Singapore of that time and with a cast of local characters. The Immolation, a tale of Vietnam War-like guerilla warfare in an unnamed Southeast Asian country, is actually the stronger novel, with a more convincing cast of characters and better fleshed-out relationships. These are animated by the question of what it means to believe in a cause and to give your life or kill for it. Aside from being a powerful if uneven war novel of universal relevance, The Immolation can also be read as an allegory of Goh's journey as a postcolonial artist and intellectual, one who fought battles to create a new country and society but also went the distance to develop an independent voice that would not be subsumed by the system.
The Kuala Lumpur-born writer's cultural activism can broadly be divided into three phases. In the first phase, from the early- to mid-1960s, he had completed his medical degree at University College, Dublin, and had just started his medical practice in newly self-governing Singapore, settling here with his Singaporean wife, editor Margaret Joyce. With various groups of like-minded friends, he started a literary and current affairs journal Tumasek, a multi-disciplinary arts organisation Centre 65, and wrote and produced three plays. These English-speaking graduates and university students hungered simply to see the brave new world around them reflected critically on stage, instead of yet another Western-style drawing room drama. His friends included the lawyer Lim Chor Pee (1936–2006), who wrote plays like Mimi Fan (1962), and pioneer architect William Lim. Goh's energetic promotion of the arts caught the eye of the Singapore government – the first of two stagings of When Smiles are Done, at a secondary school in Queenstown, was attended by the MP for Queenstown and Minister for Labour, Jek Yeun Thong (later Minister for Culture).
The second phase of Goh's cultural activism took place within the establishment; he volunteered his time as Chairman of the National Theatre Trust from 1967 to 1972 and sat on the boards of many government and quasi-government bodies, some of which had nothing to do with the arts, such as the Singapore Tourist Promotion Board and the Termination of Pregnancy Authorisation Board. Newspaper interviews with Goh date this period as ending sometime in the 1970s. One 1982 Straits Times interview reported that he "suddenly resigned from all his public commitments in 1972 under less than happy circumstances."
The National Theatre Trust was one of the precursors of the National Arts Council. It brought in foreign acts to perform at the now-demolished National Theatre and also set up a homegrown dance company, choir, symphony orchestra and Chinese orchestra. During Goh's time, there was little in government coffers for the arts as the priority was economic development. The Trust got virtually no public funding and, in 1970, he described it as a "beggar" constantly appealing to the public for donations. Nearly all the arts groups under it soon folded, with the exception of its Chinese dance troupe.
In the 1980s, the writer entered the third phase of his activism as an entrepreneur and pioneer of the live entertainment scene. ("I went into business for the money, but also because business is very exciting – it is as creative as writing a sonnet," he said in a 2007 interview.) Three projects of his made headlines. One was the conservation plan for the south bank of Boat Quay, drawn up with architect Lim to save the derelict warehouses from the bulldozers, that paved the way for its eventual conversion into a restaurant and nightlife district. (Goh and Lim's plan, though, was for a "people's promenade" of restaurants and cultural centres where vanishing trades could be carried out and traditional Chinese goods sold.) Next he set up Bistro Toulouse-Lautrec at Tanglin Shopping Centre for live jazz and poetry readings, as well as Rainbow Lounge at Ming Arcade. This was a theatre lounge with live bands and a dance floor – a combination unheard of at the time but which was such a hit that other clubs copied it. After a successful start, Goh's Hujong Enterprises ran into financial trouble; among other things, the authorities forced Rainbow to close down for three weeks after its popular resident band made a risque remark in Hokkien. He sold his stake in the company and left Singapore for good in 1986. "I felt it would be impossible for me to resurrect myself in Singapore, that no matter what I tried, they would find means and ways of suppressing me," he told The Business Times in 2007 when reflecting on this episode.
Goh wrote Dream in 1968, when he was head of the National Theatre Trust, and it was published four years later. According to newspaper reports, he began work on The Immolation in the early 1970s. The 1970s and early 1980s – the transitional period before his transformation into a nightlife entrepreneur – was actually a productive time for Goh in terms of his writing; apart from his two novels, he published three poetry collections during this period. He started his own publishing company, Island Press, to publish Dream and two poetry collections, while The Immolation and his maiden verse collection Eyewitness (1976) were put out by Heinemann, a publisher of educational texts. While influenced by the writings of Dostoyevsky, Camus and Beckett, he was no dreary existentialist but a hot-blooded male who loved life and women, and longed for the unbridled vastness of the sea and nature. He kept up his medical practice but would decamp periodically to a seaside bungalow in Batu Ferringhi, Penang, to write, and from 1980 to 1982, shuttered his clinic and travelled extensively for inspiration.
What was happening in Singapore must have made Goh feel particularly claustrophobic. As his friend William Lim has noted in a wide-ranging essay, 'Architecture, Art, Identity in Singapore: Is There Life after Tabula Rasa?', following separation from Malaysia and the pullout of employment-generating British military bases from the island, the PAP government made the pragmatic decision to position Singapore as one of the Asian frontline states for America in the Cold War, and began a wave of construction to reorient a trade-dependent island towards attracting foreign investments, particularly from American MNCs. To create jobs and maximise land use, the random patchwork of kampungs and farms had to make way for sharply delimited belts of factories, high-rise public housing and office towers. Buildings began their ascent towards the sky. At the same time, extensive controls were slapped on the press, labour unions and political debate to curb dissent in any shape or form. This dramatically curtailed the creative and intellectual climate that had been relatively vibrant in the 1960s. For example, in the area of architecture, pressure was exerted on public sector and academic members of an independent urban planning think-tank, Singapore Planning and Urban Research Group (SPUR), to resign, until the society was finally de-registered in 1973.
In his memoirs, OB Markers: My Straits Times Story, former Straits Times editor Cheong Yip Seng records several episodes in this "knuckle-dusters era"; among other things, the Singapore Herald, an English-language newspaper set up as competition to The Straits Times, was killed in 1971 after less than a year for defying official directives and being too critical of policies like National Service, military conscription being a new thing then. When the government stopped all advertising in the newspaper and the Herald turned to foreign funding, it led to a revision of laws on press ownership and shareholding, giving the Singapore government final say over a newspaper's agenda. In the 1970s, journalists and artists were among those detained without trial under the Internal Security Act, including Kuo from 1976 to 1980. Arts censors had a Cold War mentality that viewed plays and publications as possible platforms for communist or destabilising views. Nonetheless, the PAP was delivering on its economic goals and promises, and life went on. There was an active amateur arts scene and writers carried on writing – in 1974, Yeo's play Are You There, Singapore?, about a group of Singapore students of varying political stripes in London, was staged to good reviews. The architect Lim and his wife Lena, who set up independent bookstore Select Books in 1976, regularly hosted parties that functioned as intellectual salons; Goh and his wife Margaret were among the outspoken guests who would drink and talk politics, philosophy and art late into the night.
Dream is far from a sociopolitical tract and wears its commentary lightly, with a sprinkling of gentle humour. Like The Immolation, it is a bildungsroman; its protagonist is a young man who has only recently come into a sense of self and inhabits it uncertainly. But while The Immolation's Thanh throws himself into revolutionary warfare and seeks meaning in that larger cause – making it a much darker novel – in Dream, the lead character Kwang Meng seems to just drift along with an underlying sense of futility. The oldest son in a working-class family, he and his friends have just passed their Senior Cambridge (A-level) exams, a qualification that the novel tells us would have been a ticket to a better life 30 years ago, but for their baby-boomer generation, means nothing at a time when the economy is industrialising and there are just too few white-collar jobs to go around. Kwang Meng cannot afford a university education and so resigns himself to being a clerk, like his father. To escape from his humdrum existence, the novel sees him flirting first with the after-dark world of the bars – he falls for a bargirl, Lucy – followed by a lifestyle of self-improvement represented by his neighbour Boon Teik and his wife (their "tastefully furnished" flat with Van Gogh prints, Japanese paper lampshades and ikebana arrangements comes as a jolt to Kwang Meng who "had never imagined that a Housing Development Board flat could be made so attractive and pleasant") and their "good girl" cousin, Anne.
As a first-time novelist, Goh has not yet mastered the skill of using description in a consistent way to flesh out characters or advance the story, and there are passages which meander along unconvincingly. The novel's strength, however, lies in its candid and often penetrating observations of the changing physical and social landscape, through the eyes of a quiet young man who loves nothing more than a dip in the wide-open sea. Goh parlays his poet's lyricism into passages like the following, where Kwang Meng registers the massive reclamation of land from the sea as he and Anne ride a bus into Bedok:
If the supporting characters exist mainly as foils to Kwang Meng, as critics have pointed out, they do so quite effectively. One of them is his friend, the ambitious Hock Lai, an insurance salesman, who dates and weds a rich man's daughter, Cecilia. To his friends, Hock Lai salivates over Cecilia's family mansion in Tanglin – "You should see the garden! The dining room! The tableware! The food!… The paintings! The servants! The swimming pool!…" – and if his laundry list of details is not terribly seductive, Goh then follows up with Kwang Meng's more incisive take: "Some men require a certain thing to set them right – alcohol, a woman, politics, sports, money – without which they are all awry, as if something basic is out of place. With Hock Lai, it is money. Yet when they find this thing, they are obsessed and single-minded to an abnormal degree. Intense, dreadful, strange, absorbed with their world, shutting other windows of life out. They are strangely complete, but utterly unwholesome creatures."
Unlike others around him, Kwang Meng is a self-acknowledged dreamer who lacks the will to change – he repeatedly refuses his favourite uncle's offer to join him in Malaysia and start a business – and by end of the novel, a turn of events tethers him to his family's shabby, crowded HDB flat for good. But he comes of age in the process. ("These were the tears of a man, almost.")
Growing up is harder to do in The Immolation, in which a group of young people join a communist guerilla force battling a corrupt ruling elite. The main protagonist, Thanh, is a businessman's son and aspiring poet who has just returned to his war-torn home country after studying overseas. He joins an underground communist cell out of the urge to clean the slate and create a more just society. When he witnesses a smiling monk setting himself ablaze in protest against the oppressive regime, it creates an unresolved tension in him that forms the crux of the novel: Are irrevocable acts of sacrifice in the name of a political cause something he should discipline himself to aspire to? Why does the notion attract yet repulse him so? Thanh's journey takes him to a guerilla camp in the countryside where he trains religiously, and then into the carnage of face-to-face combat and bombings, prompting much soul-searching.
The supporting cast here is better developed than in Dream in that the reader can see how fighting in the war changes each of them. The counterpoint to Thanh's impressionable idealist is his closest friend and fellow guerilla, the whip-smart journalist Quang Tuyen. There is a charming exchange the night before their enlistment, when Quang Tuyen convinces Thanh that he needs to experience a "local girl" in a brothel before he can fight for them, seeing as Thanh has only had sex with foreign women overseas. Thanh is shocked at the uncommunist nature of his friend's suggestion, leading to a rejoinder from Quang Tuyen that could well be the author himself speaking:
However there is also a pragmatic, logical side to Quang Tuyen that helps him to survive as the war rages on. After Thanh's gun has claimed its first victim and the first of their friends is killed in battle, a despondent Thanh turns to Quang Tuyen to help him make sense of the brutality. His friend's reply is matter-of-fact: "I'm sorry. It must have been nasty, bad. But don't let remorse eat at you for too long, Thanh. You had to do what you did. It's war. I don't mean to excuse it just by saying 'it's war'. But finally that's the truth, it's war. Bad, bad war." Later, Quang Tuyen is assigned to the propaganda section of the force, rises in the hierarchy and soon fades out of the novel; the reader is told "one day he might get to be Minister of Information after all". Another character who proves to be a survivor – but who does so by completely submitting her will and intellect to the revolutionary cause – is My, Thanh's love interest. She is better realised than the women in Dream; her steely impassivity is laid bare from the outset when the reader is told that her father and older brother were both revolutionaries who were killed in the war, and that when the moment came for her to join the Cause, "I'd just have to walk away (from my mother), giving no explanation. Just walk away like today." Nonetheless, Goh's female characters tend to be shadowy and archetypal (it is said of My that "her small features, slenderness and beauty gave her a certain unreachable quality"), and the revelation at the end, when Tranh finds out what role My has been playing in the war effort, is entirely predictable.
Through Thanh's eventual disillusionment, The Immolation reflects Goh's recoil from the brutality of war as well as his distrust, as an artist and humanist, of the machinery of political ideologies and systems. Writing in an era where ideology loomed large and thinking citizens of young, newly independent countries were urged to take sides, the author's message appears to be that political participation can falsify one's ideals and even integrity. One of the most powerful scenes in the novel comes near the end when a battle-hardened but increasingly weary Thanh returns to the capital city on an assignment and runs into Xuan, a married comrade and father of young children, whom My and the other hardliners had earlier scoffed at for not going with the rest of the group to fight in the countryside. Throughout the novel, Goh has expended much poetry in depicting and reflecting on violence, both physical and metaphorical, to the extent that the text could be criticised for being overwritten at certain parts. But the exchange between Thanh and Xuan is lacerating in its use of suggestion and understatement; Xuan does not spell out what the authorities did to his family to get him to spill the beans on the communists, but the reader feels the horror of it, and even more so Xuan's insistence that whatever horrors were inflicted on his innocent family, he did not betray the Cause and "kept my honour". There is a terrible poignancy as the exchange winds to its conclusion:
In a 1964 essay in Tumasek, the journal that he co-founded, Goh, then aged 28, wrote about how his post-war generation had "much thrust upon its shoulders" in a turbulent age of decolonisation and nation-building. He wrote about the choices facing intellectuals like himself:
Staying outside politics as a politically-engaged writer and cultural activist sums up the role played by Goh in Singapore from 1961 to 1986. That proved to be the path of greater resistance; he eventually felt stymied by the conservative and authoritarian climate and left. It proved to be the country's loss. As the poet Alvin Pang told The Straits Times following Goh's death in 2010: "He was a prolific and really fine writer but generations of writers never got to engage with him. We lost him a long time ago, we missed out on a really fine intellect." Fortunately, as his novels, If We Dream Too Long and The Immolation, demonstrate, he left behind a truckload of writing shot through with his distinctive heart-on-sleeve lyricism and compelling insights into a changing Singapore as well as the unchanging human condition. Now if only more people would read his works, both along as well as against the grain of history.QLRS Vol. 12 No. 4 Oct 2013