If we dream too long...

Go north!
the long march

While talking with some colleagues whether there was such a thing as "The Singapore Novel", a colleague recommended that I read Goh Poh Seng's If we dream too long (Singapore, 1972: Island Press). Well, how to resist a book with such a dreamy proposal?

But first... who is Goh Poh Seng?!? I googled his name and this was what I found:
Goh Poh Seng was born in Malaya in 1936. He received his medical degree from University College in Dublin, and practised medicine in Singapore for twenty-five years. Goh's first novel, If We Dream Too Long, won the National Book Development Council of Singapore's Fiction Book Award and has been translated into Russian and Tagalog. His other books include The Immolation, Dance of Moths, Eyewitness, Lines from Batu Ferringhi and Bird with One Wing. (Extracted from here).

I also found this vague article by Think Centre which teases and insinuates that Goh left Singapore for Canada under unhappycircumstances in 1986 to be an outport doctor at Newfoundland.

I finished reading the book today, and I must admit that I do like this straightforward coming-of-age story of 18 year-old Kwang Meng who learns what makes us all "small frightened people" in Singapore.

Though written in the late 60s, so many of its issues and its chief character are still real and relevant. But best of all is Goh's narrative voice. There is a directness and exactness in Goh's writing, but there is also a distinctive humour. Unlike so many Singapore writers, Goh's writing laughs, laughs at and laughs with his characters. (In the book, Kwang Meng is introduced to and begins to read the late Indian writer, RK Narayan. And I think Goh must also be a fan of, oh, lovely Narayan!).

So, what if we do dream too long?...Ok, so I just turned 31. For the last 3 days, J and I have been at this design conference organised by idN. As with last year, the place was filled with these teenage design students from Singapore and around the region who were more keen to collect the autographs of the speakers than listen. But age is on their side. And since we are neither teenagers nor designers - we don't even have a design education - we came away from the show wondering if it's really too late if we wanted to make a career switch?

And what about Goh Poh Seng? Where is he today?

As part of my google search, I chanced upon this short biography by Goh himself on the website of a Vancouver senior's home called "The Lion's Den":
After receiving his Canadian medical licence, he returned to practise in Vancouver. In 1995, Goh was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease and had to give up his profession. He now lives part of the year in Vancouver and part of the year in Newfoundland. Goh began writing poetry at 19 while frequenting the pubs of Dublin where he met writers Patrick Kavanagh and Brendan Behan. Encouraged by the publication of his poetry in the university magazine, he wanted to become a writer and at one point dropped out of medical school. Starvation and a love of eating drove him back to medicine. (italics mine)

Reading this write-up, the image I have is of a 69 year-old man who, Parkinson's disease or not, medical practitioner or not, continues making a life out of what he has. And over our weekly Saturday lunch at Killiney Kopitian, J and I came to a similar conclusion. Designer or not, young or old, what mattered was the precious salvation and people we already have. Maybe we've been daydreaming again, but I think what we have is enough.


orangeclouds said…
Happy Birthday my friend :)

I did some research on as well as an email interview with GPS two years ago.

Essentially, he was a man ahead of his time: a dreamer, a writer, someone who wanted to make Sg a more creative and vibrant city, way before it became fashionable to do all these things.

No it's not too late to make a career switch (whaddya talkin' about, you guys r only 18!) ;>

But you're right, what we have now is already sufficient - n precious - in itself.
sUdkeOki said…
HP BDAE + Amen Ms. T.

Grace + Peace are sufficient indeed. In His perfect wisdom and love, what He's given and where He's placed us are no second best. But even if you aren't designers, aren't you guys already designing bags and T-shirts?

An interview with DFuse at DesignEdge also revealed that half of the team never had formal design education! They also admitted how they have to do odd jobs they don't like to enable 'em to carry out their projects on the side. The installation designer for the Korean Pavillion also told me that her education background was in Art Theory, and only practiced art on her own.

I think it's also easy for me to regret not having gone on the design path at such brilliant-design-saturated event where designers are celebritized and their works awed and appreciated, with little realization how they are representing only a minority of designers. Not every designer gets to do what they want or reap real satisfaction from their work like those at the conference.

The design world needs critics, inspirers, organizers and users. So I guess until He opens a real door of opportunity in design practice, I should be happy enough as a design enthusiast. I'll continue taking pictures of buildings and making types, while you guys should continue making your tshirts and bags. And if design really matters, it will increasingly become part of the social fabric, where all fields are increasingly interdependent, allowing more opportunities for us non-designers to be involved with the design process.

But in the end, be glad that for those in the hands of The Architect, it is well with their souls.
ampulets said…
OC - you are right! it was kind of strange reading that novel written in the 60s and thinking that nothing much seemed to have changed since then. a pity he felt he had to leave singapore to live the way he wanted.

sudkheoki -you do type? will be curious to see some - next time?
tcn afen said…
actually the best time to go into a form of artistic expression is around your age now.People who are too young have nothing worthwhile to say in their work and it shows. I love your work so please push ahead for it. the people who dream but don't take action will always live in uncertainty of things that may be.
Many great photographers started out late, like peter lindbergh and mario testoni, Gauguin started painting in his thirties, etc etc etc.

Also, Plans are under way for this magazine/book I told you about, I thought you may be interested in participating. We are dealing with the issue of Growing Old in Singapore, and I'm open to suggestions for projects related to that topic to add to the magazine. any interest? you can use your illustrating/writing skills.=)
ampulets said…
jing - Thanks always for being so encouraging! Guess J and I have to sit down and work through the math$ at some point...

Got your email about the mag, sorry haven't replied - but will do so soon. J and I have also been talking in the past week about the life of old folks in singapore. well, actually, it's always been a topic, but last week it came alive.
Unknown said…
happy birthday!! see u in singapore soon!
ampulets said…
samuraibunny - see ya December!
Readymade said…
National Library has a brief bio on Goh Poh Seng in its Singapore Literary Pioneers Gallery, together with some (reference) copies of his works.
Readymade said…
"A nation which ignores and does not encourage its theatre is, if not culturally dead, culturally pitiable; just as the theatre which ignores the drama of its people, and fails to register their trials as well as their triumphs, their tears and their laughter, has little right to call itself a national theatre, but merely as amusement hall, a place for those who attend merely to ‘kill time’." -- Goh Poh Seng
ampulets said…
readymade -thanks for the quote! perhaps it was remarks like this which won Goh Poh Seng too many "enemies" on our small and small-minded island.

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