The Immolation by Goh Poh Seng

With names like Thanh, Thing Hoai Pagoda, Quang Tuyen, guerrilla warfare training camps and American troops, The Immolation (published 1977) is obviously a story set in Vietnam. The author, however, is Singaporean medical doctor, the late Dr Goh Poh Seng (1936-2010).
Never heard of him? Well, for his contribution to the arts, Dr Goh received the Cultural Medallion in 1982. A predecessor to household names like Catherine Lim, Goh Poh Seng is arguably independent Singapore’s first novelist. How did he fall out of our radar screens? This has a lot to do with Dr Goh being a maverick doctor/writer and the authorities being what they were. Though he was never regarded as a political dissident, he was nevertheless a highly vocal social critic. He was also most active at a time when any criticism of public policies was greeted by a challenge to run for political office. Frequently locking horns with the authorities, he felt he was a marked man and decided to live in self-exile in Canada from 1986 until his death in 2010.

The Immolation begins with a ghastly scene at a temple. A monk has set himself on fire. This is sign of protest and resentment on the ground. The author hints at a brewing rebellion and introduces the protagonist, a well-off foreign-educated young man by the name of Thanh. Even before watching the immolation, Thanh has decided to join “the Movement”.

Somewhat perplexed by the scene at the temple, Thanh seeks an explanation. A senior monk at the temple explains that this self-immolation cannot be viewed as suicide but an act of self sacrifice to bring attention to the ills plaguing their society. Fuelled by all the resentment and enthusiasm around him, the socially aware Thanh decides to join the “Movement” that aims to topple the regime responsible for the problems in his country. His comrades include the young and lovely My. However, there is no love story here. Throughout the book, Thanh’s affections seem somewhat one-sided. My appears to be totally engrossed in the struggle and pays little attention to romance.

Of course, Thanh’s father is against him joining the Movement. Just before leaving home for his training camp, Thanh argues with his father who warns him of his dangerous situation.

“You said the authorities can put people into prison without the onus of producing any proof. I ask you, Father, what do you think of that? What sort of society are we living in?”

After a night with a prostitute which symbolically marks his entry into rebellion, Thanh journeys to the training camp where he learns how to lay ambushes and destroy installations. After passing out, he moves on to a village called Loc Son which was really a hideout for rebel troops. From here, they went out to lay ambushes on army trucks. Thanh has his first taste of blood. He kills and he sees his comrades fall. He also discovers that his comrade Kao, has slept with his sweetheart My. Thanh is furious with the two of them, but the author brings the characters back to the more important task at hand.

Kao is eventually killed in battle. The village of Loc Son is decimated by enemy planes. Most of the villagers survive by hiding in the tunnels they dug. Thanh returns to the city, he does not want to go home and yet, he feels that he had done his part and hopes to retire. Then, he runs into My working as a hostess in a bar frequented by American GIs. He urges her to leave with him and retire from the Movement. She refuses as she thinks that there is still a lot to be done. Thanh is nearly killed in one unsuccessful mission in the city. He discards his weapon and really feels like calling it a day. The story ends a bit weakly with Thanh coming across an old man known as Old Lam. He spends the night with him and finds him dead the next morning. There is absolutely no hint of what Thanh would do next.

I’ve told the whole story, but I don’t think this review is a spoiler. There are really no mysteries or surprises here. It seems to me that Dr Goh did not make an attempt to write a book for the masses. The plot is a little weak. There is some drama, but little escalation, suspense or climax. The average reader may find difficulty finishing the book. However, Dr Goh was a talented wordsmith. His settings were very well painted. His characterisation was also superb. For those who enjoy the way he put words together or his colourful descriptions, this book may be worth reading. Apart from that, there is only academic or historical value in this book. Nevertheless, his own personal struggle against an authoritarian regime is strongly reflected not just in this book but many of his other works. He continues to speak the minds of many thinking and caring Singaporeans.

Book reviewed by Chan Joon Yee