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Literary Arts

Robert Yeo

One of Singapore's most representative writers

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Published: 12 Oct 2016


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I am controversial. I see the term “controversial” as being more meaningful if it means that the writer probes new areas of expression which extends the boundaries and adds to what can be said about them.

Robert Yeo was born in Singapore in 1940, and is one of the country’s most representative writers. He has been described as having captured the changing Singaporean psyche through his poetry and plays, documenting the country from its nascent years to its coming-of-age. Yeo is also a founding executive director of OperaViva and has recently focused his writing endeavours on opera as a librettist. In 1991, he received the Pingat Bakti Masyarakat (Public Service Medal) for his contributions to drama in Singapore and in 2011, the SEA Write Award for a lifetime of writing.

Registered at birth as Yeo Cheng Chuan, Robert Yeo grew up as the eldest son with a younger sister and two brothers in a Peranakan Hokkien family. The first language he learnt was Peranakan Malay and he only started learning English when he began his formal education at six.

Yeo attended Serangoon English School from 1947 to 1956 and it was in secondary school that his love for literature was born. He would devour books borrowed from a schoolmate’s large collection, spending his mornings in school and his afternoons and evenings at home reading, sometimes in poor light. Soon, he became a self-described “schoolboy scribbler”, inspired to imitate the writers he admired. The ignition of his interest in poetry came serendipitously one day after school when Yeo noticed that an Indian family was selling their household items in their home just next to his school. Curious, he went in to browse and discovered a pocket book of a Persian poem translated by Edward FitzGerald, Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, which would come to reside in Yeo’s shirt pocket and be read over and over again. In school, he took Additional Literature for his O levels, exposing him to great Augustan poets such as Dryden and Pope, as well as the Romantic poets.

Yeo topped his class in the ‘O’ level examinations, and went on to attend St. Andrew’s School for his pre-university education. Yeo’s love for poetry was fostered as he further studied Romantic poetry by Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge and Keats in St. Andrew’s School. He also began his discovery of modernist poetry, partially inspired by a schoolmate who would spontaneously recite W. H. Auden poems to him.

Leaving St. Andrew’s School, Yeo went on to the National University of Singapore, eventually graduating with a BA (Hons) in English in 1961. While at the university, his involvement with the theatre began as he served as vice-president of the Literary Society and took part in stage plays. Yeo also published poems in undergraduate magazines. While at the university, he also attended a poetry reading by poets Edwin Thumboo and Ee Tiang Hong, which impressed upon Yeo the potential of writing in Singapore and Malaya.

Yeo returned to St. Andrew’s School as a trainee teacher in 1962, and would continue serving the school as a full-time teacher until 1966. As a teacher, he took up the challenge of introducing the Modern Paper in ‘A’ level Literature and taught difficult books by T. S. Eliot, James Joyce and W. B. Yeats, with the approval and encouragement of Francis Thomas, the school principal. When Yeo published his second book of poems and napalm does not help 11 years later in 1977, he dedicated the collection to Thomas.

In 1966, Yeo received a scholarship from the Public Service Commission and headed to London, UK, to pursue a Masters in Comparative Education. These two years in London were significant to Yeo’s artistic development as it would inspire and colour his artistic beliefs. He joined the Poetry Society of the Institute of Education and served as its President in 1968. In his free time, Yeo would attend plays and poetry readings, taking in as much as he could from what London’s art scene could offer. During this period, he also discovered a new sense of political awareness, encountering for himself student unrest and demonstrations in London and the rest of the world. In 1967, Yeo came upon the next book that would influence his reading of poetry greatly—A. Alvarez’s The New Poetry—and it was to lead him to listen to the American beat poet Allen Ginsberg at the Roundhouse.

After his time in London, Yeo returned to Singapore for a spell and became the editor of Prospect, a magazine published by the Ministry of Education. During this time, he wrote his first play Are You There Singapore?, but it would not reach the stage till six years later. In 1970, he accepted a job in Bangkok, Thailand to serve in the Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Secretariat as an information officer. During this period, his first book of poetry Coming Home Baby was published in 1971 after a few years in the making. In addition to his daily duties as an information officer, he also wrote, using a pseudonym, articles for the Singapore publication The New Nation on his experiences in Bangkok. He returned to Singapore again in 1972 and joined the Teachers’ Training College as a lecturer the following year.

Now settled in Singapore, Yeo put his new perspectives into words and action, staging—together with the president of the Experimental Theatre Club Prem Kumar as director—his first play Are You There Singapore? in 1974. The play, which had a sold-out run at the Drama Centre, was anchored in Singaporean language, characters and situations, and ignited a desire to produce and stage locally written plays and to move away from Western plays. Yeo was also instrumental in getting Indian playwright Asif Currimbhoy’s play Goa staged in Singapore in 1975. He found an artistic kindred spirit in Currimbhoy, whose work and belief that art had constructive value in national and social concerns echoed and inspired Yeo’s own beliefs. Like Are You There Singapore?, the staging of Goa drew attention to the importance of developing plays that drew from post-colonial experiences.

Yeo followed his first play with One Year Back Home in 1980, which caused a controversy with its opposition politician character, Fernandez. This issue was revisited in 1997 in Yeo’s play Changi—the concluding instalment of his Singapore Trilogy of plays—where Fernandez returns to contemplate the still simmering issue of political censorship and detention in Singapore. During this period he also wrote and staged Second Chance (1988) and The Eye of History (1992).

Yeo also continued writing poems, publishing his second book of poetry and napalm does not help (1977), A Part of Three: Poems (1989) and Leaving Home, Mother: Selected Poems (1999). He had published the poetry anthology Five Takes in 1974, consisting of poems by himself, Arthur Yap and three other poets, and also written a novel The Adventures of Holden Heng in 1986.

Living through Singapore’s transition to independence, Yeo is a firm advocate of a national literature that could be identified as Singapore literature. To this aim, he has served in arts advisory committees and compiled and edited anthologies of plays, short stories and poems for both the general reading public and secondary school students. He also was an arts columnist for The New Nation in 1974. This passion also translated to his time as a Literature teacher, where he would champion the teaching of Singapore literature in secondary schools. In 1991, he received the Pingat Bakti Masyarakat (Public Service Medal) for his contributions to drama in Singapore. In 2011, he received the SEA Write Award.

Yeo, who has been associated with second-generation poets such as Chandran Nair, Lee Tzu Pheng and Arthur Yap on account of their reflective, ironic and often satirical takes on life in Singapore, continues to write and teach.

In recent years, Yeo has focused his creative output towards opera as a librettist. He wrote his first libretto Fences in 2006 and followed that with Kannagi, The Story of the Jewelled Anklet in 2009. In 2008, he, together with Singapore Lyric Opera founder Leow Siak Fah and composer John Sharpley founded OperaViva to showcase new works by Singapore and Asian librettists. In 2011, he published a book of memoirs Routes: A Singaporean Memoir 1940­–75, and in 2012, he published his collected poems The Best of Robert Yeo. Yeo is also currently Adjunct Professor in Creative Writing at the Singapore Management University.

Timeline

27 Jan 1940

Born in Singapore.

1947 to 1956

Attended Serangoon English School.

1957 to 1958

Attended St. Andrew's School.

1959 to 1961

Attended University of Singapore and graduated with a BA (Hons) in English.

1961

Vice-president of the Literary Society, University of Singapore.

1961 to 1966

Teacher, St. Andrew’s School.

1963

Received Diploma in Education, School of Education, University of Singapore.

1966 to 1968

Received a scholarship and went on to receive a Sino-British MA in Comparative Education, Institute of Education, London, UK.

1967 to 1968

Member, Poetry Society of Institute of Education, London, UK. Became president of the society in 1968.

1968 to 1969

Editor, Prospect magazine, Ministry of Education, Singapore.

1970 to 1972

Information Officer, Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Secretariat, Bangkok, Thailand.

1971

Published first book of poems Coming Home Baby..

1973 to 1975

Lecturer, Teachers’ Training College, Singapore.

1974

Staged play Are You There, Singapore?

Published poetry anthology Five Takes with Arthur Yap and three other poets.

1974 to Feb 1976

Arts column writer, The New Nation.

1977

Published poetry collection and napalm does not help.

1977 to 1991

Chair, Drama Advisory Committee, Ministry of Culture and Ministry of Community Development.

1978

Attended the International Writing Program, University of Iowa, USA.

Editor, Singapore Short Stories Vol. 1 & 2

1979

Editor, Prize-winning Plays Vol. 1–4..

1980

Wrote and staged play One Year Back Home.

1981

Editor, ASEAN Short Stories.

1984

Co-writer with M. P. Liu, To Cipher and To Sing: Ideas and Activities for Literature Teaching.

1986

Published novel The Adventures of Holden Heng.

Co-editor with Kirpal Singh, ACLALS Bulletin, 7th Series, No. 4, Commonwealth Fiction 2.

1987

Editor, Magic 1 and 2: Poems for Lower Secondary Schools.

1988

Wrote and staged play Second Chance.

1989

Published poetry collection A Part of Three: Poems.

1991

Received Pingat Bakti Masyarakat (Public Service Medal) for contributions to drama in Singapore.

General Editor, Modern ASEAN Plays, Singapore.

1992

Staged play The Eye of History.

Editor, Ripples: Short Stories for Secondary Schools.

1992 to 1995

Chairman, Drama Review Committee, National Arts Council.

1993

Editor, Singular Stories: Tales from Singapore Vol. 1.

1996

Co-writer with Guy Sherborne, Second Change: A cross cultural casebook.

1997

Staged play Changi.

1999

Published poetry collection Leaving Home, Mother: Selected Poems.

2008

Co-founder, OperaViva, with Leow Siak Fah and John Sharpley.

2008 to Present

Executive director, producer and librettist, OperaViva.

2009

Wrote libretto Kannagi, The Story of the Jewelled Anklet. Performed in Sri Mariamman Temple.

2011

Published Routes: A Singaporean Memoir 1940–75.

Received S.E.A. Write Award.

2012

Editor, ONE: The Anthology.

Staged opera Fences, for which he wrote the libretto.

Adjunct Professor, Singapore Management University.


TributeSG

TributeSG celebrates the arts community’s most senior members, and those who have made a lifetime of contribution to the arts. These artists, administrators, educators, patrons, and champions include many Singapore arts pioneers who laid the foundations of the vibrant arts and cultural scene we enjoy today. The many profiles in TributeSG let us into the minds and worlds of these pioneers, and help us understand our shared arts heritage. When we revisit their works and rediscover their journeys, we learn where we came from and how we came to be. Collectively, their stories tell the tale of the making of a nation’s artistic identity.

In putting together this collection, the TributeSG team consulted an external advisory panel, consisting of Arun Mahiznan, Choo Thiam Siew, J. P. Nathan, K. K. Seet, Kwok Kian Chow, and Iskandar Ismail. Those selected to be profiled in TributeSG met one of the following criteria: they were at least 60 years of age as of 12 Oct 2016, or deceased, or had received national recognition in the form of the Cultural Medallion. This journey of arts archival officially came to a close on 12 Oct 2016, after four years of extensive research, interviews and collation of information graciously provided by the TributeSG pioneers, their families and peers. TributeSG also benefited from enthusiastic help from like-minded friends and organisations who supported Esplanade’s cause—to remember, honour and celebrate Singapore’s arts pioneers.

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