Robert Yeo

Robert Yeo, a.k.a Yeo Cheng Chuan, (b.1940, Singapore -), is a poet and playwright. He has also written a novel, newspaper columns on the arts, literary and theatre essays advocating the establishment of a distinctly Singaporean tradition in writing. He was for many years a lecturer in the National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University and was a proponent for the greater inclusion of the study of Singaporean texts in the school curriculum. Poet and critic Aaron Lee has described Yeo as being “the most Singaporean of Singaporean writers”. He is often associated with second-generation literary contemporaries, poets Lee Tzu Pheng and Arthur Yap.

Early life
Yeo was born to a Peranakan family in 1940. He grew up in a kampong in Hougang from which he drew inspiration for some of his works. His childhood was shared between the homes of his paternal grandfather in Valley Road in Hougang and his maternal grandmother’s home in Haig Road, Katong.

Yeo is a self-confessed accidental playwright. His two-year education stint abroad in London in the late 1960s left him with a deep impression. His experiences stirred him but he found that as a form, poetry was insufficient and limiting to what he had wanted to say. That resulted in the writing of his first play, Are You There, Singapore?  It was drafted in three weeks in 1968 upon his return from London, where he was conferred a Masters in Comparative Education. It was performed only in 1974. The play centred on Singaporean students studying and living abroad and their views on post-Independent Singapore at the time. In writing about returning students, he was following in the footsteps of an earlier playwright, Lim Chor Pee, who wrote A White Rose at Midnight and Mimi Fan in the early part of the 1960s’ and staged them.

Yeo not only spent time in London but also worked in Bangkok, Thailand, and travelled to Southeast Asian countries after his graduation. His travels increased his political awareness. Although he harboured no political ambitions, Yeo believed that artists had a role to play in the social and political life of a country. He never lost touch with the political developments in Singapore.

Yeo's plays are realistic depictions of Singapore "as it is now" and have been both performed and published. His trilogy of plays, Are you there, Singapore?, One Year Back Home and Changi, was meant not only to provide intellectual stimulus but also to increase social and political awareness in Singaporeans. These were the first plays that dealt with the controversial subject of political detention in Singapore.

His maiden play, Are you there, Singapore?, generated considerable publicity ― as much for its “Singaporean-made dialogue” and adept handling of  “ideas, moods and nuances”  which Singaporeans could readily identify with as for its novelty as the first play to be produced by a local playwright in years ― ahead of its sell-out run at the Cultural Centre in July 1974. Yeo’s subsequent play, One Year Back Home, also drew much attention due to its controversial political content. For the first time, Singapore politics was openly mentioned and a dissident opposition politician was presented on stage in 1980. The play was also given a staged reading at the famous, off-Broadway experimental theatre La Mama, New York, in May 1985.

Taking a stab at the Great Marriage Debate where national concerns filter down to the level of individual experience, the still current themes of Singapore-styled love, marriage and procreation in Yeo’s 1988 play, Second Chance, resonated with local and foreign audiences. It was first performed in the fringe of the Hong Kong Arts Festival in 1988.

Yeo's poems are characterised by his depiction of the dilemmas that beset the human condition. His poems reflect his personal soul-searching, his search for an identity as a writer and as an Asian through the decades. Underlying each poem are questions of larger meaning on the human condition. Introspection, questions of human responsibility and morality, the transitory nature and complexity of human events and ideological observations are typical of his poems.

In keeping with his colloquial-style poems written in “popular style” and laced with contemporary folk-speak, his last collection, Leaving Home, Mother was a tribute to his Peranakan mother, with whom he wished he could have communicated more fully in the language of his art.

Yeo believes that discipline is important for a writer. He does not believe in the traditional notion of inspiration where a writer waits to be struck by inspiration before he can write. To Yeo, a writer must be disciplined enough to write and produce at least one book every three to four years. Inspiration means having an idea and working hard to see it published and staged as a play.

He asserts that he does not write for money. Yeo is more concerned about getting his works published than the number of books sold. However, he does acknowledge the difficulty of getting Singaporean literature published locally, as publishers here are motivated by the local market conditions with its relatively small readership. As a writer, Yeo hopes to convey to Singaporeans to not be afraid to speak up if they had anything critical or constructive to say about Singapore.

Yeo has also been involved in editorial work, compiling and editing several Singapore plays and short stories through the years. One of his selections of short stories, Singapore Short Stories Vol. 1 & 2, became the second Singapore book to be used as a Cambridge 'O' Level literature text in 1991 and 1992. In addition, he was credited with getting Catherine Lim's first book, Little Ironies: Stories of Singapore (1978), to be published. It was his encouragement and recognition of her talent that led to the publishing of her first book, which subsequently became the first Singapore book used as a Cambridge 'O' Level literature text. Yeo was also the former chairman of the Drama Advisory Committee, Ministry of Culture and Ministry of Community Development as well as the Drama Review Committee, National Arts Council. He is also a member of the Centre for Research in the New Literatures in English (CRNLE), Flinders University, Australia. In recent years, Yeo has also tried his hand at writing librettos as the co-founder of OperaViva, Singapore's second opera company along with composer John Sharpley and tenor Leow Siak Fah.

A respected figure among members of Singapore’s literary community, Yeo celebrated his 70th birthday in January 2010 at an event supported by the National Arts Council. Attended by 100 people, including long-time friends and former students from the National Institute of Education, the veteran was feted with tributes to his life and works.

1946 - 1956
: Serangoon English School.
1957 - 1958 : St. Andrews School.
1959 - 1962 : University of Singapore, BA (Hons) English.
1963 : Institute of Education, Singapore, Dip. Ed.
1968 : London Institute of Education, MA Ed.
1980 : Dip. Applied Linguistics.

1961 : Vice-president of the Literary Society, University of Singapore.
1962 : Graduated with BA (Hons) English, University of Singapore.
1966 - 1968 : Studied for Masters in Education in London.
1968 : Completed Masters in Education from the London Institute of Education.
1969 - 1979 : Information officer with the Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Secretariat in Bangkok, where he travelled to nearly every country in Southeast Asia, except Burma (Myanmar).
1973 : Began lecturing at Institute of Education, Singapore, later on known as National Institute of Education (NIE).
1977 - 1991 : Served as Chair, Drama Advisory Committee in various ministries, among them the Ministry of Culture.
1992 - 1995 : Served as Chair, Drama Review Committee, National Arts Council.

1991 : Public Service Medal for “services to drama”.

1971 : Coming Home Baby.
1974 : Five Takes 1974 (with four other poets).
1977 : And Napalm Does Not Help.
1989 : A Part of Three: Poems.
1999 : Leaving Home, Mother: Selected Poems.

1974 : Are You There, Singapore?
1980 : One Year Back Home.
1988 : Second Chance.
1992 : The Eye of History.
1997 : Changi.

1986 : The Adventures of Holden Heng.

1978 : Singapore Short Stories Vol. 1 & 2.
1979 : Prize-winning Plays Vol. 1-4.
1981 : ASEAN Short Stories.
1984 : To Cipher and To Sing: Ideas and Activities for Literature Teaching
(co-author with M. P. Liu).
1986 : ACLALS Bulletin, 7th Series, No.4, Commonwealth Fiction 2 (co-editor with Kirpal Singh).
1987 : Magic 1 and 2: Poems for Lower Secondary Schools.
1989 : Singapore Short Stories.
1990 : Prize-winning Plays IV.
1991 : Modern ASEAN Plays, Singapore.
1992 : Ripples: Short Stories for Secondary Schools.
1993 : Singular Stories: Tales from Singapore Vol. 1.
1996 : Second Chance: A cross cultural casebook
(co-author with Guy Sherborne).
2000 : Singapore Short Stories.

2006 : Fences (completed, opera remains unstaged).
2009 : Kannagi (The Story of the Jewelled Anklet).

Selected short stories
2004 : The Professor.

Married, with two daughters.

Marsita Omar ‌and Michelle Heng

Akshita Nanda. (2010, January 21). Evening to mark Yeo's 70th year. The Straits Times, Life! Retrieved March 25, 2010, from Factiva.

Akshita Nanda. (2010, January 28). Tribute for poet Yeo. The Straits Times, Life! Retrieved March 25, 2010, from Factiva.

Chia, H. (1989, July 26). All for the love of writing. The Straits Times, Section 2, p. 2.

Getting published is a problem. (1985, April 19). The Straits Times.

Lee, A. (1999, October 9). I want to talk with Mum, The Straits Times. Life!, p. 12.

Nagpal, J. (1980, November 16). Here's a realistic play about today's S'pore. The Straits Times.

Nazareth, P. (1990). Review: A Part of Three by Robert Yeo (pp. 704-705). World Literature Today, 64(4). Retrieved March 22, 2010, from JSTOR.

Oon, V. (1974, July 26). [Microfilm: NL8014]. Bob’s play goes off like a shot. New Nation.

Robert's not in it for the money. (1989, September 15). Asiaweek, p. 52.

S'pore play packed with imagination. (1974, July 26). The Straits Times.

S'pore poet to make debut as playwright. (1974, July 10). The Straits Times.

Tan, C. (2010, November 12). Viva L'Opera. The Business Times. Retrieved February 21, 2011, from Factiva.

Tan, C. (2010, November 12). Singapore opera finds its voice. The Business Times. Retrieved February 21, 2011, from Factiva.

Tan, E. S. (1989, June 4). Cambridge picks second S'pore book as O-level text. The Sunday Times.

Tan, W. J. (1974, July 21). How towkay's darlings live in London. The Sunday Times.

Tay-Chee, G. (1974, July 26). Singapore Play packed with imagination. The Straits Times.

Wee, E. (1982, July 25). Drifting down river of time. The Straits Times, p.1.

Watt, G. (2005). Biographical sketch (pp. 219 - 258). In Interlogue: Studies in Singapore Literature: Volume 5: Robert Yeo. Singapore: Ethos Books.
(Call No.: RSING 809.895957 INT)

Watt, G. (2005). The great debate in second chance (pp. 129 - 151). In Interlogue: Studies in Singapore Literature: Volume 5: Robert Yeo. Singapore: Ethos Books.
(Call No.: RSING 809.895957 INT)

Wong, H. C. (1980, November 23). A success as political comedy. The Straits Times.

Further readings
Chua, C. J. (1989, December 6). Yeo, down the line. The Straits Times, Section 2, p. 2.

Flinders University. (n.d.). Literary links with Singapore writ large. Retrieved October 22, 2007, from

Helmi Yusof. (1999, October 6). The world's a reader. The Straits Times.

Koh, B. P. (1997, February 1). Yeo reincarnates play as a book. The Straits Times.

Koh, B. S. (1997, December 1). Famous comebacks - Sign of more open Singapore. The Straits Times.

Lee, A. (1999, October 9). I want to talk with Mum. The Straits Times.

Leong, L. G. (2001, July 14). Republic visited in three works. The Straits Times, Life!, p.12.

National Book Development Council of Singapore. (n.d.). Yeo Robert. Retrieved October 22, 2007, from

Ong, S. F. (1997, November 24). The accidental playwright - Politics still a life and death issue for Yeo. The Straits Times.

Yeo, R. (1994, January 19). Towards new era of Peranakan plays. The Straits Times. Life, p. 7.

Yeo, R. (2003, January 11). His overt influence through the Enright Affair is still felt. The Straits Times. 

Yeo, R. (c2011). Routes: A Singaporean memoir, 1940-75. Singapore: Ethos Books.
(call no.: RSING S822 YEO)

The information in this article is valid as at 2011 and correct as far as we can ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the library for further reading materials on the topic.

Authors, Singaporean--Biography
Arts>>Literature>>English (Singapore) Literature>>Poetry
Language and literature>>Literatures>>East and Southeast Asian literature>>Singapore literature
Yeo, Robert, 1940-
Arts>>Literature>>English (Singapore) Literature>>Drama
Arts>>Literature>>English (Singapore) Literature>>Fiction

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