Robert Yeo



Robert Yeo Cheng Chuan (b. 1940, Singapore–) is a poet, playwright, novelist, essayist and librettist.1 He has written a novel, newspaper columns on the arts, as well as literary and theatre essays advocating the establishment of a distinctly Singaporean tradition in writing.2 He was for many years a lecturer at the Nanyang Technological University’s National Institute of Education, and was a proponent for the greater inclusion of the study of local texts in the school curriculum.3 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.4

Early life
Born into a Peranakan family in 1940, Yeo 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 on Valley Road in Hougang, and his maternal grandmother’s home on Haig Road in Katong.5


Achievements
Yeo is a self-confessed accidental playwright. His two-year educational stint abroad in London, United Kingdom, in the late 1960s left him with a deep impression.6 His experiences stirred him, but he found that, as a form, poetry was insufficient and limiting to what he wanted to express. 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 had been conferred a master’s degree in comparative education. The play, which was performed only in 1974,7 centred on Singaporean students studying and living abroad, and their views on post-independence 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 (1964) and Mimi Fan (1962).8


Yeo not only spent time studying in London, but also had a working stint in Bangkok, Thailand, and travelled to various Southeast Asian countries after his graduation. These travels increased his political awareness. Yeo believes that artists have a role to play in the social and political life of a country, and always stays abreast of the local political developments.9

Yeo’s trilogy of plays – Are You There, Singapore?, One Year Back Home and Changi – was meant to not only provide intellectual stimulus but also increase social and political awareness among Singaporeans. These were the first plays that dealt with the controversial subject of political detention in Singapore.10

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 1974.11 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 1980.12 The play was also given a staged reading at the famous, off-Broadway experimental theatre, La Mama, New York, in May 1985.13

Taking a stab at Singapore’s “great marriage debate” of the 1980s where national concerns filtered down to the level of individual experience, the current themes of “Singapore-style” love, marriage and procreation in Yeo’s 1988 play, Second Chance, resonated with local and foreign audiences. It was first performed at the fringe section of the 1988 Hong Kong Arts Festival.14

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. Each poem is undergirded with questions about the human condition. Introspection, questions of human responsibility and morality, the transitory nature and complexity of human events and ideological observations are themes typical of his poems.15

In keeping with his colloquial-style poems written in the “popular style” and laced with contemporary folk-speak, Yeo’s last poetry 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.16

Yeo believes that discipline is important for a writer. He does not abide by the traditional notion of inspiration where a writer waits to be struck by an inspiration before he can write. Inspiration, to him, means having an idea and working hard to see it published and staged as a play.17

Asserting that he does not write for money, Yeo is more concerned about getting his works published than the number of books sold. He does, however, acknowledge the difficulty of getting Singapore literature published locally, as publishers here are mostly motivated by the local market conditions with its relatively small readership. Yeo has stated that he hopes to inspire Singaporeans to speak up if they have anything critical or constructive to say about the country.18

Yeo has also been involved in editorial work, compiling and editing several Singapore plays and short stories through the years. One of the short-story compilations, Singapore Short Stories Vol. 1 & 2, became the second Singapore book to be used as a Cambridge O-Level literature text in 1991 and 1992.19 In addition, he was credited with getting Catherine Lim’s first book, Little Ironies: Stories of Singapore (1978), published. It was his encouragement and recognition of her talent that led to the publication of Little Ironies, which subsequently became the first Singapore book used as a Cambridge O-Level literature text.20

Yeo was also the former chairman of the Drama Advisory Committee of the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Community Development as well as the Drama Review Committee of the National Arts Council. He is also a member of the Centre for Research in the New Literatures in English (CRNLE), Flinders University, Australia.21 In recent years, Yeo has also tried his hand at writing librettos as the co-founder of Opera Viva, Singapore’s second opera company, along with composer John Sharpley and tenor Leow Siak Fah.22

A respected figure in 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.23

Education24
1946–1956:
Serangoon English School

1957–1958: St Andrews School
1959–1962: University of Singapore, Bachelor’s (Honours) in English
1963: Institute of Education, Diploma in Education.
1968: London Institute of Education, Master’s in English
1980: Diploma in Applied Linguistics

Timeline
1961:
Vice-president of the Literary Society, University of Singapore

1962: Graduates from University of Singapore with a bachelor’s degree in English with honours
1966–1968: Studies for and attains a master’s degree in education in London
1969–1979: Information officer with the Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Secretariat in Bangkok, Thailand
1973: Starts lecturing at the Institute of Education25
1977–1991: Chair, Drama Advisory Committee in various ministries, including the Ministry of Culture
1991: Receives the Public Service Medal
1992–1995: Chair, Drama Review Committee, National Arts Council26

Works
Poetry
1971: Coming Home Baby27
1974: Five Takes 1974 (with four other poets)28

1977: And Napalm Does Not Help29
1989: A Part of Three: Poems30
1999: Leaving Home, Mother: Selected Poems31

Plays
1974: Are You There, Singapore?32
1980: One Year Back Home33
1988: Second Chance34
1992: The Eye of History35

1996: Second Chance: A Cross-cultural Casebook (co-authored with Guy Sherborne)36
1997: Changi37

Novel
1986: The Adventures of Holden Heng38


Editorial
1978: Singapore Short Stories Vol. 1 & 239
1980: Prize-winning Plays Vol. 1–440
1981: ASEAN Short Stories41

1986: ACLALS (Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies) Bulletin, 7th Series, No.4, Commonwealth Fiction 2 (co-edited with Kirpal Singh)42
1987: Magic 1 and 2: Poems for Lower Secondary Schools43
1989: Singapore Short Stories44
1990: Prize-winning Plays IV45
1991: Modern ASEAN Plays, Singapore46
1992: Ripples: Short Stories for Secondary Schools47
1993: Singular Stories: Tales from Singapore Vol. 148

2012: One: The anthology49

Libretto
2006: Fences50

2009: Kannagi (The Story of the Jewelled Anklet)51

Anthology
2012: The Best of Robert Yeo52

Other works
1984: To Cipher and To Sing: Ideas and Activities for Literature Teaching (co-author with M. P. Liu)53
2011: Routes54



Authors
Marsita Omar & Michelle Heng



References
1. Leong, L. G. (Ed.) (2011). Robert Yeo. In Literary Singapore: A directory of contemporary writing in Singapore. Singapore: National Arts Council, p. 62. (Call no. RSING: 809.895957 LIT); Watt, G. (2005). Biographical sketch. In Interlogue: Studies in Singapore literature: Volume 5: Robert Yeo. Singapore: Ethos Books, pp. 219–258. (Call no.: RSING 809.895957 INT)
2. Yeo, R. (2003, January 11). His overt influence through the Enright Affair is still felt. The Straits Times, p. L18; Yeo, R. (1994, January 19). Towards new era of Peranakan plays. The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
3. Poetry. SG. (n.d). Robert Yeo: Biography. Retrieved 2016, October 7 from Poetry.SG website: https://poetry.sg/browse/robert-yeo/biography; Tan, E. S. (1989, June 4). Cambridge picks second S’pore book as O-level text. The Straits Times, p.14. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
4. Lee, A. (1999, October 9). I want to talk with Mum. The Straits Times, p. 13. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
5. Watt, G. (2005). Biographical sketch. In Interlogue: Studies in Singapore literature: Volume 5: Robert Yeo. Singapore: Ethos Books, pp. 219–258. (Call no.: RSING 809.895957 INT); Yeo, R. (2011). Routes: A Singaporean memoir, 1940–75. Singapore: Ethos Books, p. 21. (Call no.: RSING S822 YEO)
6. Tan, W. J. (1974, July 21). How towkay’s darlings live in London. The Straits Times, p. 10. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
7. Ong, S. F. (1997, November 24). The accidental playwright – Politics still a life and death issue for YeoThe Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
8. Tan, W. J. (1974, July 21). How towkay's darlings live in London. The Straits Times, p. 10; Tay-Chee, G. (1974, July 26). Singapore play packed with imaginationThe Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Tan, C. (2014, June 24). Five reasons why the play Mimi Fan is a classic. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/
9. Watt, G. (2005). Biographical sketch. In Interlogue: Studies in Singapore literature: Volume 5: Robert Yeo. Singapore: Ethos Books, pp. 239–249. (Call no.: RSING 809.895957 INT)
10. Leong, L. G. (2001, July 14). Republic visited in three works. The Straits Times, p. 12. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
11. Tan, W. J. (1974, July 21). How towkay’s darlings live in London. The Straits Times, p. 10; Tay-Chee, G. (1974, July 26). Singapore play packed with imagination. The Straits Times, p. 7; Oon, V. (1974, July 26). Bob’s play goes off like a shot. New Nation, p. 2; Ong, S. F. (1997, November 24). The accidental playwright – Politics still a life and death issue for Yeo. The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
12. Wong, H. C. (1980, November 23). A success as political comedy. The Straits Times, p. 20; Nagpal, J. (1980, November 16). Here's a realistic play about today's S'pore. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
13. Chew, L. (1985, May 12). S’pore play to be performed in the US. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
14. Watt, G. (2005). The great debate in second chance. In Interlogue: Studies in Singapore literature: Volume 5: Robert Yeo. Singapore: Ethos Books, pp. 129–151. (Call no.: RSING 809.895957 INT)
15. Lee, A. (1999, October 9). I want to talk with Mum. The Straits Times, p. 13. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
16. Lee, A. (1999, October 9). I want to talk with Mum. The Straits Times, p. 13. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
17. Chia, H. (1989, July 26). All for the love of writing. The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
18. Robert’s not in it for the money. (1989, September 15). Asiaweek, 52. (Call no.: RCLOS 950.05 A-[LKS])
19. Tan, E. S. (1989, June 4). Cambridge picks second S'pore book as O-level text. The Straits Times, p. 14. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
20. Helmi Yusof. (1999, October 6). The world’s a reader. The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
21. Flinders University. (n.d.). Literary links with Singapore writ large. Retrieved 2018, March 26 from Flinders University website: http://www.nbdcs.org.sg/Writers/YeoRobert.htm
22. Interview with Robert Yeo. (2013, June 25). In Epigram Books: News. Retrieved 2018, March 26 from Epigram Books website: https://shop.epigrambooks.sg/blogs/news/18720339-interview-with-robert-yeo
23. Nanda, A. (2010, January 21). Evening to mark Yeo's 70th year. The Straits Times; Nanda, A. (2010, January 28). Tribute for poet Yeo. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/
24. Yeo, R. (2011). Routes: A Singaporean memoir, 1940–75. Singapore: Ethos Books, pp. 37–185. (Call no.: RSING S822 YEO)
25. Yeo, R. (2011). Routes: A Singaporean memoir, 1940–75. Singapore: Ethos Books, pp. 96, 120, 171–242, 275, 321. (Call no.: RSING S822 YEO)
26. Poetry. SG. (n.d). Robert Yeo: Biography. Retrieved 2016, October 7 from Poetry.SG website: https://poetry.sg/browse/robert-yeo/biography
27. Yeo, R. (1971). Coming home baby. Singapore: Federal Publications. (Call no.: RSING 828.99 YEO)
28. Yeo, R. (1974). Five takes 1974. Singapore: University of Singapore Society. Retrieved via PublicationSG.
29. Yeo, R. (1977). And napalm does not help. Singapore: Heinemann Educational Books (Asia). (Call no.: RSING 828.995957 YEO)
30. Yeo, R. (1989). A part of three: Poems. Singapore: Select Books (Call no.: RSING 828.99 YEO)
31. Yeo, R. (1999). Leaving home, mother: Selected poems. Singapore: Angsana Books. (Call no.: RSING 821 YEO)
32. Yeo, R. (1974). Are you there, Singapore? [Manuscript]. (Call no.: RCLOS 822 YEO)
33. Yeo, R. (1980). One year back home. Manila: Solidarity Foundation. (Call no.: RSING 822 YEO)
34. Yeo, R. (1988). Second chance. Singapore: TheatreWorks. (Call no.: RSING 792 YEO)
35. Yeo, R. (2016) [Reprint]. The eye of history. Singapore: Epigram Books. (Call no.: RSING 822 YEO)
36. Yeo, R. (1996). Second chance: A cross-cultural theatre casebook. Singapore: TheatreWorks. (Call no.: RSING 792 YEO)
37. Yeo, R. (2001). The Singapore trilogy: Changi. Singapore: Landmark Books. (Call no.: RSING 822 YEO)
38. Yeo, R. (1986). The adventures of Holden Heng. Singapore: Heinemann Asia. (Call no.: RSING 822 YEO)
39. Yeo, R. (Ed.). (1978). Singapore short stories vol. 1 & 2: Writing in Asia series. Singapore: Heinemann Educational Books (Asia). (Call no.: RSING 828.995957 SIN)
40. Yeo, R., et al. (Eds.). (1980). Prize-winning plays vol. 1–4. Singapore: Federal Publications. (Call no.: RSING 822 PRI)
41. Yeo, R. (Ed.). (1981). ASEAN short stories: Writing in Asia series. Singapore: Heinemann Asia. (Call no.: RSING 808.831 ASE)
42. Yeo, R. (Ed.).(1986). ACLALS (Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies) Bulletin, 7th Series, No.4, Commonwealth Fiction 2. Mysore, India: Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies. (Call no.: RUR 828.99171241005 ACLLSA)
43. Yeo, R. (Ed.). (1987). Magic 1 & 2: A collection of poems for secondary schools. Singapore: Longman. (Call no.: RSING 808.1 MAG)
44. Yeo, R. (Ed.). (1989). Singapore short stories. Singapore: Heinemann Asia. (Call no.: RSING 823 SIN)
45. Yeo, R. (Ed.). (1990). Prize-winning plays IV: NUS-Shell report plays series. Singapore: Dept. of English Language & Literature, National University of Singapore. Retrieved via PublicationSG.
46. Yeo, R. (Ed.). (1991). Modern ASEAN plays: Singapore. Singapore: Ministry of Information and the Arts. (Call no.: RSING 822 MOD)
47. Yeo, R. (Ed.). (1992). Ripples: Short stories for secondary schools vol.1. Singapore: EPB Publishers. (Call no.: RSING 823.01 RIP)
48. Yeo, R. (Ed.). (1993). Singular stories: Tales from Singapore. Singapore: Yang Publishers. (Call no.: RSING 823 SIN)
49. Yeo, R. (Ed.). (2012). One: The anthology. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions. (Call no.: RSING 823 ONE)
50. Fences: An opera in two acts. (2012). Retrieved 2018, March 18 from Opera Viva website: http://www.operaviva.com.sg/past-productions.html
51. Yeo, R. (2012). Kannagi. In I. S. Talib (Ed.), The best of Robert Yeo. Singapore: Epigram Book, p. 174. (Call no.: RSING 821 YEO)
52. Ismail S. Talib. (Ed.). (2012). The best of Robert Yeo. Singapore: Epigram Books. (Call no.: RSING 821 YEO)
53. Liu, M. P., & Yeo, R. (1984). To cipher and to sing: Ideas and activities for literature teachers. Singapore: Federal Publications. (Call no.: RSING 807 LIU)
54. Yeo, R. (2011). Routes: A Singaporean memoir, 1940–75. Singapore: Ethos Books. (Call no.: RSING S822 YEO)



Further resources
Chua, C. J. (1989, December 6). Yeo, down the line. The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.


Koh, B. P. (1997, February 1). Yeo reincarnates play as a book. The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.

Koh, B. S. (1997, December 1). Famous comebacks – Sign of more open Singapore. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.

Yeo, R. (2004, October). The Professor. Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, 4(1). Retrieved 2018, March 22 from Quarterly Literary Review Singapore website: http://www.qlrs.com/story.asp?id=390



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.

 

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