A man of his time
This volume of tributes commemorates both a writer and the world he wrote about
By Kevin Sullivan
Robert Yeo at Eighty: A Celebration
Published by Epigram Books (2021) / 224 pages / 18.90 SGD
Nearly forty years ago, I called Robert Yeo, whom I'd never met, and asked if he would be willing to do an interview for a new magazine called Clout. I had just arrived in Singapore, fresh out of university, and I was keen to become a writer. I knew very little about Southeast Asian literature, and my competence to conduct an interview on the subject was questionable. Yeo, however, immediately agreed.
When I turned up at the appointed time, he expressed some scepticism about Clout, which was a valiant (but, alas, short-lived) attempt to merge art and culture with high fashion, along the lines of Andy Warhol's Interview. He feared, I think, that the magazine, which ran profiles of people like Karl Lagerfeld and Calvin Klein, might err on the side of catwalk whimsy rather than serious art. Clout's format, however, allowed interviewees to express their views in depth, and over the course of an hour and a half Yeo spoke perceptively about literature in Singapore and the region. After this, he made introductions to Goh Poh Seng, Catherine Lim, Arthur Yap and others, and more interviews followed.
Meeting authors and writing about their work was an exciting opportunity – and in this respect, I was a beneficiary of Yeo's characteristic generosity. Many of the contributors to this collection of essays and reminiscences draw attention to the practical help they received from Yeo when they were starting their literary careers. Sometimes he would act as an individual and sometimes as a member of boards and committees assembled over the years to promote (and regulate) the arts in Singapore.
Yeo was a representative figure of the generation of writers who emerged in the 1950s and 60s. Reviewing Routes, the first volume of Yeo's autobiography, the Australian academic Paul Sharrad points to the "weight of colonial solemnity (manifest in an Anglican schooling) and nation-building responsibility" which produced "a kind of earnestness . . . The ubiquity of jacket and tie among the men says something about the general tone of formality in pre-1970s culture that goes with government scholarships, belonging to the professions, representing one's new country to the old British hegemony."
"As with other newish national cultures," Sharrad continues, "...writers and small magazines came and went, but across this period several foundational figures linked coteries and lent continuity. Robert Yeo was one of these, and his contribution as both a writer to inspire others and as a promoter of cultural effort has been exemplary."
Since that formative period, Singaporean writing has evolved. The process began with a conscious rejection of empire – paradoxically, using the language of the departed colonial establishment – and it has been heavily influenced by ideas of nation-building. In this context, Yeo has embraced a public role, and he has done this with purpose. As Kirpal Singh notes in a poem included here, "You changed sensibilities / When you bravely asked / Are you there Singapore?"
Are You There, Singapore?, Yeo's first play, "with its distinctly sixties hippie flavour and preoccupation with student radicalism and unwed mothers", drew full houses in 1974. Suchen Christine Lim remembers it as the first time that audiences "saw young English-educated Singaporeans arguing about issues that my friends and I were grappling with." It was followed in 1980 by One Year Back Home. Ovidia Yu recalls the surprise and delight at hearing Singlish on stage. "It felt like seeing ourselves wearing pyjamas in public – weird, strange, embarrassing but also incredibly liberating." She also recalls that Yeo was chair of the Ministry of Culture's drama advisory committee at the time, and "If he thought it was okay to write about Singaporeans in personal and political ways, it was okay."
The central characters in Fences, the opera for which Yeo wrote the libretto and American composer John Sharpley wrote the music, are a Chinese from Singapore and a Malay from Kuala Lumpur who meet in 1960s London. Their experience echoes Yeo's own experience of returning to Singapore in 1968 after two years in Britain, and the opera confronts the inescapable confluence of the personal and the political: "What is this stench called race?" one character asks. "It gives an odour to religion, erases the fragrance of prayer . . . makes a disgrace of this notion of home".
To paraphrase John Lennon, though, life is what happens when you're trying to do something else – and the truth is that when Yeo's generation were struggling to articulate the post-colonial experience, other kinds of fundamental change were underway, in Singapore and across the world.
Attitudes to gender, for example, were changing profoundly (critic Ilsa Sharp found the sexist assumptions of the hero of Yeo's novel The Adventures of Holden Heng, published in 1986, to be "shamelessly outdated") and language has changed too – not as a reflection of independence and nation-building but as a component of the super-culture that has grown up alongside globalisation. The new lingua franca isn't the synthesis of colonial vocabulary and liberated syntax that Yeo and his contemporaries sought to forge, but the argot of rap music and ad-speak.
When I looked at old copies of Clout this week, I was obliged to acknowledge that the fashions are as dated now as the faded newsprint. Yet I remember vividly the excitement I felt in those days when I explored Singapore literature and art. The world in which that work was created has gone, but the work itself has enduring value. Robert Yeo played an important role in developing and promoting this cultural heritage among successive generations of Singaporeans, through his writing and through his enthusiastic and generous support for other writers.QLRS Vol. 20 No. 2 Apr 2021