Proust Questionnaire: 17 questions with Robert Yeo
By Yeow Kai Chai
It comes as quite a shock to discover that Robert Yeo has reached the milestone age of 80 in 2020 there is a youthful jaunt to him, mixed in with avuncular affability, that makes him such a constant fixture in the Singaporean literary scene.
No wonder it's easy to take him for granted. If anything, this octogenarian is active, fit as a fiddle, and engaged with writers, young and old. To his immense credit, he remains intellectually keen, as a literary practitioner as well as an academic.
You can trace it to his pedagogical roots. He earned a Master's degree in Comparative Education in the London Institute of Education; was a lecturer for years at the National Institute of Education (NIE), Nanyang Technological University, in Singapore; and taught creative writing at the Singapore Management University from 2003 to 2018. For more than 10 years, he served as chairman of the Drama Advisory Committee which helped develop theatre. For his contribution, he received the Public Service Medal ( PBM) in 1991. He was also awarded the S.E.A. Write Award for his literary accomplishments in 2011.
He has published continually since his first book, a collection of poems, Coming Home, Baby, came out in 1971. His plays have also been performed regularly since Are You There, Singapore?, was staged in 1974. This and two other plays, One Year Back Home (1980) and Changi (1997) together known as the Singapore trilogy were restaged as a single play with a new ending by the Second Breakfast Company at the Stamford Arts Centre's Black Box just in March 2021.
In the past decade, he's branched out to memoir writing, with Routes: A Singaporean Memoir 1940-75 (Ethos, 2011), and written the libretto for an opera Fences, which was performed in 2012. In December 2020, to celebrate his 80th, National University of Singapore lecturer Ismail S. Talib convened a who's who of the literary scene, including Catherine Lim, Ovidia Yu, Rajeev Patke and Alfred Yuson, for a wealth of tributes in a book entitled Robert Yeo at Eighty: A Celebration (Epigram, 2020).
What's next? He hopes to publish Volume 2 of his memoir: Routes 2: A Singaporean Memoir 1976-2000 in 2021.
1. What are you reading right now?
2. If you were a famous literary character in a novel, play or poem, what would you be and why?
3. What is the greatest misconception about you?
4. Name one living writer and one dead writer you most identify with, and tell us why.
The dead writer would be Joseph Conrad. He had mastered a language which was not his first, and wrote both about the East and the West. About the East, he created places I am familiar and can identify with, Malaya for instance. Graham Greene is another writer I connect with.
5. Do you believe in writers block? If so, how do you overcome it?
I overcame the crisis in two ways I maintained confidence in my ability and turned to writing in other genres: plays mostly, but also short stories and essays from the 1970s to the end of the 20th century. From 2000, I discovered the joys of writing autobiography and librettos for opera.
6. What qualities do you most admire as a writer?
7. What is the one trait you most deplore in writing or writers?
If you are driven by demons, like Sylvia Plath, and cannot help it, that is okay. Okay too, if in this postmodernist age, the writer writes about writing.
8. Can you recite your favourite lines from a literary work of a piece of advice from a writer?
I am a yeoman, as such fellows go.
9. Complete the sentence: Few people know this, but I
10. At the movies, if you have to pick a comedy, a tragedy or an action thriller to watch, which would you go for?
11. What is your favourite word and what is your least favourite one?
My favourite is the Malay word "sayang", untranslatable into English and I am not sure it has entered the English-language lexicon.
12. Write a Singapore-based short-story that include the following three items: bed, home, Changi.
13. What object is indispensable to you when you write?
14. What is the best time of day for writing?
There are periods better than others, chunks between essentials, like 11am to 1pm, and after dinner, from 9-11.30 pm, for sustained writing.
15. If you have a last supper, which three literary figures, real or fictional , would you invite to a soiree? And why?
First Hamlet, to ask him why he asks so many questions before he acts. Second, Emily Dickinson, about the extent to which domestic tensions within the Dickinson family has fuelled her extraordinary poetry. And third, the late Singaporean poet Arthur Yap on how his linguistic studies in the University of Leeds has influenced his poems.
16. Few people possess the good fortune to make it to the age of 80, let alone have a book of tributes from friends, here and overseas. What are some of the insights in Robert Yeo at Eighty: A Celebration?
Of the first, I am glad they are in print for the first time: I refer to Catherine Lim's generous testimony that "Robert Yeo was instrumental in my becoming a writer. Indeed, it was his generosity of spirit and helpfulness towards aspiring writers that launched me on the road to authorhood."
I was also glad to see elaborated the idea that my Vietnam poems, published by 1977, "began to expand our sense of what makes Singapore poetryno longer can it be expected to be confined geographically in either subject or place of composition to Malaya or Singapore." Angus Whitehead, a lecturer at the Department of English Language and Literature at the NIE, wrote this in 2017, and in the essay in the book, 'I Still Don't Know, Do You?', discusses the idea at greater length.
My public service for the promotion of drama in Singapore from the mid-1970s to the early 1990s specifically, my advocacy of the need to establish a Singaporean theatre is written up for the first time in print. I am absolutely proud to have the recognition of being awarded a Public Service Medal for it in 1991, and the essays by Juliana Lim and Liew Chin Choy, arts administrators I worked with, are testimonies.
I also cherish A. Robert Lee's incomparable essay on our friendship, 'Are You There, Robert Yeo?'; Chandran Nair's complicit review of my memoirs Routes: A Singaporean Memoir 1940-75; and Ismail Talib's poem on my poems.
As for new insights, two stand out. Novelist Suchen Christine Lim recalled how she and her friends, undergraduates at that time, watched my first play, Are You There, Singapore?, in 1974: " That night, without me being conscious of it at the time. Are You There, Singapore? showed the audience the vast potential and importance of writing about out island and our experiences." Playwright Ovidia Yu watched my second play One Year Back Home in 1980, and wrote: "I believe Robert Yeo's plays not only made it possible for me to write my own, but also paved the way for future work in different media like Sonny Liew's The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye."
Finally, I must draw attention to my work in writing librettos for opera, in collaboration with composer John Sharpley. We co-wrote two pieces, Kannagi, performed in 2009, and Fences, performed in 2012. They are the second and third operas written and performed in in Singapore, and they attracted good reviews both locally and internationally.
Chang Tou Liang, the music critic, wrote in The Straits Times: "Kannagi is a truly worthy effort." Of Fences, the renowned Thai critic Chetana Nagavajara wrote: "Another star of the evening was the chorus, which was very distinguished through and through. Robert Yeo and John Sharpley had assigned to the chorus a highly challenging task not only in terms of singing but also of acting."
Finally, Robert Markow, international critic for opera magazines in the USA and Europe, had this to say of Fences: "In this respect, both Yeo and Sharpley have created a continuously engaging and attractive work for the stage. "
17. What would you write on your tombstone?