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Not one to shy away from controversial topics, veteran writer Robert Yeo wants to see more ‘responsible criticism’

SINGAPORE — Writer Robert Yeo’s play on political dissent, “One Year Back Home”, featuring a character who is politically detained after running for elections as an opposition candidate, was so controversial that the authorities refused to grant a licence to stage it.

Mr Robert Yeo at his home on Dec 29, 2020.

Mr Robert Yeo at his home on Dec 29, 2020.

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  • Mr Robert Yeo's controversial 1980 play on political dissent almost did not see light of day
  • The impact of his work on the local literary scene is captured in a book commemorating his 80th birthday
  • There needs to be more outlets for literary criticism, says Mr Yeo


SINGAPORE — Writer Robert Yeo’s play on political dissent, “One Year Back Home”, featuring a character who is politically detained after running for elections as an opposition candidate, was so controversial that the authorities refused to grant a licence to stage it.

But that was in 1980, and Mr Yeo was not the least surprised.

“When I showed it to some theatre groups, they said ‘don’t touch it, your career will suffer’,” Mr Yeo recounted in an interview with TODAY last month.

“Another theatre company asked if I could take out all the references to the PAP (People’s Action Party), to Lee Kuan Yew, to the Workers’ Party before staging it.”

He stood his ground and instead went to then-Acting Minister of Culture Ong Teng Cheong to appeal. Mr Yeo managed to get his licence, nine months after it was first declined.

This episode, along with the impact that his work has had on the local literary scene, has been captured in a book commemorating his 80th birthday titled “Robert Yeo at 80: A Celebration”.

The book, which was put together by a long-time friend, Associate Professor Ismail Talib from the National University of Singapore, was released last November, two months before Mr Yeo turned 81. 

Even at this age, Mr Yeo is still having trouble getting approval from the authorities, with the National Arts Council (NAC) turning down his application for a presentation and participation grant for his commemorative book.

In an email to the book’s publisher Epigram seen by TODAY, the NAC explained that it had turned down the grant application as the book’s artistic merit was of “uneven quality” due to the variety of writing included.

Some material in the book “do not engage further with the works to give new insight” and more material providing a “critical appraisal of his works” could have been included, said NAC.

Assoc Prof Talib said that he had not wanted to publish a typical tribute book, called a “festschrift”, for Mr Yeo. Such books usually include academic essays on a literary figure from various contributors.

However, these essays may not be relevant to the person whom the festschrift is dedicated to, said Dr Ismail.

“But in this case, it is more flexible,” he added.

Much like a giant birthday card, the book captures anecdotes and memories of Mr Yeo from various contributors.

One is acclaimed local writer Catherine Lim, whose first book, Little Ironies, was published with Mr Yeo’s help.

Another is former diplomat Kishore Mahbubani, who describes Mr Yeo as “the best English literature teacher he had”. Mr Yeo taught at St Andrews’ School from 1962 to 1966.

Reflecting on how the literary scene has changed in Singapore since his first poetry collection in 1971, Mr Yeo said that the ascendency of the English language in Singapore and the formation of the National Arts Council (NAC) in 1991 have led to a flourishing arts scene. 

“Giving grants and sending people for creative writing classes — these are bound to be a bonus for the arts scene,” said Mr Yeo, who chaired the Drama Advisory Committee, seen as the precursor to NAC, from 1977 to 1991. 

Fiction writing is also blossoming given that competitions such as the Epigram Books Fiction Prize, organised by local publisher Epigram, give writers an incentive to publish, said Mr Yeo. 

Likewise, the poetry scene has also flourished, with groups such as non-profit Sing Lit Station fostering mentorships among writers.


Nevertheless, he lamented the lack of “literary criticism” in Singapore.

“I would like to see more responsible criticism practised in Singapore,” said Mr Yeo, who was awarded the Public Service Medal in 1991 for promoting the theatre scene.

“Books that win prizes get reviewed by the Straits Times but where else can they get reviewed?”

At a policy level, the NAC could also adopt a more “interventionist” approach by actively identifying and plugging gaps in the literary scene, suggested Mr Yeo, who also writes prose, poetry and texts for operas.

For example, instead of only commissioning studies after someone applies for a grant, the NAC could actively commission studies on works by local writers, said Mr Yeo.

When asked if he is concerned that his own works might be forgotten by the younger generation, Mr Yeo pointed to the fact that his plays are scheduled to be staged at the Stamford Arts Centre by youth theatre group The Second Breakfast Company this March.

Unlike younger poets, Mr Yeo’s works have stood the test of time, said Assoc Prof Ismail, a literature expert.

“The problem with some of the younger poets is that their poems read well on the page, but it’s not okay in performance. I find it isn’t quite true of Robert’s poetry, which reads and performs well.”

In a twist to usual tributes, a section of Mr Yeo’s commemorative book is dedicated to fanfiction, where contributors spin their own stories or poems based on characters originally written by Mr Yeo.

This is one such way to keep older works such as his alive and relevant to the younger generation, Mr Yeo said.

But with a sequel to his novel “The Adventures of Holden Heng” and a restaging of his opera “Fences” planned for the next few years, staying relevant is something Mr Yeo will not have to worry about.

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