CRITICAL INTRODUCTION

Shifting Lights and Landscapes in Aaron Lee's Poetry

Written by Ryan How
Dated 4 Nov 2015

Robert Yeo was born to a Peranakan family. After receiving a Bachelor’s degree with Honours in English from the University of Singapore (now National University of Singapore), Yeo went to the London Institute of Education from 1966 to 1968, where he earned a Master’s degree in Comparative Education. He then returned to Singapore, but soon left to work as an information officer with the Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Secretariat in Bangkok. During his time as information officer, Yeo travelled throughout Southeast Asia. In 1973, he began lecturing at the Institute of Education, now known as the National Institute of Education. Yeo also served as chair on the Drama Advisory Committee in various ministries, including the Ministry of Culture. After the National Arts Council was established in 1991, Yeo served as chair on its Drama Review Committee. In 1991, Yeo was also awarded a Public Services Medal for his contribution to drama. Recently, Yeo has taught creative writing at the Singapore Management University, and served as a mentor in the National Arts Council’s Mentor Access Project.

Yeo’s experiences of significant events in the early years of Singapore’s independence are presented in his poetry, inflected with his own memories and responses to these events. These poems are deeply personal, shedding light on the individual’s experience of history, in contrast to the monolithic narrative more often presented by the state.

In “9th August 1965,” Yeo relates memories of the date of Singapore’s independence: his persona stands in Kuala Lumpur, staring at the soil which “Became suddenly [his] neighbour’s”. The sense of dislocation is acute: the persona sees Malaysia as his homeland, but separation enacts its instantaneous transformation into a foreign land. For Yeo’s persona, this moment of separation corresponds with the sudden downpour that comes upon him and his friends; the “hasty hurricane” sweeps through Malaysia and Singapore, leaving in its wake a rupture between the two nations. Yeo’s persona experiences the downpour and separation as a “chill”: his family has been split across national boundaries, separated by “barbed wire”. Yeo’s hurricane is a metaphor for the force of “politicians / Deciding”: the average citizen is powerless to affect political pronouncements, but must accept them while mourning “in private”.

“Moon Madness, July 1964” is another poem in which Yeo’s persona expresses his private reactions to a historical event; namely, the racial riots which broke out “during a procession to celebrate the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday” (“Communal riots of 1964”). In the poem, the rioters are lunatics, transformed into “beasts” and “monsters” who turn on their own kind even though they “have long lived together”. One section of this poem is dedicated to G. Subhas. Subhas was a Straits Timesjournalist who “was riding to a friend’s house on July 22 when he saw clashes taking place near Arab Street,” and was attacked when he stopped to take photographs (“Ex-Journalist ‘Died Wanting to Do His Job’”). Yeo laments Subhas’s sudden and violent death, his persona remembering their childhood “When all we knew and cared for was / ‘What time you come to my house?’” Once more, Yeo describes the inadequacy of public narrative: “The Straits Times will add [Subhas] to the toll / But it will not toll for [him]”.

Yeo’s poetry also often remarks on the constant metamorphosis of Singapore’s landscape and society. This is achieved through the eyes of personae that have been away from Singapore for an extended period and return to find it changed. The disconnect and defamiliarisation they feel highlight the mercurial nature of Singapore identity.

“Coming Home, Baby” is one such poem, written after Yeo’s return from two years of study in London. The persona’s relatives fear he is “whiter”:

But lucky
You have not changed.
I was afraid you would come back
Speaking like a white man
Coming out through the nose—
Or else with a white wife.

There is anxiety that the speaker has lost Singaporean identity in London, and is now a stranger. His aunts are “surprised but pleased” that he still seems the same, but the speaker knows he has in fact changed in less obvious ways. In this poem, Yeo also introduces the figure of a married friend, who questions his speaker about his singlehood. For Yeo, marriage and family is a Singaporean concern; in London, the speaker engages in casual relationships without worrying about either. Yet, Yeo through his persona does finally express a somewhat fatalistic desire for marriage, saying he will “capitulate / At 35”. Perhaps the Singaporean identity, whatever it is, is assumed once again after returning from a brief time away.

Yeo takes stock of Singapore’s physical changes during his time abroad in “Coming Home, Baby,” comparing them to an ongoing revision of Singapore’s history. Yeo refers to 1969 as a significant date, as it is 150 years after Raffles first governed Singapore as part of the British empire. Yet 1969 is also four years post-independence: for the persona, “This year is our divide. We are on a crest / And we celebrate accordingly”. Yeo’s focus on 1969 turns it into an intersection of two histories, and here we observe the shift away from 1819 and towards 1965 as the more significant milestone in Singapore’s history:

In the year 1969
When we discovered
Our history, it is disappearing
As rapidly as it is being made
Disappearing and developing
Singapore and honoured Raffles
Impassive in gaze as always.

In the same section, Yeo compares Singapore’s historical revision to the transformation of the country’s landscape. He describes the juxtaposition of old and new on both sides of Tiong Bahru Road, contrasting “Abandoned hovels, collapsing wood, attap and zinc” against “geometric steel and concrete / with modern amenities”. The persona suggests that the collapsing hovels will soon disappear to make room for more steel and concrete buildings, demonstrating a revision of Singapore’s landscape in service of the revision of Singapore’s cosmopolitan identity.

The disconnect that Yeo articulates in “Coming Home, Baby” is echoed in “Out of Changi,” a poem dedicated to Tan Jing Quee, a political detainee who was jailed from 1963 to 1966. For Tan, the changes that took place during the period of his detention must have been dramatic, but in the poem Yeo suggests that they are ultimately “for the better”. As in “Coming Home, Baby,” Singapore’s political development is conflated with its architectural development: Yeo’s persona exhorts Tan to look at the “multi-storied schools and flats,” saying that the government has “renovated” the country “with new ideas”. Change is the only constant, and the speaker is certain it will continue even after Tan’s release: “No doubt they will further construct and expand / With you along”.

Most critics emphasise the deep connections between Yeo’s poetry and Singapore history: for Michael Wilding, the poems “chronicle the developments of an individual consciousness while at the same time they chronicle the developments of Singapore. The parallelism of the poet and the city is unforced but recurrent” (Leaving Home, Mother 11). Yet in another sense poet and city move along parallel lines, never meeting; while Singapore’s development often appears unemotional and relentless, Yeo’s poetry is more interested in the personal and emotional, providing a human perspective to the continual evolution of the nation.

Yeo’s work as information officer for the Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Secretariat in Bangkok allowed him to travel widely within Southeast Asia, and it was during this time that he visited the then-war-stricken Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. The poems written about these experiences narrate a cognitive dissonance between the experience of war on one hand and the everyday on the other: the personae of these poems often speak of people going about their daily lives in spite of the violence and strife surrounding them.

In “Saigon 2,” the persona is surprised to see people in large numbers shopping in the Central Market for the New Year soon after the end of the Vietnam War. He asks, “From where do they summon the composure / Yearly to buy new shoes and dresses for / Their young?,” expressing wonder and amazement that these people are celebrating the New Year, and have seemingly recovered from the war. However, the persona soon realises that the situation is not as simple as it appears: “the sidewalks / Were paved with some of the spoils of war”. Yeo’s persona soon realises that the act of celebration can be an act of defiance against war and its devastating effects.

In his war poetry, Yeo describes situations so unstable that they might turn from peaceful to perilous without warning. In “Phnom Penh 2,” a sudden blackout turns the calm and luxurious atmosphere (“We could have been in midsummer Paris”) into one of fear and panic, which “froze / Us where we stood”. Even though the light eventually comes back on, this incident is a metaphor for the precarious situation in 1970s Phnom Penh. Peaceful moments are the exception, and are merely momentary pauses in a greater narrative of conflict: in “Vientiane 2,” “truces halt a war but do not end it”.

These poems complicate any too-easy categorisation of Yeo as a poet concerned primarily with Singapore and nationalism. If anything, it might be more accurate to say that Yeo is a poet who engages with history, be it that of his own country or of others in the region, and especially with pivotal moments in those histories.

Works cited

Han, Jamie. “Communal Riots of 1964.” Singapore Infopedia. National Library Board, 2014. Web.

Omar, Marsita, & Michelle Heng. “Robert Yeo.” Singapore Infopedia. National Library Board, 2011. Web.

Select Books. “Event: Face-to-Face with John Sharpley and Robert Yeo.” Select Books. 19 July 2012. Web.

Sim, Royston. “Ex-Journalist ‘Died Wanting to Do His Job.’” The Straits Times 23 July 2014.

Yeo, Robert. The Best of Robert Yeo. Singapore: Epigram Books, 2012.

—. Leaving Home, Mother. Singapore: Angsana Books, 1999.

 

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