Monday, 1 February 2010

Robert Yeo, Singaporean writers and the race question (again)!

About a decade ago, Professor Robert Yeo mentored my poetry writing. Since my return from Dubai we have re-established contact. Until I attended a function to celebrate 'poet and playwright' Robert Yeo's 70th birthday, I was unaware of Yeo's tremendous contribution to the Singapore literary scene.

Art and artists help define national consciousness. In the post-colonial world, newly independent nations struggled to create distinctive national cultures. Singaporean writers were no different. Like nationalist writers everywhere, they too strove to find a distinctive voice for Singaporean literature.
No bad thing, especially for the politicians for whom nationalism typically serves a political purpose.
Except that art is universal in nature. What makes some art resonate with certain audiences is the politicized and domestic nature of its content. Art is a tried and tested tool for political activism.
Singaporeans will relate to a Robert Yeo play about political dissidents and the Internal Security Act. The play will have little impact on a foreign reader unfamiliar with Singapore's political environment. Yeo's writings tested the limits of Singapore's earlier harsh censorship regime.
At the event one speaker suggested that Yeo's efforts with Singapore's Ministry of Culture facilitated the introduction of the 'R-A' rating system for the visual media; a significant liberalization for Singapore. Later, writer Suchen Lim related how she got into hot water with the Ministry of Education for one of Yeo's work be included in the school syllabus!
Thankfully, today Yeo's works are studied in Singapore. Additionally, some of his writings found their way into the approved study list for 'O Levels,' a British system of education used primarily by countries of the Commonwealth.

The search for identity still defines much intellectual and literary debate in Singapore. At least, race and religion are no longer taboo subjects. That the Two R's continue to dominate Singapore's intellectual debate in 2010 indicates that a national identity remains a work in progress.
People's individuality is still subsumed by race and religion. Are Singaporeans so boringly alike that we can intuit personalities based on whether someone is Chinese, Malay, Indian or 'Other?'
And what exactly is the 'Other' category anyway?
To me, it seems a dreadful indignity to have a soul controlled by geography.
George Santayana

Read Robert Yeo's eight page short story, "The Professor" available free online.

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