Creative Non-fiction / October 2018 (Issue 41: Writing Singapore)

Memoir: 1978

by Robert Yeo


1978 turned out to be a great year for new experiences. Esther and I went to the world's two largest countries, China and America. The contrast could not have been greater.

The China trip was an educational tour from 6–21 June 1978. The chief organiser was my Institute of Education colleague Chan Weng Cheong, and we went into a China that was coping with the overthrow of the political faction the Gang of Four. Mao's death in 1976 precipitated a power struggle in which the leftist, led by the four persons, including his widow Chiang Ching, Hua Guofeng, his chosen successor, and two others briefly controlled China.

Ranged against them was Deng Xiao Ping, a pragmatic politician and his followers; the Deng group eventually triumphed, arrested the Gang of Four, put them on trial and eventually imprisoned them. Throughout our trip, there were slogans and banners denouncing the Gang of Four.

Our group of twenty-seven, all staff members and their spouses, flew to Kowloon, Hong Kong on 8 June 1978, and the next morning we took a 9:00am train to Canton, arriving at 3:10pm. We were greeted by four English-speaking guides and taken to our hotel. I noticed hundreds of bicycles, locked, parked outside the premises and in the lobby a large, coloured picture of Mao conferring with Hua. On Friday 9 June, the first day of our official tour, we were taken to the Fine Arts Exhibition Hall, the School for the Deaf and a Friendship Store to which locals were not admitted. In the Fine Arts Exhibition Hall, there were colourful paintings, socialist pictures of workers in an oil well and another at a hydroelectric dam, as well as satirical cartoons lampooning the Gang of Four.

The Friendship Store had a banner proclaiming in English, "We Have Friends All Over the World." In the School for the Deaf, pupils in groups sang and danced, one group to the words, "I love Tien An Men Square," another, "The East is Red."


In the evening, we were taken to the theatre, and there was a prominent banner with the words, "Long Live the Victory of Chairman Mao." Among the items were traditional and revolutionary song and dance sequences, and one in particular, as I recorded in my diary struck me. "This was of women dressed in white silk or brocade who emerged from the water as white coral which shaped beautifully into a fan … The men, with turquoise flaps, moved and pranced like waves." I cannot recall whether this was an item on its own or part of something with a message, but I distinctly watched a story of a band of people in red led by a woman who captured a member of a feudal/Kuomingtang group and held him hostage. Another item urged workers to fight against foreign devils.

On Saturday 10 June, in the White Cloud Hotel, we were offered as a choice a European breakfast consisting of fried eggs, bacon, cheese, butter and jam and exported coffee. At 11am, we left for the airport to go to Guilin. The name of the city, famed for its beauty, means "a forest of cassia trees" and was founded during the Ching dynasty. I remember three things distinctly about this resort: first, that Esther and I and another friend were so impressed by the clarity of the water and the beauty of the scenery in the area before we set out on a boat to tour the Li River, that we sought and obtained permission for a short swim; two, in the evening, we were entertained to a performance of the classic play Third Sister Liu and three, the journey up the Li River and the incredible, infinite unfolding of shatteringly eye-popping scenes. Third Sister Liu is a classic folk tale about a woman whose singing was a talent she used to overcome oppressive feudal landlords and lead her band of proletariat workers to obtain fair treatment. This was propaganda, of course, but it was charmingly offered.

Here is an excerpt from my diary about Guilin:


As we sailed downriver to a picturesque village called Yong Shao,
we see majestic breath-taking vistas unfold with almost every
meander of the river; triangular hills or domes of green rise in
formation over a fairly swift, broad but not turbulent river.
Sometimes craggy, serrated cliffs with little or no vegetation.
Cultivated fields alternate with wildness where mountain goats … nibble.
We pass remote villages on both banks and see adults and kids on
boats who wave to us. Motorised long boats pass us or the occasional
fishermen on small long boats or rafts made up of four bamboo logs tied

Here, in the fabled resort, I experienced the clichéd poetic inspiration, the gushing response to natural beauty, and later composed a short poem about it. It was a futile attempt to describe the indescribable; instead, I felt it was better to indirectly record my feelings and let the emotional result suggest the visual stimulation. Here, then, is the poem I wrote later and published, entitled "Guilin: Sailing Down The Li River":

Surprised, we turn a bend.
"Nothing could be more lovely."
Another bend and we're astonished:
"This is more beautiful surely!"

But other bends and beauties
Disclose how brochures fail.
Guilin is superlatives
Meandering into superlatives until

Our sureness slips and,
The undistracted eye,
Now that the tongue is silenced,
Regains its primacy.

I remember, too, our guide, Miss Su, a pretty young woman with rosy cheeks who wore a male shirt and trousers in a uniform blue. Here is my cheeky poetic take about her:

She wore male clothes:

A light, blue shirt
And dark, blue trousers
Both creased and coarse.

But cotton could not conceal.
The girl shone through the boy.
All day she bloomed
Miss Sunflower Su.

Her beauty nipped
The Maoist dogma
At the two points where
Her shirt heaved.

"Blue" is a reference to the fact that our guides, both male and female, all wore blue cotton; and the fact that Miss Su also wore blue and men's clothes, conveyed a feeling of uniformity. Why blue I did not ask.

Our journey continued, and the next stop was Shanghai. I was struck by two impressions of the city. First, as evidenced by the skyscrapers on the Bund that it was in appearance a Western city; and two, as one visits the sectors of the city occupied by European powers, how at the same time, it was colonised and cosmopolitan. We stayed in the Peace Hotel, which is "one of the world's best," according to Ross Terril, an Australian sinologist whose book on China I had been reading in preparation for my trip. Room 504 was certainly luxurious, with central air-conditioning, carpet and curtains; two large beds on rollers plus another small bed, a dressing table, chair, a high cupboard and a wardrobe large enough for a person to walk into and a door to the next linked room, all furnished with Western furniture and style. At the visit to the English Canton, our guide pointed to a poster, an old one, which used to adorn a club or place of entertainment, which had these words, "Dogs And Chinese Not Allowed."

We went to Beijing on Tuesday 13 June and the next morning visited Mao's mausoleum at the end of Tien An Men Square. My diary recorded these details:

We had to line up in fours and waited for about ten minutes before marching in. A group of foreign, Caucasian diplomats emerged from two black sedans, dressed in light-coloured suits and went ahead of us. Thousands waited at the foot of the mausoleum to file in. We mounted a flight of steps into a cool, large air-con room with a large white figure of Mao in a seated position looking ahead. The row of people breaks up into two and both fork out to file past Mao's body … Absolute silence. We have been told beforehand—no talking, no camera, no hats.

In subsequent days, we also visited the tomb of the thirteenth Ming Emperor and a portion of the Great Wall of China; I remember the train took us to Badaling, and we had to walk half a mile to the wall. Badaling was the most accessible site. It is superfluous to describe a monument so well-known, but it must be mentioned that in the Chinese capital, the overwhelming impression is one of the long and heavy weight of continuous history as manifested by the wall and the size of the city's monuments, as apparent in Tien An Men Square. Even a very bare description will convey how history-laden the wall is—a continuous defensive wall stretching from western Gansu to the Gulf of Liaodong (2,250km/1,450mi). It was once longer. It was built under the Qin dynasty from 214BC to prevent incursion by the Turkish and Mongol people and extended westward by the Han dynasty. Some 8m/25ft high, it consists of a brick-faced wall of earth and stone, has a series of square watchtowers and sections have been restored. Wikipedia says that "Badaling is 7,600 metres (4.7 miles) long. It has the most magnificent wall among the sections of the Great Wall. Built with tall granite slabs (weighing 1,000kg or 2,205lbs each) on the outside, the walls are very solid and trim. The wall is 5.7 metres (19 feet) broad, which allows five horses to gallop abreast and ten people to go shoulder to shoulder." Add to these facts is one that cites the wall as the only monument visible from space, and all these sum up its uniqueness. Almost as impressive is Tien An Men Square, the fourth largest square in the world, 440,000sqm—880m+500m or 109ac. In 1977, a year after his death, Mao's mausoleum was built near the site of the former Gate of China, by the main north-south axis of the square. As part of this project, the square was further increased in size to become fully rectangular and able to accommodate 600,000 persons. It has been the scene of great historical events of Chinese history, the most recent being the 1989 revolt of students against the Communist regime and its subsequent crushing by the government, which resulted in the death of thousands of protestors. One of the most famous images from the event is the courage of a man in white long-sleeved shirt carrying two bags who defied the military by standing before a row of moving tanks. Also noteworthy is the unending attempt of successive governments of the Republic of China to erase this bit of history and to deny, on the anniversary of the start of the revolt, that it ever happened. The new, successful China that grew out of the crushed rebellion does not want its people to know of it. Official censorship, typical of authoritarian regimes, erases or rewrites history to strengthen its hegemony.

Another event, or series of events I had little inkling of, was the Cultural Revolution from 1966–1976 and its disastrous consequences. I knew, from the propaganda aimed at the reviled Gang of Four, about their misdeeds but not about the execrable excesses. The Cultural Revolution was a movement in which Mao radicalised relatively youthful Red Guards to root out what he considered conservative and reactionary elements, mostly upper middle-class people including artists, academics and bureaucrats. These people were hounded, tortured, humiliated and sent to work with their hands in remote rural places. Children reported on their own parents; great cultural institutions and monuments were destroyed by the Red Guards who carried Mao's Little Red Book of selected revolutionary slogans. It is estimated that half a million people died. What is noteworthy is that much of what happened was concealed or not revealed till much later.



I also brought back from China, Lu Hsun. His fiction, I mean. I had read about him and it was said that he was one of modern China's most revolutionary writers, and Mao Zedong's favourite among contemporary writers. In a government shop, I bought the novel The True Story of Ah Q and Selected Stories.

Reading him later, after I had returned from my China trip, I could see why he was important. Lu Hsun, 1881–1936, is regarded as the creator of modern Chinese literature. As early as n the May 1918 issue of the magazine New Youth, he published "A Madman's Diary." This was his "declaration of war" against Chinese feudal society and the first short story in the history of contemporary Chinese literature. In it, the younger of two brothers is cast as the unreliable narrator who suffers from the disease of a "persecution complex," and in his diary he records the practice of cannibalism in his family and Chinese society. Eating flesh becomes an allegory of centuries-old Chinese feudal society where superstition, ignorance and corruption conspire to keep the people poor and infinitely suffering. It is a savage indictment of Lu Hsun's China. But it ends on a note of hope:

How can a man like myself, after four thousand years of man-eating
History—even though I knew nothing about it at first—ever hope to
face real men?

Perhaps there are still children who have not eaten men?
Save the children  …



In the fall of 1978, I attended the famous Iowa International Writing Program (IWP) at the University of Iowa. The director of the program was Hualing Nieh Engle, the consultant was her husband Paul Engle and the advisor to the program was Peter Nazareth.

It was a bumper year for the program, with thirty-five writers from many countries. Some came alone, others with their spouses or girlfriends and most of us were given accommodation in the spacious Mayflower Apartments on Dubuque Street overlooking the Iowa River., The singles were asked to share apartments, and I had the good fortune to stay with Alfred Yuson of the Philippines. It was very likely part of the good sense of the IWP organisers to figure out that two guys from Southeast Asia could get along well.

Upon arrival, I was given a red folder with all essential information inside. Dated August 30 1978, and entitled "Welcome to Iowa City," the first paragraph opened with, "This program was founded in 1966 by Paul Engle and Hualing Nieh. As writers ourselves, we wanted to make an international community of writers in this turbulent twentieth century. More than 300 writers have come from all the continents of the world."

The next paragraph clearly states the aim of the program: "You are here above all to write your own books. You have no duties of any kind, although we hope you will attend the International Writing Seminars and go on the trips we plan. However, you are not required to do this."

What an incredibly open program this is, I thought. And to make the right emotional connections, there is the next paragraph: "As writers from other countries you will of course have problems. All of us will try to solve them."

For me, the core of the program was the international seminars in which a writer presents his/her works to the rest of the visiting writers. This was the occasion for the writer to share what he/she was currently writing. I decided to read my poems, and at the same time, to talk about the poetry of Edwin Thumboo, a pioneering Singaporean poet. I felt doing this would provide the context for my own practice. The common thread was early influences, Singapore's colonial background, writing in English and the struggle to find a voice. Why I wrote in English was a subject that linked me with the poets in Asia who were in the program, such as R. Parthasarathy from India and Alfred Yuson from the Philippines.

In my talk to the Iowa audience, I spoke of the attempt to forge a language for poetry. I said, "I wanted an impact that depended on the effect of words and statements that could be clearly and immediately grasped. And this impact, this grasp, was to take place by carefully listening, orally, without the listener having to read it beforehand or having it before him. In contrast to (Allen) Ginsberg, my verse was to be low-key, gently ironic, tongue-in-cheek, self-deprecating and skeptical. It was to have the element of informal conversation with another English-educated Singaporean where I could allude easily to people, attitudes, institutions and places, subject them to tolerant scrutiny and come up with insights relevant to Singaporeans …"

Peter Nazareth asked me to write a short piece about my choice of language, and this is what I wrote:

Why I Decide to Write in English

The question, in my case, is superfluous because it assumes that I had a choice, whereas in fact, I did not. But the fact that I can say that the answer is superfluous may perhaps be interesting enough to clarify the role of English writing, in relation to writing in other languages, in multi-lingual societies like Singapore.

A decision to write in one language, and not in another, assumes that the writer is able to choose between two or more languages in which he can write creatively.

In ex-colonial, Third World countries, where such a decision was made, it was usually a choice between the colonising language or the languages indigenous to the population.

In Singapore, before 1959, if one studied in a school whose medium of instruction was Malay, Chinese, Tamil or English (the language of the colonisers) the chances are that one could write in one of those languages because second-language instruction did not exist or if it did, it was poorly provided. By second-language is meant a language other than the main language one is taught in. For example, a student in a Malay school was likely to learn English, where it was provided for, as a second language. But, on the whole, non-existent or grossly inadequate second-language instruction left many people effectively monolingual when it came to writing.

So in this way, the pick of a language to write in creatively was decided when one went to school at the age of six. The relative success of the present Government's bilingual policy, implemented in 1959, may perhaps produce writers who will be in a position to choose between two languages. But to the best of my knowledge, there are no writers (who finished school by 1959) who could say that they chose one language as opposed to another.

Once the decision was made, the English writers were not compelled, even in the pre-independence period, to defend the decision. Since they had no choice but to use English, they set out to discover, at least in poetry, which kind of English was necessary to poetic expression

Of course, they were keenly aware, given the political consciousness present in the transition from colonialism to independence, of the advantages and disadvantages, of writing in English.



When I met Peter Nazareth in the fall of 1978, he had been in the U.S. for six years. The circumstance that brought him to America was due, dramatically, to events in his home country Uganda.

In May 1972, he had published a novel In A Brown Mantle in Kampala, the Ugandan capital. He wrote:

Joseph D'Souza, an East African civil servant turned political aide, is about to flee his country. He, because of his Asian ancestry, has become the target of African nationalists who accuse Asians of economically exploiting the black majority. A few hours before leaving, D'Souza visits his father's graveyard to say a silent goodbye. The cross with his father's name on it is broken and lying on the ground, covered with mud. Pressed for time, D'Souza leaves it that way. Later, in a plane bound for England, he has a departing thought for his nation:

"Goodbye, Mother Africa," he says as the plane lifts off.

"Your bastard son loved you."

As he told me in an email dated 11 May 2015, "Nine days after the novel was launched in Kampala, on July 29, Idi Amin announced the expulsion of Asians prophesied in the novel. I received the Seymour Lustman Fellowship at Yale and left for the U.S. with Mary and our two daughters on January 19 1973."

As Michael S. Winete was to write in an article in The Daily Iowan of December 6, 1978. "Today, five years later, life has mimicked art and author Peter Nazareth, a UI assistant professor of English, has joined his fictional creation in exile."

Peter was in his early thirties, at that time, he wore glasses over a prominent nose and thick eyelashes, and he had plentiful longish hair. Scholarly and soft-spoken, his experience as both creative writer and postcolonial critic made him an ideal person to deal with writers from around the world. He also arranged for writers to read at bookshops on 29 September 1978. I was asked alongside R. Parthasarathy and Ernest Alima to read in the well-known Jim's Bookstore, a used-book shop, on 610 S. Dubuque Street in Iowa City.

Iowa City was a small university town located at walking distance from the Mayflower Apartments where most of the writers were housed and Dubuque Street was the main road on which there were other shops like bars, restaurants and travel agencies. The apartment I had was 4340, and it was spacious and linked to another similar one separated by a pantry with simple cooking facility. Alfred Yuson of the Philippines was next door, and he agreed to cook occasionally. He took his time to prepare dinner, and as winter approached and the temperature cooled, I found myself often very hungry whilst waiting for dinner. But it was worth the wait, as Alfred was an excellent cook. The cool weather forced me to eat frequently, more than the three meals of breakfast, lunch and dinner I was used to. Unlike London, where I could play squash, there were no sports facilities I could use, and so I forced myself to jog. Initially, when I first arrived in early September, the sun shone. Gradually, as the year developed, it became less sunny, the days grew shorter and the snow came. Parthasarathy and I took advantage of the sun to row in the river in front of our apartment, and I remembered we had good-humoured disagreements about what is the best way to row on two occasions. Jogging and rowing did not help to keep hunger away; very likely it triggered more hunger, and I found my waistline expanding exponentially.

The Program arranged once for us to meet the Senator from Iowa and another time to tour the offices of the John Deere Company, one of the financial backers of the IWP. These occasions got us out to the countryside where we saw miles and miles of soy and corn fields.

Among the writers who came to read were the poets Adrienne Rich and W.S. Merwin. Rich had, at that time, acquired a reputation as a feminist poet who had written well-known poems like "Aunt Jennifer's Tigers" and "Snapshots of a Daughter-in-law." The latter poem has these famous lines: Sigh no more, ladies. Time is male / and in his cup drinks to the fair.

Merwin was beginning to establish his reputation as a poet and as a translator of poems from Spanish and French. He was later to become the American Poet Laureate in 2010 at the ripe age of 80. Their visits enabled us to hear the best American writers, and the program was generous enough, on occasions like these, to provide the poet's books gratis. It had a small warehouse of books, and we were encouraged to take whatever books we wished. In addition to Rich and Merwin, I took copies of the poems of William Carlos Williams which were not easily available in Singapore. Williams was published in New Directions, founded by an American publisher I had not known before called James Laughlin.

The English faculty of the university had a strong program of teaching creative writing, and we were encouraged to sit in on their classes. I attended a couple of undergraduate classes conducted by the poet Marvin Bell who taught writing poetry. He had small classes, and his method was instructive. He first circulated poems written by his students anonymously for peer critique. The idea was to ensure that what was criticised were the poems and not the writers of them. Subsequently, or in the next class, he would attach names to the poems circulated, and the writers had to "defend" them in the face of peer criticism. I thought this was a good idea as it encouraged engagement with poems that were unknown initially before leading on to owning up to a poem a student had written and justifying what he/she had composed in class. When it was my turn to teach creative writing later, I adopted this as one of my methods.

We had no access to television and our source of world news was the local newspaper The Iowan Times, or The New York Times or Herald Tribune if we were prepared to go into Iowa City. Rumblings of the revolution that was to force the exile of the Shah of Iran in 1979 came as early as the period I was in Iowa in the form of pamphlets pushed under our doors. They were pro-Shah of Iran or virulently anti-Shah and pro-Ayatollah Khomeini. I would find them either upon return to my room at any time of the day or early the next morning. I could not imagine who could have distributed them, but whoever they were, they were zealous in wanting to sway the visiting international writers.

Another troubling piece of news that broke was that of the death of the cult figure Jim Jones of the Peoples Temple. In November 1978, in Jonestown, Guyana, Jones and his followers drank cyanide-filled Favor Aid and killed themselves on his orders. Many died, including women and 304 children, many of them families. It shocked me to think that in the third quarter of the twentieth century, America could breed religious freaks who were part of the lunatic fringe that inhabit the world's richest nation. There is a disjunct between technological advancement and religious regression. And talking of wealth, another stark contrast was visible: the number of obese people I observed in suburbia and in urban areas—people so fat they walked sideways or had to stop whilst walking to recover their gait, be they white or black. Hispanics and Asian-American seem the exception. This observation was to be confirmed on my trips later to other American cities I was to visit, as part of the program.

The visiting writers were not only encouraged to come to Iowa but also provided with travelling grants to see the rest of the United States. The program helped with a travel grant for spouses. My wife, Esther, wanted to come in October, and on the agreed date, we decided to meet at the airport. No one told us and we didn't ask where in the airport we were to meet. O'Hare is one of the world's biggest and busiest airports, and how we managed to find one another, as we had not agreed on a specific spot, was a miracle. We stayed for two nights with my colleague Ho Wah Kam, who was studying for his PhD in Education in the University of Chicago. Wah Kam was one of the earlier few to benefit from the upgrading program that Dr Ruth Wong fought for. On the second night, we went to see the cult Japanese movie In the Realm of the Senses, directed by Nagisa Oshima. It was a film guaranteed to shock. I recall the neurosis of the lovers were compared to the warped psychosis of war, and it ended with a scene of the protagonists making love that could have been part of a porn movie. In the end, the woman cut off the penis of her lover and …



Alfred MacArthur Yuson was the full name of my neighbour in the Mayflower Apartments. He was tallish, about 5 feet 9 inches, and slim, spotted long hair and smoked a lot. He was a few years younger than me and like many Filipinos of his generation admired aspects of America and its culture; he told me that his parents gave him his middle name because they admired the great American General Douglas MacArthur, who fled the Philippines before the advancing Japanese forces in the Second World War and promised famously, "I shall return." He kept late nights and got up late in the morning. Sometimes, when I went to bed late or could not sleep, I could hear him typing next door, rapidly and with two fingers. I wrote a poem about him called "Lifestyle" in praise of someone whose ways were rather different from mine.

For Alfred Yuson

Night is your day. And if not all night
Then most of it. You stir at noon.
Midnight finds you in your prime
Tossing unrhymed poems to your late father
Your index fingers rattling the keys.

You'd blow fifty bucks for a football game
Just because the Hawkeyes would be hawking.
Is all this because of who you are?
Male, Filipino, poet, bohemian, father,
Fiction-writer, chain-smoker, husband
(Not necessarily in that disorder)
Black, thin locks a-flowing, scrawny lion pawing.

Your loyalty is all to what springs eternal.
What bubbles irregularly, twisting and turning
In all directions, splaying the sky—
Not to what in straight lines square up
Or what in circles is neatly trapped.

What I did not write about then and remember now, was the tempestuous relationship he had with his wife, Sylvia Mayuga. I usually went to bed at 11:30pm, as a person with regular sleep habits. Around that time, or later, if I was not yet in bed, I could hear him talk animatedly to his wife on long distance calls that went beyond minutes. Wow, I thought, he must have spent some money calling her; and if they were collect calls, she was paying plenty of pesos. Sometimes, his voice was emotional in a pleading way, and as he shared some details with me, the substance of it was that he wanted her to come to Iowa, but she was reluctant. I did not know the reason for her feeling that way but eventually she came. When she did, they moved to another room, a bigger one. My wife had come earlier, and we had also moved to a larger room. And one night, likely around nine, we heard knocks on our door, opened it and there was Sylvia asking to be let in. As we were about to find out, her problems with her husband had become serious, and she asked if she could spend the night with us. Of course, we said, Yes.

The program also provided for travel within America for writers to get to know the country better. We set out to visit the great cities like New York, Washington D.C., Boston, New Orleans and San Francisco. In Cambridge, we visited Chew Kheng Chuan, an undergraduate student at Harvard. He had a room to himself in Hurlburt 2, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and he said if we did not mind it, we were welcome to take his room.

"Where will you sleep?" I asked.

"I don't need to. Sometimes I spend the night studying or stay up with friends."

We enjoyed meeting a Singaporean in the famous university town, a sentiment reciprocated in a letter he wrote to me weeks later, dated 9 December 1978:

Thanks for the postcard which arrived about a week ago. We're having snow here ourselves now, and the Yard looks extremely pretty with such new heavy snowfall. Enjoyed having the opportunity of seeing someone from home, and so the accommodation, in the literal sense of the word, was no problem at all. This period may be comparable in excitement to falling in love, but I do assure you that after late nights of studying or whatever, my body cries out pitifully for sleep! Unfortunately for some of my lecturers, they might misinterpret my shutting of eyes during their lectures as an indication of their presentation rather than for what it actually is—aftermath of too many consecutive "all-nighters"!

After returning to Singapore upon graduation, Kheng Chuan became a successful businessman, married, raised a family. He was also a social activist and Chairman of the Substation board and a supporter of causes he believed in, and it was this that drew him into involvement in the 1987 so-called Marxist plot.



One Year Back Home was completed in 1979, and the next step was to look for funding and a director. I turned to the University of Singapore Society which had funded my first play and the society agreed. Next, I asked a young lecturer in the Department of English Language and Literature, Max Le Blond, if he would direct. Max had recently completed his PhD in the U.K. on contemporary English plays, including those of "the angry young men"; after he had read the play, he said yes. I remember him saying that the play had "fire in the belly."

The next step was to obtain a licence to perform. I knew from my experience of chairing the Drama Advisory Committee that it was going to be a difficult one.

In a letter dated 23 July 1979, I wrote to Mr. Michael Loke, Deputy Director, Ministry of Culture. These excerpts are taken from my book The Singapore Trilogy:

(i) This is the play I hope to see performed. Do you think I could possibly obtain a permit? Before I get a producer I thought I had better see if the play could be licensed … Please let me know.

If a permit can be granted, I hope to see it performed after September this year.

(ii) 16 August 1979, Mr. Michael Loke to me. Please refer to your letter of 23 July 79. I regret to inform you that the script entitled "One Year Back Home" has been found unsuitable for performance.

(iii) 5 November 1979 to the Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Culture. [Obviously I felt I had to go beyond Deputy Director level right up to the top civil servant in the Ministry. The relevant paragraphs are numbered here.]

(2) I would like to appeal against the decision and would be grateful if you could grant me an interview so that I can personally state my views.

(6) Mr. Loke's letter did not mention reasons why my play was found to be unsuitable for production, so I can only guess, from the contents of the play, that the reasons might be political, i.e. that the play put the government in a bad light. But I have already explained that this is not the case in my letter of 23 July 1979 to Mr. Loke, especially in the second paragraph which I now quote, "If one reads the play cursorily, some of the speeches of Fernandez appear to be nothing more than anti-PAP tirades, but a close reading would reveal that Fernandez compromises himself unwittingly by his rhetoric. There is something simplistic and naïve about his political views which affects his credibility. This is deliberate on my part and the average English-language playgoer would be aware of this.

(7) Of course, there is in the play implied criticism of the government, in the sense that it makes an implicit plea for more public discussion of sensitive issues. But this, you will agree, is not necessarily a bad thing.

(11) For these and other reasons, I hope you will reconsider your decision not to give me a licence. I would appreciate an interview to put forward my views.

I received a letter dated 15 November 1979 to see a Mr. Lai Choon Seng of the Ministry of Culture for an interview. We met soon after that, and our interview lasted for an hour. I was dismayed, upon sitting down, to notice that the script of my play had lines prominently underlined with red ink and with       comments in red on the borders. It looked, right at the beginning, as if he was the voice of authority about to admonish an offender or an inflexible teacher who had marked down a student's essay for failure. He made several objections: Fernandez's speeches attacking PAP policies, the reference to the government's handling of chit funds and the ambiguous ending in the script submitted. I pointed out that there were also pro-PAP speeches by Chye, and he had no counter to that. As for the chit funds scandal, I said that it was the kind of thing an opposition candidate in an election would use to embarrass the government. As for ambiguity, I said that I sometimes prefer implicit to explicit ways of writing. But he insisted on clear statements. As we talked, two things became clear to me, firstly, that he read my play like it was a communist or pro-communist document, and, secondly, that he had no idea about how art expressed itself. I decided, after leaving his office, that I would take up the matter not with another civil servant but with the politician in the ministry. –The Singapore Trilogy, pages 28–29

ImageRobert Yeo (b. 1940) has published poems, plays, a novel, essays and a memoir. He has also written librettos for opera and he is currently revising the opera FENCES for a second performance. His latest books are Routes: A Singaporean Memoir 1940-75 (Ethos Books, 2011, second edition 2014), the collected poems, The Best of Robert Yeo (Epigram Books, 2012) and the play The Eye of History (Epigram, 2016). Currently he is working on the second volume of his memoirs.
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