He’s a poet, playwright, novelist, essayist, and librettist. A single paragraph wouldn’t be able to do justice to this National Institute of Education (NIE) and Nanyang Technological University (NTU) retired lecturer’s achievements thus far. If you’d like to know more about Robert Yeo and his numerous works, we highly recommend reading this.
1. The Eye of History was initially a one-act play but after a three-month sabbatical you decided to turn it into a three-act one. Would you mind expanding on what was the trigger or inspiration for extending the play?
I felt that the play could be expanded to include a statement about the places in history of both Raffles and Lee Kuan Yew as the makers of modern Singapore, beginning from 1819. This bicentennial year has revealed conclusively that the Singapore Raffles came to was no sleepy village, but a thriving port city. I had the idea of expanding the play before arriving in Sydney because I had been reading The Hikayat Abdullah: An annotated translation by A.H. Hill. I was enchanted by Abdullah’s first-hand account of the character of Raffles and the founding of Singapore, and decided not only to include him in my play but also A.H. Hill, one of the translators of the Hikayat.
2. You also mentioned that when writing Act One and Act Three of the play your pen flowed fluently, almost like you were in this state of flow. Can you describe what that was like? For example, what went through your mind? Did you skip any meals?
It was inspirational in the best sense of the word. I felt I had a good idea, I had thought long and deep about it, and I wrote quickly and smoothly with little revision. No, I did not skip meals. I am used to interruption, and in any case, like the sculptor Ng Eng Teng, I do not believe in the myth of the starving artist.
3. While we’re on that topic, were there any other moments during your other works you’ve experienced that?
If you mean the experience of inspiration, I had been through that in writing my only novel—The Adventures of Holden Heng—first published in 1987. Nearly the entire novel was in my head before I committed it to writing. This is writing’s best moments but whether it produced the best writing is another matter.
4. You mentioned that the actors added and subtracted from the script. Were there any added moments that you felt really brought the plot or characters to life? If so, what were they?
The additions came not from the actors but from K.K. Seet, the director. Instead of the white Raffles statue being assembled from ground level by the Singapore River, Dr Seet had it lowered from the ceiling. That was a spectacular entry of Raffles.
5. How did you decide on the questions for Lee Kuan Yew and Raffles?
Regarding the questions of Lee Kuan Yew and Raffles, I cannot explain how they came about. It is part of the mystery of process that when you write spontaneously, the characters take over, and you, the author, become a mere vessel.
At the same time, I think that for this to happen, I must have immersed myself in the issues and fictional characters/scenes of the play. Raffles and Lee are fascinating personalities and I had read about them, and of course, lived through (I was born in 1940) the age of Lee Kuan Yew. I also recall that when I started to write this play, the Prime Minister had already begun to think of succession. It showed how far-sighted he was.
6. One of our favourite topics Raffles had with Lee Kuan Yew was the topic on more public holidays (obviously). If you had to name two public holidays other than the ones mentioned in the play, what would they be?
Our holidays are mostly linked to religion or race. Among the exceptions are Labour Day or the calendar New Year. This is in line with our harmonious multiracialism. Suggesting a Raffles Day was a piece of humorous fiction. If I were to name two new public holidays I would propose a Teachers Day, to honour the eternal bond between teacher and pupil. And if I were writing today, certainly Environment Day or Earth Day.
7. In the play, Raffles mentioned, “Our best intentions will be misconstrued but in the end, when the eye of history will focus on us clearly like the sun on a cloudless day”. What made you write this line for him?
The legacies of great men and women are often controversial. This year for instance (2019), 200 years after the founding of Singapore, William Farquhar’s part in developing Singapore is still disputed, as seen in the book by Nadia H. Wright, William Farquhar and Singapore: Stepping out from Raffles’ Shadow, published in 2017. Lee Kuan Yew’s part in developing modern Singapore from 1959 to the year he stepped down is indisputable.
8. If you had to choose one, which was your favourite part of the play?
The two scenes in Act 1—scenes 2 and 3—about workmen putting up the statue of Raffles and joking about it, speaking Singlish, one of them thinking he was putting up a statue of Lee Kuan Yew, are my favourites.
9. Do any of the characters hold a special place in your heart? If so, who and why?
I like the partly fictional character of Munshi Abdullah I have created. I have used his own words as well as adding new speech. Abdullah was interesting: he served as one of Raffles’s Malay scribes, was a discerning observer, albeit an Anglophile, and a very important historical figure in Malay letters.
10. If you had to pick someone else from Singapore’s history to talk to another Singaporean, who would these two be? What do you think the conversation would be like then?
I would have Lee Kuan Yew talk to William Farquhar, Singapore’s First Resident, a person who did much to develop early Singapore from its beginning in 1819.