The Question of Continuity
A Re-Reading of Robert Yeo's The Singapore Trilogy
By Crispin Rodrigues
The Singapore Trilogy
It is very difficult to do a review on any creative work that has been published for a long time, especially since there have already been many reviews on the work. Though Robert Yeo's Singapore Trilogy was performed in the 1974, 1980 and 1997, they were never staged as a combined trilogy. However, Epigram has recently published Yeo's plays as a collection, along with a compelling critique from Dominic Nah and Adeeb Fazah, which traces the three plays in a continuum featuring the same set of characters. In an effort to not rehash many of the points that Nah and Adeeb have raised, I would like to set my sights on Yeo's trilogy as a trajectory of acceptance of many Singaporeanisms within the creative community.
The first play Are You There, Singapore? (originally written and staged in 1974) reads like a time capsule in grappling with the Singapore identity, along with its own challenge of who and what constitutes a Singaporean. By today's standards, the drama of upper-class Singaporeans, such as protagonist Ang Siew Hua and her brother Ang Siew Chye, and their friends Richard Lim and Sally Tan, feels distant from the modern perceptions of an overseas education. Their elevated Anglocised manner of speaking and seeming question of liberal/traditional values come across rather caricaturised and even archaic. And while Singlish is depicted through the many lahs that are peppered throughout the play, Singapore is largely in the background than the foreground, which is centred upon the culture shock of living in Britain.
As the reader follows Siew Hua's decision on whether to abort the illegitimate child she has with Giogio, the question is what to make of the proverbial bun in the oven – is the baby a metaphor for the birth of Singapore and its nation-building? Throughout the play, both Siew Chye and Reginald Fernandez trade gentlemanly barbs with each other on the ideological concerns of an early nation, while Richard and Sally are stand-ins for liberal and traditionalist values, and while the play offers up different directions that Singapore could move towards, the quick shifts from scene to scene feel too fast to truly get a grip on the present political reality of a new nation-state. What the reader seems to be left with is a rather superficial debate made by four well-off individuals who feel detached from the political realities of nationhood.
However, Siew Hua's choice of whether or not to keep her baby is where the play feels most grounded, not because the question of abortion is a perennial debate that is still hotly debated, but that the Singaporean play, like Siew Hua's dilemma, is still deliberating on its direction and artistry. There are early elements of Singaporeanisms such as the use of Singlish and the ideological debates, but at the same time, the employment of the realist mode still anchors the play within a large Anglocentric tradition. This struggle, however, was not just felt by Yeo, but could be seen in many of his contemporaries working at that time such as Goh Poh Seng's If We Dream Too Long, published in 1972, which similarly employs the realist narrative as well as an existential question at the heart of the novel.
However, instead of leaving it there, the admirable part of Yeo's oeuvre is to transform what would have seemed like a solo piece into a trilogy of growth, casting more light and colour on the world he has created in the initial play. The foregrounding of Siew Chye and Reginald's political differences frames One Year Back Home (1980) and Changi (1997), which along with Siew Hua's political centrism makes for a way more compelling political theatre. In One Year Back Home, Reginald (a minor character in Are You There, Singapore?) is an election candidate for the Workers' Party, who politically spars with Siew Chye, who is running under the PAP ticket. His political diatribes against Siew Chye's apparent pragmatic and classist attitudes are still a pressing issue in today's politics, while bringing in a complex debate of whether the Members of Parliament who represent constituencies truly know the constituents that they represent.
One of the benefits of this book is to read the continuity across both plays and to see how Reginald, who seemingly comes from the same background as Siew Chye, argues for the average Singaporean, who in the late 70s and early 80s would have had much trouble to go to an overseas university. The question over the political fate of Singapore is once again paralleled against Siew Hua's woes as a single mother trying to raise her daughter Lisa (who adopts her surname rather than Giorgio's) as she dates Gerald Tan, a traditionalist civil servant, who puts forward the issue of self-fulfilment at the centre of the play:
Gerald's lament anchors the play within political reality for Singaporeans. This is not just a political drama about two election candidates from opposing political parties, but also a question on whether one needs to consider self-interest or hold more communitarian views. This is especially so with Siew Hua, who though seemingly more intrigued with Reginald's political views, expresses allegiance to her brother due to their kinship and becomes his secretary, and is then embroiled in the debate between the two. Gerald, too, is caught in the crossfire as he is challenged by his traditionalist family values, while at the same time being in love with Siew Hua. Compared with Are You There, Singapore?, One Year Back Home does a much better job in delving into political intrigue and the complexities of navigating such dilemmas, offering rounded characters that are governed by obligation and yet have to make difficult decisions that test their personal ties.
Changi functions as an afterword to the intense political drama of One Year Back Home and situates Reginald as the protagonist, delving into his backstory more and offering a conclusion to perhaps one of the most-rounded characters in all of Singapore literature. In Changi, Reginald has been incarcerated in Changi Prison for his political activities, and has a crisis of conscience between his political efforts, which have landed him in prison, and the dreams of his parents, which he has felt he has let down. He is exiled to Britain as a result, where he continues to pursue his political activities. He centres this dilemma through art:
The poem fragment captures a zen moment wherein Reginald's political worldview aligns with his desire to create change in Singapore despite political resistance and the chance that he might be arrested. He returns to Singapore to protest against the cleaning up of Bugis Street where he employs the political speechcraft developed over the course of three plays. Equal parts political furore and poetic, we do not actually see the outcome of Reginald's speech on the political climate of Bugis, but what we see at the end is Siew Hua, who he has loved throughout the plays, and her daughter Lisa, unravelling a Singapore flag in front of him, signifying that though the political reality is opposed to his, there is still a place for him in Singapore. The closing image at the end is one of family drama, one that takes three plays to unfold.
Yeo's trilogy is one that challenges art itself – static, unflinching and 'for its time', because it grows from one play to the next. In its compiled form, The Singapore Trilogy carries the hope for more complex dialogue with our history and its political dilemma, that no matter where we stand on the political spectrum, there is also space to create and to develop.QLRS Vol. 22 No. 3 Jul 2023