The Seventies: Transition from Cultural Desert to Global City

Robert Yeo

This is a personal essay to remember and chart my experience as a writer in the context of Singapore’s development, during the decade 1970-79, from cultural desert to global city.

I will try to make connexions and generalizations which will, I hope, not seem too sweeping. “Only connect,” wrote E.M. Forster, and that is what I will do. If these connexions appear arbitrary and forced, perhaps they will have a force fuelled by instinct about where the arts in Singapore in the seventies were swinging into.

From Cultural Desert to Global City

Consider these two quotations, from essays two years apart. The first is from my essay published in Commentary, the University of Singapore Society’s journal, in 1970, titled “Poetry in English in the Seventies”. I wrote, positively and prescriptively, that a Singaporean literature must inevitably emerge. The problem is, in what way?

Possible answers may be sought in the cultural situation of the seventies. I believe that there has been a discernable and favourable change in the attitude of Singaporeans towards the arts. The successful attempts to resolve bread-and-butter problems and increasing affluence have made us more conscious of what to do with our leisure and how the arts can help to make our lives less materialistic and therefore meaningful in a spiritual sense. The accent on the aesthetic aspects of education in our schools will help to quicken our progress towards a more gracious style of living.

Given this general climate which tends towards more support for the arts than before, the poets as artists must attempt to find or create their special audience from among those who may patronize other arts like music or painting…

I think this may be done by using a public language that appeals to as many of the English-educated in Singapore…one that uses English as spoken and written here in Singapore at present – with its distinctive pronunciation, grammar, vocabulary and common phrases… as commonly used here by representative sections of the English-educated to reflect our multi-lingual background and the enormous and rapid changes taking place in our society. The role of the poet as the creative recorder and interpreter of a society in rapid change will assume more importance.
More and more, this language will have to be popular and less and less esoteric; if it expresses very personal emotions it will have to attempt to relate them to common experience by joining private to social expression. And as expression becomes increasingly popular and social, it is very likely to concern itself with broader social issues and themes considered typically Singaporean.

Out of this, in due course, a Singapore literature will emerge.

The second is from an address to the Singapore Press Club by the former and late Minister, S. Rajaratnam, made in 1972 and entitled “Singapore: Global City”.

Explaining why Singapore did not fail after separation in 1965 from Malaysia but instead prospered, Rajaratnam wrote:

This is because Singapore is transforming itself into a new kind of city – a Global City…

The Global Cities, unlike earlier cities, are linked intimately with one another. Because they are more alike, they reach out to one another through the tentacles of technology. Linked together, they form a chain of cities which today shape and direct, in varying degrees of importance, a world-wide system of economics. It is my contention that Singapore is becoming a component of that system – not a major component but a growingly important one. It is in this sense that I have chosen to describe Singapore as a Global City.

I have dealt largely with the economic aspects of Singapore as a Global City. But the political, social and cultural implications of being a Global City are no less important.

Consider the limited, nationalistic impact of my essay and the broader, international reach of Rajaratnam’s and then ask this pivotal question: When did Singapore cease to be a cultural desert and become a global city?

My short answer is: towards the end of the seventies, in particular, the years 1978-79. This will become clearer as this essay progresses.

Poetry and Writing in Asia Series

In January 1971, I published my first book- a slim 48-page book of poems with the hippish, sixties title: Coming Home, Baby. At the same time, Arthur Yap too published his first book of poems, called Only Lines. Our publisher was Federal Publications and our benefactor, its General Manager then, Patrick Mowe.

These two volumes were to, sort of, inaugurate a series of single volumes of poetry (largely) and some prose from another publisher, which specialized in publishing authors from Singapore and Malaysia. This publisher, Heinemann, was started by two Englishmen, Leon Comber, who was the general editor of the series and worked from its Headquarters in Hong Kong, and John Watson, its manager in Singapore. Heinemann went on to publish the following titles during that decade:

HEINEMANN (poetry titles, except those indicated)
1976 Edwin Thumboo (ed), The Second Tongue
1977 Goh Poh Seng, The Immolation (novel)
1977 Edwin Thumboo, Gods Can Die
1977 Goh Poh Seng, Eyewitness
1978 Robert Yeo, And Napalm Does not Help
1978 Arthur Yap, Commonplace
1978 Catherine Lim, Little Ironies (short stories)
1979 Edwin Thumboo, Ulysses by the Merlion
1980 Arthur Yap, Down the Line
1980 Lee Tzu Pheng, Prospect of a Drowning
1980 Catherine Lim, Or Else The Lightning God and Other Stories

OTHER PUBLISHERS (poetry titles, except those indicated)
1972 Chandran Nair, Once the Horsemen and other Poems (Woodrose Publications)
1972 Goh Poh Seng, If We Dream Too Long (novel, Island Press)
1974 Five Takes (5 Poets, University of Singapore Society)
1975 Chandran Nair, After the Hard Hours, This Rain (Woodrose Publications)
1978 Goh Poh Seng, Lines from Batu Ferringhi (Island Press)

A few conclusions can be gleaned from this listing. First, the Writing in Asia series provided a substantial platform for publishing; second, poetry flourished, judged by the number of titles; third, writers like Edwin Thumboo, Goh Poh Seng, Robert Yeo, Arthur Yap, Chandran Nair and Catherine Lim made their debut or consolidated their careers.

My First Play and Arts Criticism

In July 1974, my first full-length play Are You There, Singapore? was staged, and according to two reviews, was a resounding success. Gracia Tay-Chee, The Straits Times theatre critic wrote in her newspaper, “For a first play, Robert Yeo is to be congratulated on his handling of dialogue, situation, plot content and development. What is most important – it moves.” Violet Oon, who covered the performing arts for the afternoon daily, The New Nation, wrote, “It is about the best attended play I’ve seen and it all went off like a shot… It has many good things going for it. One is the playwright’s natural sense of drama.”

Many critics, including Max Le Blond, felt that Are You There, Singapore? showed that the Singapore play was alive and well.

I had previously written articles and poems for The New Nation and was therefore known to the editorial people of the newspaper, and one of their senior editors asked me if I would like to contribute regular arts columns on Saturdays. I jumped at the opportunity. The column was called Saturday Guest Robert Yeo, and the first appeared on 26 October 1974. Altogether, over a period of just under two years, up to February 1976, I wrote nine articles which, for the first time ever, engaged the arts seriously.

The late Krishen Jit, Malaysian theatre director and critic, called the columns and subsequent articles I was to write about the growing theatre scene, “advocate essays”.

My earnest hope that the arts in Singapore should develop a nationalistic identity, as reflected in my article on poetry earlier, led me to write a long article entitled “The Arts in Singapore – the last ten years and beyond”. It was an ambitious essay that was published by the Alumni International Singapore, in November 1975 to celebrate ten years of independence; it was called Singapore – A Decade of Independence, edited by Charles Ng and T.P.B. Menon, other contributors included Francis Thomas, William Lim, Prof S.S. Ratnam and Goh Chok Tong.

My article surveyed the arts from the point of view of those forms, mostly ethnic and traditional, which had the capacity to morph into new entities bearing the Singapore stamp. I wrote that “in literature and painting we have created two examples of distinct, viable and national art forms; we have not done so in the performing arts of dance, music and drama.” I made a few suggestions about what the public and the private sectors could do to encourage the growth of the arts and in the last paragraph concluded, “If this, and some of the suggestions I have ventured in this concluding section, are taken up with the same kind of conviction and vigour that we, as a government and a people, have brought to bear up on political and socio-economic development, I see no reason why cultural activity in the arts should continue to lag behind other development efforts.”

Arts Activism in Drama

Probably because of my commentaries and advocacy, I was asked by the Ministry of Culture to serve as Chair, Drama Advisory Committee in 1977. The Ministry, recognizing the quickening pace in arts activities, formed other committees with picked volunteers, in Visual Arts, Dance, Music and Literature. With Drama, there were six committees. They were chaired by those who were activists in their fields. If I remember correctly, they included Goh Soo Khim for Dance, Bernard Tan for Music and Edwin Thumboo for Literature.

The task of these committees was to provide ideas to help the government promote the arts, the assumption being, as I interpreted the terms of appointment, that hard bread-and-butter issues had been largely resolved and it was time to turn to the soft options, like the arts.

The committee’s representation was multi-lingual i.e. the interests of the communities of the four major speech-groups, Chinese, English, Indian (Tamil) and Malay, were attended to.

Together with my colleagues, the Drama Advisory Committee implemented the following policies: national playwriting competitions, drama festivals, grants to drama groups prepared to write/devise their own Singaporean plays and (later, probably in the early eighties) arts housing. (I served the Ministry of Culture, and later these responsibilities were transferred to the Ministry of Community Development.)

The first Drama Festival was launched in 1978 and held between 1 and 13 August. It empowered local groups and initially, these groups staged traditional, ethnic plays and operas. The Drama Advisory Committee fine-tuned the programming and linked the disbursing of funds to those groups prepared to write new scripts. It worked. New plays and productions appeared. The results were not immediate, but one great example may suffice. Emily of Emerald Hill, now an iconic Singapore play, won first prize in the 1983 Playwriting Competition and was subsequently performed to great accolades many times over.

In 1974, a small book by an English language teacher based in Singapore called The English of Singapore and Malaysia (ESM) reminded the peoples of the two countries that they spoke a unique brand of English. The author was Ray Tongue and his book started a quiet revolution in language studies, with repercussions for education and the arts. In education, teachers were forced to ask, what is Singlish? What is standard Singapore English? In literature, and subsequently on TV and the stage, What is the place of Singlish? And speaking of connexions, in respect of Singlish on stage, Emily was to provide a resounding answer nine years later.

The Singapore Arts Festival and the Singapore Symphony Orchestra

In 1977, the Singapore Arts Festival was inaugurated. It started small, as a national event to celebrate the arts of the diverse communities, and then expanded gradually to include groups from around the world. Since then, it has become the biggest single arts event in Singapore’s cultural calendar, and the fact that it is organised and supported now by a semi-governmental body like the National Arts Council gives it added prestige.

The closing act of the seventies was the founding of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO) in 1978. Assisted by Shalom Ronly Riklis, an Israeli conductor, it was supported by the Singapore government, in particular, Finance Minister Dr Goh Keng Swee (I remember Dr Goh Keng Swee saying that a great city is not complete without a symphony orchestra). Its aim, according to its homepage, was to “enrich the local cultural scene, serving as a bridge between the music traditions of Asia and the West and providing artistic inspiration, entertainment and education.” The SSO gave its first concert on 24 January 1979.

The consolidation of these two institutions into internationally respected entities fully satisfied the expectations of their respective founders.


The seventies was a watershed decade for the arts in Singapore. After the survival years, many people were confident that it was time to spend more time on the soft pursuits of artistic pleasure. Some, like myself, felt that such a pursuit could only be legitimised by securing first a nationalist Singaporean identity before entertaining international aspirations. But as the Culture Minister S. Rajaratnam showed, Singapore was changing its character as a city economically and the impact of such a change was felt inevitably in the cultural field.

These two arms of artistic development proceeded concurrently. Writing in English, poetry in particular, prospered. The formation of the committees in the Visual Arts, Dance, Literature, Music and Drama provided opportunities for local talent to emerge. Drama, or the Theatre as I prefer to call it, was to make a great leap into professionalization in the early eighties. Internationally, travel and the performance of great artists and arts groups, from the rest of the world in Singapore, made discerning audiences and the government aware of the potential of Singapore as an arts centre. The founding of the first Arts Festival in 1977 and the Singapore Symphony Orchestra in 1978 signalled the city’s emergence from cultural desert to global city.

It all happened in the seventies.

Robert Yeo teaches creative writing as adjunct lecturer in The Singapore Management University. He also mentors in the National Arts Council programme for nurturing young writers called MAP .

One thought on “The Seventies: Transition from Cultural Desert to Global City”

  1. If the turning point was 1978/79, did the arrival of Dr Goh Keng Swee at MOE and the release of the Goh Report (which introduced streaming) during that same period have an impact on the cultural scene back then?

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