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Literary Arts

Edwin Thumboo

Singapore's unofficial English-language poet laureate.

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Published: 12 Oct 2016


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Art—whatever its form—helps to define the texture, the rhythm, the imagery, the symbolism, the energy of life in a society.

Edwin Thumboo, born in 1933 in Singapore, has been a key figure in the growth of a Singapore English-language literature, making great contributions as an educator, a literary editor and a poet. Currently an Emeritus Professor at the National University of Singapore, he is widely regarded as the nation’s unofficial English-language poet laureate and is best known for his nationalist-themed poetry centred on important issues of history and identity. Thumboo was the first Singaporean to be conferred the SEA Write Award in 1979 and his legacy has been recognised through other awards and honours including three National Book Development Council awards, the Pingat Jasa Gemilang (Meritorious Service Medal) in 2006, and the Cultural Medallion in 1980. He continues to mentor young poets and write.

Edwin Thumboo was born on 22 Nov 1933 in Singapore to a Tamil school teacher and Chinese-Peranakan housewife. The eldest of eight children, he grew up in Mandai speaking English and Teochew and attended Pasir Panjang Primary School where his father taught. During the Japanese Occupation in the second World War, he helped to supplement the family income by tending goats and selling cakes. When the war ended, Thumboo continued his studies at Monk’s Hill Secondary School and then Victoria School where, encouraged by senior English master Shamus Frazer, he started writing poetry.

In the 1950s, Edwin attended the University of Malaya and majored in English literature and history. While still an undergraduate in 1956 and a member of the Youth Poetry Circle, he published his first poetry collection Rib of Earth, dedicating it to his former teacher Shamus Frazer. In 1957, he graduated with a BA (Hons) in English and applied to be a teacher in the university but was rejected as few locals were accepted for such positions then. Thus began his career in the civil service.

In November 1957, he started working for the Income Tax Department. He moved to the Central Provident Fund Board in 1961, and then worked as an assistant secretary at the Singapore Telephone Board in 1965. It was only in 1966 when Singapore had turned independent that he finally got the job he had wanted—as assistant lecturer at the then University of Singapore. He joined the Department of English Language and Literature on 16 June 1966. He went on to attain his Ph.D in 1970, and from then till 1977, was Professor in the department teaching Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, Romantic poetry, Malaysian and Singapore literature and creative writing, among other topics.

Where during his years in civil service his creative writing had taken a backseat, now it came to the fore again. During his third year of professorship in 1972, he published his first collection of nursery rhymes Child’s Delight. Five years later, Thumboo reached two more milestones in his career and poetic development. He became head of the department in the university—a role he would serve till 1993—and introduced the study of Commonweath/New Literatures in English, and introduced English language as a major to better equip graduates to become better teachers of English. That same year, he published his second collection of poetry for adults Gods Can Die. It was a collection passionate in its intrepid exploration of social and national issues that revealed a young Singapore’s search for a national identity. Thumboo received the National Book Development Council of Singapore Award in 1978 for Gods Can Die.

Gods Can Die was followed by the poetry collection Ulysses by the Merlion in 1979, which delved further into issues of post-colonialism, multiculturalism, power and language. This collection also received the National Book Development Council Singapore award in 1980. For his outstanding efforts, Thumboo became the first Singaporean to win the Southeast Asia Write award in 1979. In 1980, Thumboo received the Cultural Medallion for his contributions to literature.

That year, Thumboo also became the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences in the newly formed National University of Singapore (created through a merger between Nanyang University and University of Singapore). He would serve as Dean until 1991, becoming the university’s longest serving Dean. Following his tenure as Dean, he worked with the Ministry of Education to establish the Creative Arts Programme in secondary schools and junior colleges.

Thumboo became a Fulbright-Hays Visiting Professor at Pennsylvania State University in the USA in 1980. And over the next two decades, he became writer-in-residence, visiting professor and fellow at various universities overseas including in the University of Iowa in the USA, the University of London in the UK, the University of Wollongong in Australia and the University of Innsbruck in Austria.

Throughout his university career and his retirement in 1997, Thumboo has continued writing. He followed Rib of Earth (1956), Gods Can Die (1977) and Ulysses by the Merlion (1979) with A Third Map: New and Selected Poems (1993), and Still Travelling (2008), which was dedicated to his seven grandchildren. He also wrote two collections of poetry for children, Child’s Delight 1 & 2 (1972) and Friend: Poems (2003), and published Bring the Sun (2008), a selection of poems from out-of-print volumes. In 2011, he wrote a new poem, The Indian Ocean, for the publication Flow Across Our Ocean: Singapore and South Africa, commemorating the opening ceremony of Spotlight Singapore in Cape Town (16-19 March 2011), an international exchange programme co-organised by Asian Culture Enterprise Singapore and The Arts House. 2012 sees the publication of a chapbook Singapore Word Maps, consisting of his poems on places.

Thumboo has also simultaneously helped to shape and promote other writers’ works. In the ’70s, he edited some of the earliest English-language poetry anthologies from Singapore and Malaysia including The Flowering Tree (1970), Seven Poets (1973) and The Second Tongue (1979). Subsequently, he edited two multilingual anthologies sponsored by the ASEAN Committee of Culture and Information entitled The Poetry of Singapore (1985) and The Fiction of Singapore (1990). Most recently in 2010, he edited and wrote the introduction to &WORDS: Poems Singapore and Beyond, a collection of poems by Singapore authors. At present, he is Consulting Editor for World Englishes and Editorial Consultant for Westerly, as well as a member of the Editorial Board of Solidarity.

Thumboo’s many contributions to the field of Singapore English-language literature over the decades have been recognised through many awards. These include the 1978, 1980 and 1994 National Book Development Council of Singapore awards for poetry in English for Gods Can Die, Ulysses by the Merlion and A Third Map, the 1979 Southeast Asia Write Award, the 1980 Cultural Medallion, the 1987 ASEAN Cultural and Communication Award in Literature, the 1981 Bintang Bakti Masyarakat (Public Service Star) and the Public Service Star (Bar) in 1991, the 2002 Raja Rao Award and the 2006 Pingat Jasa Gemilang (Meritorious Service Medal).

Currently Emeritus Professor at the National University of Singapore, Thumboo continues to mentor and inspire young English-language poets within and beyond the Creative Arts Programme in schools. He also continues to write. His earlier poetry’s vivid depictions of an infant nation’s struggles with establishing a post-colonial, multicultural identity remain vitally important today, and his latest works’ exploration of personal and regional histories are evocative in their expression of hope for his homeland and the larger society.

Timeline

22 Nov 1933

Born in Singapore.

1940

Attended Pasir Panjang Primary School.

1946 to 1948

Attended Monks Hill Secondary School.

1948

Attended Victoria School.
Member of Youth Poetry Circle.

1949

Wrote his first poem Kelong.

1953 to 1956

Graduated from University of Malaya (Bachelor of Arts in History and English Literature with a minor in Philosophy).

1956

Published Rib of Earth.

1957 to 1961

Worked at the Income Tax Department.

1957

Graduated with Honours degree (2nd upper) in English from University of Malaya.

1961 to 1965

Worked at the Central Provident Fund Board.

1965 to 1965

Worked at the Singapore Telephone Board.

1966 to 1970

Assistant Lecturer, National University of Singapore.

1970 to 1993

Professor, Department of English Language and Literature, National University of Singapore.

1970

Attained Ph.D in African poetry, University of Singapore.
Edited poetry anthology The Flowering Tree.

1972

Published Child’s Delight 1 and Child’s Delight 2.

1973

Edited poetry anthology Seven Poets.

1977 to 1993

Head of Department, Department of English Language and Literature, National University of Singapore.

1977

Published Gods Can Die.

1978

Received National Book Development Council of Singapore award for Gods Can Die.

1979

Received Southeast Asian Writers Award.
Published Ulysses by the Merlion.
Edited poetry anthology The Second Tongue.

1979 to 1980

Fulbright-Hays Visiting Professor, Pennsylvania State University.

1980

Received Cultural Medallion for contributions to literature.
Received National Book Development Council of Singapore award for Ulysses by the Merlion.

1980 to 1991

Dean, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, National University of Singapore.

1981

Received Bintang Bakti Masyarakat (Public Service Star).

1983 to 1986

Chairman, Association of Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies, VII Triennium.

1985

Writer-in-Residence, Institute of Culture and Communication, Hawaii, USA.
Edited multilingual poetry anthology The Poetry of Singapore.

1986

Ida Beam Professor, University of Iowa, Iowa City, USA

1987

Received ASEAN Culture and Communication Award for Literature.
Member, International Advisory Panel, East-West Centre, Hawaii, USA.
Honorary Research Fellow, University College, University of London, UK.

1988

Member, Committee of Jurors, Neustadt International Prize for Literature, Oklahoma, USA.

1990

Edited multilingual anthology The Fiction of Singapore.

1991

Received Public Service Star (Bar).

1993

Board member, Advisory Committee, National Arts Council.
Visiting Fellow, Department of English, Australian Defence Force Academy.
Published The Third Map.

1993 to 2005

Chairman/Director, National University of Singapore Centre for the Arts.

1994

Received National Book Development Council of Singapore award for The Third Map.

1995 to 2002

Professorial Fellow, National University of Singapore.

1997

Emeritus Professor, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, National University of Singapore.

1998

CAS-Miller Visiting Professor, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, USA.
Received National University of Singapore Award for Excellent Teaching.

2002

Received Raja Rao Award

2003

Published Friend.

2004

Visiting Professor, University of Innsbruck, Austria.

2006

Received Pingat Jasa Gemilang (Meritorious Service Medal).

2008

Published Still Travelling.

2010

Edited &WORDS: Poems Singapore and Beyond.

2011

Wrote poem The Indian Ocean for Flow Across Our Ocean: Singapore and South Africa.

2012

Wrote three new poems for Singapore Word Maps: A Chapbook of Edwin Thumboo's new and Selected Place Poems. Published by National Library Board. Edwin Thumboo: Time-Travelling – A Selected Annotated Bibliography, Recollections and Critical Essays. Published by National Library Board.


TributeSG

TributeSG celebrates the arts community’s most senior members, and those who have made a lifetime of contribution to the arts. These artists, administrators, educators, patrons, and champions include many Singapore arts pioneers who laid the foundations of the vibrant arts and cultural scene we enjoy today. The many profiles in TributeSG let us into the minds and worlds of these pioneers, and help us understand our shared arts heritage. When we revisit their works and rediscover their journeys, we learn where we came from and how we came to be. Collectively, their stories tell the tale of the making of a nation’s artistic identity.

In putting together this collection, the TributeSG team consulted an external advisory panel, consisting of Arun Mahiznan, Choo Thiam Siew, J. P. Nathan, K. K. Seet, Kwok Kian Chow, and Iskandar Ismail. Those selected to be profiled in TributeSG met one of the following criteria: they were at least 60 years of age as of 12 Oct 2016, or deceased, or had received national recognition in the form of the Cultural Medallion. This journey of arts archival officially came to a close on 12 Oct 2016, after four years of extensive research, interviews and collation of information graciously provided by the TributeSG pioneers, their families and peers. TributeSG also benefited from enthusiastic help from like-minded friends and organisations who supported Esplanade’s cause—to remember, honour and celebrate Singapore’s arts pioneers.

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