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Literary Arts

Lim Thean Soo

A pioneering Singapore writer known for his evocative recounting of Malayan life and landscape and his compelling prose and stories on the construction of Singaporean history and identity.


Published: 12 Oct 2016

Time taken : >15mins

Lim Thean Soo was a pioneering Singapore writer who originally hailed from Penang, Malaysia, but came to Singapore to pursue his studies. He graduated from Raffles College with an English degree and worked his way to the forefront of Singapore’s literary scene. Lim’s writings ranged from poetry to espionage novels to historical accounts of the country under the Japanese Occupation during World War II. He is known for his evocative recounting of Malayan life and landscape and his compelling prose and stories that reflect his nationalist stance on the construction of Singaporean history and identity. In 1984, he received the Bintang Bakti Masyarakat (Lintang) (Public Service Star [Bar]).

Born in Penang, Malaysia in 1924, Lim published his first article at the age of 16 in a school magazine and his first poem six years later in Penang daily The Straits Echo. In 1947, he moved to Singapore to pursue higher education and obtained his English degree at Raffles College.

Inspired by mounting nationalist attitudes that pervaded Singapore’s post-war years, Lim and his peers explored new ways of writing about the places and peoples of their adopted homeland. Drawing from the Malayan landscape as well as Malay and Chinese languages, they wrote about the issues faced by the Malayan community at the time.

Lim wrote extensively for student publications such as The Cauldron and his first short story The Powers of the Jungle was published in 1952. A year later, he received an award for a poem submitted for a competition sponsored by Youth World. It was during this period that Lim regularly gathered with fellow members of the Youth Poetry Circle, which consisted of other Singapore literary greats Goh Sin Tub and Edwin Thumboo. Together, the three friends paved the way for Singapore literature to expand and develop.

He eventually focused on writing fiction and his later works were largely set in and inspired by the Japanese Occupation of Singapore during World War II. Having lived through something as life-changing as the war, Lim was determined to record this unfortunate but historic event for the next generation. He conducted extensive research on the Malayan Campaign and the Japanese Occupation to write his first novel The Siege of Singapore, reading many books and talking and interviewing people who experienced it firsthand.

Lim’s works frequently explore the deeper psyche and moral dilemmas of Malayans and Singaporeans who lived through the horror of wartime injustices and sufferings during the Japanese Occupation. For his significant contributions to literature in Singapore, he received the Bintang Bakti Masyarakat (Public Service Star) in 1979. Five years later, he received the Bintang Bakti Masyarakat (Lintang) (Public Service Star [Bar]).

A strong advocate of Singapore literature, Lim was passionate about its development. Having done his part as one of the pioneers of Singapore’s literary frontier, he believed that the torch must be passed on to the following generations of writers and often called for the community to support them. “We must pay more attention to our young poets, our budding writers, and encourage them,” he urged in a The Straits Times interview in 1980. “Our poet apprentices will develop in time. We need them. They will help to smoothen the jagged edge of living, besides providing colour, meaning and hope to a highly urbanised society which is being rapidly transformed and dehumanised to some extent by modern technology … a society without adequate culture is meaningless.”

On 12 February 1991, Lim passed away at the age of 66 in Singapore. He left a literary legacy that included over 100 short stories, 120 poems and five novels.


19 Oct 1924

Born in Penang, Malaysia.

1937 to 1941

Attended Penang Free School.

Published his first article in PFS Magazine in 1940.


Published his first poem in The Straits Echo.

1947 to 1951

Attended University of Malaya (Singapore). Graduated with BA (Hons) in English, University of Malaya (Singapore).

Writer, magazine The New Cauldron, Raffles Society, University of Malaya (Singapore).


Published Selected Verses.

Published Poems, 1950–1951.


Joined Singapore Customs and Excise Department as Customs Officer.


His first short story The Powers of the Jungle was published in the local press.


Published Poems 1951-1953.


Received Singapore citizenship.

Contributed short stories and poems in SINGA, Singapore Ministry of Culture’s literary journal.


Received Pingat Pendatbiran Awam (Perak) (Public Administration Medal [Silver]).


Began serving as Comptroller, heading Singapore Customs and Excise Department.


Published Southward Lies the Fortress. Republished as The Siege of Singapore in 1989.


Published The Impact of Customs. With Sukumaran Nair and S. Mohammed Razak.


Published Destination Singapore.

Published The Liberation of Lily and Other Poems.


Published Ricky Star.


Received Bintang Bakti Masyarakat (Public Service Star).

Retired as Director General from Singapore Customs and Excise Department.

Published Fourteen Short Stories.


Published Bits of Paper and Other Short Stories.


Published The Parting Gift.


Received Bintang Bakti Masyarakat (Lintang) (Public Service Star [Bar]).

Received Certificate of Commendation in the National Short Story Writing Competition for The Tree.


Published Blues and Carnations (Republished in 1990).


Published The Siege of Singapore.


Published Eleven Bizarre Tales.

Published The Parting Gift and Other Short Stories.

Published Blues and Carnations.


Published Singaporama.

Published The Towkay of Produce Street.

12 Feb 1991

Passed away at age 66 in Singapore.


Survival and Other Stories published.


Short story The Expatriate is re-published in One Anthology, Short Stories From Singapore’s Best Authors.

Ricky Star re-published by Epigram Books.


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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