Edwin Nadason Thumboo (b. 22 November 1933, Singapore
- ), Emeritus Professor at National University of
Singapore's Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, is
widely regarded as the unofficial poet laureate of Singapore.
He is best known for writing on national issues. His poem,
Ulysses by the Merlion, is a major work in Singapore
literature. He was the first Singaporean to be conferred the
SEA Write Award and the Cultural Medallion for Literature in
1979 and 1980 respectively. His other awards include the
National Book Development Council prizes for poetry (1978,
1980, 1994), the ASEAN Cultural and Communication Award in
Literature (1987), the Public Service Star (Bar) in
1991, and the Meritorious Service Medal in 2006.
Edwin Thumboo was born in Singapore on 22 Nov 1933 and raised
in a middle-class family. His father, an Indian Protestant,
was a primary school teacher in Pasir Panjang Primary School
while his mother, a Teochew-Peranakan, was a homemaker. At
home, English and Teochew were spoken.
His grandfather migrated to Singapore from Madras during the
1880s and worked for a brief spell in Singapore before
heading across the Causeway to work for the Sultan Abu Bakar
of Johore. He eventually retired as the Superintendent of the
Public Works Department in Muar.
Thumboo also had a Japanese step-grandmother, living in
Nagasaki, who was a regular visitor to the household during
his childhood days.
Thumboo spent his childhood years in Mandai. During the
Japanese Occupation, he sold cakes in the streets and worked
as a sales boy in a store along North Bridge Road. Education
Thumboo received his early education from Pasir Panjang
Primary School (1940), Monks Hill (1946) and Victoria School
(1948). In 1953, he enrolled into the University of Malaya
where he majored in History and English Literature with a
minor in Philosophy.
In university, he served on the editorial board of
Fajar, a publication of the Socialist Club. Although
his interest was in editing articles for the publication, he
was arrested alongside his fellow club members for suspected
involvement in subversive and anti-British activities.
However, the club members escaped jail sentences when the
then Vice-Chancellor, Sir Sidney Caine, refused to grant
police access to the campus grounds.
In 1970, Thumboo obtained his PhD in African poetry from the
National University of Singapore (NUS).
After graduating from the University of Malaya, Thumboo
worked in the Income Tax Department from 1957-1961, the
Central Provident Fund Board from 1961-1965 and the Singapore
Telephone Board from 1965-1966. He left the Board and joined
the National University of Singapore as an assistant lecturer
in 1966. Thereafter, he became a full professor in the
Department of English Language and Literature and headed the
department from 1977-1993. In 1980, he was appointed Dean of
the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. He served three
terms, making him the longest-serving dean in the NUS.
Thumboo was made a Professorial Fellow by the NUS in 1995 and
continues to serve in this capacity with the Department of
English Language and Literature. He was conferred the
Emeritus Professor title by NUS in 1997.
In 1993, Thumboo was appointed as Chairman/Director for the
NUS Centre for the Arts, a position which he held until 2005.
Under his charge, the NUS Centre for the Arts worked with the
Ministry of Education to establish the Creative Arts
Programme. The programme nurtures young writers from
secondary schools and junior colleges through a one-week
residential seminar and establishes a mentorship programme
between younger and more established writers. Literary Career Thumboo wrote his first poem, entitled Kelong
, in 1949. His Senior English Master in Victoria
School, Shamus Frazer, was an important influence in his
early literary development. Frazer was an encouraging teacher
who taught Thumboo the nuances of the English language.
Because of the support which he received from Frazer, Thumboo
decided to major in English. In the 1950s, Thumboo
participated in the literary activities of the Youth Poetry
Circle, a poetry interest group which met at the St.
Joseph's Institution. The members of the group, which
included Goh Sin Tub, Beda Lim and Lim Thean Soo, guided
Thumboo along his literary development. In university,
professors Patrick Anderson, Anthony Price, Eric Mottram,
Alan Paint, C.J. Francis and Ellis Evans were also
instrumental in teaching him the English Language.
Besides teachers, peers and mentors, Thumboo also looked
towards the English writers for inspiration and insight.
Irish poet W.B. Yeats, in particular, was a major influence.
Thumboo saw similarities between Ireland's nationalistic
struggle and Singapore's breakaway from colonialism.
Yeats' use of Irish myths and history provided much
inspiration in the writing of Thumboo's best-known poem
Ulysses by the Merlion. Thumboo describes himself as a
myth-inspired poet. He sees myths as ancient narratives and
structures which provide a stable point of reference for a
History is often represented in Thumboo's works. He
shares, "...History enters my writing, as it ought to
enter the writing of others, because of its importance in our
lives. I go back to this point about the historical moments
we occupy. As a former colony, a multi-racial one, created by
the British, we need history for a sense of things; to
re-inscribe ourselves; discover and, in certain areas, define
ourselves as individuals, as groups in a multi-racial
society. They give you a sense of their belonging, which also
happens to be mine. They give you an inherited identity that
you put together by being conscious of what you have
absorbed, or taken. I live in Singapore; I have likes and
dislikes, a set of interests, a set of values, a set of
responsibilities and so on. History I see as fully inclusive,
fully in terms of one's personal limits. And it includes
beliefs, and anything of significance...nothing is
In the 1950s, Thumboo's poems consisted mainly of lyric
poems which dwelt on the private experience of the poet. They
concerned matters of the aesthetic and the metaphysical, and
bore influences from the English literary tradition. By the
mid-1970s, his focus had shifted from the private to the
public sphere. Reflecting his personal belief that poets of
post-independent Singapore should share in the responsibility
of creating a national literature, his second volume of
poetry, Gods Must Die, dealt substantially on
Singapore's national life. Ulysses by the Merlion
and A Third Map published in the late 1970s and after,
further established his reputation as a national poet
committed to articulating a cultural vision for a
Thumboo also contributed to the development of Singapore
literature as an anthologist and critic. He has compiled and
edited several key anthologies on Singapore literature such
as The Second Tongue, The Flowering Tree and
The Anthology of ASEAN Literatures. He continues to
publish papers and criticisms on Singapore literature and
mentors young and emerging writers such as Simon Tay and Heng
Yashmin Gooneratne, scholar and critic writes, "Thumboo
writes as a committed Singaporean. He is a poet of skill and
maturity whose imagination has clearly been fired by the
growth and change that have transformed his homeland, change
to which as civil servant and academician he has personally
Wife : Yeo Swee Chin
Children : Julian and Claire Thumboo List of Published Works
1956 : Rib of Earth
1972: Child's Delight 1 and
Child's Delight 2
1977: Gods Can Die
1979: Ulysses by the Merlion
1993: The Third Map
Selected Poems Conjunction
1978 : National Book Development Council of
Singapore Award for Gods Can Die
1979 : Southeast Asia Write award
1979 - 1980 : Fulbright-Hays Visiting
Professor at Pennsylvania State University
1980 : Cultural Medallion for Literature
1980 : National Book Development Council
Singapore award for Ulysses by the Merlion
1983 - 1986 : Chairman, Association of
Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies, VII Triennium
1985 : Writer-In-Residence, Institute of
Culture and Communication in Hawaii
1986 : Ida Beam Professor, University of
Iowa, Iowa City
1987 : ASEAN Culture and Communication Award
1987 : Honorary Research Fellow, University
College, University of London
1987: Member, International Advisory Panel,
East-West Centre, Hawaii, USA
1988 : Member, Committee of Jurors, Neustadt
International Prize for Literature, Oklahoma, USA
1989 : Visiting Professor and
Writer-in-Residence, University of Wollongong
1991 : Bintang Bakti Masyarakat (Lingtang),
(Public Service Star (Bar)), for promotion of literature.
1993 : Visiting Fellow at the Department of
English, Australian Defence Force Academy
1993 : Board member, Advisory Committee,
National Arts Council
1994 : National Book Development Council of
Singapore Award for The Third Map
1998 : National University of Singapore
award for excellent teaching
1998 : CAS-Miller Visiting Professor,
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
2002 : Raja Rao Award 2004 : Visiting Professor, University of
Innsbruck, Austria 2006 : Pingat Jasa Gemilang (Meritorious
Klein, R. D. (2001). Edwin Thumboo. In Klein, R. D. (Ed.),
Interlogue: Studies in Singapore literature (Vol. 4,
pp. 56-79). Singapore: Ethos Books.
(Call no.: RSING 809.895957 INT)
Gwee, L. S. (Ed.) (2001). Interweaving Edwin Thumboo. In
Tong, E. K, et al. (Eds.), Ariels: Departures &
returns: essays for Edwin Thumboo (pp. 159-183).
Singapore : Oxford University Press.
(Call no. RSING 809.895957 ARI)
Purushothaman, V. (2002). Narratives: Notes on a cultural
journey: cultural medallion recipients 1979 - 2001
(p. 70). Singapore: National Arts Council.
(Call no.: RSING 700.95957 NAR)
Poet lauded for promoting S'pore literature. (2006,
August 9). The Straits Times. Retrieved October 31,
2007, from Factiva database.
Cheong, F. (2005, October). Writing about public matters.
Quarterly Literary Review of Singapore 5(1). Retrieved
October 31, 2007, from http://www.qlrs.com (then click
on Vol. 5 No. 1 Oct 2005 > Writing About Public
Kachru, B. B. (2002). Raja Rao Annual Award
2002. Retrieved October 31,
2007, from http://www.samvadindia.com (then
click on Raja Rao Award > Awardee 2002).
Thumboo, E. (2005). Edwin Thumboo. Retrieved October
31, 2007, from http://go.to/thumboo.
The information in this article
is valid as at 2007 and correct as far as we are able to
ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an
exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please
contact the Library for further reading materials on the