Edwin Thumboo

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.

Early Life
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.

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 [1], 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 multi-cultural society.

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 irrelevant."

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 multicultural Singapore.

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 Siok Tian.

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 contributed."

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
2003: Friend

Selected Poems

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 for Literature
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 Service Medal)

Sharon Teng

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 Matters).

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 topic. 

Award winners--Singapore--Biography
Thumboo, Edwin, 1933-
Authors, Singaporean--Biography
Cultural Medallion Recipients (Literature)
Personalities>>Biographies>>Authors>>Cultural Medallion Recipients
Language and literature>>Literatures>>East and Southeast Asian literature>>Singapore literature

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