Edwin Thumboo



Edwin Nadason Thumboo (b. 22 November 1933, Singapore–), Emeritus Professor at the National University of Singapore’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, is widely regarded as the unofficial poet laureate of Singapore.1 He is best known for writing on national issues. His poem, Ulysses by the Merlion, is a major work in Singapore literature.2 He was the first Singaporean to be conferred the Southeast Asia Write Award (1979) and the Cultural Medallion for Literature (1980). His other awards include National Book Development Council prizes for poetry (1978, 1980, 1994), the ASEAN Cultural and Communication Award in Literature (1987), the Public Service Star (Bar) (1991), and the Meritorious Service Medal (2006).3

Early life
Thumboo was born in Singapore on 22 November 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.4

Thumboo’s grandfather migrated to Singapore from Madras, India during the 1880s and worked for a brief spell in Singapore, before heading across the Causeway to work for Sultan Abu Bakar of Johor. He eventually retired as the superintendent of the Public Works Department in Muar.Thumboo also had a Japanese step-grandmother living in Nagasaki, who made regular visits to the household during his childhood days.

Thumboo spent his childhood years in Mandai in Singapore. During the Japanese Occupation, he sold cakes on the streets and worked as a sales boy in a store along North Bridge Road.7

Education

Thumboo received his early education at Pasir Panjang Primary School (1940), Monks Hill (1946) and Victoria School (1948). In 1953, he enrolled in the University of Malaya, where he majored in history and English literature, with a minor in philosophy.8

In university, Thumboo served on the editorial board of Fajar, a magazine published by the University 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.9

In 1970, Thumboo obtained his PhD in African Poetry from the National University of Singapore (NUS).10

Career
After graduating from the University of Malaya, Thumboo worked in the Income Tax Department from 1957 to 1961, the Central Provident Fund Board from 1961 to 1965, and the Singapore Telephone Board from 1965 to 1966. He left the Telephone Board and joined NUS as an assistant lecturer in 1966. Thereafter, he became a full professor in the Department of English Language and Literature, heading the department from 1977 to 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 NUS. Thumboo was made a professorial fellow by NUS in 1995 and continues to serve in this capacity with the Department of English Language and Literature. NUS conferred him with the title of Emeritus Professor in 1997.11

In 1993, Thumboo was appointed the chairman/director of the NUS Centre for the Arts, a position he held until 2005. Under his charge, the centre 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 oversees a mentorship scheme between younger and more established writers.12

Literary career
Thumboo wrote his first poem, Kelong (1), in 1949.13 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 he received from Frazer, Thumboo decided to major in English.14 In the 1950s, Thumboo participated in the literary activities of the Youth Poetry Circle, a poetry interest group that met at St Joseph’s Institution. Members of the group, which included Goh Sin Tub, Beda Lim and Lim Thean Soo, guided Thumboo in 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.15


Besides teachers, peers and mentors, Thumboo also looked towards 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’s use of Irish myths and history provided much inspiration in the writing of Thumboo’s best-known poem, Ulysses by the Merlion.16 Thumboo describes himself as a myth-inspired poet. He sees myths as ancient narratives and structures that provide a stable point of reference for a multi-cultural society.17

History is often represented in Thumboo’s works.18 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”.19

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 Can 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 multi-cultural Singapore.20

Thumboo has 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 TongueThe 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.21

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”.22

Family

Wife: Yeo Swee Chin
Children: Julian and Claire Thumboo23

Published works
 

1956: Rib of Earth24
1972: Child’s Delight 1 and Child’s Delight 225
1977: Gods Can Die26
1979: Ulysses by the Merlion27
1993: The Third Map28
2003: Friend29

Selected poems
Conjunction30


Achievements
1978: National Book Development Council of Singapore Award for Gods Can Die.31
1979: Southeast Asia Write Award.32
1979–80: Fulbright-Hays Visiting Professor at Pennsylvania State University.33
1980: Cultural Medallion for Literature34 / National Book Development Council Singapore Award for Ulysses by the Merlion.35
1981: Bintang Bakti Masyarakat, Public Service Star (Bar), for promotion of literature.36
1983–86:
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 / Honorary Research Fellow, University College, University of London / 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.37
1991: Bintang Bakti Masyarakat (Lingtang), Public Service Star (Bar), for promotion of literature.38
1993: Visiting Fellow at the Department of English, Australian Defence Force Academy39 / Board member, Advisory Committee, National Arts Council.40
1994: National Book Development Council of Singapore Award for The Third Map.41
1998: NUS Award for excellent teaching42 / CAS-Miller Visiting Professor, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
2002:
Raja Rao Award for contributions to the literature of the Indian diaspora43 / Visiting Professor, University of Innsbruck, Austria.44

2006: Pingat Jasa Gemilang (Meritorious Service Medal).45



Author

Sharon Teng



References
1. Hamilton, I., & Noel-Tod, J. (Eds.). (2013). The Oxford companion to modern poetry. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 618. (Call no.: R 821.9109 OXF); Yap, S. (2008, March 2). Poet laureate. The Straits Times, p. 68. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
2. Ban, K. C. (1997, June 7). Sustained mapping of political history in his public poetry. The Straits Times, p. 21; Chia, H. (1989, November 1). Making English our own. The Straits Times, p. 1; Koh, B. S. (1992, May 30). Is this the great Singapore book? The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
3. Heng, M., & Gwee, L. S. (Eds.). (2012). Timeline: Milestones and memories. In Edwin Thumboo –Time-travelling: A select, annotated bibliography. Singapore: National Library Board, pp. 26–29. (Call no.: RSING S821 EDW)
4. Heng, M., & Gwee, L. S. (Eds.). (2012). Life and times: Edwin Thumboo with Gwee Li Sui. In Edwin Thumboo – Time-travelling: A select, annotated bibliography. Singapore: National Library Board, pp. 44–45, 51. (Call no.: RSING S821 EDW)
5. Heng, M., & Gwee, L. S. (Eds.). (2012). Life and times: Edwin Thumboo with Gwee Li Sui. In Edwin Thumboo – Time-travelling: A select, annotated bibliography. Singapore: National Library Board, pp. 43–44. (Call no.: RSING S821 EDW)
6. Klein, R. D. (2001). Edwin Thumboo. In R. D. Klein (Ed.), Interlogue: Studies in Singapore literature (Vol. 4). Singapore: Ethos Books, pp. 56–79. (Call no.: RSING 809.895957 INT)
7. Heng, M., & Gwee, L. S. (Eds.). (2012). Life and times: Edwin Thumboo with Gwee Li Sui. In Edwin Thumboo – Time-travelling: A select, annotated bibliography. Singapore: National Library Board, p. 53. (Call no.: RSING S821 EDW)
8. Heng, M., & Gwee, L. S. (Eds.). (2012). Life and times: Edwin Thumboo with Gwee Li Sui. In Edwin Thumboo – Time-travelling: A select, annotated bibliography. Singapore: National Library Board, pp. 51–57. (Call no.: RSING S821 EDW); Heng, M., & Gwee, L. S. (Eds.). (2012). Timeline: Milestones and memories. In Edwin Thumboo – Time-travelling: A select, annotated bibliography. Singapore: National Library Board, pp. 26–27. (Call no.: RSING S821 EDW); Klein, R. D. (2001). Edwin Thumboo. In R. D. Klein (Ed.), Interlogue: Studies in Singapore literature (Vol. 4). Singapore: Ethos Books, pp. 56–79. (Call no.: RSING 809.895957 INT)
9. Heng, M., & Gwee, L. S. (Eds.). (2012). Biography. In Edwin Thumboo – Time-travelling: A select, annotated bibliography. Singapore: National Library Board, p. 31. (Call no.: RSING S821 EDW); Klein, R. D. (2001). Edwin Thumboo. In R. D. Klein (Ed.), Interlogue: Studies in Singapore literature (Vol. 4). Singapore: Ethos Books, pp. 56–79. (Call no.: RSING 809.895957 INT); Eight university students freed: No sedition, the judge rules. (1954, August 26). The Straits Times, p. 7; Varsity publication seditious ‘as a whole’ – Crown. (1954, July 2). The Straits Times, p. 7; Sir Sidney bails out students. (1954, May 29). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
10. Heng, M., & Gwee, L. S. (Eds.). (2012). Timeline: Milestones and memories. In Edwin Thumboo –Time-travelling: A select, annotated bibliography. Singapore: National Library Board, p. 28. (Call no.: RSING S821 EDW); Heng, M., & Gwee, L. S. (Eds.). (2012). Life and times: Edwin Thumboo with Gwee Li Sui. In Edwin Thumboo – Time-travelling: A select, annotated bibliography. Singapore: National Library Board, pp. 71–72. (Call no.: RSING S821 EDW); Yap, S. (2008, August 11). Poet in Motion. The Straits Times, p. 55. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
11. Heng, M., & Gwee, L. S. (Eds.). (2012). Biography. In Edwin Thumboo – Time-travelling: A select, annotated bibliography. Singapore: National Library Board, pp. 31. 33. (Call no.: RSING S821 EDW); Heng, M., & Gwee, L. S. (Eds.). (2012). Life and times: Edwin Thumboo with Gwee Li Sui. In Edwin Thumboo – Time-travelling: A select, annotated bibliography. Singapore: National Library Board, pp. 65–69. (Call no.: RSING S821 EDW); Yap, S. (2008, August 11). Poet in motion. The Straits Times, p. 55; Koh, B. S. (1993, May 22). The return of Edwin Thumboo. The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
12. Heng, M., & Gwee, L. S. (Eds.). (2012). Biography. In Edwin Thumboo – Time-travelling: A select, annotated bibliography. Singapore: National Library Board, p. 33. (Call no.: RSING S821 EDW); Chew, D. (2005, December 28). Searching for the soul of Singapore. Today, p. 32. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Liew, C. C. (2012). Championing the arts. In M. Heng, & L. S. Gwee (Eds.), Edwin Thumboo – Time-travelling: A select, annotated bibliography. Singapore: National Library Board, pp. 102–105. (Call no.: RSING S821 EDW)
13. Ee, T. H. (1997). Context and issues. In L. G. Leong, Responsibility and commitment: The poetry of Edwin Thumboo. Singapore: Singapore University Press, p. 11. (Call no.: RSING S821 EDW)
14. Heng, M., & Gwee, L. S. (Eds.). (2012). Life and times: Edwin Thumboo with Gwee Li Sui. In Edwin Thumboo – Time-travelling: A select, annotated bibliography. Singapore: National Library Board, pp. 54–57. (Call no.: RSING S821 EDW); Thumboo, E. (1982). The search for style and theme: A personal account. In B. Bennet, et al. (Eds.), The Writer’s sense of the contemporary: Papers in Southeast Asian and Australian literature. University of Western Australia: The Centre for Studies in Australian Literature, pp. 1–7. (Call no. RSING 828.9959 WRI)
15. Klein, R. D. (2001). Edwin Thumboo. In R. D. Klein (Ed.), Interlogue: Studies in Singapore literature (Vol. 4). Singapore: Ethos Books, pp. 56–79. (Call no.: RSING 809.895957 INT); Heng, M., & Gwee, L. S. (Eds.). (2012). Life and times: Edwin Thumboo with Gwee Li Sui. In Edwin Thumboo – Time-travelling: A select, annotated bibliography. Singapore: National Library Board, pp. 58–60. (Call no.: RSING S821 EDW)
16. Ee, T. H. (1997). Ulysses by the Merlion. In L. G. Leong (Ed.), Responsibility and commitment: The poetry of Edwin Thumboo. Singapore: Singapore University Press, pp. 46–50. (Call no.: RSING S821 EDW); Klein, R. D. (2001). Edwin Thumboo. In R. D. Klein (Ed.), Interlogue: Studies in Singapore literature (Vol. 4). Singapore: Ethos Books, pp. 56–79. (Call no.: RSING 809.895957 INT); Heng, M., & Gwee, L. S. (Eds.). (2012). Life and times: Edwin Thumboo with Gwee Li Sui. In Edwin Thumboo – Time-travelling: A select, annotated bibliography. Singapore: National Library Board, pp. 59–60. (Call no.: RSING S821 EDW)
17. Thumboo, E. (2001, September). Singapore in focus: Interview with Norbert Schaffeld, Bremen. In R. Ahrens (Eds.), Anglistik. 12(2). Germany: Department for English and American Studies, University of Würzburg. Retrieved from Edwin Thumboo Bibliography website: https://courses.nus.edu.sg/course/ellthumb/site/doc/focus.html
18. Hamilton, I., & Noel-Tod, J. (Eds.). (2013). The Oxford companion to modern poetry. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 618. (Call no.: R 821.9109 OXF)
19. Thumboo, E. (1987). Notes on a sense of history. In K. Singh (Ed.), The writer’s sense of the past: Essays on Southeast Asian and Australasian literature. NUS: Singapore University Press, pp. 223–233. (Call no.: RSING 809.89595 WRI); Thumboo, E. (2001, September). Singapore in focus: Interview with Norbert Schaffeld, Bremen. In R. Ahrens (Eds.), Anglistik. 12(2). Germany: Department for English and American Studies, University of Würzburg. Retrieved from Edwin Thumboo Bibliography website: https://courses.nus.edu.sg/course/ellthumb/site/doc/focus.html
20. Ee, T. H. (1997). Ulysses by the Merlion. In L. G. Leong (Ed.), Responsibility and commitment: The poetry of Edwin Thumboo. Singapore: Singapore University Press, pp. 10–16. (Call no.: RSING S821 EDW); Thumboo, E. (1987). Notes on a sense of history. In K. Singh (Ed.), The writer’s sense of the past: Essays on Southeast Asian and Australasian literature. NUS: Singapore University Press, pp. 223–233. (Call no.: RSING 809.89595 WRI); Yap, S. (2008, March 2). Formative years. The Straits Times, p. 68; Ban, K. C. (2000, October 9). His pursuit of passion. The Straits Times, p. 5; Chia, H. (1989, November 1). Making English our own. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
21. Heng, M., & Gwee, L. S. (Eds.). (2012). Biography. In Edwin Thumboo – Time-travelling: A select, annotated bibliography. Singapore: National Library Board, p. 33. (Call no.: RSING S821 EDW); Heng, S. T. (2012). Pioneer’s past is present in future: On reading Edwin Thumboo. In M. Heng, & L. S. Gwee (Eds.), Edwin Thumboo – Time-travelling: A select, annotated bibliography. Singapore: National Library Board, pp. 108–114. (Call no.: RSING S821 EDW)
22. Ee, T. H. (1997). Context and Issues. In L. G. Leong (Ed.), Responsibility and commitment: The poetry of Edwin Thumboo. Singapore: Singapore University Press, p. 16. (Call no.: RSING S821 EDW)
23. Heng, M., & Gwee, L. S. (Eds.). (2012). Biography. In Edwin Thumboo – Time-travelling: A select, annotated bibliography. Singapore: National Library Board, p. 34. (Call no.: RSING S821 EDW); Yap, S. (2008, August 11). Poet in motion. The Straits Times, p. 55. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
24. Thumboo, E. (1956). Rib of earth. Singapore: L. Fernando. (Call no.: RCLOS S821 THU)
25. Thumboo, E. (1972). Child’s delight: Edwin Thumboo. Singapore, Kuala Lumpur: Federal Publications. Available via PublicationSG.
26. Thumboo, E. (1977). Gods can die. Singapore: Heinemann Educational Books (Asia). (Call no.: RSING 828.995957 THU)
27. Thumboo, E. (1979). Ulysses by the Merlion. Singapore: Heinemann Educational Books. (Call no.: RSING 828.995957 THU)
28. Thumboo, E. (1993). A third map: New and selected poems. Singapore: UniPress. (Call no.: RSING S821 THU)
29. Thumboo, E. (2003). Friend. Singapore: Co-published by Landmark Books and the Centre for the Arts, National University of Singapore. (Call no.: RSING S821 THU)
30. Thumboo, E. (2004). Conjunction. [Manuscript]. Retrieved 2016, September 26 from National Repository of the Arts (NORA)
31. John, A. (1982, September 1). How they’ve fared. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
32. Koh, B. S. (1993, May 22). The return of Edwin Thumboo. The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
33. National University of Singapore English Language Department. (2005). Biodata. Retrieved 2016, September 26 from NUS English Language Department website: https://courses.nus.edu.sg/course/ellthumb/site/biodata.html
34. National Arts Council. (2016, September 8). Cultural Medallion recipients. Retrieved 2016, September 26 from National Arts Council website: https://www.nac.gov.sg/singaporeartsscene/culturalMedallion/overview.html
35. John, A. (1982, September 1). How they’ve fared. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
36. 181 win awards for public service. (1981, December 5). The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
37. National University of Singapore English Language Department. (2005). Biodata. Retrieved 2016, September 26 from NUS English Language Department website: https://courses.nus.edu.sg/course/ellthumb/site/biodata.html
38. Zuraidah Ibrahim. (1991, November 9). S’pore thanks special 177. The Straits Times, p. 27. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
39. National University of Singapore English Language Department. (2005). Biodata. Retrieved 2016, September 26 from NUS English Language Department website: https://courses.nus.edu.sg/course/ellthumb/site/biodata.html
40. Goh, J. (1992, July 24). 16-artist panel formed to help arts council. The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
41. Record 42 book awards given, no winner for English fiction. (1994, November 20). The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
42. 9 picked as excellent lecturers. (1998, July 25). The Straits Times, p. 51. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
43. National University of Singapore English Language Department. (2005). Biodata. Retrieved 2016, September 26 from NUS English Language Department website: https://courses.nus.edu.sg/course/ellthumb/site/biodata.html
44. J. Webster. (2015). Appendix: Edwin Thumboo. In Understanding Verbal Art, The M. A. K. Halliday Library functional linguistics series (p. 126). Retrieved from https://link.springer.com/content/pdf/bbm%3A978-3-642-55019-5%2F1.pdf
45. Poet lauded for promoting S’pore literature. (2006, August 9). The Straits Times, p. 10. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.



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. 


 

Subject
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