Introduction to the Edwin Thumboo Collection
Professor Edwin Thumboo, one of the pioneers of English literature in Singapore, is often regarded as her unofficial “poet laureate”. In June 2006, he donated part of his personal collection to the National Library. This collection consists of both contemporary and historical works from Asia, the Commonwealth and Singapore. It includes literary works, critiques and a select collection of books on culture, mythology, anthropology, economics, politics, religion, history, geography and travel. Numbering a total volume of close to 3,000 items (monographs and periodicals), the majority of this collection is housed on the open shelves at Level 8, Lee Kong Chian Reference Library, while older and rarer materials are kept in the library’s closed access collection and available upon request at the Information Counter on Level 11.
Highlights of the Collection
· Ulysses by the Merlion (1979)
This is the original manuscript of one of Prof Thumboo's most well-known poems, that juxtaposes Western and Asian mythology to reflect Singapore’s desire for a common identity.
· Eisilen, Frederick Carl. (1918). The Psalms and other sacred writings: Their Origin, contents and significance
This is the third volume in a series of scholarly works aimed to provide an introduction to the Old Testament of the Bible. This volume discusses the origins and significance of books known as The Writings in the Hebrew Bible.
· Piggott, Stuart. (Ed.). (1961). The dawn of civilization: The First world survey of human cultures in early times
This encyclopedic tome traces the history of mankind from the Stone Age period and ancient civilisations of Egypt, Greece, China and Asia to the birth of New World civilisation.
· Toynbee, Arnold. (Ed.). (1969). The crucible of Christianity: Judaism, Hellenism and the historical background to the Christian Faith
This compilation examines the birth of Christianity and its impact on human culture, politics, philosophy, history and religion from 218 BC to 7th century AD.
Edwin Nadason Thumboo (b. 22 November 1933, Singapore - ), Emeritus Professor at the National University of Singapore's Department of English Language and Literature, is widely regarded as the unofficial poet laureate of Singapore. He is best known for writing on nationalistic issues and his poetry often centres on Singapore’s political landscape and the social issues of his time. 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, had seven other siblings and was 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.
Thumboo spent his childhood years in Mandai, where the family lived in a wooden house, surrounded by a garden with fruit trees. His peaceful life was disrupted at nine years of age, when Singapore surrended to the Japanese in 1942. During the Japanese Occupation, he sold cakes in the streets, looked after goats 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 in the University of Malaya where he majored in History and English Literature with a minor in Philosophy and graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in English in 1956.
In university, he served on the editorial board of Fajar (Malay for Dawn), 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 (NUS) 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 taught full-time at the Department of English Language and Literature until his retirement in 1997. That same year, he was conferred the title of Emeritus Professor by NUS. Since his retirement, Prof Thumboo continues to accept invitations to lecture at overseas universities.
In 1993, Thumboo was appointed as Chairman/Director for the NUS Centre for the Arts, a position which he held until 2005. As Director, he co-founded the Creative Arts Programme in 1991, together with the Ministry of Education. 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. Despite his busy schedule, Prof Thumboo took five students from the Singapore Chinese Girls’ School under his wing and with his guidance and mentorship over a one year period, the 14 year olds produced their very first volume of poetry, 5Takes, which was launched on 7 May 2008.
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 and later dedicated his his first poetry collection, Rib of Earth (1956) to him.
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. This famous poem has also spawned Merlion-themed poems from other Singapore writers such as Lee Tzu Pheng, Alfian Sa’at and Daren Shiau.
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 lyrical poems that focused 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 the responsibility of creating a national literature, his second volume of poetry, Gods Must Die, dealt substantially with 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.
Yasmin 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."
Prof EdwinThumboo was among 11 other Singapore writers, specially selected to recite their works at the month-long inaugural Singapore Season in Beijing and Shanghai, held from 12 October to 10 November 2007. At the Fudan University in Shanghai, Prof Thumboo read, Bamboo, a poem he had written a decade ago after reading the translated works of famed Tang Dynasty poets, such as Li Bai and Bai Juyi.
Prof Thumboo is still a prolific writer today and recently launched his fifth and latest volume of poetry, Still Travelling, a collection of close to 50 poems with a characteristic Singaporean flavour, at the National Library on 15 August 2008. This latest collection is dedicated to his grandchildren. Not content with having 7 published works to his name, he plans to craft an anthology of poems on ASEAN countries next.
Wife : Yeo Swee Chin
Children : Son, Julian, head of rheumatology, Singapore General Hospital and Daughter, Claire, a homemaker
Grandchildren: Seven, aged between two to thirteen years of age
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
2008: Still Travelling
Edited poetry anthologies
· Thumboo, Edwin, comp. (1970), The Flowering Tree: Selected Writings from Singapore/Malaysia, Singapore: Educational Publications Bureau.
· Thumboo, Edwin, comp. (1973), Seven Poets, Singapore and Malaysia, Singapore: Singapore University Press.
· Thumboo, Edwin, comp. (1979), The Second Tongue: An Anthology of Poetry from Malaysia and Singapore, Singapore: Heinemann Educational Books (Asia).
· Thumboo, Edwin [et al.], eds. (1985), The Poetry of Singapore [Anthology of ASEAN Literatures; v. 1], Singapore: Published under the sponsorship of the ASEAN Committee on Culture and Information.
· Thumboo, Edwin, gen. ed. (1990), The Fiction of Singapore, [S.l.]: Published under the sponsorship of the ASEAN Committee on Culture and Information.
· Thumboo, Edwin [et al.], eds. (1995), Journeys: Words, Home and Nation: Anthology of Singapore Poetry (1984–1995), Singapore: UniPress.
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) for Distinguish Poet and Literary Scholar
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).
Edwin Thumboo – Wikipedia. (20 August 2008). Retrieved September 1, 2008 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edwin_Thumboo.
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)
Hong, M. (2008, March 6). 14-year-olds make poetry sexy. The Straits Times. Retrieved September 2, 2008, from Factiva database.
Hong, X. (2007, Oct 31). The write connection - Eleven home-grown writers are showcasing their works in Singapore Season in Beijing and Shanghai. The Straits Times. Retrieved September 2, 2008, from Factiva database.
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).
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)
Poet lauded for promoting S'pore literature. (2006, August 9). The Straits Times. Retrieved October 31, 2007, from Factiva database.
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)
Thumboo, E. (2005). Edwin Thumboo. Retrieved October 31, 2007, from http://go.to/thumboo.
Yap, S. (2008, August 11). Poet in motion – Merlion poet tells why his works are nationalistuc and Singaporean, including his new book, Just Travelling. The Straits Times. Retrieved September 1, 2008, from Factiva database.