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for Books and Writers
by Bamber Gascoigne

Edwin Thumboo (b. 1933)


Singaporean scholar, literary critic, and poet writing in English. Edwin Thumboo has often been described as the unofficial poet laureate of the Republic of Singapore. Central themes in his work are commitment and artistic integrity, and national identity and multicultural awareness.

Nothing, nothing in my days
Foreshadowed this
Half-beast, half-fish,
This powerful creature of land and sea.

(from 'Ulysses by the Merlion', 1979)

Edwin Nadason Thumboo was born in Mandai, on the outskirts of Singapore. His father, who married twice, was a primary school teacher of Indian (Tamil) descent and mother of Chinese origin. Before English became Thumboo's main language, his mother tongue was Teochew. His father and mother spoke English, and occasionally Malay.  Due to his mixed parentage, Thumboo was taunted at school with racist comments and even at the university he was called a "half cast". His maternal granduncle called him "Black Teochew".

Thumboo's teacher used to recite poems, Wordsworth's Lucy Poems and Blake's 'Songs of Innocence and Experience were his favorites. Thumboo began writing while still at school in the early 1950s, although his strong subjects were mathematics, physics and chemistry. Especially the poems in F.T. Palgrave 's The Golden Treasury influenced him a lot. Moreover, Edgar Allan Poe and Coleridge's 'Christabel' and 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner' were important for him in his formative years, but Yeats made the most durable impact – his sentiments on the building of nation and identity-formation resonated with Thumboo. Later he became interested in African writing, and his reading widened to Indian, West Indian, Australian and New Zealand poetry.

Together with other members of the Socialist Club, Thumboo was charged for publishing a seditious article the Fajar, entitled 'Aggression in Asia' (1954), in which the writers stated: "Our young men are being conscripted; our land is being turned into a military base. Our country is to fight in wars over whose making it will not have any say. We must collaborate in crushing the Indo-Chinese people. We are to be the allies of petite fascists like Syngman Rhee, Chiang Kai Chek and hibun Songgram who stand for totalitarian tyranny. We would rather stand with Republican Indian, Republican China, Republican Burma and their allies in Asia and Africa. The people of this country do not identity themselves with the actions of the Colonial government.". The trial ended in the Club's victory, but it took twenty-five years, before Thumboo published his famous anti-colonial poem 'May 1954': "Depart: / You knew when to come; surely know when to go." After graduating in 1957 from the University of Malaya, Thumboo worked as a civil servant, first in the Income Tax Department, and then in the Central Provident Fund Board, and the Singapore Telephone Board. 

In 1966 Thumboo entered the University of Singapore (later renamed National University of Singapore), formed after the city-state gained independence. He took up an assistant lectureship and completed his doctoral thesis on African poetry in English in 1970. "What I wanted to do at the University was shift the literary orientation to go beyond English Literature (and American Literature) without neglecting it," Thumboo said in an interview. (Peninsular Muse: Interviews with Modern Malaysian and Singaporean Poets, Novelists and Dramatists, edited by Mohammad A. Quayum, 2007, p. 57)

During his visits in Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Ghana, Uganda and Kebya, he met such leading figures of African literary world as Lenrie Peters, Kofie Awoonor, Wole Soyinka, J.P. Clark, and Ngugi wa Thiongo. Thumboo concluded that where the writer under the colonial regime had no role to play, the writer in the new situation had certain responsibilities toward national objectives. Nine years later Trumboo was appointed professor in the Department of English Language and Literature.

Between 1980 and 1991 Trumboo served as Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. In 1995, Thumboo was appointed Professorial Fellow and in 1997 he became an Emeritus Professor. Thumboo was a visiting professor and fellow at universities in the United States, UK, and Australia.

Thumboo wrote his first poems in a period when poetry in English started to emerge. His acquaintances included the short story writer Goh Sin Tub, who ran a poetry circle for the magazine Youth. Thumboo's first collection of poetry, Rib of Earth, was privately published in 1956. The book was dedicated to Shamus Frazer, Thumboo's teacher and Senior English Master at Victoria School.

A dissenter against British colonial rule, Thumboo wrote in 'Steel': "How can others know my tongue-fire / Agony deprived of action?" Concerning the role of English language in Singapore Thumboo has said: "Taking the language increasingly on our terms was and is a pre-condition for creative freedom. It was their language; now it is one of ours." ('Singapore Writing in English' by Edwin Thumboo, in Westerly, Vol. 23, No. 2, June 1978, p. 83) While Thumboo has singled out creativity in English as that which "best represents the Singaporean," John Kwan-Terry has seen in the poetry in English a "literature not of arrival but of retreat, not of achieved meaning but of questioning, and not of certainty, but of doubt, even despite itself". (The Routledge Concise History of Southeast Asian Writing in English by Rajeev S. Patke and Philip Holden, 2009, p. 120)

Thumboo has also published nursery rhymes and edited several anthologies of poetry from Singapore and Malaysia. Thumboo's work has had an important influence on other poets. From his earlier love poetry and exploration of the inner word Thumboo has increasingly turned his attention to cross-cultural themes, social concerns, and the question of national identity. In Literature and Liberation (1988) Thumboo listed five stages of freedoms which small nations have to go through – political, economic, cultural, psychological and linguistic. According to Thumboo, from these five Singapore had achived only the first two by that time.

The title poem of Thumboo's Ulysses by the Merlion (1979), in which Homeric themes of wandering intertwine with the mythical icon for Singapore, has been put on a plaque at Merlion Park: "... But this lion of the sea / Salt-maned, scaly, wondrous of tail, / Touched with power, insistent / On this brief promontory... Puzzles. . . ." Ulysses, a young Singaporean male, is a divided character: he is loyal to his homeland but his passion for traveling only takes him further away from his home. Critics quickly drew comparisons between the poet himself and the narrator, who "Met strange people singing / New myths; made myths myself." Soon after the publication of the collection  Thumboo said that "I feel that a poet has a double responsibility. One is his responsibility to have a function within his society, but to remain a poet. It involves some sacrifices of inner voices." (Responsibility and Commitment: The Poetry of Edwin Thumboo by Tiang Hong Ee, edited by Leong Liew Geok, 1997, p. 46)

In Gods Can Die (1977) Thumboo revised poems and republished sections he liked. 'Walking My Baby Back Home' took its title from a song by Nat King Cole. Instead  of focusing on the natural world, the emphasis is on the  urban, industrialized society. Although Thumboo expresses his nostalgia for the earlier, simplier lifestyle of Singapore, feelings of loss are combined with a sense of confidence in the future of the nation:  "The City is what we make it. / You and I. We are the City." In a lament on the death of a friend after a motor-cycle accident, 'For Peter Wee,' Thumboo contemplates the purpose of life: "Is there any pulse or ripple / Beyond the ash, anything that matters / Or just a lipless sleep / where the teeth are shutters?"

In the 1990s, Thumboo turned into Christianity. Still Traveling, his sixth book of poems, came out in 2008. It has been decribed as his "most manifest attempt to reclaim his private voice". ('Understanding Edwin Thumboo' by Gwee Li Sui, in Asiatic, Volume 7, Number 2, December 2013, p. 162)  Ayatana (2019), published by National Gallery Singapore, examined intersections between the verbal and the visual. The  Buddhist term āyatana means "entrance" for consciousness and mental phenomena. Consciousness is always supported by two elements: a cognitive faculty and a corresponding objective element. (The Central Conception of Buddhism and the Meaning of the Word "Dharma" by Th. Stcherbatsky, 1988, p. 8) Thumboo's many awards include National Book Development Council of Singapore Award for poetry (1978, 1980, 1994), the Southeast Asia Write Award (1979), the Cultural Medallion for Literature in Singapore (1980), the Asean Cultural and Communication Award (Literature) in 1987, Public Service Star (BBM) in 1981 and 1991. Thumboo was in 1988 a member of the Neustadt International Prize jury. His  candidate, Raja Rao, became the tenth laureate of the prestigious prize. Thumboo received the Raja Rao Award in 2002 for his contributions to the literature of the Indian diaspora. Thumboo is married to Yeo Swee Ching; they have two children.

For further reading: The Votive Pen: Writings on Edwin Thumboo by Nilanjana Sengupta (2020); The Routledge Concise History of Southeast Asian Writing in English by Rajeev S. Patke and Philip Holden (2009); 'Of New Covenants and Nationalisms: Christianity and The Poetry of Edwin Thumboo and Lee Tzu Pheng,' by R. B. H. Goh, in Ariel: A Review of International English Literature, Vol. 34; Part 2/3 (2003);  'Note of Resistance and Reconciliation in the Poetry of Edwin Thumboo,' by P.K. Singh, in The Literary Criterion, Vol. 37; Part 3/4 (2002); Ariels: Departures & Returns: Essays for Edwin Thumboo, edited by Tong Chee Kiong et al. (2001); Responsibility & Commitment: The Poetry of Edwin Thumboo by Ee T. Hong and Leong L. Geok (1997); English in New Cultural Contexts: Reflections from Singapore, ed. by J. Foley et al. (1988) 

Selected works:

  • Rib of Earth, 1956
  • The Flowering Tree: Selected Writings from Singapore/Malaysia, 1970  (editor)
  • Child's Delight: Book 1, 1972
  • Child's Delight: Book 2, 1972
  • Seven Poets: Singapore and Malaysia, 1973 (editor)
  • The Second Tongue: An Anthology of Poetry from Malaysia and Singapore, 1976  (selected and with an introd. by Edwin Thumboo)
  • Gods Can Die, 1977
  • Ulysses by the Merlion, 1979
  • The Poetry of Singapore, 1985 (ed., with others)
  • Anthology of ASEAN Literatures, 1985 (editor)
  • Literature and Liberation: Five Essays from Southeast Asia, 1988 (editor) 
  • The Fiction of Singapore, 1990 (2 vols., general editor)
  • Words for the 25th Readings by Singapore Writers, 1990  (editor, with others)
  • Perceiving Other Worlds, 1991 (editor)
  • Cultures in ASEAN and the 21st Century, 1993 (editor)
  • The Third Map: New and Selected Poems, 1993
  • The Writer as Historical Witness: Studies in Commonwealth Literature, 1995 (ed., with Thiru Kandiah)
  • Journeys: Words, Home, and Nation: Anthology of Singapore Poetry, 1984-1995, 1995 (editor, with others)
  • The Three Circles of English: Language Specialists Talk About the English Language, 2001 (editor)
  • Frankie Sionil José: A Tribute, 2005 (editor)
  • Writing Asia: The Literatures in Englishes, 2007-2009 (editor)  
  • Bring the Sun, 2008
  • Still Traveling, 2008
  • Reflecting on the Merlion: An Anthology of Poems, 2009 (ed., with Yeow Kai Chai)
  • Fifty on 50, 2009 (editor)
  • & Words: Poems Singapore and Beyond, 2010 (editor)
  • Flow Across Our Ocean: Singapore & South Africa, 2011 (featuring the poems of Edwin Thumboo)
  • The Best of Edwin Thumboo, 2012 (introduction by Lily Rose Tope)
  • A Gathering of Themes, 2018
  • Ayatana, 2019

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