National Library Board Singapore

Singapore Literary Pioneers


Edwin Nadason Thumboo was born on 22 Nov 1933 in Singapore. His father, an Indian Protestant, was a primary school teacher in Pasir Panjang Primary School while his mother, a Chinese of Teochew-Peranakan lineage was a homemaker.

Thumboo received his early education from Pasir Panjang Primary School (1940), Monk’s Hill (1946) and Victoria School (1948). His Senior English Master in Victoria School, Shamus Frazer, was an important influence in his literary development. Frazer was an encouraging teacher who helped Thumboo through his early writings. During this time, Thumboo was also involved with the Youth Poetry Circle, a poetry interest group which comprised some of Singapore’s early literary pioneers such as Goh Sin Tub and Lim Thean Soo.

In 1953, Thumboo enrolled into the University of Malaya where he majored in English Literature and History. There, he met fellow writers like Ee Tiang Hong and Wong Phui Nam who later became the doyens of Malaysian literature. In 1956, Thumboo became one of the earliest writers to have his collection of poems published. Reflecting on his personal belief that poets of post-independent Singapore should share in the responsibility of creating a national literature, Thumboo’s political and social consciousness began to emerge in his works such as Rib of Earth (1956), Gods Can Die (1977) and Ulysses by the Merlion (1979).

After working with the civil service, Thumboo returned to the National University of Singapore as an assistant lecturer in 1966. From 1977 to 1993, Thumboo headed the English Language and Literature Department and in 1980, he was appointed Dean of the Faculty of Arts and the Social Sciences, a position which he served for three terms. In 1993, Thumboo was appointed as Chairman/Director for the NUS Centre for the Arts. Under his charge, the Creative Arts Programme which nurtures and mentors young writers from secondary schools and junior colleges was established. Thumboo was made a Professorial Fellow by NUS in 1995 and was conferred the title of Emeritus Professor by the National University of Singapore in 1997.

Thumboo was also instrumental in compiling and editing several key anthologies on Singapore literature such as The Second Tongue, The Flowering Tree and The Anthology of ASEAN Literatures.

Thumboo is widely regarded as the unofficial poet laureate of Singapore. His nationalistic poems, which address the political, social and cultural life of Singapore, are milestones in Singapore literature. The poem Ulysses by the Merlion has been widely critiqued, debated and referenced in works by emerging Singapore poets.

Thumboo is also firmly committed to the development of Singapore literature through his role as critic, academic, anthologist and literary activist. He was the first Singaporean to be conferred the SEA Write Award and the Cultural Medallion in 1979 and 1980 respectively. His other awards include the National Book Development Council of Singapore prizes for poetry (1978, 1980, 1994), the ASEAN Cultural and Communication Award in Literature (1987) and the Public Service Star (Bar) in 1991. In 2006, he was awarded one of Singapore’s highest honours, the Meritorious Service Medal, in capacity as Distinguished Poet and Literary Scholar.