Edwin Thumboo

Singapore Infopedia


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 He was also awarded the Distinguished Arts and Social Sciences Alumnus Award (2016) by the National University of Singapore in recognition of his outstanding contributions as a poet, scholar, academic leader and champion of Singapore writing.

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.

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 who lived in Nagasaki and 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

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 vice-chancellor then, Sir Sidney Caine, refused to grant the police access to the campus grounds.9

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

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 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

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”.22

Champion of Singapore writing
Thumboo continues to champion Singapore writing well into his eighth decade. In 2015, Thumboo founded the Poetry Festival Singapore (previously known as the National Poetry Festival), a literary initiative which celebrates poetry in all four languages. Thumboo shared his thoughts on the significance of multicultural verse: “Poetry in our four official languages get to share a platform, which it rarely does. The festival will boost the writing, reading and appreciation of our poetry in all forms and languages.”23

For his lifelong contributions to the study of Singapore literature and advocacy work as both a scholar and poet, Thumboo was awarded the Distinguished Arts and Social Sciences Alumnus Award (2016) by the National University of Singapore.24


Wife: Yeo Swee Chin
Children: Julian and Claire Thumboo25

Published works

1956: Rib of Earth26
1972: Child’s Delight 1 and Child’s Delight 27
1977: Gods Can Die28
1979: Ulysses by the Merlion29
1993: The Third Map30
2003: Friend31
2008: Still Travelling32
2008:  Bring The Sun33

2009:  35 for Gothenburg. Selected poems in Swedish translation34
2012:  Singapore Pioneer Poets: The Best of Edwin Thumboo35
2012:  Singapore Word Maps: A Chapbook of Edwin Thumboo’s New and Selected Place Poems36
2016:  The Banyan (A collection of Edwin Thumboo’s poems in Tamil, translated by Chitra Sankaran)37
2018:  A Gathering of Themes38

Selected poems

1978: National Book Development Council of Singapore Award for Gods Can Die.40
1979: Southeast Asia Write Award.41
1979–80: Fulbright-Hays Visiting Professor at Pennsylvania State University.42
1980: Cultural Medallion for Literature43; the National Book Development Council Singapore Award for Ulysses by the Merlion.44
1981: Bintang Bakti Masyarakat, Public Service Star (Bar), for promotion of literature.45
 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.46
1991: Bintang Bakti Masyarakat (Lingtang), Public Service Star (Bar), for promotion of literature.47
1993: Visiting Fellow at the Department of English, Australian Defence Force Academy48; Board member, Advisory Committee, National Arts Council.49
1994: National Book Development Council of Singapore Award for The Third Map.50
1998: NUS Award for excellent teaching51; CAS-Miller Visiting Professor, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
2002: Raja Rao Award for contributions to the literature of the Indian diaspora52; Visiting Professor, University of Innsbruck, Austria.53
2006: Pingat Jasa Gemilang (Meritorious Service Medal).54
2015: Founder, Poetry Festival Singapore (previously known as the National Poetry Festival).55
Distinguished Arts and Social Sciences Alumnus Award, National University of Singapore.56

Sharon Teng
1. Ian Hamilton, ed., The Oxford Companion to Modern Poetry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 618 (Call no. R 821.9109 OXF); Stephanie Yap, “Poet Laureate,” Straits Times, 2 March 2008, 68. (From NewspaperSG)
2. Ban Kah Choon, “Sustained Mapping of Political History in His Public Poetry,” Straits Times, 7 June 1997, 21; Helen Chia, “Making English Our Own,” Straits Times, 1 November 1989, 1; Koh Buck Song, “Is This the Great Singapore Book?” Straits Times, 30 May 1992, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
3. Gwee Li Sui and Michelle Heng, eds., “Timeline: Milestones and Memories,” in Edwin Thumboo –Time-Travelling: A Select, Annotated Bibliography (Singapore: National Library Board, 2012), 26–29. (Call no. RSING S821 EDW)
4. Gwee Li Sui and Michelle Heng, eds., “Life and Times: Edwin Thumboo with Gwee Li Sui,” in Edwin Thumboo –Time-Travelling: A Select, Annotated Bibliography (Singapore: National Library Board, 2012), 44–45, 51. (Call no. RSING S821 EDW)
5. Gwee and Heng, “Life and Times,” 43–44.
6. Kirpal Singh, ed., “Edwin Thumboo,” in Interlogue: Studies in Singapore Literature, vol. 4 (Singapore: Ethos Books, 2001), 56–79. (Call no. RSING 809.895957 INT)
7. Gwee and Heng, “Life and Times,” 53.
8. Gwee and Heng, “Life and Times,” 51–57; Gwee and Heng, “Milestones and Memories,” 26–27; Singh, “Edwin Thumboo,” 56–79.
9. Gwee Li Sui and Michelle Heng, eds., “Biography,” in Edwin Thumboo –Time-Travelling: A Select, Annotated Bibliography (Singapore: National Library Board, 2012), 31 (Call no. RSING S821 EDW); Singh, “Edwin Thumboo,” 56–79; “Eight University Students Freed: No Sedition, the Judge Rules,” Straits Times, 26 August 1954, 7; “Varsity Publication Seditious ‘As a Whole’ – Crown,” Straits Times, 2 July 1954, 7; “Sir Sidney Bails Out Students,” Straits Times, 29 May 1954, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
10. Gwee and Heng, “Milestones and Memories,” 28; Gwee and Heng, “Life and Times,” 71–72; Stephanie Yap, “Poet in Motion,” Straits Times, 11 August 2008, 55. (From NewspaperSG)
11. Gwee and Heng, “Biography,” 31, 33; Gwee and Heng, “Life and Times,” 65–69; Yap, “Poet in Motion”; Koh Buck Song, “The Return of Edwin Thumboo,” Straits Times, 22 May 1993, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
12. Gwee and Heng, “Biography,” 33; David Chew, “Searching for the Soul of Singapore,” Today, 28 December 2005, 32. (From NewspaperSG); C. C. Liew, “Championing the Arts,” in Edwin Thumboo –Time-Travelling: A Select, Annotated Bibliography, ed. Gwee Li Sui and Michelle Heng (Singapore: National Library Board, 2012), 102–05 (Call no. RSING S821 EDW)
13. Ee Tiang Hong, “Context and Issues,” in Responsibility and Commitment: The Poetry of Edwin Thumboo, ed. Leong Liew Geok (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 1997), 11. (Call no. RSING S821 EDW)
14. Gwee and Heng, “Life and Times,” 54–57; Edwin Thumboo, “The Search for Style and Theme: A Personal Account,” in The Writer’s Sense of the Contemporary: Papers in Southeast Asian and Australian Literature, eds. Bruce Bennett, Ee Tiang Hong and Ron Shepherd (Nedlands: Centre for Studies in Australian Literature, University of Western Australia, 1982), 1–7. (Call no. RSING 828.9959 WRI)
15. Singh, “Edwin Thumboo,” 56–79; Gwee and Heng, “Life and Times,” 58–60.
16. Ee Tiang Hong, “Ulysses By the Merlion,” in Responsibility and Commitment: The Poetry of Edwin Thumboo, ed. Leong Liew Geok (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 1997), 46–50 (Call no: RSING S821 EDW); Singh, “Edwin Thumboo,” 56–79; Gwee and Heng, “Life and Times,” 59–60.
17. Edwin Thumboo, E. (2001, September). “Singapore in Focus: Interview with Norbert Schaffeld, Bremen,” Anglistik 12, no. 2 (September 2001)
18. Ian, Oxford Companion to Modern Poetry, 618.
19. Edwin Thumboo, E. (1987). “Notes on a Sense of History,” in The Writer’s Sense of the Past: Essays on Southeast Asian and Australasian Literature, ed. Kirpal Singh (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 1987), 223–33 (Call no. RSING 809.89595 WRI); Thumboo, “Singapore in Focus.”
20. Ee, “Ulysses By the Merlion,” 10–16; Thumboo, “Notes on a Sense of History,” 223–33; Stephanie Yap, “Formative Years,” Straits Times, 2 March 2008, 68; Ban Kah Choon, “His Pursuit of Passion,” Straits Times, 9 October 2000, 5 (From NewsapaperSG); Chia, “Making English Our Own.”
21. Gwee and Heng, “Biography,” 33; S. T. Heng, “Pioneer’s Past Is Present in Future: On Reading Edwin Thumboo,” in Edwin Thumboo –Time-Travelling: A Select, Annotated Bibliography, ed. Gwee Li Sui and Michelle Heng (Singapore: National Library Board, 2012), 108–14 (Call no. RSING S821 EDW)
22. Ee, “Context and Issues,” 16.
23. Richard Neo, “First Poetry Festival for Singapore,” Straits Times, 23 July 2015, 9 (From NewspaperSG); National University of Singapore, “Emeritus Professor Edwin Thumboo Receives Distinguished Alumnus Award,” Blog, 3 May 2016.
24. “Award Recipients: Edwin Thumboo,” National University of Singapore Distinguished Arts and Social Sciences Alumni Award, accessed 26 January 2019.
25. Gwee and Heng, “Biography,” 34; Yap, “Poet in Motion.”
26. Edwin Thumboo, Rib of Earth (Singapore: L. Fernando, 1956). (Call no. RCLOS S821 THU)
27. Edwin Thumboo, Child’s Delight: Edwin Thumboo (Singapore, Kuala Lumpur: Federal Publications, 1972). (From PublicationSG)
28. Edwin Thumboo, Gods Can Die (Singapore: Heinemann Educational Books (Asia), 1977). (Call no. RSING 828.995957 THU)
29. Edwin Thumboo, Ulysses By the Merlion (Singapore: Heinemann Educational Books, 1979). (Call no. RSING 828.995957 THU)
30. Edwin Thumboo, A Third Map: New and Selected Poems (Singapore: UniPress, 1993). (Call no. RSING S821 THU)
31. Edwin Thumboo, Friend (Singapore: Co-published by Landmark Books and the Centre for the Arts, National University of Singapore, 2003). (Call no. RSING S821 THU)
32. Edwin Thumboo, Still Travelling (Singapore: Ethos Books, 2008). (Call no. RSING S821 THU)
33. Edwin Thumboo, Bring the Sun (Singapore: Ethos Books, 20018). (Call no. RSING S821 THU)
34. Edwin Thumboo, 35 for Gothenburg (Singapore: Ethos Books, 2009). (Call no. RSING S821 THU)
35. Edwin Thumboo, Singapore Pioneer Poets: The Best of Edwin Thumboo (Singapore: Epigram Books, 2012). (Call no. RSING S821 THU)
36. Edwin Thumboo, Singapore Word Maps: A Chapbook of Edwin Thumboo’s New and Selected Place Poems (Singapore: National Library Board, 2012). (Call no. RSING S821 THU)
37. Edwin Thumboo, “Book Launch: The Banyan, Edwin Thumboo’s Poems in Tamil,” Blog Post, 1 August 2016. 
38. Edwin Thumboo, A Gathering of Themes (Singapore, Ethos Books, 2018). (Call no. RSING S821 THU)
39. Edwin Thumboo, Conjunction, 2004. (From NORA)
40. Alan John, “How They’ve Fared,” Straits Times, 1 September 1982, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
41. Koh, “Return of Edwin Thumboo.”
42. Biodata,” National University of Singapore English Language Department, accessed 26 September 2005.
43. “Cultural Medallion Recipients: Edwin Thumboo,” National Arts Council, accessed 26 September 2016.
44. John, “How They’ve Fared.”
45. “181 Win Awards for Public Service,” Straits Times, 5 December 1981, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
46. National University of Singapore English Language Department, “Biodata.”
47. Zuraidah Ibrahim, “S’pore Thanks Special 177,” Straits Times, 9 November 1991, 27. (From NewspaperSG)
48. Mohammad A. Quayum, ed., Peninsular Muse: Interviews with Modern Malaysian and Singaporean Poets, Novelists and Dramatists (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2007), 30. (Call no. RSING 820.99595 PEN)
49. Julia Goh, “16-Artist Panel Formed to Help Arts Council,” Straits Times, 24 July 1992, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
50. “Record 42 Book Awards Given, No Winner for English Fiction,” Straits Times, 20 November 1994, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
51. “9 Picked As Excellent Lecturers,” Straits Times, 25 July 1998, 51. (From NewspaperSG)
52. National University of Singapore, “Edwin Thumboo Receives Distinguished Alumnus Award.”
53. Jonathan Webster, “Appendix: Edwin Thumboo,” Understanding Verbal Art, The M. A. K. Halliday Library functional Linguistics Series, 2015, 126. 
54. Grace Chua, “Poet Lauded for Promoting S’pore Literature,” Straits Times, 9 August 2006, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
55. Neo, “First Poetry Festival for Singapore”; National University of Singapore, “Edwin Thumboo Receives Distinguished Alumnus Award.”
56. National University of Singapore Distinguished Arts and Social Sciences Alumni Award, “Award Recipients: Edwin Thumboo.”

The information in this article is valid as at 4 February 2019 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. 

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