Prof Edwin Thumboo on the Evolution of SingLit

Published on 26 October 2017

Photo: National Arts Council

The 83-year-old literary pioneer and recipient of the 1979 Cultural Medallion for Literature reflects on how Singapore has embraced the English Language as our own, and the implications of that for Singaporean literature. 

Interview by Pamela Ho

“The difference is that, now, English is no longer a language that intimidates us. Back in our time, there were people who were still under the impression that they could not write as well [as native speakers]. We can do as well, why should we be afraid? That’s why I hate the word ‘local’. You’re not a ‘local writer’, you’re a ‘Singapore writer’.

We are using English, and so we should make that English ours. Because in every place, when the language settles, there is a kind of inner language. What are the words of this inner language for us in Singapore? These are words that are in English, but they’re from other languages. And English, as a language, has been the greatest absorber of other languages.

If you look back, English was enriched by the colonial experience. Words like ‘bungalow’. When you look at a book called Hobson-Jobson – a book on the Indian usage of English – you’ll find how many Indian words went into English! Now, that was the contribution of the colonies to England.

What is happening now is that we have taken the language, and it is ours. We have paid for it. We have suffered for it. Now, we put our special words into it. Our spirit, our style, our idiosyncrasies… this is the inner part of the language.

What has also changed is the attitude: that we have our own literature, our own writing now. We have our own literary voice. That is a very important thing.

Besides Malay writing, which belongs to this region, all the other writings have their major traditions outside Singapore: Indian literature in India, Chinese literature in China. But what we have had to do is to put Singaporean life, Singaporean experience – the texture of our existence – into these literatures, into these languages. We have had to write about the Singapore experience.

Pain and tragedy are, in a way, something we all experience. But the forms they take, the expressions they take, the context, are really very embedded in the life in this part of the world. Quite different. Quite different.

Emeritus Professor, Edwin Thumboo, comfortable in his office at the National University of Singapore's Department of English Language and Literature, 2017. (Photo: Pamela Ho)

When I started writing, we were a British colony, and English had yet to develop literary power. The literary authority still came from Britain and America. But now, no more. You look at the last winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature – the writers of English come from India, South Africa, Australia. So, it’s from outside. And the experiences are quite different outside.

So, there has been a change.

The younger people today grow up in a world where they take English for granted. And don’t forget, Singaporean students have been winning the Angus Ross Prize [top A-level literature student, outside the UK] from Cambridge every year!

I tell people, I don’t need proof. But if you want proof, this is it. The language is ours, we can do things to it. Our command of it is better than some of you blokes!”

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