Profile: Edwin Thumboo

Published on 29 September 2015

He may be in his 80s, but literary pioneer Emeritus Professor Edwin Thumboo continues to champion Singapore writing and culture.


Professor Edwin Thumboo sits in his office at the National University of Singapore (NUS) and poses a key question, “What is Singapore’s contribution to the world?” At 81, his movements may have slowed, but not his intellect and enthusiasm for life. He immediately clarifies, “A sense of mutual acceptance of different races that is seen most potently in the religious harmony that we have.”

A leading pioneer of homegrown English literature and 1979 Cultural Medallion recipient, he has been writing and publishing poetry since the 1950s. Best known for his poem, ‘Ulysses by the Merlion’, he is often named Singapore’s unofficial poet laureate because his poetry contains nationalistic themes and deals with myth and history. He also has had a stellar career as an academic and educator, retaining the title of Emeritus Professor at NUS after his retirement from full-time teaching in 1997.

Professor Thumboo has worked continuously with fellow artists and colleagues to promote Singapore writing and culture since the 1960s. For instance, a latest initiative was the first-ever National Poetry Festival that took place end July this year to celebrate Singapore poetry in all the four major languages.

On why this event was necessary, he explains, “With the National Arts Council’s support, poetry in English has flourished a great deal; poetry in other languages has also flourished, but we haven’t had them come together.

“More importantly, I wanted to empower a younger generation of poets to take on a leadership role. I am proud of how the working committee came together and look forward to the members organising the festival on a yearly basis.”

He adds, “Fifty years ago, I knew Singapore would eventually have a national literature. What I did not expect is the quantity of books being published today that is adding depth and breadth to our literary canon, and the growth in numbers of local writers pursuing their individual visions. It is marvellous.”

So what can literary audiences expect in the near future? Shares Professor Thumboo, “I’m collaborating with various writers on a collection of Christian poems. Chinese and Tamil translations of my poetry are being prepared. Hopefully, these books will be published sometime during 2016.”

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