Writing About Public Matters
Edwin Thumboo shapes a Singapore style
By Felix Cheong
Professor Edwin Thumboo (b. 1933) is possibly the best-known poet Singapore has ever produced. He studied at the University of Malaya, then in Singapore, graduating with an Honours degree in English in 1957.
Before making his mark as an academic, Thumboo worked as a civil servant for 10 years with various departments, such as Income Tax and the Central Provident Fund. In 1966, he began teaching at the Department of English at the University of Singapore. Thirteen years later, he was appointed Professor of English. In 1980, Thumboo was named the first Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the National University of Singapore (NUS), a position he held till 1991. He retired from teaching in 1995, and was conferred the title of Emeritus Professor in 1997.
Thumboo's contributions not only lie with his work as a critic of international standing, but also in his body of poetry. He has published four collections of poems: Rib of Earth (1956), Gods Can Die (1977), Ulysses by the Merlion (1979) the title poem can be found on a plaque at Merlion Park and A Third Map (1993).
Thumboo has received the National Book Development Council of Singapore Book Award for Poetry in English thrice (1978, 1980 and 1994), the Southeast Asian WRITE Award (1979), the Cultural Medallion (March 1980), and the ASEAN Cultural and Communication Award in Literature (1987). In 2002, he received the Raja Rao Award for contribution to the literature of the Indian Diaspora, presented by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Campaign.
For his literary contributions, Thumboo was awarded the Public Service Star (BBM) and Bar in August 1981 and 1991 respectively.
Felix Cheong recently engaged the 71-year-old doyen of Singapore literature in an hour-long chat in his office at the University Cultural Centre at NUS.
FC: How has the literary scene changed in Singapore over the past 40 years?
ET: I think it's changed in a number of ways. Firstly, there's greater confidence in the use of English. 40 years ago, the English-educated represented a very small elite class, usually university-educated. When we used English, we were already a minority; we were pioneers in the sense of moving into the language and trying to domesticate it and make it ours.
Today, English is embedded in our psyche, in our lifestyle. It's a much more total language than before. Not only that, it's the one language that brings all of us together, as you know. There's no hesitation in the use of English. It's not our mother tongue but our main language. Here, I make a distinction between mother tongue and what I call main language.
The other change has been themes. 40 years ago, our themes were slightly more basic, in the sense that the challenges and the society were pretty basic. It was a matter of survival. You're thinking of '65, but don't forget that we were internally self-governing in '59. Before that, a feeling of nationalism, of wanting to build a nation, a multi-racial one, had been there since just after the war. At the university, this was a subject of discussion among all of us who were interested in writing and also among all the other people.
Now the themes are much broader because writers respond to the experience they have in a society at a particular time and place. You have to remember that at that time, Singapore was a little island. Now Singapore's an international city. Sometimes, if you look at our skyline, it feels like a part of Manhattan has been brought here.
So our young writers now write a kind of poetry that's almost international in that sense. You can't tell exactly whether it's from Singapore or not, because the English we use is rather international. An interesting development, but at the same time, a certain sadness, because where does the Singapore experience really enter our writing? Except perhaps when you have a novel like Daren Shiau's Heartland. Then, you know it's Singapore.
One reason why we have more poets [than novelists or other types of writers] is because you can write about your own experience, your immediate experience, rather than have to construct a whole artifice.
I would say the writing has changed in many ways. But whether it's a development is for the critics to judge. It definitely has changed and it definitely has broadened.
FC: What has remained constant?
ET: I think, the commitment to one's personal experience. That has remained constant and that is important because we're all, in a sense, shaped by certain fundamental experiences as we grow up. These are what remain with you.
For me, for instance, the sense of being Singaporean is something that will always be with me the challenge of establishing that because it's an open-ended thing. And the challenge is really how to be Singaporean. And that itself means really to look at what we have and what is to come as a Singaporean of Chinese, India, Eurasian or whatever background, but at the same time, how to be Singaporean in a modernising world.
FC: What were some of the difficulties you encountered when you started writing?
ET: The difficulty was to create an idiolect, a dialect for yourself your personal style. The real challenge is to internalise the language, to make it fit your environment, your experience and what you are. Your language is you and you are your language. Because English not only is it international, it's got a powerful British and American origin. Much of the culture, much of the sense of history, much of the use of the language, has been British and American experience. It's been shaped by that environment.
For example, we say we extend a "warm welcome". In Singapore, we spend millions on air-conditioning and you extend a warm welcome? It makes sense if you come from a cold climate. I'd prefer to extend a "cool and comfortable welcome". Here's a classic instance where you have to rethink the content of a language and its metaphorical reach. This is what I mean by re-tooling the language.
Also, you have to find your own system of symbols and metaphors. That was the main challenge: to invent an idiolect. At the same time, you have to make sure that your English is accessible. My generation was brought up on what I'd describe as King's English, or Queen's English. In other words, proper English.
FC: How does it feel to have your poem "Ulysses by the Merlion" put on a plaque at Merlion Park?
ET: I think it's a great feeling. I'm very proud of the poem and I'm glad they're using it. Some people think the poem is this, some think it's that. But in the end, time will tell. Some visitors bother to find out where I am and drop me a note occasionally.
I still like the poem. It still reads reasonably well after all these years. Some people say [the Merlion] is fakey and all that, but I say, "Look, many of the mythical animals started that way."
FC: How do you feel about the whole poetic discourse that has arisen around that poem?
ET: In a sense, it's fun. Every reaction is valid for the person who reacts. I'm glad it's generated the kind of reaction that it has. There's interest in this, so let it be. Maybe one day, there'll be an anthology of Merlion poems. We don't know. Each generation, each group, reacts differently.
FC: How does it feel to be described often as the unofficial Poet Laureate of Singapore?
ET: Mixed feelings. Sometimes you feel great and sometimes you feel like saying, "Oh, come on, chaps." Poet Laureates are often the lousiest poets in town when you look at history and some of the Poet Laureates in Britain! A few have been describing me that way [Professor] Tommy Koh is one of them; [Senior Parliamentary Secretary at the Ministry of Information, Communication and the Arts] Yatiman Yusoff is another.
The fact is: I write about public matters. I belong to that generation where the health of the body politic is important. Don't forget, I grew up during turbulent times. My memories go back to 1940, '41. When I say memories, I mean precise memories, kept alive in images. Not mere thoughts.
I still remember, for instance, soon after the War, the Japanese tanks coming down Outram Road. I'd seen riots in the 1950s, the Maria Hertogh riots. I was in Arab Street at my uncle's dispensary. When I came out, I saw jeeps burning and so on. I'd seen the Hock Lee bus riots I was in Penang Road and we'd just finished the four o'clock show.
I can see the fragility. It's been a major concern of MM [Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew] and a major concern of the party, of the policies of the government. I've seen the fragility. I've seen the kind of irrationality racism can release.
My generation has seen all that. The younger generation has seen nothing but stability, success. They wonder why we are so concerned about all that.
FC: How do you see the first 40 years of our literature?
ET: Literature normally evolves. Any kind of literature. There's an evolutionary series of processes. One of the things that has marked the last half of the last century is the rate at which things have changed. Our literature has been both evolutionary and revolutionary. We had to move fast. What we need to do normally across 50, 60, 100 years, we've had to do within 30, 40 years. [For] colonies emerging out of a colonial experience into a modern nation, the rate of change is that much faster. If you say time and tide wait for no man, then time and tide wait for no nation.QLRS Vol. 5 No. 1 Oct 2005