Emeritus Professor Edwin Thumboo Receives Distinguished Alumnus Award

© NUS FASS | Photography by Lionel Lin

On 15 April, our Emeritus Professor, Edwin Thumboo, received a Distinguished Alumnus Award from FASS.

The award was recognition of a career and a life, in which Prof Thumboo (affectionately known simply as “Prof”) has been a poet, scholar, academic leader and champion of Singapore writing. A sentence like that is often qualified with the term “variously,” but that would be misleading here. Prof has not variously performed these roles—usually he has performed them all at once.

He became Dean of FASS in 1980, and remained in that position for 11 years. During his tenure, he oversaw a number of important reforms of what the faculty offered. FASS grew, and English Language, Japanese Studies, Psychology, Linguistics, European Studies and Mass Communications all came into being as Majors in his time. Other notable achievements included the founding of the Centre for Advanced Studies and the Centre for the Arts.  He also instituted Singapore Writers Week (renamed the Singapore Writers Festival in 1991), the journal Singa: Literature & the Arts (1980-2000) and the annual 5-day Residential Creative Arts Programme.

After giving up the Deanship, he became Director of the Centre for the Arts, where he was able to pursue another of his lifelong passions, the encouragement of the creative arts in Singapore. Many student groups established themselves with his encouragement, including NUS Dance Synergy, NUS Jazz Band, NUS Lion Dance, NUS Dance Blast, NUS Chinese Drama, nu(STUDIOS) Film Production, NUS Singa Nglaras Gamelan Ensemble, Kent Ridge Ensemble and the NUS Arts Festival. He also played an instrumental role in the establishment of the University Cultural Centre. Facts like these can document individual achievements, but perhaps they fail to identify the most substantial achievement. As Director, Prof made the arts a central part of NUS’s life and identity.

© NUS FASS | Photography by Lionel Lin

A scholar of English literature, Prof is also a well known poet, indeed, in some ways he can be considered the father of Singapore poetry. His main publications are Rib of Earth (1956), Gods Can Die (1977), Ulysses by the Merlion (1979), A Third Map (1993) and Still Travelling (2008). For works such as these he has been recognised with the 1978, 1980 and 1994 National Book Development Council of Singapore awards for poetry in English, the 1979 Southeast Asia Write Award, the 1980 Cultural Medallion, the 1987 ASEAN Cultural and Communication Award in Literature, the 1981 Bintang Bakti Masyarakat (Public Service Star) and the Public Service Star (Bar) in 1991, the 2002 Raja Rao Award and the 2006 Pingat Jasa Gemilang (Meritorious Service Medal).

But Prof was never content simply to write and publish his own poetry. More perhaps than anyone else, he has worked to encourage and promote other Singaporean writers. Even as an undergraduate and a member of the Youth Poetry Circle, he organised readings and later anthologies The Flowering Tree (1970), Seven Poets (1973), The Second Tongue (1979), The Poetry of Singapore (1985) The Fiction of Singapore (1990), &WORDS: Poems Singapore and Beyond (2010).

Prof is still writing and still working for poetry here. Last year, he founded the  Singapore National Poetry Festival, a multilingual, multicultural organization that develops and promotes Singaporean poetry holistically.  He also initiated the Singapore Chapter of the ASEAN Young Writers Award.  He has a number of current projects. One of these is for poetry walls at NUS, public spaces in which poetry will be displayed. Another is for a Tamil translation of his poems to be launched in June.

The Distinguished Alumnus Award was well deserved. We congratulate Prof on this recognition for a lifetime of work for the humanities and the arts.  (Contributed by Professor John Richardson and Mdm Angeline Ang.)