Edwin Thumboo Private Papers Collection

Edwin Nadason Thumboo is a poet and academic who is regarded as one of the pioneers of English literature in Singapore.

Thumboo graduated in English from the University of Malaya in 1956. Although he applied for a position at the university, he was rejected as few locals held academic posts at that time. He therefore worked in the civil service for about nine years before finally joining the university, then renamed the University of Singapore, in 1966 following Singapore’s independence.

He received a PhD from the university in 1970. Thumboo rose to the position of full professor in the Department of English Language and Literature, heading the department between 1977 and 1993. After the merger of the University of Singapore and Nanyang University in 1980 to form the National University of Singapore (NUS), he was the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences from 1980 to 1991, NUS’s longest-serving dean. Thumboo was the first Chairman and Director of the university’s Centre for the Arts from 1993 to 2005, and continues to be associated with the university as an emeritus professor, a position he has held since retiring from full-time teaching in September 1997.

Thumboo’s poetry is inspired by myth and history, and he is often dubbed Singapore’s unofficial poet laureate because of his poems with nationalistic themes. A champion of local English literature, he compiled and edited some of the first anthologies of English poetry and fiction from Singapore and Malaysia.

His collections of poetry include:

  • Rib of Earth (1956)
  • Gods Can Die (1977)
  • Ulysses by the Merlion (1979)
  • A Third Map (1993)
  • Still Travelling (2008)
  • Best of Edwin Thumboo (2012)
  • Word-Gate (2013)
  • A Gathering of Themes (2018)
  • Ayatana (2019)

Awards he had won include:

  • the National Book Development Council of Singapore Book Awards for Poetry (1978, 1980 and 1994)
  • the inaugural S.E.A. Write Award (1979)
  • the first Cultural Medallion for Literature (1979)
  • the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Cultural and Communication Award (Literature) (1987)
  • the Bintang Bakti Masyarakat (Public Service Star) (1981) with an additional Bar (1991)
  • the Raja Rao Award (2002)
  • the Pingat Jasa Gemilang (Meritorious Services Medal) (2006)

In 2015, he conceived the first National Poetry Festival for Singapore. 

Thumboo has deposited a portion of his private papers with his alma mater. Catalogued, digitised and housed by the NUS Libraries, the Edwin Thumboo Private Papers collection archives more than half a century of his works including his poetry manuscripts, prose works, reading lists, correspondences, and critical writings on him.

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