Litmus One (Selected University Verse: 1949-1957)

The first Malayan anthology of English poetry in the post-war years, Litmus One was published in 1958 by The Raffles Society, a student society in the University of Malaya devoted to literature and culture. The Society also published a journal, The New Cauldron which was largely circulated on campus. Litmus One was anonymously edited by two university students, Wong Phui Nam and Tan Han Hoe. Whilst Tan Han Hoe stopped writing after he graduated from university, Wong continued to write and publish his poetry, interrupted by a long hiatus in the 1970s and 80s.

Wong observed that during the fifties it was unthinkable that local students should aspire to be poets or short story writers in English. Most of the faculty in the English Department took no interest in their writings, and the one or two who did were hostile. This state of affairs persisted even after the appearance of Edwin Thumboo’s Rib of Earth in 1956, which showed that ‘natives’ could succeed with the language.

Rajiv Patke noted that the cultural situation changed dramatically between Malaysia and Singapore after 1957 as a result of state policies concerning the place of English; marginalised in Malaysia, centralised in Singapore. The period also saw the publication of numerous anthologies, the first of which was Litmus One.

Litmus One comprised 65 poems composed by 13 local poets. Besides the editors, other contributors were Hedwig Aroozoo, Ee Tian Hong, Lloyd Fernando, Goh Sin Tub, Ho Wah Kam, Daniel Kovilpillai, Lim Thean Soo, Richard Ong, Oliver Seet, Edwin Thumboo and Wang Gungwu. Most of the contributors were not able to pursue a literary career and embarked on other career paths that offered a surer means of economic sustenance.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *