Edwin Nadason Thumboo (b. 1933) is one of Singapore's most distinguished poets. An Emeritus Professor (1997), he is currently Director of The Centre for the Arts, at the National University of Singapore where he was appointed Professor of English in January 1979, Head of the Department of English Language and Literature (1977-1993), the first Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (1980-1991) and Professorial Fellow (1995-2002).
At the University, he has taught Elizabethan/Jacobean Drama, the Romantic poets, Singapore and Malaysian Literatures, and Creative Writing Courses in addition to tutoring the other major areas of English studies. His research interests included The Modern Novel (Forster, Lawrence, Conrad) and the Novels of Empire (Kipling, etc.), Commonwealth Literature (Bessie Head, etc.), and Shakespeare (the Roman Plays). During his headship, the English Department introduced the study of Commonwealth/New Literatures in English. Another key development was the introduction of English Language as a major so that the department’s graduates could be better trained to undertake the teaching of English in the schools and junior colleges.
Professor Thumboo has contributed to the Singapore Arts scene chiefly in the area of literature. He has published four collections of poems: Rib of Earth (1956), Gods Can Die (1977), Ulysses by the Merlion (1979) and A Third Map (1993); and two collections on nursery rhymes: Child's Delight 1 & 2 (1972), and is currently working on his next volume.
Apart from critical articles, he has also contributed forewords to the collections of young Singapore poets. He has edited various Singapore, regional and international anthologies, and was the General Editor of the ASEAN anthologies, some of which include Seven Poets: Singapore/Malaysia, An Anthology (1973), The Second Tongue: An Anthology of Poetry from Malaysia and Singapore (1979), Anthology of ASEAN Literatures: The Poetry of Singapore (1985), and The Fiction of Singapore (1990). He is Consulting Editor for World Englishes and Editorial Consultant for Westerly; he is also a member of the Editorial Board of Solidarity.
The most extended discussion of his poetry is Ee Tiang Hong's Responsibility and Commitment: The Poetry of Edwin Thumboo (1997). Professor Thumboo has received various awards in a career spanning more than four decades, including the National Book Development Council of Singapore Book Award for Poetry in English (1978, 1980 and 1994), the Southeast Asia Write Award (1979), the Singapore Cultural Medallion (1980), the ASEAN Cultural and Communication Award in Literature (1987), the Public Service Star (BBM) and Bar in August 1981 and 1991 respectively.
In October 2002, he presented the Keynote Address at the Biennial meeting of the International Association of World Englishes, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where he received the Raja Rao Award for his contributions to the literature of the Indian Diaspora.
Professor Thumboo has also held visiting professorships and fellowships at universities in the USA, UK and Australia. He was a Fullbright-Hayes Visiting Professor at the Pennsylvania State University (1979-1980); Chairman, Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies, VII Triennium (July 1983-June 1986); Writer-in-Residence, Institute of Culture and Communication, Hawaii (July-August 1985); Ida Beam Professor, University of Iowa, Iowa City (September-December 1986); Member, International Advisory Panel, East-West Centre, Hawaii, USA (1987); Honorary Research Fellow, University College, University of London (1987); Member, Committee of Jurors, Neustadt International Prize for Literature, Oklahoma, USA (1988); Visiting Professor and Writer-in-Residence, University of Wollongong (May 1989); and Visiting Fellow at the Department of English, Australian Defence Force Academy (1993). In 1998, he was a CAS-Miller Visiting Professor at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign and a guest speaker at the Sally Sage McAlpin Lecture 1998 at the Literary Criterion Centre in Dhvanyaloka, Mysore, India, the Georgetown University Round Table on Languages and Linguistics 1999, and at TESOL 2000 in Vancouver. More recently, he has presented papers at the Grahamstown WordFest 2001 in South Africa, the International Association of University Professors of English Jubilee Conference 2001 at Bamberg, and the 14th Annual Conference of the Association for the Study of the New Literatures 2002 at the University of Erfurt, Germany.
The following excerpts from citations provide a sense of Professor Thumboo’s personality and the nature and extent of his contributions:
"...As one of a pioneer generation of Singaporean scholars in the field of English studies hitherto dominated by scholars from the West, Edwin Thumboo’s accomplishments were an encouragement to later scholars in Singapore and in other Southeast Asian academies. For instance, he demonstrated his ability to publish scholarship on canonical figures such as Shakespeare, but also contributed much to the study of African and Indian literature, two areas of abiding interest for him. He thus set a pattern for modern English studies in our age of independence – a pattern truly international and multi-cultural."
"What is quite amazing about this story of administrative successes, charismatic influence and visionary plans, is that all throughout, Edwin Thumboo's scholarly work has never flagged. He has established himself as one of the leading scholars in New Literatures, and is an international authority on African and Indian literature. His main impact has been to create new analytical approaches and models for New Literatures..."
(Citation on Emeritus Professor Edwin Thumboo by Public Orator, Associate Professor Tong Chee Kiong, in Gazette. The National University of Singapore, 1998, Volume 1 Number 17.)
"...Edwin Thumboo’s dual discourses - the analytical and theoretical discourse of the scholar, and the emotive and associative discourse of the poet - enable him to capture the flow of our experience, and to present it in a variety of different ways, accessible to a variety of individuals.
This thematic and discursive fluidity, important as it is, is not confined to words on pages, but is very much a reflection of Edwin Thumboos own effusive vitality, his boundless zest for life, his impatience with artificial dams and barriers."
"I’ve come to see that Edwin Thumboo writes incessantly, because he is driven to communicate something of a better world; he rolls his sleeves up to act, because he is impatient with waiting for this world to change; and he forges friendships, because these represent the hope for a better world even within this imperfect one. His impact cannot be measured by words alone, but words - the tools of his own trade - may capture the "covenant" of his ideas and values."
(Editor, Associate Professor Robbie Goh’s Opening Remarks at the Launch of Ariels: Departures and Returns - Essays for Edwin Thumboo on 29 October 2001 at the Singapore Art Museum.)