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Sunday, 28 August 2011





Marriage Proposals
Government Gazette

The pivotal role of a public poet in nation-building

[Part 3]

A number of his poetry shows commitment to a form of solidarity with the cultural dimension of nation building, and several poems in this volume keep their share of that concern, ‘ hoping yet to mend his bitter, broken times’, because cultural anatomy is secured far more slowly than political independence or economic sufficiency.

One of the poems in Still Travelling which vividly captures the transformation of life and times in Singapore is Arts House, Smith Street, Singapore.

Arts House, Smith Street, Singapore
(for Wong Yoon Wah)

Having left Mountain Head through
Lower Gate for these Southern Seas,
They miss morning’s children-laughter
Competing with the sun’s as little fingers
Count ducklings waddling on the bund.

Look up into the wide blue benediction;
Gather clouds into your savouring arms:
They tell a daily story. Below, early paddy
Thrives as elders light their dreaming pipes
While watching crickets dry.

Fireflies will blink to night; the lonely moon
Descend upon a beam of generous light to stir
The hesitant longing of a maiden’s heart.
Watched by impatient sighing shadows,
She denied the body’s yearning, lies apart.

He too will follow the swallows South where indentured fathers-uncles-sons- nephews sweat daily and
then nightly nurse them in Kongsis.
Those left at home uphold lamp-lit pieties, While ancestral halls fold deeper into quiet.

The temperature is charged; the evening sky
Has more colours, but no crags to help it glow.
Moods re-arranged. Ink flows with a second spirit.
Stars have new names; winds rise into a rolling,
Plaintive call; strange incense fills the air.

Twilight creeps across blue-burnish waters
As the riding monsoon brings out kindred
Memories. No lark but seagull cries
To baleful dog-star high above the curving
Slide of dolphins hunting the turning tide.

You hear water swish when the caged carps breathe;
Ripples where crabs slip tactfully into pure stillness.
No crocuses in spring; no spring; no plum blossoms
Waiting for a poet. Only spider orchids for company;
A land where man and nature are a different history.

My neighbour is another language.

Readers interested in Thumboo's works and the criticisms it has attracted can have a look at particularly the essays by Jonathan Webster following website:

Jonathan Webster who had studied Thumboo’s poetry extensively had analysed his works which include "The Poet's Language: Foregrounding in Edwin Thumboo's Gods can die " in World Englishes. 17.3, November 1998: 359-368. and "Thumboo's David" in Ariels: Departure and Returns. A Festschrift for Edwin Thumboo. Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1999:71-83

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.

More than most other writers in Singapore, Thumboo has demonstrated his awareness of the roles, responsibilities and commitment that poets take towards the creation of a Singaporean identity and a Singaporean image as a multi-lingual and multi-cultural nation steady trading the conscious path.

Perhaps, it is the fate of the first generation of writers after independence to be so deeply committed to the issue of nation and nation building. The writers who come later have not been exposed to the pressures, challenges, the excitements and pain of a nation coming into being, specially a nation that is multi-racial, multi-cultural and therefore, exposed, perhaps, to tensions that are not apparent in a homogeneous society.

Roles and responsibilities of the poet

Edwin Thumboo may well deserve the title of father figure in Singapore and undoubtedly had paved the path for many young poets to look more closely life around them. The accumulation of his poetry spread over more than fifty years provides some indication to the younger writers how they are able to look at some of the essential forces in contemporary Singaporean society steady and with all the poetic energy they can muster.

His widely acclaimed poem "Ulysses on the Merlion" is deemed by several critics as a landmark in the literary history of Singapore.

For him, these commitments as reflected in the themes of his poetry remain. Thumboo has repeatedly demonstrated through his poetry and other writings, the need for a heightened his awareness of the roles and responsibilities that poets take towards the creation of a Singaporean identity and a Singaporean image of itself. His later poetry and critical writings bear ample testimony to this sensitivity including his commitment to spirituality and inner peace.

This sensitivity of this poet is reflected beyond poetry and academic work creative impulses. His great hospitality and support for friends and those around him is well-known beyond the boundaries of Singapore. He is among the greatest poets in Asia.

Nation and allied themes in Thumboo’s poetry

One of the prominent themes figured in the large and rich corpus of Thumboo’s poetry is nation and allied themes. It is relevant to examine the discursive concept of nation. According to Raymond Williams, a term ‘nation’ is closely associated with ‘native’ and ‘territory’. Raymond’s notion of nation and a point of history in history, has been further expounded by well-know historian Ernest Rrnan. According to Renan, “ A nation is a soul, a spiritual principal. Only two things…constitute this soul,…One is in the past , the other is in the present. One is the possession in common of a rich legacy of remembrance. The other is the actual consent, the desire to live together, the will to continue to value the heritage which holds in common’.

The main themes in the corpus of Edwin Thumboo’s poetry can be identified as birth of a nation, ethnicity and multi-cultural population, class structure, Singapore’s political and public figures and the powerful bureaucracy which plays a vital role in the government of Singapore.

A significant aspect of Prof. Thumboo’s journey of poetry is that it is almost synonymous with Singapore’s birth as a nation and its illustrious journey to a vibrant modern nation. Although the history of Singapore can be traced back to the arrival of Sir Stamford Raffles in 1819, it was in 1959 when Singapore was granted self-government under Lee Kuan Yew that it became a fully fledged nation. Prof. Thumboo’s career in poetry commenced in his undergraduate days in the early 1950s. His first collection of poems- Rib of Earth appeared in 1956, three years before Singapore becoming an independent nation. The fact should be bore in mind is that Prof. Edwin Thumboo is not only the pioneering anglophone poet but also one who established a tradition of English poetry in Singapore.

Thumboo deals with the themes of ‘ birth of a nation’, ‘ethnicity’ and ‘ multi-cultural nationalities’ in poems such as ‘9th of August -1&11”, “ The Way ahead “, “ The Immigrant’ and “ Ulysses by the Merlion”.

9th of August -1

A proclamation, gently colonial:
Singapore shall forever be…

We think he sought alternatives
But failed against those minds
They had been fingered through
By a hoard of words, spumed
Across the Ra’ayat:
Their call become a prayer
In firm ancestral beckoning.

Some say his clever tongue
9th of August -11
..For us what then?
Make strangers out of friends
To face each other till the bitter end.

In the first couple of lines (A proclamation, gently colonial...), Thumboo referred to the failed attempt to merge Singapore with Malaysia. What is noteworthy is that Thumboo does not seek to merely represent the history of the nation as chronicler would do but to offer a poetic interpretation of it. In the poem “9th of August -11” , Thumboo elucidates the issues relating to multicultural and diverse ethnic groups in Singapore. The line ‘make strangers out of friends’, he referred to the division among Chinese, Malay and Indian population in Singapore. However, Thumboo does not lament over such divisions. He as a public poet has his own vision for Singapore. He eloquently expresses his vision for a multi-ethnic nation where people of diverse ethnicities and races live in harmony in poem such as “The Way Ahead”.

Nostalgia is prominently figured in Thumboo’s poetry. His vision for the nation is clearly articulated in
Ulysses by the Merlion which is widely acclaimed as a Singaporean classic.

Ulysses by the Merlion

..Despite unequal ways,
Together they mutate,
Explore the edges of harmony,
Search for centre;
Have changed their gods,
Kept some memory of their race
In prayer, laughter, the way
Their women dress and greet
They hold the bright, the beautiful,
Good ancestral dreams
Within new visions,
So shining, urgent,
Full of what is now…

Without the slightest doubt, the above stanzas eloquently express the grand vision Thumboo has for his island nation home to many ethnicities and races. Despite the differences of race and ethnicities, the multi-ethnic populations flourish in a cosmopolitan and technology –driven Singaporean society. “Explore the edges of harmony, search for centre;”, while up-keeping their diverse traditions, faiths and perhaps, ways of life, the population explores a common destiny and common identity yet keeping ‘some memory of their race’. They also hold somewhat sacred ‘good ancestral dream’.

In essence, it is the visionary behind the public poet who comes to the fore through memorable yet inclusive lines. These lines are inclusive in the sense that they not only mere codify the history of Singapore and its present and the vision for its future. The vision so articulated in Ulysses by the Merlion, is in complete harmony with Renan’s definition of nation, ‘a nation is a soul, spiritual principal. One is in the past, the other in the present’.

It seems that Thumboo firmly believes that the vision for the future of the garden city as Singapore is know, is one which assimilates diverse ethnicities and races into its kaleidoscopic society while providing spaces for each race, ethnicity and religion to flourish in a harmonised environment. But there is a common identity together with a common destiny which is the ‘centre’ made out of ‘the edges of harmony’. One of the principal techniques Thumboo employs to drive home the message throughout his poetry, is the apt use of short but powerful lines. This is manifested even in Ulysses by the Merlion:

Explore the edges of harmony..
Search for Centre:

They hold the bright, the beautiful,
Good ancestral dreams...

The line ' Expore the edges of harmony' sums up in the most effective manner the way in which the multi-ethnic and multi-racial population explore a common ground ' Centre' in the midst of flourishing diversity. The line 'kept some memory of their race' signifies that they (population) keep their native tongues though the common language of interaction, education and commerce remains English.

The literary landscape of Singapore is rich with literary productions from main ethnic stocks in their native languages such as Chinese, Malay and Tamil besides a flourishing corpus of literature in English.

Depicting history

The past also constitute an important segment of the nation, 'a rich legacy of remembrance' according to Renan's definition of nation. Thumboo epitomises the history of Singapore as it was then in his childhood and as it is now, a technologically driven highly urbanised city state in the poem 'Island':


There was a quiet Island,
With a name,
You must believe me
When I say that sunlight,
Impure but beautiful,
Broke upon the bay, silvered
The unrepentant burning noon.
There were persons in this place.
Too young to know the sea,
Aminah cried;
Harun, who followed crabs and tide
Ambitiously, learnt
To keep the spray out of his eyes.
Their father in his bid
To make a proper life
Lived the way his father did

Mangroves and palm
Unfold in brittle shades of green.
Houses on stilts, boats drawn up
The sand, the makeshift pier, village shop,
Smoke from kitchen fires,
All frame a picture.

Romantic. Nostalgic.

But image changed

Nearby hills are pushed into the sea.
Tractors roar, lorries thrive
Till the ochre of the land
Scooped out day and night
Crept upon the sand.
Aminah, Harun now reside in flats,
Go to school while Father
Learns a trade

In the former part of the poem, Thumboo portrays a silent and almost sleepy fishing village where children have a little or no education and have to take up their parents' trade which is fishing. The impoverished of the village is amply captured by keywords such as 'the makeshift pier', 'some smoke from kitchen fires' and 'village shop'. It was the nostalgic but impoverished fishing village that was Singapore before it became a modern nation. It is 'a legacy of remembrance' or 'Good ancestral dreams' in Thumboo's own words that constitute the memory-escape of the people of Singapore. The later part of the poem describes modern nation of Singapore after its independence and the massive development drive which turned the once third world country into a first world country with a flourishing economy.

Nearby hills are pushed into the sea.
Tractors roar, lorries thrive
Till the ochre of the land
Scooped out day and night
Crept upon the sand.
Aminah, Harun now reside in flats,
Go to school while Father
Learns a trade

The poem At Mandai, captures not only the early days before the war but how the old calm and quiet life with its regime of customs and traditions vanishes into memory as cities were constructed connecting Mandai to the city through super high ways. Thumboo looks back on that part of history both personal and public with a sense of nostalgia. It is one of the insightful poems which captures the change which is, sometimes, painful to the poet.

At Mandai

Before the war our countryside enveloped
You and me, helped stitch prepositions
To exponential numbers roaming among
Dainty custard apples. For the inquisitive,
Slightly disobedient, there were little
Infinities in sound in light in the ant's
Unexpurgated sting..or how four fingers moved
To make a convenient abacus. Everything
Narrated. Syabas! Grandma's tales
Were tragically real but where was Swatow
Anyway! We dreamt of them as fantasies,
As games which adults played.

Exploding rubber seeds; durian trees in flowers:

Daily rhythms gradually subverting into
Time into power to compute, arranging,
The shaded layers of memory, inventing
Movements in the mind; how transact for toys; how
Cajole and manage. There were somewhat, you might
Think latterday. Before shifting dioramas
Of colour forms adventure directing child's
Eye released with morning weaving batik sun
Sliding down Mandai Hill into valleys still
Dark intimidations, favourite treetops
Floating on mist, construe. The first birds fly
Decisively; a breeze begins as light achieves.

Mandai to city connect beginnings departures and
Returns ...with no anointing by the sky no
Blessings from the earth no healing by wind
No boundary except the spirit's wholeness from
Father to son commemorating the road forebears
Took when hunger sang when muscle tested rock.
O city all is made redone rewritten reinforced,
Traditional impart, all still looking for means
Ends hastening margins hinterland calm
Judging eye and hesitations of the noble
Heart. There are older voices. Avenues were
Streets before; gleaming condos replaced
Ancestral homes, extended celebrations.

We move, adjust, discover yet again
There are two imaginings, perhaps
More between pages, between lines,
Ways to unfold digest visions.

There is a strain of lament present throughout the poem. The rapid development has brought about prosperity and high standards of life. But it has taken away the old life which is now confined to 'Good ancestral dreams'.

Class structure in Singapore is a prominent theme articulated in Thumboo's corpus of poems. Poems such as "Plush" and "How to win friends" gives insights into the class structure in Singaporean society and the class dynamics at work.


The Executive beams
From plush Diethelm chair,
Table priced to match.
Cigar in the air,

I came for a drink,
To spin the past and let it sing.
The goodies spread:
Adelphi cakes, Bacardi rum,
Cheese cookies in the breeze
Of Collyer Quay.

His talk expanded,
That smile was monogrammed.
Yes, poor chap,
Can't even change his car:
I've got a Volvo, by the way,
Sporty and good for girls...
We can't all win:
Some at the door,
Where guys like me come in.

Proud, uncouth, man,
Is this the tapper's son
Six years away from Jemaluang
Beneath this slim executive tan?

The corporate attitude of the company executives and their system of values are ably portrayed in the poem. The Executive may be a tapper's son.

In the poem "How to win friends", Thumboo portrays new elite class in Singapore.

How to win friends

Mr.Ang, man about town,
Married bachelor, gay, affable,
Enjoy regular predictable welcomes:
Here, there, places between,
Day and night, rain or shine.
Sometimes about him
Pleases people.
He has, you might say,
A gift of quick intimacy
Of sorts.

His temperamental golf
Supports a large handicap.
Yet caddies wait for him,
Despite drives into the rough,
His complex, multiple putts.
At the airport, Ang bags,
Custom made, uniquely vulgar,
Attracts the greatest care: labels,
Locks contentiously checked,
Their colour admired repeatedly
He takes all sweetly,
Observing many hands make light work.

Because he is present,
The table at the bah koot tay
Stall by Clyde Terrace market
Gets an extra wipe, the soup delivered
Steaming hot, chilies finely sliced.

Even the resident fly
Is kept safely out of sight
At posh hotels
The doorman, absurd in a bird of a hat,
Opens the door with extra flourish. ....

Mr Ang represents a new class emerging in Singapore quite different to the class represented by Indian immigrants or Muslims Thumboo portrays in poems such as "Immigrant" and "Ahmed".

Thumboo's representation of nation can be seen in poems such as "Immigrant" and "Ahmed" where he articulates about the plight of non-Chinese particularly Muslims in Singapore. In the poem 'Immigrant' Thumboo portrays the hardships that the first generation of immigrants had to undergo in Singapore.

Days and Indian days stretch
Beyond the grasping of his hands,
They were the hoe, the sickle in the sun.
Though his body sweated into fields
The seed kept the cruel silence..

A striking feature of Thumboo's poetry is that on some instances, he employs a language without metaphors and images with the intention of portraying the 'outer world' of his nation. Yet they are powerful poetic representations of the island nation of Singapore, its nostalgic past and present and the poet's vision for its future.

His corpus of poems written over fifty years constitute, among other things, the rich harvest of a poetic legacy and as a pioneering work which sets the tradition of English poetry in Singapore.


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