A young Edwin Thumboo speaks at the launch of his literary journal "Poetry Singapore" in 1968.

There are many significant matters that straddle the last fifty years of nation-making. Among these are matters of language and literature. For personal and professional reasons, and the multiracialism that continues to embrace us, I developed an interest in what languages are significant in Singapore, and where, and when and why?

These questions had an early start. My Father spoke Tamil; my Mother Teochew; their shared language was English. I had to negotiate between languages.

During the Japanese Occupation I used Nihongo. In 1948 I had to choose between Chinese and Latin. A more sensitive sense of history, of politics would have been most useful in showing why Latin was limited and limiting, with little or no future, while Chinese had. But, with the best of intentions, my teachers advised against it.

The majority of us have one good, working language with which — through which — we live. We are helped by a smattering of other languages, and bazaar English. That deep bilingualism resting on equal command of two languages, is a rarity.

While every attempt was made to promote and sustain the mother tongue and therefore roots to its culture etc., economic pressure associated with modernisation, then globalisation, meant the increasing utility of English, by now clearly the leading international language. There is a succession and a continuity for the literature in English which boasts a growing number of young writers.

A display board showcasing Edwin Thumboo's poem, Ulysses by the Merlion (1977). In the background sits the Merlion, a half-beast half-fish mythical icon of Singapore.

The interest in our literature, especially that in English, has been lifelong, reflected in poems, criticism, anthologies edited, conferences organised, various literary initiatives, friendships, teaching and mentoring. Many — here and overseas — helped, and continue to help, from teachers to students and administrators.

Without them much would not have been done. NUS and its earlier incarnations gave its constant support for almost fifty years. And the NUS Society stepped in on many occasions as did the Lee Foundation. More recently the National Arts Council has been constant in its support. So too the National Library, whose latest idea is the present programme, the Singapore Memory Project.

Edwin Nadason Thumboo (b. 22 November 1933, Singapore – ), Emeritus Professor at National University of Singapore’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, is widely regarded as the unofficial poet laureate of Singapore. He is best known for writing on national issues. His poem, Ulysses by the Merlion, is a major work in Singapore literature. He was the first Singaporean to be conferred the SEA Write Award and the Cultural Medallion for Literature.

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