Edwin Thumboo in Conversation with G S P Rao
Prof Edwin Thumboo. Image courtesy - studentry.sg
"The poet's role? While that role has a beginning, there is no end till death do us part".
Edwin Thumboo is a pioneering and award winning Singaporean poet in English, academic and administrative policy maker as senior Professor of English and academic at National University of Singapore (NUS), longest serving Dean of the faculty of Arts and Social Sciences and Chairman and Director of the University's Centre of Arts.
Often referred to as the undeclared Poet Laureate of Singapore and the Literary Voice of Singapore. We include the full details of Edwin Thumboo in the Authors Profile. GSP Rao, Managing Editor of Muse India, engages him in a free-wheeling and in-depth conversation for the Hyderabad Literary Festival this year in which the poet-scholar speaks of the Singpaorean Writing from the historical, cultural and ethnic perspectives and about the evolution of his own poetry.
GSP Rao: You are seen as a pioneer of Singapore Writing in English (SWE) both in your writing and your work as a teacher and administrator of higher education. What were the early challenges in giving a distinct identity to SWE? Are you satisfied with its status today and the level of scholarship achieved?
Edwin Thumboo: This pair of inter-locking questions is anchored in the beginning and end of nation-experience, and that irrespective of any time scale. For this reason, I will take the opportunity to provide a longish response that will serve at the same time an essential background to much of what follows. By implication they interrogate the history in between. While that is a continuum involving millennia and the centuries within them,in contrast our lives are brief. Yet each life of any significance contributes in varying measure to the course, content and significance of that large, over-arching history. As Thomas Gray reminds us in Elegy written in a Country Churchyard
Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest,
Some Cromwell guiltless of his country's blood.
Undeveloped talent; unsung heroes. Thinking positively - and quickly - of India I recall the Buddha, Asoka, Akbar, the Rani of Jhansi, the Mahatma, Jawaharlal Nehru, Netaji; C V Raman and Ramanujan; Valmiki, Kalidasa, Tagore, Raja Rao, Nissim Ezekiel, Kamala Das, AdilJussawalla, R Pathasarathy, Dom Moraes and Eunice D'Souza. The last five poets. Of teachers, K R Srinivasa Iyengar, Ramesh Mohan, and CD Narasimhaiah. I have not given all the names in full. Nor does Gray. The point is, if we do not know, we ought to find out, and thus add to a sense of the length and spread of the history in question, and its contribution to world civilization in every branch of knowledge.
Modern Singapore on the other hand, is physically small, acolonial diasporic creation founded in 1819, magnetised by a free port status, entre-port trade and the opportunity to plug into the rich and powerful British imperial system. The stable, systematic, expanding reach of that network, reaching into North America and Europe, in which Singapore played a key regional role servicing Southeast Asia, that made her into an important centre from which to collect and export, out of the region and to import and redistribute within the region. Lying between two oceans, the Indian and the Pacific – aphrase was coined by the late Wong Lin Ken – she was important from every point of view. She was Britain's "Bastion in the East". She served and sustained by the colonial system. The Naval Base alone – it had one of the largest floating docks in the world – provided some 10,000 jobs.
The general feeling was that postcolonial Singapore, the little red dot, should be treated as part Malaya and get independence at the same time. But as Singapore was a crown colony, she formed part of the Straits Settlements together with Penang, Province Wellesley, and Malacca, all three of which were geographically part of the Malay Peninsula. Thus, when Malaysia obtained independence on August 31st 1957, Singapore still remained British, having been granted internal self-government in 1954. Singapore's final gaining of independence took a curious route. Together with Sarawak and North Borneo, she formed part of the enlarged Malaysia in 1963. But because we wanted a Malayan Malaysia and not a Malay dominated Malaysia, Singapore separated on August 9th, 1965. Thus, the politics for me fell into phases, nationalism, our first independence as part of Malaysia, and finally, Singapore as an independent nation. The complexities of this brief period far outnumbered the relative size of our island. What struck me then, and very forcefully, was the fact that we were deeply influenced by the politics of strong neighbours and the context of a Malay Islamic belt consisting of Malaysia, Indonesia, Sarawak, Borneo, Brunei and the Southern Philippines. Unlike virtually all the other countries in the region, we had four official languages and four ethnicities dominated by a political philosophy of equality among its citizens irrespective of race, language, religion and culture.
At least two other crucial factors were present as part of young Singapore's search for a place in the sun. Firstly, we had no natural resources, secondly, and as a consequence of the first, we had to create everything through human ingenuity and discipline focused around a common destinyshared by a diverse population.Thirdly, we had to evolve an overarching Singapore identity that would bring together the four ethnic groups—namely Chinese, Malays, Indians and Eurasians—and brought together in a combination of elements that give each a sense of belonging and genuine participation. They started off as hyphenated people, Chinese-, Malay-, Indian-, Eurasian-Singaporeans. The hyphen had to change gradually so that the Singaporean-ness emerges as a common factor, a bonding agent linking the ethnicities. While one remained an ethnic communal identity, overall it compacted with an emerging Singaporean-ness. It should be patent that in this process of change and transformation, the actual process and its pace vary from family to family, individual to individual. So what I say, though it may have general import and implicate larger trends, would be valid for me and mine.
Given the potential for difference—cultural, religious, linguistic, economic etc.—to generate conflict, the challenges were very serious. Their handling required a firm hand, which is perhaps one reason why the government which has been in power since independence developed a reputation for being authoritarian. As those from older, more established societies who have had essential authoritarian momentsin earlier phases of their history. While we are told that politics is the art of the possible, I believe there are circumstances in which politics is the art of the necessary.
There were of course various happenings throughout my life that carried shaping significances. The earliest of these was the coronation of King George VI in May, 1937. We were living in Mandai. Apart from Tamil Public Works Department Labourers with sub-headquarters and accommodation down the road, my father was the only Tamil, the only Indian living on either side of Mandai Road, from its junction with Woodlands Road and the present entry into the zoo. Between that junction and that part of Seletar Reservoir, coming up to the old Mandai Road with its twists and turns, to the Nee Soon junction had houses on either side. What lay between was jungle, some of it partly cleared of big trees and then allowed to renew itself. My grandfather used to spend time in this jungle patch to the north, about ¾ of a mile from the road, land had been cleared for the Mandai-Tekong rubber estate, which was run by his brother, my granduncle with whom my father spent a great deal of time. My grandfather used to take me with him on some of these trips. I heard jungle noises and learnt about the various insects and birds and flowers and creepers from him. Living in Mandai and sharing the jungle with my grandfather gave me a strong attachment to nature and the language of her sounds, colour, play of shade and light, the movement of animals, the darting of birds. And that affinity has served me throughout my life and encouraged me in my travels to visit similar jungle reserves, for sight and sound and touch are great teachers especially when they occur in the single moment, a single contact.
An immediate neighbour ran three lorries for a living. We used to convert one of the lorries into a kind of platform for both the children, the womenfolk and the few men who attended such occasions as street opera performed in the main villages in the presiding deity's birthday, or as in the case of the 1937 Coronation, we drove to town, parked close to the present Cathay building. I do not know for certain, but the parade must have started from government house, moving down Orchard Road, turning into Bras Basah road and ending at the Padang, close to which was the headquarters for the Singapore Volunteer Corps which contributed a contingent under British officers. The pageantry, the pomp, the excitement of the occasion left very strong impressions for a long time. They were never overtaken but gradually faded. I was able to contrast that occasion with another 5 years later when General Hideki Tojo, the military prime minister of Japan visited Singapore. This time I was at school and all of us had been marched down from Monk's Hill to that point on Stamford Road just across Armenian Street. We stood there waving little Japanese flags. There were soldiers stationed about ten yards apart who looked away from the road. General Tojo must have landed at Kallang. He would have driven down Airport Road, Kallang Road, down Victoria's Street before turning onto Stamford Road on his way to Government House. A completely different experience and yet hours of excitement for a young boy nudging ten.
Other moments of significance in contributing to a growing consciousness, a sense of moment, import and excitement of a new kind was a sketch put on by young Singaporean Chinese to show anti-Japanese sentiments and resistance to the Japanese who were then on the rampage in China. They used toy pistols that nonetheless produced a fairly loud bang with Japanese soldiers keeling over and dying and the patriots shouting both anti-Japanese slogans and victory cries. I was about 9 years old and from overhearing the conversation of adults and the money, notes wrapped around coins and thrown on stage as a contribution to the Chinese war effort, I felt in a dim but increasingly clear way that there were dangers beyond my understanding.This feeling was reinforced by the increasing number of patrols undertaken by aircraft and the soldiers, raw Australians and Indians moving around our part of Singapore, which I found out later to be an attempt to train in jungle warfare. And the horror of war when it came, because my father was in the Medical Auxiliary Service, we evacuated Mandai for the Singapore General Hospital. When the British had surrendered we had to find our way back to Hooper Road. The first attempt had taken us to the Outram Park ferry bus, showed us 8-10 bloated bodies lying on the road. The tram wires blocked our way and as father did a three-point turn, I saw and smelt the corpses and heard the flies buzz.
There was more to this episode of finding our way home to my aunties in Hooper Road. The Japanese Occupation itself was a most instructive experience. From this period up to 1951 when he returned home to China, my uncle, who had been sent here from Swatow to escape the Japanese because he was both communist and very anti-Japanese turned out to be a major influence. He was well versed in the writing of Marx, Lenin and Mao. Our family was comfortable under British rule but he tutored me into an understanding of what colonialism really meant. That was a crucial experience because it in a way prepared me to better understand emerging nationalism and my interest in its significance and energizing force when I went up to the University in 1953.
This was the kind of background, which I have given very sketchily that shaped my environment, my life and context. My interest in literature, especially poetry, encouraged me to think about writing myself. I started doing so in 1950, while at Victoria School where I had the benefit of my first mentor, Shamus Fraser, who had published novels and wrote poetry himself. By 1951/52, I saw the importance of literature obviously with the perspective we can expect of an 18 year old. Both the strength of experimentation, that searched for an idiolect, a suitable language, the shift into more serious thematic interest increased fairly rapidly at the University where, on the one hand, with a strong interest in national politics—which contributed to my political education—and my literary education through contact with poets from William Blake down to Tennyson which I augmented by reading W H Auden and Steven Spender and Faber Book of Modern Verse edited by Michael Roberts Poetry of the English-Speaking World edited by Richard Aldington Poetry now: an anthology edited by G S Fraser (1956) Faber and Faber. An important compliment to the experience provided by this poetry was that released by the translations of Arthur Waley, notably A Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems, (1918) and Japanese Poetry: The Uta, (1919),a selection mostly drawn from Manyoshu and Kokinshu. It is out of entering, exploring, chewing and being nurtured by the language of this very diverse poetry that I gradually evolved what I believe is an idiolect, the beginnings of my own voice. Among the main lessons I learnt was brevity, intensity, the management of connotative and denotative meaning; to say more with less.
Like a blossom
cradled in the bosom of the East Winds
she passed by,
even the most high gods
forgot their wine
to watch her pass.
I will not go into the particularities that would include for instance the sense of rhythm that developed from listening to both English and Teochew nursery rhymes. I must say that the lessons continue.
It is this background, of which what I have given are indications that push me towards writing as a Singaporean and thus contributing to Singapore Literature in English. The one point worth elaborating on before moving to your next question is that my generation saw and retained a very strong sense of the importance of politics, of issues of identity, a sense of tradition provided by our ancestral histories, a need for a hinterland that goes beyond our little red dot into the earlier history of Southeast Asia with its strong Indian underpinning augmented by the contribution of that other great civilization, the Chinese, that continued to engage me, even as I look at life and contexts throughout the years, including the present.
Furthermore, history writ largely has many conjunctions of events each with its distinctive volition and challenge. The beginning and end of colonialism are especially notable instances with contrasting expectations and consequences for colonised and the coloniser.
GSP: Your own poetic oeuvre is seen as landmark in SWE that set standards for your peers and later generation of writers. What and who were the major influences in your writing?
ET: I have listed some of the major influences, but most specifically, Yeats and Eliot, and for a brief period, Dylan Thomas. From Eliot I learnt the lesson of the critic, the literati, with his knowledge of literature strengthening the poet. An early lesson was how his use of myth was different from Yeats'. For Eliot, myth was structure, for Yeats, an opportunity to create his own space. But the mythic lessons apart, Eliot taught me, and I'm sure others, the powerful lessons in inter-textuality. It starts from the very first two lines of The Waste Land:
April is the cruelest month,
Breeding lilacs out of the dead land …
And the following which opened Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales:
Whan that aprill with his shouressoote
The droghte of march hath perced to the roote,
There were, of course, more subtle, indirect inter-textual sleights of hand which I still use, to what degree of effectiveness I leave readers to decide. One other lesson was how to structure a long poem. I've only tried it twice, once in 1956/57 when I composed the Cough of Albuquerque and more recently in the ongoing The Indian Ocean, parts of which have been published.
Yeats proved to be the longer influence and apprenticeship. I was interested in his poems about Ireland, poems about the forming of his own Irish-ness as a necessity of contemporary history, his place as a contemporary poet, a poet of Ireland, its past, its mythology its mythic place, its heroism, and not of the pale, it is the Yeats that moved beyond Ireland, to Byzantium, to the sense of the heroic, to the sense of a large spiritual envelope containing and inspiring the deeper level of spiritual movement for which he sought old as well as new names. He saw the fresh compound, it is the Yeats we find in The Tower, the Yeats who wrote:
It is time that I wrote my will;
I choose upstanding men
That climb the streams until
The fountain leap, and at dawn
Drop their cast at the side
Of dripping stone; I declare
They shall inherit my pride,
The pride of people that were
Bound neither to Cause nor to State,
Neither to slaves that were spat on,
Nor to the tyrants that spat,
The people of Burke and of Grattan
That gave, though free to refuse—
Pride, like that of the morn,
When the headlong light is loose,
Or that of the fabulous horn,
Or that of the sudden shower
When all streams are dry,
Or that of the hour
When the swan must fix his eye
Upon a fading gleam,
Float out upon a long
Last reach of glittering stream
And there sing his last song.
And I declare my faith:
I mock Plotinus' thought
And cry in Plato's teeth,
Death and life were not
Till man made up the whole,
Made lock, stock and barrel
Out of his bitter soul,
Aye, sun and moon and star, all,
And further add to that
That, being dead, we rise,
Dream and so create
I have prepared my peace
With learned Italian things
And the proud stones of Greece,
And memories of love,
Memories of the words of women,
All those things whereof
Man makes a superhuman
And as the years go by, as we globalize and suffer the levelling of life, which is the enemy of true imaginative invention and upward flight that I recognize the dangers of the deadening lucrative sedentary trade best represented by high-powered money managers:
I leave both faith and pride
To young upstanding men
Climbing the mountain-side,
That under bursting dawn
They may drop a fly;
Being of that metal made
Till it was broken by
This sedentary trade.
But in the end, the greatest influence is not the example of great works providing lessons. It is the dissatisfaction that is happy because it compels a search across our own idiolect, our own vocabulary, our own syntax, our own grammar, our own 'smithy', an important Yeatsian word for what Coleridge called the best words in the best order. What decides is our own judgment, based on our own experiences, our sense of taste, our judgment of association and meaning making and here the great resource is the pool of multiplying synonyms. Paradoxically, that pool extends our reach to centre upon the particular word to enrich its immediate neighbours. And for me the best collection of synonyms is The Synonym Finder edited by J I Rodale. For instance, the word bright, it gives you the following alternatives:
1. shining, illuminated, alight, light, lit; radiant, effulgent, lambent, resplendent, beaming, beamy, beamish; shiny, glossy, lustrous, sheenful; glowing, luminous, incandescent, phosphorescent; clear, transparent, translucent.
2. splendid, splendous, magnificent, rich, majestic, dazzling, beautiful; glorious, illustrous, distinguished.
3. clever, witty, quick, quick-witted; intelligent, brainy, intellectual; inventive, resourceful, ingenious, proficient, accomplished; capable, competent, able.
4. animated, alive, lively, spirited, sprightly; buoyant, airy, sunny, blithe, gay, cheerful, cheery; happy, joyous, joyful, glad, gladsome.
5.favourable, opportune, propitious, auspicious, providential, fortunate, lucky; promising, encouraging, rosy, rose-coloured, roseatre; fair, clement, mild, pleasant.
And the following for brighten:
1. light, illumine, illuminate, Archaic. illume, irradiate.
2. shine, gloze, burnish, buff, polish, varnish, wax; glaze, gild, gloss, luster, mercerize; freshen, furbish, clean; enhance, adorn, Sl. jazz up, bedeck, beautify.
3. cheer, comfort, enhearten, uplift, encourage; lighten, cheer up, gladden, elate; enliven, animate, inspirit.
I'm grateful for these shades of meaning. They compel me to pick the one best suited for my purpose, which is why I go through between 15-20 drafts. And when I feel the poem I'm working on has exhausted me and is in reasonable shape, I settle for it.But know that its best version is somewhere in the future and that that requires further work. This is why for me:
The perfect poem is future tense. Meanwhile,
Neat incompletion must suffice. Life goes on.
Meditate on words for modern times, alive to
This surge, this minute, and the next, curving
Towards us, to reveal poet on poem's calling.
~ A Poet Reading.
As Raja Rao pointed out in his foreword to Kanthapura:
We cannot write like the English. We should not. We cannot write only as Indians. We have to look at the large world as part of us. The tempo of Indian life must be infused into our English expression.
We use English. Variations in phonology, grammar and vocabulary that are to be found in various parts of the world explained the emergence of World Englishes. For us in Singapore, the main variations are in phonology and vocabulary. Grammar tends to stick to a fairly standard form, I'm of course referring to standard Singapore English, not to Singlish so called, whose proper label should be Bazaar English as it replaced Bazaar Malay. Vocabulary can vary, especially in areas that deal with the symbolic and religious inheritance provided by our cultures. I have for instance, sought to distinguish between Hannuman and Wukong, which the former became when he travelled to China. Wukong has a far more impressive role developed in China, making him into a major figure in Chinese mythology/popular belief. If you were to Google Hannuman and Wukong, you would see significant differences that do not change his basic lineage and descent. Hannuman in Southeast Asia has variations but they by and large accord with the spirit and parameters prescribed by Hannuman in India. In China, he is much larger in many ways, smaller in a few. So in my poem Conversation with My Friend Kwang Min:
Half-way up the wall, in porcelain,
A rare Hannuman. He ravished the gardens
Of Heaven, cowered the gods one week-end,
Was tamed and sinonised, absorbed, given a role,
Then adventured home to India in search of texts.
He scratches still, in kungfu fashion.
Here I keep his Indian name but respond to his Chinese life and in this way intend to bridge the two characterizations. Somewhere along his travels, changes occurred. I had for years a Cambodian rubbing that showed Hannuman chopping a rocky outcrop stressing his martial arts prowess which anticipates Wukong's prowess much enhanced by magical powers in classic Chinese novel Journey to the West, where he travels home in search of holy texts. These are little raids into different cultural articulations of the same figure. Such attempts cover the symbolic elements which so dominate the life of earlier Southeast Asia. In another poem, Ulysses by the Merlion are the following lines:
Perhaps having dealt in things,
Surfeited on them,
Their spirits yearn again for images,
Adding to the dragon, phoenix,
Garuda, naga, those horses of the sun,
This lion of the sea,
This image of themselves.
The point here is the convocation of divine vehicles and other religious emblems in the reference to Apollo the Sun God traversing the daily sky. What matters in such attempts is that they have to be a consequence of the poetry making and not the reason for it. After all, what matters is the poem as artifact, as meaning potential, as a bridge within and across cultures, using English which at certain moments exhibits elements which make it more outs. I stress again, it is the poem that matters.
GSP: You have seen the transformation of Singapore from colonial rule to a full-fledged independent nation. Which historical aspects in this progress has had the strongest impact on you and your writing?
ET: Our founding was fragile. Our integrity and security as a nation was a first, overwhelming concern that had to be addressed immediately. We had no armed forces. The majority rank and file in the police were Malay whose loyalty at that moment was uncertain. We did not have diplomats. Much of the machinery of Government that was Federal and therefore controlled from Kuala Lumpur had to be established and built up. Survival was the primary need. It required stability, ensured by the absence of disruption. Leftwing unions had to be contained, racial tensions contained and defused, the economy energized. Wellbeinghad to be created and sustained and raised by industries on a course that plans changes to be in tune with technological advancements which requires an increasingly sophisticated workforce. The details of the strategy and implementation are complex, interwoven and require a lengthy description. The enormous achievement of the last 50 years – which I lived through and witnessed – can be gauged from a few facts, randomly selected. The average per capita income for a population of some 4.7 million occupying 710 sq. km (approximately; about 15% re-claimed) is around S$58,000/-. Current life expectancy is 82 years. More than 95% of those above 15 are literate. The household broadband penetration rate is around 190% and that for mobile phones around 150%. A telling indicator is house/apartment ownership: 90% of Singaporeans stay in homes owed by them or family members, mainly because of the enormous housing programme mounted by the Housing Development Board.
Brief as they are, these statistics are the bare summary of the careful planning, implementation and review of every aspect covering the development in all sectors that generated the revenues necessary to achieve these results. Our reflexes are rapid as we respond to changing situation requiring revisions in objectives and strategies whether economic, infrastructural, educational or international relations. The present government has been in power since independence, in fact from the time we became internal self-governing in 1954. It is pragmatic to say the least. It started off with a strong socialist influenced programme but has over the years moved into a free market economy. When asked to describe Singapore's political style, I have suggested that it generates revenue through "capitalist" means and distributes it through semi-socialist means. We now rely on industries such as electronics, biomedical sciences & research, chemicals, petroleum refining, financial services, service industries, ship repair, oilrig construction and drilling equipment, IT and professional services, life sciences and a much reduced entrepot trade.
On the political level, the real problem has been ensuring racial harmony. It is here, that Singapore can contribute most significantly to the world. We have 10 official religions: Taoism, Buddhism, Bahai, Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Jainism. I have suggested that Singapore's unique and more significant contribution in the world is racial harmony, and further, religious harmony, as in the present moment worldwide, religion perhaps more than any other factor is a cause for contention. Singapore is a secular nation, whose constitution guarantees religious freedom. There is an inter-religious council on which every religion is represented, with a circulating chairmanship. Last year, I proposed that Singapore be recognised for this contribution and I suggested a spiritual trail that will bring together representative places of worship and that the main religious celebration of each religion be shared by all the other religions and made an occasion to help explain and deepen their significance and so further cement racial harmony, that most precious gift our nation can offer its people, and its people offer to a nation.
The last point I would like to touch on is the question of identity. In the formation of individual as well as national, there is encouragement for ensuing that diversity of cultures will find accommodation. Personally, my search for an identity that would bridge both my Indian and Chinese inheritances would be mirrored in the evolving Singapore identity. I felt very positive about what has happened. I touched on this earlier, when I referred to the hyphenated Singaporean, that movement from being Chinese-, Malay-, Indian- Eurasian-Singaporean to Singaporean- Chinese, Malay, Tamil and Eurasian. The problem is changing from generation to generation, the younger fitting in more easily as they know the Singapore since her independence. We have to remember that Singapore did not have the luxury of a period, as other older nations had, to establish a national identity before they were faced by a rampant globalization which is rapid and immediate because of the development of mass media in the large, as handheld smartphones now allow the world to reach you instantly and for you to react, and absorb. So we are very quickly international without—regrettably in my view—a foundational national identity to be a base.
I approach the theatre
They are playing Cousin Kate
I divert to the cinema
They are screening Lawrence of Arabia
I retreat to the newspapers
Princess Anne is speeding
I look for sarong and baju
They sell Levis
I get to the drive-in
Colonel Saunders is licking his fingers
I despair for a drink
Get served Coca-Cola
I reach my friend
He serves chilled Pepsi-Cola
I get home to my TV
Steve McGarrett says:
Book 'em: Murder one.
~ Oct, 1977
GSP: Even from your student days you are known to have chafed at the bondage to English canon and worked to stimulate interest in creation of a genuinely original Malayan literature. Has that dream been fully realised?
ET: What I had annunciated as a double principal, in 1952/1953, ie.the creation and study of a genuinely Malaysian Literature—at that time the phrase for me included Singapore, I kept as a primary goal. In so doing, I was sensitive to the fact that this literature would take time to emerge and even when it emerged, it had to be studied with a sense of proportion, by which I mean it should not over-dominate or exclude the richness of other literatures in English. I will come back to what I mean by other literatures as I want to touch on a very important point regarding the Literature in English of both Singapore and Malaysia. The sustained interest in creating a literature that was ours, by us and for us, started around 1949/1950 at the University of Malaya which was then located in Singapore. The British started the King Edward VII Medical School in 1905, pushed chiefly by the Chinese who raised funds for its establishment. In 1928, Raffles College was established to cater for the Sciences and Humanities. In October 1949 the two institutions formed the University of Malaya. With Malaya's independence in August 1957, the University established a campus in Kuala Lumpur in 1959. It was decided by mutual consent that the Kuala Lumpur branch became the University of Malaya and the Singapore branch, the University of Singapore. This happened in 1960. Before the split, the University of Malaya brought together students from both Malaya, Singapore and to a more modest extent, Sarawak and North Borneo which were under British control. The discussions generated by nationalism naturally covered a whole host of topics. One of the key issues concerned culture and language. This was tied in with the question of special rights for Malays, especially in Malaya. In its nascent form, the question was would we have a Malayan nation that is one incorporating Malays, Chinese, Indians and Eurasians or a Malay dominated Malaysia in which Malay special rights would form the basis of government and its institutions. The desire to have a language that incorporated elements from our languages – EngMalChin— was impractical. The one literature that would bridge all the races had to be in English. Such issues were hotly debated. We wrote poems, short stories, and the occasional piece of drama. While there was an earlier group of undergrads who had graduated by 1951/52, the sustained and continuous discussion started about 1953/54 when EeTiang Hong, Wong Phui Nam, Lloyd Fernando and I were contemporaries. I mentioned them because they continue to write and publish. Tiang Hong and Phui Nam were from Malaya to which they returned.
A Singaporean, Llyod Fernando moved to University of Malaya after he finished his Ph.D. at Leeds University and joined the English Department where he subsequently became Professor of English and did much to promote the course of Singapore and Malayan Literature in English. But English writing flourished in Singapore because the education system relied increasingly on English and there were avenues, limited no doubt, to publish poems and short stories. On the other hand in Malaysia, English was an administrative language, the national language being Bahasa Malaysia. It was promoted systematically and with strong financial support, and received further official boost when the Dewan Bahasa danPustaka was formed in 1956 by amalgamating existing institutions. The writing in English, Chinese and Tamil did not and does not have support. Consequently, English writing flourished in Singapore and declined in Malaysia. I personally have always seen the writings in English in both countries as linked, especially that produced by the earlier generation who shared so much of their formation in the Bukit Timah campus of the University of Malaya at our rooms in Dunearn Road hostels where at one point, those I have mentioned resided. These discussions involved non-hostelites, among them Tan Han Hoe, Oliver Seet, Herman Hochstadt, Hoe WahKum, to which other hostelites like Daniel Kovilpillay contributed and the discussions were often shot through by the politics generated by the Hock Lee Bus Riots and the Fajar Trial. I returned to University in June 1966 to teach. Among my ambitions was to do what I could to help the development of the Literature in English. I convened a seminar in 1965 drawing participants from both Singapore and Malaysia. The Malaysians included Sri Delima (Adiba Amin, Edward Dorao, Gulam Sarawar Yusoff, Tee Tuan Chye, Lim Chee Seng, Lloyd Fernando, K S Maniam and Wong Phui Nam, all Malaysians). The full title of the conference would indicate to some extent my thinking and feelings of fraternity English in Southeast Asia, Seminar on Malaysian Writing in English: The Writers Speak. Apart from the older writers, there are some younger writers who use English but in total, their work is not likely to constitute the tradition of writing in English. In my sad view, it isat best a footnote in a literary landscape dominated by writing in Bahasa, nor does it have the numbers that sustain a Malaysian Literature in Chinese.
The position in Singapore is different. The writing in English is flourishing. The National Arts Council gives it sustained support in various ways. We have an annual international Singapore Writer's Festival, numerous residencies with overseas institutions, subsidies to attend readings, publication of creative work, and so on. The National Library is building up archives of Singaporean writers in all the languages, support for work in our official languages which is also central to the National Arts Council's policies.
To return to other literatures, by that I mean the large quantity of English and American writing which has creative and critical strength and will always remain a source of that fundamental instruction which only literature can give about life and context. The figures to be studied would inevitably include Shakespeare, whose works I still believe provide perhaps a near complete education. And there were beginnings then of what are now achieved literatures in World Englishes, in India, nations of the Caribbean and Africa, Southeast Asia, Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific, from Canada to South Africa. The challenge really, is for each institution, each national educational system to pick what texts to form courses to be offered to their pupils and students. Our English Department which I headed was among the first in the world to offer what was then known as Commonwealth Literature. If my memory serves me right, it was introduced in 1971, a single course over two semesters, one devoted to African writing in English, the other to Australian Literature. In this sense, the dream has been realized, but like all dreams, they need to be revised to meet place, time and circumstance.
GSP: Your vision has been beyond Singapore and you have advocated for an Asian literature in English and a literature of Asian languages. What is the uniqueness of Asian literature and have you seen its emergence to a global recognition? Who are the most significant Asian writers today?
ET: This is a very large question. While my knowledge of Asian Literatures in World Englishes is reasonable, that in our great Asian languages is severely limited. These literatures can be broadly divided to those of West Asia, South Asia and East Asian. Within these areas there are large continuous literatures in many languages, each of them requiring more than a lifetime's study. Here more than ever, we know less as we know more. As my second major is History and my minor was in Philosophy, I have a reasonable understanding of the History of Asia excluding Central Asia where my reading consists of two or three books. What I know of Central Asia is connected with the history which forms part of the three regions I mentioned. I read in translation the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Ramayana and Mahabharata, Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Water Margin, and Japanese Haiku and a fair amount of Tang and Sung poetry. The Kuruntokai, the South Indian classic has fascinated me for a very long time especially its division into Akam and Puram poetry whose strictness is both an imposition and liberation to a skillful, creative mind. My first contact was through the late Rama Subbiah, a close friend who was Professor of Tamil studies in the University of Malaya,. The 18 months before his tragic death was spent working on this text which he translated and I helped revise. The manuscript was improved but alas it never reached publication. Fortunately, my interest has been kept alive through reading and re-reading A.K. Ramanujan's The Interior Landscape: Love Poems from A Classical Tamil Anthology (1967).
One of the gifts of the English Language is the translations from other great literatures. I have mentioned translations from the Chinese and Japanese to which I would now like to add the Sijo, which for me is an interesting entry point into Korean life and contacts. I read these literatures in translation to enrich sense and sensibility and in some instances see how the connections and boundaries between the language arts and the other art forms vary from culture to culture. The instruction and other benefits are enormous and varied. I feel that I am asked to account for what I am, much of that was formed by literature, but literature involving many journeys, many streams, many valleys, many peaks that move from arithmetic to geometry to algebra, then calculus.
GSP: Singapore has had a long history of migrancy from other regional countries and has evolved a harmonious blend of multi-cultural society. What are the major challenges of migrancy and how do these get reflected in your work?
ET: As I am part Indian part Chinese, I am in a sense double migrant. What I have sought to do is to reach into both the Indian and Chinese experience in a general as well as particular sense. In addition to the language, history and symbolism referred to earlier, and the example of the Hannuman-Wukong cross-cultural traffic and transformation there are specific poems such as Krishna (dedicated to Raja Rao), Ahmad, Alphonso at Tea, Bamboos, Cremation, Cry Freedom, (which is about the Indian National Army and noting the fact that Subhas Chandra Bose, who formed the Provisional Government of Free India), Little India, Shiva, The Indian Ocean, The Istana. These poems have Indian themes and in many parts, refer to the Indian heritage, the Indian contribution to Singapore. Regarding the Chinese elements, the experience of inheritance and adaptation drive Conversation with my Friend Kwang Min as well as Uncle Never Knew. The theme of the first is how artifacts, some symbolic, enter one's experience and consciousness and thus help define the content and reach of Singaporean-ness. They are not static, for they have seen as containers of meaning and looking at that which is released when we contemplate the art.
Among sensitive vases, silk birds lamenting
Sullen, fading flowers; and those delicate golden
Statues caught in some potent gesture….You are
Captured by serenity: Kuan Yin upon the lotus.
Art creates meaning, and meaning significance. Thus is the language of the poem generated through the demands of its own art. Why are vases sensitive? The answer would include its shape, the texture of the porcelain, the way light plays upon it, its motifs, the balance of colours, the sequencing of motifs and colours. They form a discourse, one that expands and circulates and settles and then again as we contemplate further, starts the process all over again. They are at our best moments of perception the still point of a turning world. Of the statues? They are both delicate as well as potent. The visual and the abstract, for the potency here would be the meaning we derive from the gestures, an excellent example being Buddha's ten hand gestures each of which is a formation with a specific meaning. Kuan Yin and the Lotus would have a special meaning for me, the lotus especially which has strong religious associations and therefore significance in both Hinduism and Buddhism. My generation relied on text:
One who performs his duty without attachment,
surrendering the results unto the Supreme Lord,
is unaffected by sinful action, as the lotus leaf is
untouched by water.
-- Bhagavad Gita 5.10.
What is implicated in the poem and how it connects with the reader's response, if he knows, is a kind of traffic that energises, releases and associates. We discover histories, religious insight and much else. We are all familiar with the fact that what we derive from a poem is dependent on what we bring to it, and put into it. In a sense, the reader constructs the poem, his poem, the poem of his understanding. And that understanding is the poem/poetry's impact and it leads on in the poem:
Conversation fades. Time splits itself.
There are centuries here, in these images.
Many generations left these contemplations,
Embodiments of hope, despair. In art. The art
Of living; mounting better worlds.
The one person referred to in the poem, Kun Ming, also known as Zhuge Liang, was among the figures important in the way I looked at things. Before I became a Christian I found anchoring in historical figures, chiefly religious teachers and exemplary figures, some mythic. The list included Socrates, Ikhnaton, Zoroaster, Arjuna and his charioteer, Buddha, Jesus Christ, Kun Ming, the later Asoka, Yue Fei and Akbar. As an assembly, they touched on every important aspect of life, from the sense of the numinous to correct behavior. Love, compassion, loyalty, forgiveness, sharing, all of the key things in life and so on, each were the commandments of sorts which we each tried to live up, but from my own experience, know that we often fail:
Empires wax and wane, states cleave asunder,
Coalesce in this carv'd panel. Kun Ming deceives
His enemy by playing his favourite tune
While perched upon the city gate. He smiles,
Who faithfully served a cause he knew was lost;
He, who ruled the winds, understood the stars,
The very hand of fate, kept true unto the last.
The journey of the poem through these artifacts, symbols and that one figure from history becomes part of the Singapore experience, for me at least:
As you move into presences of the past little things
Emerge: tea-pots, a cracked, perky cup; incense-burners
Heavy with prayer; brush stands, wine jugs….all looking
Contented in a Singapore afternoon.
Thus, they start migrant but end up local, rooted, Singaporean.
The second poem, Uncle Never Knew is also rooted in the migrant experience and its history. But as I would like to touch on Indian roots, I will only make a brief comment. This concerns his recall of life back in Swatow:
He was back in Swatow. At his table. Preparing
Ink and brush; fingering his father's piece of jade;
Intoning Li Po, Tu Fu, and reading Mao. Sipped tea;
Fed his carps, while waiting for his drinking friend.
Setting, activity, expectation. The lines create an image of scholarly life, but one that is specifically Chinese through correlatives. Ink and brush suggest not only calligraphy but the underlying discipline and aesthetics. Beyond this, its place in the friendly gathering of scholars where it was not unusual to drink wine and intone poetry and write poems on the panels of each other's fans. Jade suggests the appreciation of special preciousness, not merely in terms of its monetary value but of its aesthetics, in this case reinforced by the fact that it was his father's. It is a concrete instance of a civilisation, culture and society that passes art carrying symbolic value. What struck me in the growth of my cross-cultural understanding is how the impulse behind the relationship with art varies. When there is belief in a heaven, that it is ultimate, superior, all embracing as compared to life on earth, the art tends to celebrate continuity, the present, i.e. the relationship between friends and family are that much more powerful. You are not going to a new heaven or a new earth. In this sense, form is as important as substance, and quite often, the relationship between form and substance is so close that it dominates part. A good example would be jade carving, marble work that takes advantage of the material to depict whatever it does. Perhaps the carving of the Jadeite Cabbage with insects possessed by the Taiwan National Museum is for me the greatest instance:
The Jadeite Cabbage is a small sculpture. Measuring only 18.7 cm by 9.1 cm and is 5.07 cm thick, it is "hardly larger than a human hand".
The ruffled semi-translucent appearance of the leaves is due to the combination of various natural colors of the jade to recreate the color variations of a real cabbage. The figure was carved from a single piece of half-white, half-green jadeite which contained numerous imperfections such as cracks and discolored blotches. These flaws were incorporated into the sculpture and became the veins in the cabbage's stalks and leaves.
The sculpture is considered an allegory of female virtue with the white stalk symbolizing purity, the leaves denoting fertility and abundance and locust and katydid representing children.
These are some of the examples my cross-cultural inheritance as well as migrancy—which in a fundamental sense needs to be re-knit and bridged, hence these explorations in many directions and levels—can generate and have generated in my life. The migrancy of recent years has not moved me enough to be translated into poetry. There is enough arising from my own condition to keep me engaged. In terms of self, this sort of journey is also an internal one because I live not only with Indians and Chinese, to whom I am connected by inheritance, but also with Malays and Eurasians. This constant crisscrossing within the Singapore experience and the reaching out into the larger global one that envelops us occurs constantly. It is intrinsic to our daily bread and nightly sip.
GSP: You are seen as a national poet for the themes and thrust you have brought to your writing, and are often referred to as the unofficial poet laureate of Singapore. How do you react to this adulation and does this pose any burdens on you or your work?
ET: Professor Tommy Koh was the first to refer to me as the unofficial poet laureate. That was many years ago. But for me, such a description –I don't see it as adulation— is taken with a certain level of satisfaction and pleasure as recognition of what one is doing.But, I cannot overstress the fact that all this does not affect or shift in any way the responsibility to produce poems, the best I can, whatever the theme is proposed to me or of my own choice. Every poem demands its own shaping. Where the subject is proposed, I try to balance what the occasion/subject demands/requires, the need for accessibility, and the need for language with a long reach and shelf-life, namely the appropriate raising of craft to the level art. We recall John Keats' reminder in his August 1820 letter to Percy Bysshe Shelley:
You might curb your magnanimity, and be more of an artist, and load every rift of your subject with ore.
There is no additional burden except the ever-present one, to do your best, irrespective.
GSP: What have been your major concerns as a poet? How do you react to the present day morality and terrorism across the world? Can we ever be a safe world?
ET: I don't think there can ever be a safe world. A safer world is plausible, achievable, for safety is relative. Some years ago when I was in Columbia for the International Poetry Festival of Medellin, a city noted for its drug activities including the many killings. I read in the newspapers that the number of killings, whose exact figure I can't recall but it was around 220, had improved. That statistic would have been very disturbing for cities like Beijing, Tokyo, Delhi, Singapore, Sydney ….. No one can ever approve of terrorism. The way it kills is obviously sad. And one wishes that they should try to seek other ways to achieve their ends and to have their problems resolved/redressed in other, non-violent ways. The Mahatma achieved a great deal by passive means. I sometimes wonder whether the genius of his strategy can apply in the issues that have led to terrorism.
My concerns as a poet are the same as my concerns as an individual. One wishes for peace and harmony and espouse the Utilitarian principal of the maximum good for the maximum number. As a poet, the themes have to do with daily life, love, change, compassion, forgiveness, and what we see around us. The more permanent themes would be the growth of the individual within the growth of a new nation, an ex-colony, a nation which gained its independence by separating from another, a nation that has had to build with brain and body, to gain and sustain prosperity. Nothing bubbles out of the ground or can be extracted from our hills or soil that can be converted to cash.
GSP: How difficult or easy is creation of poetry for you – moving from conception of an idea to its complete poetic articulation? Are you satisfied with your oeuvre? Are you working on any new themes?
ET: It is hard work, the old business of 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration. I work through as many as 20-25 drafts with a bulk of change forming the middle 50% of the process, and the few final ones, often minor changes, that are essential in clarifying or enriching. And I work on the belief that the best poem
Then lexicon and grammar and naming stir,
Bringing metaphor, metonymy, syllepsis, plus
Assorted relatives, to achieve a feverish
Making. That is never done, for our words don't
Take in all. A cup always slips, shatters
Into lamentations at imagination's door.
The oeuvre is something that I don't consciously recall except when one is selecting work for a large edition such as "The Best Of Edwin Thumboo"—a title I dislike but chosen by the publisher, as helping sales—or making an extensive selection for translation. I think you feel satisfaction for particular poems, or parts of poems. I would imagine few poets would feel that there are gaps in their life's work. Though of course, there is always a wish that we had written more or less of that aspect of one's work. One old theme, the religious/spiritual, has become more prominent and I have been writing poems based on biblical themes. These I expect to gather into a volume someday.
Perhaps I should add finally, that when it comes to themes, it useful to recall KR Srinivasa Iyengar's opening paragraph of his paper "Commonwealth Literature Themes and their Variations" delivered at the Commonwealth Literature Conference (1968), and published in National Identity, edited by K L Goodwin:
When you come to think of it, there are not many themes in literature. Perhaps there are only three: man in relation to nature, man in relation to men, and man in relation to God. In his poem 'Under Ben Bulben', the aged poet W B Yeats further reduced the themes to two:
Many times man lives and dies
Between his two eternities,
That of race and that of soul …
But the themes are also eternities, and permit infinite variety. And it is man that is at the heart of the matter of literature: What is the nature and meaning of human life? Goethe's exhortation to the writer was: 'Put your hand right in, into the very depth of human life!' And when you 'put your right hand in', you are involved in the eternities of race and soul, of nature and super nature, of the past, present, and future.
Although the world has turned infinitely—perhaps alarmingly—more complex, the fundamentals remain. The interrelationships, their permutations and combinations, the way they have expanded has added a suitable challenge as well as opportunity irrespective of what you are.
GSP: What role can writers play in today's troubled times? What contribution can literary festivals – there are several regional and global festivals now – make for a better world?
ET: The poet's role? While that role has a beginning, there is no end till death do us part. It alters by shifting direction, with changes in the sense of responsibility and purpose, shifts in style and the general outlook of the poet within which particular themes engage him. For me, the themes started as a consequence of history and politics, and of course, what matters in our lives. In a sense, the poems dealing with politics, culture, identity, start primarily as an attempt to explain the issues to oneself by writing them and shaping them and energising them within a poem. If my memory serves me right, it was Robert Graves who said he wrote poems for poets, and that to do otherwise was wasteful. Some of my poems are attempts to define my own feelings about particular topics to and for myself. That I use poetry is because it is my chosen medium essentially to reveal, enrich, to an act of constructive analysis the significances of the subject. Seen from another point of view, it is possible to say that the poet's role varies from poem to poem and that each poem creates and reveals his role for that moment. But to generalise, among the functions of the poet is to articulate and gain significances and impact no other form can achieve. It is Coleridge's distinction between good words and best words, the first for prose and the second for poetry.
There are instances when the poet is asked to write on a particular theme. These "request poems" are perhaps the ones that demonstrate the function of the poet most clearly. The poem he writes in response has a very specific target. Before discussing that, there are the big cousins of other poems that have a public import which the poet himself chooses to write, among them RELC, May 1954, Quiet Evening (1992), The Exile, The Sneeze. The "request poems" are The National Library (2004), Books (2013, for the 2nd International Summit of the Book), Adnand & Comrades, Durban Poetry Festival (2003), Grand Uncles: Kang to Sinnatham by (1993), Victoria School (1993), Yeo Landscapes (1993), Liu Kang at 90.
The fundamental challenge for any poet is to raise craft to the level of art. Craft deals with the various areas of language management associated with poetry, ranging from form eg sonnet, to rhythm. One is technique, the other is technique dissolved into articulation that is self-validating, self-convincing, the difference between verse and poetry. Hard to define, but manageable for the experienced reader of poetry. When it comes to request poems, the feeling, the response, the implosion as well as explosion that we feel in something deeply engaging is not always, not commonly, not necessarily there. And yet, when the subject is proposed—and no subject is absolutely new and unknown and unanticipated—we start to think and circle in the course of which ideas, images, metaphors, connections with one's own experiences start to occur. The poem, an embryo, begins to incubate, the mind returns to it with increasing frequency and that process is a building up of interest. And when the interest has accumulated enough, the incubation about to complete, we are ready to start composing. I believe that a poet is a professional. He should be able to write on almost everything, though obviously the subjects closer to his experience will engage him more deeply, more movingly, and therefore more capable of being energised into words that amount to poetry.
GSP: Thank you, Prof Thumboo, for your time and for sharing your thoughts in such detail.