raja rao annual award 2002


The recipient of the 2002 Raja Rao Award, Professor Edwin Thumboo, represents a unique blend of scholarly distinction, literary creativity, academic leadership, and inspired, dedicated, and indeed provocative teaching. An outstanding poet, critic, teacher, and scholar, his early anthologies, Gods Can Die (1977) and Ulysses by the Merlion (1979) unquestionably establish him "as a literary pioneer," and "the official poet laureate of Singapore." Prof. Thumboo initiated a fresh idiom and direction for creativity in the region and beyond. He was head of the Department of English Language and Literature at the National University of Singapore for sixteen years and the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences for eleven years, and is currently the Director and Chairman of the Center for the Arts.

The areas of Professor Thumboo's scholarship include African and South Asian writing in English, the modern novel (E. M. Forster, D. H. Lawrence, Joseph Conrad), novels about colonialism (Kipling and others), multiculturalism, and multilingualism. His varied contributions have been recognized by many distinguished awards and honours: Member Committee of Jurors for the Neustadt International Prize for Literature, Ida Beam Professor at the University of Iowa, Writer-in-Residence at the Institute of Culture and Communication in Hawaii, the George A. Miller Professor and 1998 Walter and Gerda B. Mortensen Distinguished Lecturer at the University of Illinois, and the Fulbright-Hays Visiting Professor at Pennsylvania State University, to name a few.  

Professor Thumboo has deservedly acquired the title "father figure" for constructing the identities and images of Singapore in particular as well as of colonial Asia and Africa in general. This contribution to Asian scholarship and beyond has been recognized by the granting of, among other honours, the Cultural Medallion Award (1980). His impact is aptly captured in the rhetorical question: "Has there been a significant literary publication from Singapore appearing in the past 30 years which has not contained the seen or unseen presence of Edwin Thumboo?" We see that presence in his manifold contributions to literature and language, and in his building of academic and cultural institutions.

In his scholarly research and his creative writing, Edwin Thumboo brings together insightful cross-cultural and comparative perspectives from Chinese, Malay, Indian, and Western cultural traditions, religions, mythologies and literatures. This syncretism is part of Edwin Thumboo's samskaras, the mental imprints and formations, inherited from two ancient civilizations-Indian and Chinese-which flowered in the racial and linguistic mix of what are now Singapore and Malaysia. The resultant cultural and linguistic hybridity is present in his penetrating insights into other cultures, and in his linguistic dexterity for language "mixing" and "switching" in Malay, Teochew, Singlish, Manglish, and indeed in the varieties of English that the Empire used in the Raj. This critical and sensitive synthesis is present in Thumboo as a poet, as a critic, as an educator, and even as an academic administrator.

Thumboo's oeuvre is large and diverse-and still evolving. It comprises scholarly research papers; over half a dozen collection of his works, including collections of his poems; fifteen edited or co-edited volumes, the first appearing in 1973; and over fifty chapters in books ranging in topics from "Malayan Poetry: Two Examples of Sensibilities and Style" (1970) to "'In Such Beginnings Are My Ends': Diaspora and Literary Creativity" (2001). The areas he has covered include literature, linguistics, diaspora, language spread, Commonwealth writing, world Englishes and book reviews. His canvas is large and his thoughts always challenging and energizing; he has a unique gift for providing refreshing perspectives.

Professor Thumboo has come to us in many avataras. One avatara that of a poet and critic-has evolved in interesting ways. The one who started out as Singapore's "own home grown poet" has evolved into an articulate and sensitive craftsman representing "borderless intellectualism" across cultural boundaries. In these and other writings we see the presence of the agonies of Thumboo's childhood experiences-that of Japanese occupation, that of the faces of colonialism, and those of postcolonial pains and conflicts.

We see this in Ariels Departures and Returns (2001), a volume paying tribute to our honouree, Edwin Thumboo. In this collection of papers, Dennis Haskell establishes insightful comparisons between W.B. Yeats and Thumboo: the former known as the "nationalist poet" and the latter, the "father figure" in Singapore. Bruce Bennett shows significant similarities and differences in literary endeavors between Edwin Thumboo and A.D. Hope. These observations of differences and similarities are attempts to capture the dimensions of Thumboo's creativity and the breadth of his thematic range.

The fact that Edwin Thumboo is the recipient of the 2002 Raja Rao Award is significant for yet another reason; it seems that the karmic chakra has now come full circle. In 1988, when Raja Rao received the 10th Neustadt Prize for Literature, the Chairman of the Award Committee, Ivar Ivask, emphasized that it was due to Edwin Thumboo's "unflagging faith and contagious enthusiasm, cogently argued... that we found our tenth laureate in India." At the time, Professor Thumboo was one of the twelve internationally selected Panel of Judges for the Award. At the same ceremony, Edwin Thumboo's "Encomium for Raja Rao" asks the question: "How does one end an encomium for a writer?"

The same question comes to mind in thinking of Thumboo, who chose the following excerpt from Rao to answer that question:

Why write? Two birds, says the Ramayana (our oldest epic) were making love, when a hunter killed the male bird. The cry of the widowed bird, says the text, created the rhythm of the poem...

Why publish? That others may hear the cry of the bird hunted and killed whose mate is lost in sorrow. Uncovering the vocables is a poetic exercise. The precise word arises of love, that is, pure intelligence. That is why in Sanskrit the word Kavi means 'the poet' and 'the sage.'


And how does Thumboo "uncover the vocables" in his own creative art, as a poetic art? His answer is:

We must put as much as we can of our experience as a people into that language, in order to make it our own. That is how you make it yours.

Thumboo, however, does confess that:

It's a demanding and arduous endeavor. My standards are mine; I compete against myself... I write out of a fascination with words, of wanting to articulate something, a beautiful experience and thought, an interesting perception.

This is, in fact, what Thumboo, the kavi, the critic, and the educator has been doing, successfully and elegantly, for almost the past five decades.

It was in August 1996 that I was visiting the Philippines, and Professor Thumboo called me to say that I must meet Francisco Sionil Jose while in Manila. Jose is an institution, called a "Philippine national treasure" the first great Filipino creative writer in English, a penetrating analyst of his society, an emancipated stylist in English, a repository of Asia's political, social, and cultural history-in short, an intellectual icon of the region. Thumboo concluded, "visiting Francisco Jose is like visiting a cultural temple a cultural monument." In Manila, I told Jose what Professor Thumboo had told me. I told him what it meant for me to be in his presence. I told him that Professor Thumboo had called him "a cultural temple."

Francisco Jose's eyes lit up, he looked at me with his piercing eyes, and asked, "Have you really met Edwin Thumboo?" I responded, "Yes." "Have you met him in Singapore?" Again, I answered, "Yes." And then, smiling and holding my hand, Jose looked into my eyes and almost roared, "...then you have already been to Asia's cultural temple." Manila's cultural icon had aptly characterized Singapore's icon.

There are two Sanskrit words, kavi and kovid, that epitomize the eminence of Edwin Thumboo: kavi, 'wise,' 'enlightened,' 'gifted,' 'a thinker' and a 'poet,' and kovid, 'skillful' and 'learned.' These qualities are embodied in the liberated use of his mantra, the medium, of English that he has chosen as a writer. The 2002 Raja Rao Award recognizes these qualities and contributions of our honouree.

Braj B. Kachru
Chair, Jury of Raja Rao Award 2002