Time-Travelling and Ginger Coffee


I always find the discussion about local literature comically sad these days because rather than discussions, they resemble a firing squad.  It normally goes something like this:

Imagine the line-up.  Local writers are shuffled in, rather hurriedly, as their names are spit or mumbled out of the mouths of locals.  Largely, these locals are confined to teachers, students, writers or the occasional person who was forced to study Singapore Literature at some point in their lives.  Many hold opinions but lack the depth of understanding or study to really substantiate what they say. And those who do have the depth are often dismissed as being too geeky, or too serious, or too intense – “Lighten up dude! It’s only Literature.”

The names are called out, like a sentencing rather than an accolade.  Normally the list includes names such as Alfian Sa’at, Arthur Yap, Robert Yeo, Lee Tzu Pheng, Chandran Nair, Simon Tay, Leong Liew Geok, Stella Kon, Catherine Lim, Colin Cheong…(of course he’s in our list, he teaches here! So any students reading this better know that and read his interview on this site too!).

The bullets are fired quickly: cursory remarks, non-committal answers, very strong emotions, opinions, in-depth responses or ones that shrug off the topic.  The shooting is rapid, brief and the conversation moves on, aiming at each in turn, but more often than not no one is “convicted”, neither poet nor critic – read that how you like.  Many existing, established writers and young, up and coming writers seem to be spared for the moment – but sadly this is because of anonymity rather than appreciation.

As the conversation makes its way down the line, it will inevitably come to Edwin Thumboo, or may very well begin with him.  Sometimes the conversation dawdles a while there, strong opinions make appearances then disappear, the listener may hear some comments such as:

“One of the most prolific writers of Singapore Literature.”

“I hate his work!”

“His warmth and work is what he will be remembered for.”

“I don’t get his poems.”

“He has been bringing people together through his work.”

“Yeah, I’ve heard of his name before…”

These are all actual things that I have heard said about his work and have taken mental note of them.  In fact, I did a Facebook poll recently to find out which local writer were the most well known. The response was disgraceful, but perhaps this shows a real lack of interest in or understanding of the local literary scene. Only about 6 people responded, most of who were keeping up with the local writing scene quite actively.

The carnage of the local literary scene is sometimes brutal, sometimes jaded, sometimes refreshing, sometimes forgiving/forgivable.  But often it leaves the listener more confused and less informed.

Yet at the same time, it also gives hope and celebration.

After all, that’s what martyrs do. Right?

So, why this article? Why the fancy title then an invitation to watch a bloodied line-up?  Because I recently attended the official launch for Edwin Thumboo’s “Time-Travelling A Poetry Exhibition”, at the National Library.  It is currently being exhibited at the National Library, Level 8 until March 2013.

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My mom and I were kindly invited by Thumboo’s wife. And although I know him from afar, my parents are acquaintances, I have studied his poems, analysed them in my Honours Thesis and even taught his poetry locally and overseas, it was a real eye opener for me as a teacher, and more importantly as a Singaporean. (Disclaimer: I do not claim to be well-versed with his writings)

What was most lovely about the evening was the fact that his grandchildren performed their own poetry as well as his little grandson, David, who played Thumboo’s favourite hymn –  “Be Thou My Vision” on the violin.  The SCGS students also performed some of Thumboo’s poems along with readings by Sunil Govinnage and Eric Tinsay Valles.  But it was the genuine family feel and intimacy of the evening which encapsulated what was said about Thumboo: that he will be remembered for his “warmth and work”.

The idea of Literature being so important and connecting people from generation to generation was evident.  An evening of looking at where we came from and where we are going to was a nice pause in the fast development of our lives today.

Perhaps what was most interesting was the panel, which comprised of Edwin Thumboo, Jeyarah Rajaroa, and Oliver Seet.  Although the moderator failed to let the audience in on the forum as it was meant to be, the conversation seemed to bring the past to life in a very real way that connected the modern audience back to the time of the youth of the familiar friends on stage.  For a moment, we were made privy to the space and time in history where they lived and grew, breathed and were inspired; a golden portal to time-travel and see where the writing came from and why it is still so important today.

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A copy of the “Fajar” – Whilst writing for the University Socialist Club, Thumboo and his contemporaries were charged for sedition. 

As I was listening, I was struck by the recreation of the past that was so tangible, so palatable and so courageous.  Perhaps that is what is missing with today’s artistes; the passion, the conviction, the deep pursuit of knowledge, the great respect for each other and challenging oneself first, before challenging or criticising others.  But here are some of the salient points that came out of the session that I’d like to share with others:

–       Poetry is the true expression of oneself.

–       Poetry is being yourself and connecting to people through shared experiences.

–       During the university days of the panel, poetry and Literature in general, had a real function at that time – a political one.

–       In the University there was a deep pursuit of knowledge, people took pride in their work, respected each other and their own work and the quality and depth of education was upheld.

–       Thumboo’s writing showed an active desire to spread the political word and move forward. To bring cultural unity.

–       One can create the conditions for culture but you cannot create culture. Edwin has been creating these conditions by bringing people together through his poetry.

–       Poetry gave Singapore and the people of that time a sense of identity.

–       People would talk about poetry and philosophy and be inspired.

–       They had character and were characters.

–       As groups of friends and students they stimulated thought and conviction.

–       Thumboo talked about how Literature is the conversion of source ideas into writing.

–       Many if us want to express ourselves but we cannot because we do not have an idea.

–       We have lost the use of the English language, lost the art of communication.

–       Ginger Coffee off Dunearn Road.

And this is where the ginger coffee comes in.  Jeyarah Rajaroa reminiscing about the days they used to talk and the ginger coffee they drank at a coffee shop off Dunearn Road.  It struck me that so many of the places that were around have disappeared, so many of our goals have changed, our political climate is so different, our access to information and communication so rapidly changed from the days of Thumboo and his peers.  But is all this for the better?

Many people cannot resonate with his writing because they have not stopped in this fast-paced world. They have not taken time to appreciate where we have come from, they have not embraced who we are as a nation and they have not really understood the importance of time-travelling when studying Literature and their writers.

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A collection of his early published works.

To end this lengthy piece, I would like to come back to what Dr Susan Ang from the National University of Singapore said recently at the Literature Seminar.  Although she was specifically talking about teaching a text, I believe students or any reader can apply it to their own Literary journey.  She said that we transfer our attitudes and interest to our students.  If we do not likea piece of writing, we should try to find something we can like about it. If we cannot, then at least try to find something that is interesting that we can use as a springboard to explore other relevant ideas within the text.  And finally, if we cannot find anything we like or find interesting in a text, then at least respect it for the writing it is and the writer who created it.

Ok so I lied, now I’m ending…

I believe those words are more needed now than ever for the local Singaporean teacher, student and reader.  And so very relevant as we look back at some of our own Literary figures in the local scene.  If we treat each other with more respect, perhaps we will begin to see the value of the writing and the writers who have been mercilessly jostled into the line-up for us to criticise. And, new writers would not be so scared to write either!  I encourage you to go and browse the humble exhibition, learn a bit more about Singapore’s history, how it is penned into Literature and understand someone who is undeniably a significant figure in Singapore’s literary tradition. Go and find out for yourself about his life, his work, his identity and who he really is.   Oh, and he came up tops in the Facebook poll by the way! At least that’s a start.

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My mom and Thumboo’s neighbour (mentioned by name in his latest poem “Bukit Panjang: Hill, Village, Town”) looking at the displays.

Dorcas Tirhas


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