Literary prize in honour of Edwin Thumboo

03 May 2019 | Education
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The Inaugural Edwin Thumboo Prize for Literature, launched by NUS English Language and Literature was given out to four outstanding pre-university students

Four outstanding pre-university students were selected as the first winners of the new Edwin Thumboo Prize for Literature, launched by NUS English Language and Literature to recognise outstanding English Literature works by pre-university students. The inaugural Prize was presented at a ceremony on 26 April to Mr Gan Chong Jing from Raffles Institution, with three Merit prizes presented to Ms Jane Lee Jia Hui from Dunman High School, Ms Lim Yi Jun from River Valley High, and Ms Yew Jien Huey from Victoria Junior College. The annual Prize is named after Emeritus Professor Edwin Thumboo, who is one of Singapore’s most distinguished poets and literary scholars. It is funded by generous donors, including patrons of the arts and former winners of The Angus Ross Prize.

“Literature contains more of life than any other discipline that I know of...everything is in literature whether we like it or not,” said Prof Thumboo, adding that he felt humbled to have the prize named after him. “Perhaps an occasion such as this would give the study of literature the necessary ballast, the necessary recognition, the necessary variety, and the necessary inventiveness,” he continued.

Prof Thumboo is an accomplished literary practitioner and critic and has dedicated his life to the composition and study of English Literature. Many of Singapore’s thinkers in th field acknowledge him as their mentor and guide.

Prof Thumboo’s work is studied in many schools around the world, and is featured in Singapore’s public places. A former Dean of NUS Arts and Social Sciences, Head of Department at NUS English Language and Literature and Director of the NUS Centre For the Arts, he introduced postcolonial literature to the University and championed reading informed by deep historical knowledge.

Such recognition and role modelling is particularly critical in the case of English Literature which has relevance beyond taking and excelling in examinations…for instance in matters of nation building and grappling with and articulating a sense of ‘Singaporeanness’ in terms of identity, history, culture, cosmopolitanism and so forth. 

The prize was conceived in 2017 by the then Head of NUS English Language and Literature, the late Professor John Richardson, and Mr Aaron Maniam, 1997 Angus Ross Prize Winner and award-winning poet, who believed in the need to recognise outstanding pre-university students in English Literature and portray them as role models for younger students, said Associate Professor Michele Lazar, Head of NUS English Language and Literature. “Such recognition and role modelling is particularly critical in the case of English Literature which has relevance beyond taking and excelling in examinations…for instance in matters of nation building and grappling with and articulating a sense of ‘Singaporeanness’ in terms of identity, history, culture, cosmopolitanism and so forth,” she continued.

Students from ten government pre-university institutions were nominated for the prize, and each candidate had to submit a piece of academic writing on a literary text or topic. The students were also given two unseen poems to analyse in only 20 minutes and were interviewed by the judges of the competition, where they discussed their perceptions of the text and its impact on society, as well as their own experiences with literature. “It was just wonderful to know that in a country where we often get criticised for being overly functional in our approach, there were so many people who cared so much about the written word and what the written word can do for us in that society,” recounted Mr Maniam.

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Prof Thumboo (centre) with the four winners (from left): Chong Jing, Yi Jun, Jane and Jien Huey

The selection panel  — which included Yale-NUS College Visiting Senior Fellow Dr Jane Nardin, as well as Mr Maniam — looked for an excellent grasp of the written word, and a sensitivity to its significance as a creative endeavour. Chong Jing’s work impressed with his essay on the theme of forgiveness in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which the judges described as subtle and elegant and demonstrating a sophisticated understanding of the play. It also navigated complex and rich ideas and displayed coherence, fluency and economy of expression.

“We are grateful to the donors who initiated and donated to the Edwin Thumboo Prize. The award aims to promote excellence in the study of literature at the pre-university level. We are very encouraged by the quality of the entries and the high level of critical thinking displayed in the essays,” said Assoc Prof Lazar.

Nominations for the next Edwin Thumboo Prize for Literature will begin on 7 October.

See press release.