NUS FASS faculty and alumni bag top literary awards

Professor Wang Gungwu and two NUS Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS) alumni, Yeow Kai Chai and Wong Koi Tet, won in three separate categories at the 2022 Singapore Literature Prize ceremony held on 25 Aug 2022 at the Victoria Theatre. At the same ceremony, Emeritus Professor Edwin Thumboo was presented with the SBC Achievement Award by Guest-of-Honour Mr Edwin Tong, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth and Second Minister for Law, in recognition of his significant contributions to the literary arts scene in Singapore. 

The Singapore Literature Prize was established in 1992 by the Singapore Book Council and is Singapore’s oldest ongoing literary award in all four official languages. This year’s Singapore Literature Prize saw 12 winners picked from almost 200 submissions, with 35 local and foreign judges giving recognition and affirmation to the best literary works by Singapore writers.

Passing stories on to the next generation

University Professor at NUS FASS, Prof Wang, a renowned historian and leading public intellectual, was named this year’s Singapore Literature Prize winner for Creative Nonfiction in English. He made history by becoming one of the two oldest winners of the Singapore Literature Prize at 91 years old, along with literary pioneer Suratman Markasan, also 91, who won for Creative Nonfiction in Malay.

Prof Wang co-authored his winning book, Home is Where We Are, with his late wife Margaret Wang, journaling his university education in Singapore and the UK, and the early years of his career as an academic, capturing the excitement, ambition and choices of a generation that saw it their responsibility to build the new nations of Southeast Asia.

Home is Where We Are is the second part of his memoirs after Home is Not Here, an account of his younger days which he spent in three different countries before entering university.

Prof Wang said Margaret and him had hoped that their book will inspire other parents and families to do likewise and write their stories to pass on history, heritage and valuable lessons to the next generations.

Sharing his thoughts on the prize, Prof Wang said, “My family and I are honoured with this recognition. The inspiration for Home is Where We Are came from my late wife, Margaret. She regretted not knowing more about her mother and, 20 years ago, wrote her story to our children. She wrote so well and the children liked her story so much that they turned to me for my story. I eventually did.” 

“Years later, I was persuaded to publish this story of my childhood as Home is Not Here. My Singapore friends asked why I stopped before my joining the University of Malaya and before meeting Margaret. That led me to frame my book around what Margaret had earlier written,” he recalled. “With her agreement and my family’s approval, the second book answered the question, ‘Where then is home?’ with Margaret’s answer, ‘Home is where we are’, and that became the title of the second book.”  

Prof Wang was conferred the NUS Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters for his dedication to Sinology, remarkable intellect, trailblazing vision, and other public contributions in July this year.

Two alumni bag top poetry prizes

Mr Yeow, an NUS FASS alumnus and renowned poet, fiction writer and editor, won the Singapore Literature Prize for Poetry in English. His poetry collection titled One to the Dark Tower Comes, published in 2020, is a personal and collective quest to uncover answers to life, death, grief, happiness, and the violence wrought on one another.

A former journalist, and director of the Singapore Writers Festival from 2015 to 2018, Mr Yeow graduated with a Master of Arts from NUS FASS in 1999. This is his first Singapore Literature Prize win.

Reflecting on his win, Mr Yeow said, “I’m heartened by the recognition for my third book One to the Dark Tower Comes. Much of my own poetics has its foundation in my undergraduate years taking English Language and Literature at FASS, getting inspired by actual poets, including seniors like Boey Kim Cheng and academics such as professors Edwin Thumboo, Arthur Yap, Lee Tzu Pheng and Leong Liew Geok.”

“A particular course on Contemporary American Literature by Dr Gilbert Adair was especially life-changing and opened up my eyes to more avant-garde approaches, and so I gave heartfelt thanks to him, and all at the department who have enriched my creative journey,” he added.

Fellow NUS FASS alumnus, Wong Koi Tet, took home his third Singapore Literature Prize, this year for for Creative Nonfiction in Chinese for his book, Little Things. The book is a collection of 50 non-fiction pieces of prose published in his personal column in local Chinese daily, Lianhe Zaobao, charting what he cites as his personal journey through the years.

Describing his book, Mr Wong said, “Little Things originated as a column I wrote for the local Chinese newspaper for a period of two years. It is both literally and symbolically about the small objects that are familiar and common to all of us. Though this book won the Singapore Literary Prize, life is not about winning, but as in the title of my book, those little things that we cherish and hold dear to our hearts. Books are one of the little things that matter the most.”

Mr Wong had a double win at the 2020 Singapore Literature Prize in both the Fiction in Chinese and Creative Nonfiction in Chinese categories.

A former journalist as well, Wong graduated with a Bachelor’s degree with honours in Chinese Studies from NUS FASS in 1998. 

A lifetime of contribution to Singapore’s literature and arts scene

Prof Thumboo was NUS’ longest serving Dean of FASS from 1980 to 1991 and was the first Chairman and Director of the University's Centre for the Arts from 1993 to 2005. He is currently Emeritus Professor, a position he has held since retiring from full-time teaching in September 1997. Prof Thumboo was awarded the Distinguished Arts and Social Sciences Alumnus Award by the faculty in 2016 in recognition of his outstanding contributions as a poet, scholar, academic leader and champion of Singapore literature.

The SBC Achievement Award was bestowed on Prof Thumboo at the 2022 Singapore Literature Prize ceremony to mark his achievements not only as a writer but also as an educator and mentor, and his tremendous efforts to help to shape the literary arts scene in Singapore.

Prof Thumboo has been hailed the unofficial poet laureate of Singapore and was the first recipient of the Cultural Medallion for Literature in 1979, widely recognised as the pinnacle arts award for dance, theatre, literature, music, photography, art and film in Singapore.