New Prize Named in Honour of our Former Dean and Head

In 2018, the department will launch a new academic literature prize for Pre-U students, named after our former Head of Department and Dean, Professor Edwin Thumboo. Perhaps best known as a poet now, Prof. Thumboo has also been a distinguished teacher and scholar. Many of Singapore's thinkers in the field acknowledge him as their early mentor and guide. He introduced postcolonial literature to the university, and championed reading informed by deep historical knowledge. His name will signal the kind of intellectual seriousness the prize seeks to reward. 

With the support of MoE, the prize will be administered by the department. Each Pre-U institution will be allowed to nominate one candidate, and the nominations will be reviewed by a three-member panel, comprising one representative each from NUS, MoE and former prize-winners; in the initial years, we will invite former winners of the Angus Ross Prize, which was previously awarded for broadly similar achievement.

The selection process will be rigorous. In addition to the school's nomination, there will be a piece of academic written work from the candidate. The selection panel will use the nominations and the written pieces to draw up a short-list for interview. The rigour of the process will ensure the selection of a truly deserving winner.

Asked what he considered the value of literature in modern Singapore, Prof. Thumboo answered: "Literature examines life - poetry its most intense moments, plays its most dramatic, and fiction the inner life and broad contacts of individuals."

The study of literature helps identify the nature of those "moments" or that "inner life" in a sensitive, critical and historically informed way.

"As we read," Prof Thumboo said, "the words read us, set us thinking and thus expand our understanding of life-experiences in rich, powerful, apt and memorable language."

However, Prof. Thumboo also reminds us that reading is not just for prize-winners and top scholars. Everyone should read, and he had some recommendations for young Singaporeans.

"First," he said, "E.M. Forster's Passage to India—which gives a good account of the colonialism, and expands Forster's theme of "only connect" to the completion of experience. Second Henri Faconnier's Soul of Malaya, about plantation life in colonial Malaya. A third one would be Christopher Koch's The Year of Living Dangerously—about Indonesia in 1965.

"Although the settings of the three books differ significantly, the novels share a great deal in their focus on life in a cross-cultural setting, involving the meeting of cultures, and how relationships are formed and play out. I've learnt a lot from these books, and they've influenced me deeply. I think we can all learn from them."