Class, Culture, and Aesthetic Attitude in Edwin Thumboo's Work

Ee Tiang Hong

Edwin Thumboo's conception of history is an amalgam of many ingredients, formed around the two cultures he inherited, and associated with their social, literary, historical and political parameters. Much of it was also a consequence of his personal history, and his pursuing various interests in the university over and above the History and English Literature majors and a Philosophy minor. Lectures by the historian, K.G. Tregonning, who later became Raffles Professor of History, widened his interest in history, particularly that of Southeast Asia. This sense of the past and his awareness of the need to write as a Singaporean about Singapore in the present and for the future have been the guiding impulse in the development of his writing. They come across in the range of symbol, image, metaphor and resonance in his poetry and the direction he is committed to in his writing as a whole. An asset he shares with some of his contemporaries is the multicultural past they embody by inheritance or enculturation in daily social transactions. Retaining English, both as a facet of their identity and as a tried and tested instrument, they yet have access to an almost fathomless reservoir of resources. Besides metaphor and rhythm, there are also concepts that have a broad application, e.g., the Malay notion of rasa (feeling), the Tamil dualism of aham (inner) and puram (outer) worlds among countless others that Thumboo can draw from. [15]On balance perhaps, what is critical in Thumboo's perceptual field and assessment of people is not race, but culture. It is so easy to mistake one for the other since the two factors are intertwined. And again, culture itself is open to a broad range of definitions and interpretations. Not only is a whole way of life, including its norms, values, folkways and mores, at stake in Thumboo's judgement, but Thumboo's tacit definition of the concept tends towards the aristocratic and the aesthetic. "Plush"[33] illustrates this comment succinctly:

Proud, uncouth, man,
Is this the tapper's son
Six years away from Xemaluang
Beneath this slim executive tqrl?

A Jemaluang rubber tapper's son might be Indian or Chinese; the racial fact is less interesting than the author's standpoint. Refinement aside, the speaker's disdain might well be interpreted in the light of a Brahmin's sense of social hierarchy. It could also stem from Thumboo's sensitivity to the Malay notion of halus (refinement) as opposed to 1zasar (coarseness). The concept explains Thumboo's natural sympathy towards the Malays, and the Babas, that singular ethnic group which has assimilated the best elements of Malay culture, and for that matter, English as well, into its core Chinese identity. On the other hand, Thumboo speaks his mother's Teochew dialect with the ease of a mother tongue, and is familiar with its body of nursery rhymes. His obvious rapport with the Teochew community as a result, suggests that language rather than race in itself enters in an important way into his interaction with others

The preceding passage has been quoted from the late Ee Tiang Hong's Responsibility and Commitment: The Poetry of Edwin Thumboo, ed. Leong Liew Geok (Singapore: Centre for Advanced Studies/Singapore University Press, 1997. It can be ordered from Singapore University Press, 10 Kent Ridge, Singapore 119260 [GPL].

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