Something to Tell and Share

Something (Fun) to Share

Catherine Lim speaking at an event of the Inner Wheel ClubOn 25 July, I was Guest of Honour at a thoroughly enjoyable event of the Inner Wheel Club, and gave a fun speech which was mainly about the value of humour. There was a brief part of the speech which I thought might interest readers on my website. It is about how you can create your own jokes and witticisms through a clever use of language:

‘Language is full of words that have double meanings, words that sound alike but have different meanings, expressions that are alike but used in different ways, etc. Here are some examples of jokes that make use of these differences:

1) Double meaning of preposition ‘for’

Years ago, the public was angry with the famous actress Elizabeth Taylor for stealing the husband of Debbie Reynolds. At a religious gathering, the well-known evangelist Billy Graham said to the congregation,’ We should hate only the sin, not the sinner. So let’s all now kneel down and pray for Elizabeth Taylor.’ Someone at the back shouted, ‘It’s no use! I’ve prayed for Elizabeth Taylor for 3 years now, but I haven’t got her yet!’

2) Use of Pun, or Words that sound alike but have different meanings

During the premiership of Mr Goh Chok Tong, Singaporeans liked to talk about a trinity of power—the former PM Mr Lee Kuan Yew, the current PM Mr Goh, and the PM-to-be Mr Lee Hsien Loong. They were called ‘The Father, Son, and Holy Goh.’

3) Difference between social interaction expressions and their literal meanings:

i) Mae West, the famous American actress, was well-known for her many lovers and the gifts they showered on her. One day she was wearing one of these gifts, a diamond necklace. A friend gasped, ‘Goodness! What diamonds!’ Mae West replied, ‘My dear, goodness had nothing to do with it.’

ii) A secretary asked her boss for a $50 raise. He said, ‘With pleasure.’ And she replied promptly, ‘With pleasure will be $250!’

iii) One day Mr Lee Kuan Yew was driving along in a personal capacity, as a private citizen. When he ignored the traffic lights, a conscientious young traffic policeman went up to accost him. But recognising Mr Lee, he drew back in horror and gasped, “Oh my God!’ and Mr Lee said, ‘That’s right, my boy, and don’t you forget it!’

Catherine Lim speaking at an event of the Inner Wheel Club

Political Commentary

Official Response to my Open Letter to PM

Last week the South China Morning Post published my Open Letter to the PM, and subsequently, a response from the Consul-General of Singapore in Hong Kong, Mr Jacky Foo. The Straits Times reported on Mr Foo’s letter on 14 June, and published my reply ‚Äčto this report on the Forum page on 16 June. My reply is reproduced below.

Reply to Straits Times Report 14 June

14 June 2014

The Editor, Straits Times


With reference to the report in the Straits Times, 14 June (‘Govt refutes author’s claims over public trust‘) I wish to make the following comments.

I share Mr Foo’s admiring acknowledgment of the many achievements of the PAP government, especially their skilful handling of global-size problems such as the financial crises of 1997 and 2008 and the SARS epidemic.

But I disagree with Mr Foo’s argument that since the government has achieved so much, since it has won every election and finally, since it meets the Edelman Trust Barometer benchmark, it surely has the people’s trust.

This depiction of the Singapore political situation fails to take into account its evolving dynamics, and omits unflattering facts such as the shocking General Election of 2011. Even though the PAP won, they must have been forced to admit that the people’s trust had been seriously eroded, as shown by the startling post-election effusion of apologies from the Prime Minister and his colleagues, and their promise to ‘listen more’, ‘communicate better’, use the ‘light footprint’.

Three years after GE 2011, the trust has not been regained. The best proof lies, not in the graffiti, the mass demonstrations or the raucous social media, but in the most unlikely place—within the PAP camp itself. Here there are voices urging the leaders to connect better with the ground, reflecting awareness that the problem has become serious enough to warrant attention at the highest levels.

Hence I would like to point out that the mistrust is very real, even if it only involves a minority. Its impact can be seen in the Roy Ngerng defamation case. Although, as Mr Foo has rightly pointed out, the Prime Minister has every right to sue, to protect his reputation, the alarming truth is that an angry crowd will choose emotionalism over rationality, and insist that the defamation suit is one more instance of PAP bullying.

Mr Foo commented on my long history as a complainer. I have been writing political commentaries for 20 years now. Their central theme is the need for a robust, trusting relationship between the government and the people, which, I strongly believe, is the only guarantee for a small country to survive in an increasingly perilous world.

Catherine Lim

Political Commentary

Letter To PM: A Follow-Up

In the past week, my open letter to the PM generated tremendous interest not only on my website but on other media sites as well. Since I could not respond personally to all those who took the trouble to write in, but would like to answer the questions asked and the comments made, whether supportive or critical, I have decided to make a general response on my website. I shall use the format of a hypothetical interview based on a brisk Q and A, as this will make for quick and easy reading.

Q: Has the PM replied to your letter to him?
A: No. An open letter doesn’t normally elicit a reply which a private, personal one presumably would. But I didn’t want to do the latter, as I wanted to share my views with as many fellow Singaporeans as possible.

Q: Why did you use this Open Letter format, a marked departure from your usual, formal-essay type commentaries?
A: To convey a sense of directness and urgency, in keeping with the seriousness of the issue discussed in the letter.

Q: Was the Roy Ngerng defamation suit the direct cause of your writing the letter?
A: Actually, it was a series of happenings in the political scene which I had been observing with increasing dismay, culminating with the defamation suit.

Q: Some people are saying that in describing the present situation as a ‘crisis’, you’re being too alarmist since it involves only a minority.
A: It is a crisis, or at least a crisis-in-the-making because if the disgruntlement of a minority of 40% of the electorate in the years leading to the 2011 General Election, had actually resulted in the worst ever performance of the PAP, shocking everybody, its increasingly bolder and more aggressive manifestation today could have even more drastic consequences. In any society, change is always brought about by the vocal minority who act, not the silent majority who don’t.

Q: Graffiti and mass protests are common in every country. Why see them as a ‘crisis’?
A: In Singapore, they are unique and are becoming a new phenomenon in the political landscape. Unlike in other countries where they are an everyday thing, here they signal a degree of resentment never seen before. And one senses, uneasily, that this could be just the beginning.

Q: Shouldn’t Singaporeans be grateful when they compare themselves with people in countries where there is grinding poverty and squalor?
A: It is human nature to compare both downwards and upwards. Those who come home from their travels after seeing standards of living so much below theirs, are usually the grateful haves who can afford frequent travelling abroad. The have-nots see themselves stuck in their own, very real poverty and do a resentful upwards comparison with their well-to-do neighbours. Overall, there is general indignation against the ‘millionaire ministers’ up there. Lastly, there is a growing sub-group of young, struggling professionals who cannot afford to have their own cars and apartments and do the same bitter comparison with their better-off counterparts in other countries.

Hence, this commonly used ‘you-should-consider-yourself-so-lucky’ argument is a double-edged sword and may not be so convincing after all.

Q: Do you fear any reprisal from the top for this letter?
A: I hope not. I’ve been doing this sort of thing for twenty years now.

Q: The PAP leadership, for all its faults, is a far better government than the horribly corrupt and incompetent ones we see in so many countries in the world today.
A: I think it’s far more useful to benchmark PAP performance against their own promises about improving the well-being of the people and their own past excellent records, than to use some external criteria. No sensible, thinking Singaporean would ever say, ‘As long as the PAP leaders prove to be much better than the rogue governments in the world, we should give them carte blanche to do as they please!’

Q: Surely people are more concerned about bread-and-butter issues, than the human rights of the political detainees you mentioned.
A: Actually human rights which may seem to be remote ideological abstractions are linked to practical, bread-and-butter matters. Indeed, in the end, without the first, you can’t have the second. It was precisely the PAP’s habit of ignoring the voices of the few calling for the right of free expression and open debate, that had led them, in the first place, to have a sense of power and entitlement that, in turn, enabled them to decide, pass, and enact, with greatest ease, one policy after another. Some of these policies badly affected the people’s bread-and-butter, such as the policy allowing an influx of foreign workers.

It’s a long causal chain that people get to see eventually.

Q: Many of your readers have expressed appreciation for your having said so well what they themselves think and feel.
A: I want to thank them for their kind, warm encouragement. I love writing, and the special challenge of exploring and exploiting the vast resources of the English language to express my thoughts and feelings clearly, cogently and, if possible, elegantly.

Q: A few readers have complained about your use of ‘flowery’ words.
A: I try to use words that are precise in meaning and connotation, are just right for their context and convey exactly the intended mood and emotion. Also I avoid repeating key words, and look for good synonyms to use, for better stylistic effect. That means sometimes using words that appear too scholarly, academic, even rarefied, thus giving the impression of pedantry (which is probably what those readers meant by ‘floweriness’)

Q: At the end of your letter, you spoke about an ‘alternative’ that could be ‘just too scary’. Some thought you meant the opposition coming into power. What exactly did you mean?
A: I think my use of the word ‘alternative’ must have immediately made some readers think of ‘an alternative government’, that is, the opposition. What I had meant was the nightmarish scenario of a final showdown between the government and the people, when each side might be pushed to resort to extreme measures which they would later regret.

Q: Isn’t your letter just a bit too long?
A: I was amused by the comment from one reader that this very lengthy letter would surely fail in its purpose because it would put the PM to sleep halfway! Well, I shall have to explain that the topic of my political writing is usually the major one of the rather complex PAP government-people relationship. This topic entails much detailed exposition and analysis, necessarily resulting in a long commentary. (I am glad that my website manager has very skilfully reduced the tedious effect of the lengthy text by breaking it up with quotes that are tastefully highlighted in blue)

Q: How would you answer those who ask you to get into politics?
A: With an alarmed No! I simply don’t have the talent, temperament or inclination to be a politician.

Q: If you were asked to give your i) most pessimistic ii) most optimistic prediction of this ‘crisis of trust’, what would they be?
A: i) Most pessimistic. The PAP returns to the old, relentless knuckleduster approach and crushes dissident voices so completely that they will never be a threat again.

ii) Most optimistic: The PAP comes to the conclusion that the best legacy which they can leave their successors is to regain and build up the trust of the people, and musters the necessary political will to do this.

Political Commentary

An Open Letter to the Prime Minister

I had thought to keep quiet during this period of political transition while watching events unfold. But what is happening currently has perturbed me enough to want to do another commentary. I have cast it in the form of a direct letter to the PM, to convey a greater sense of urgency.

Dear Mr Prime Minister

We are in the midst of a crisis where the people no longer trust their government, and the government no longer cares about regaining their trust.

There are two clear signs that the present situation has reached crisis proportions, that it is not just an affective divide, not just an emotional estrangement between your PAP leadership and the people.

Firstly, the people are resorting to forms of high-visibility, high-risk protest never seen before, such as graffiti writ large on public buildings, persistent, strident online criticism despite stern government warnings and threats, an increased frequency of mass gatherings held at the Speakers’ Corner, as well as increased hostility shown at these gatherings.

Secondly, the protest is not confined to a small group of young dissidents emboldened by Internet power, but is spreading to involve large segments of the population, as seen in a senior citizen’s active contribution to the angry graffiti, and in a public outpouring of sympathy, in the form of financial help, for the blogger Roy Ngerng who is being sued by you for defamation.

How did this crisis arise in the first place?

With utmost respect, Sir, I must point out that it is ultimately your inability or unwillingness to listen to the people. After your initial show of contrition and your ardent promises of change, following the shock of the General Election of 2011 (a change of heart which must have astonished as well as heartened a lot of Singaporeans like myself), your government now seems to be hardening its position and going back to the old PAP reliance on a climate of fear maintained by the deployment of the famous PAP instruments of control, notably the defamation suit.

In all fairness to you, Sir, the defamation suit, per se, is a legitimate instrument in any law-governed society, allowing anyone to seek redress and justice. Hence, making use of this means to defend your reputation is entirely within your rights, as indeed, you would be the first to affirm that it is the right of any blogger to sue the government if he or she thinks fit. But in Singapore, alas, it is by no means such a simple, straightforward matter. For Singaporeans have long got used to a certain belief that colours all their perceptions, namely, that here, there is no level playing field but one massively tilted in favour of an all-powerful, vindictive government that will have no qualms about reducing its opponents to bankruptcy. Hence while you see yourself as simply going by the rules, Singaporeans see you as the PAP juggernaut ready to mow down the little people in its path.

Again in fairness to you, Sir, it can clearly be seen that you and your colleagues have, since the debacle of 2011, made great efforts to improve the lot of the people. Indeed, anyone can see the improvements, continuously planned or implemented, in the many areas of jobs, transport, housing, education, recreation. But the hard truth is that the expectations of the people, especially the young, go well beyond material needs, to encompass the long denied need for freedom of expression, open debate and public assembly. Unlike the older generation who were grateful for simple amenities such as modern sanitation and clean streets, the new, better educated, globally-exposed, Internet population demand much more.

Indeed, you probably are tempted to call them the spoilt, blasé, so-what generation that is taking for granted these material achievements which would have been appreciated anywhere else in the world. The truth, Sir, is more sobering: they are seeing these so-called achievements as no more than what is owing to them from leaders who have chosen to pay themselves handsomely to do their job. Moreover, the skepticism bred by distrust has cast all these laudable efforts of your government as just self-serving strategies to advance party interests and stay in power. I have to say that I am somewhat dismayed by the pure vitriol of your more extreme online critics who gleefully twist everything that you say and do to serve their cynicism. It is a sad measure of what can happen when trust is gone.

In short, distrust is something so emotionally charged that it is guided by its own perilous logic and propelled by its own alarming momentum. It has already widened the original disconnect between the PAP and the people into an almost unbridgeable chasm.

What can be done to deal with this unprecedented crisis of trust before it escalates further and reaches a point of no return, something which obviously neither side wants?

For a start, there are some hard truths that have to be faced by the PAP, no matter how unpalatable:

1) For the change to be truly beneficial to the people, it cannot be something merely concessionary, much less cosmetic or superficial, such as the leaders giving up the traditional austere all-white uniform for something a little more colourful, so as to blend in with the crowd; abandoning their usual stern, distant style for greater friendliness and smiling approachability; purging their image of all signs of elitism through a more visible presence at hawker centres or the MRT; peppering their speeches with humorous personal anecdotes and admiring observations about ordinary Singaporeans, such as this young person with little education who made good or that hardworking teacher who went out of her way to help her students, etc.

True change goes well beyond all these surface overtures. It has to be no less than paradigmatic, enacted at a much higher level of sincere purpose backed up by sincere action, no matter how difficult. Only then can there be an overhaul of old mindsets and habits of governance, no matter how valued.

Now I will have the temerity to suggest, Sir, that the PAP leadership had, not too long ago, missed a certain rare and valuable opportunity to show the people its sincerity for this kind of change. Shortly after the watershed 2011 General Election, some ex-political detainees made a request for a commission of inquiry to look into the allegations that the government had made against them, a request which was brusquely dismissed. To accede to the request would of course have shocked PAP diehards and the majority of Singaporeans, simply because it would have been so uncharacteristic of the PAP style.

But if it is true that extraordinary problems call for extraordinary solutions, it would have been precisely this act of unaccustomed humility, courage and sensitivity to the people’s feelings, that would have conveyed unquestioned sincerity and honesty, and provoked positive reaction from the people. And if, additionally, there were gracious acceptance of the verdict of the inquiry, even if it meant an apology and the need to make amends, that would have been a gesture large and empathetic enough, to win over even the most vocal critics. It would certainly have begun the process of creating, for the first time in the history of the PAP government-people relationship, a nexus of understanding and reciprocity. (I have dealt rather lengthily on this example simply because to this day, I fervently wish that it had happened)

2) As long as the crisis of trust persists, Sir, all your words of advice, caution and encouragement to the people, all the statements you are making about the need for good politics and good policies, for constructive debate, for all Singaporeans to work together in harmony and goodwill to build a strong, prosperous, stable society where everyone will be cared for, which everyone can call home, etc, etc, will only fall on deaf ears, or worse, be construed as no more than PR pronouncements of much pretension and little worth.

3) The old era that may be aptly called The Lee Kuan Yew Era, is now over, and for the succeeding PAP leaders to be seen as clinging to it despite their obviously good intentions and efforts to respond to the unstoppable forces of change in the new era, is to be caught in a neither-here-nor-there, politically ill-defined domain that gets pushed and pulled both ways. It gives the unfortunate impression of lack of leadership direction, which is invariably and unfavourably contrasted with the strength, conviction and vision of the first Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew.

Hence, while Singaporeans attribute Singapore’s amazing success in the world to Mr Lee’s purposeful style, they are less ready to do the same for the two succeeding Prime Ministers whose achievements are by no means inconsiderable. While Singaporeans were ready to accord Mr Lee much respect and trust (though with scant affection), they perceive the younger leaders after him as less deserving of these, and therefore not entitled to lecture and scold them as Mr Lee used to do with impunity. If Lee Kuan Yew alone received the famously humongous ministerial salary increase, the people would not have minded, but when the rest also did, they were outraged.

4) What had worked well in the old era may no longer be relevant today, or worse, may even be damaging. When Mr Lee Kuan Yew liberally used the defamation suit against his critics, one of the reasons he gave (if I remember correctly) was that he wanted to punish them for implying government corruption, and thus eroding the trust of the people, which he said was necessary for the government to do its work. Today, in a twist of supreme irony that would have incensed Mr Lee, Singaporeans see the defamation suit itself, and not the act that has entailed it, as the very cause of the erosion of trust. A few more applications of this once effective instrument of control, even if legally justifiable, would surely damage the PAP cause further, in the highly charged atmosphere of the new Singapore.

5) While Singaporeans appreciate the original PAP principles of hard work, self discipline, responsibility and incorruptibility, they can see that the inflexibility of style based on rationality, reason, head-over-heart logic and letter-of-the-law adherence may be woefully inadequate to deal with a new era where politics is necessarily complex, messy and noisy. This is because human nature, ultimately, cannot be ignored, and has to be factored into any political equation.

So, in terms of practical action, what can be done about the present growing crisis of trust in our midst?

Again, Sir, I will beg to be presumptuous, and make the following suggestions:

1) You, and only you, Sir, can initiate the process leading to the solution of the problem. In theory and ideally, the three forces for major change in any society, namely, the government, the institutions and the people, work together. But in Singapore, unfortunately, the last two are helpless. Only the dominant PAP can initiate change and sustain it. Hence, whether you like it or not, Sir, if you genuinely seek a restoration of trust, you have first to go it alone, signal your new attitude to the institutions and the people, and patiently encourage them to take the cue and play their part. It will be a long, strenuous process.

A less-than-genuine effort would be something like launching a high-profile project such as the great Singapore Conversation, watch it go through the motions and various stages of a set timetable, and then shrug off the indifferent results.

2) There are some voices in your government, Sir, and some staunch PAP loyalists who have bravely, albeit gently, tried to draw your attention to the growing divide between you and the people. Professor Tommy Koh some time back actually commented that the use of the defamation suit was not exactly commendable or useful in the long run, and recently Dr Lily Neo calmly and tactfully suggested during a parliamentary sitting that you ought to be listening more to the people and communicating better with them. There must be many in your camp who feel the same way but are reluctant to speak up. It may be a good thing to start listening to them in order to start listening to the people.

3) In the end, you and your colleagues who have for decades been skilfully solving tough, bread-and-butter problems faced by the nation, will be in the best position to deal with this equally serious problem of trust. It is of course a completely different problem, but with the same application of efficiency, determination and dedication, it will no doubt be one more crisis solved, or at least defused, for the nation to move on.

This is an epochal time in Singapore’s history, when one era is fading into the past, and a new one is being transitioned into. If the present crisis of trust is not resolved, it will become even more intractable for the next Prime Minister and the new generation of leaders, for by then the crisis would have deteriorated into meltdown. In the absence of the people’s trust, effective government is virtually impossible, as every leader knows. To prevent this from happening, only you, Sir, can pave the way for a new understanding and reconciliation. It is a huge, onerous, daunting and certainly unenviable task of damage control, repair and restoration. But it is surely top priority, if only because the alternative would be just too scary.

Yours sincerely
Catherine Lim

Something to Tell and Share

Something to Share

On 14 March 2014, the SCWO (Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations) held a gala dinner at the Shangri-la Hotel to launch the ‘Singapore Women’s Hall of Fame’. The occasion was to honour 108 Singapore women who, in the words of SCWO, ‘have made, or are making an impact on our nation—the boundary breakers and record holders, the risk takers and change makers, the role models and the standard setters’.

And I was among the honorees!

It was a matter of immense pride and pleasure for me to be placed alongside women whom I’ve always admired—Teresa Hsu, dubbed ‘Singapore’s Mother Teresa’, who died aged 113 in 2011; Elizabeth Choy, war heroine (whom I had the honour of meeting, many years ago, when she was still teaching in St Andrew’s School): Anne Wee, pioneer in social work education, at age 88 as bubbly and quick-witted as ever; Goh Lay Kuan, dance pioneer and activist; Noeleen Heyzer, global champion of women’s rights; Halimah Yacob, first woman Speaker of Parliament; Olivia Lum, founder of one of the world’s leading water treatment companies; Laurentia Tan, Singapore’s most decorated Paralympian, and many, many more.

It was a thoroughly enjoyable evening for everyone, filled with the squeals and hugs of the women guests as they excitedly moved about in the vast hotel ballroom, to greet and chat with each other. The men, (not at all minding that their gender was conspicuously under-represented) were glad to be ‘honorary women’ for the evening, led by the ever affable Tommy Koh, Chairman of the Selection Board.

Here’s a picture of me proudly receiving the award!

Catherine Lim receiving the 'Singapore Women's Hall of Fame' award

Catherine Lim receiving the ‘Singapore Women’s Hall of Fame’ award