The following is a hypothetical BKBC, that is, bo kia, bo chup interview. This is a Hokkien expression that is literally translated as ‘not afraid, can’t be bothered’, to convey recklessness and defiance
Interviewer: Let’s be clear right from the start. I’m a BKBC interviewer! I’m not afraid to ask you any question, even the most sensitive. And I don’t care if you’ve never been asked the question before in any of your previous interviews! Are you ready?
Interviewer: Are you sure? I warn you that my questions can be really garang, so aggressive you’ll squirm in your seat, and Singaporeans who are listening in will say, ‘Aiyoh! So daring!’
Me: I said I was ready to answer all your questions.
Interviewer: You’ve said many times that we still live in a climate of fear in Singapore. For this interview, there will be no fear—neither from you nor me! A no-holds-barred interview. Hurray!
Me: Please begin your questions.
Interviewer: Ah, so BKBC interviewer meets BKBC political critic. I remember that you once began a speech by describing yourself humorously as very mm-chai-see. Hey, I love that expression. I think it’s an even better description of daredevilry than BKBC! So shall we use it too—
Me: Do cut out all that stuff, and start asking your questions.
Interviewer: Alright, alright. Here’s the first question. Are you completely anti-PAP and want them out of power?
Me: No, I’m not completely anti-PAP. Indeed, I’m completely pro-PAP when it comes to certain things, for instance, their commitment to the leadership principles of hard work, discipline, competence, responsibility and incorruptibility, which has resulted in their having done so much for the country. I’ve never heard of any political party in the world that came into power, making this pledge to the people, and working hard to honour it.
But I can’t help being anti-PAP when it comes to a change I’ve noticed in the leadership. After nearly fifty years in power, there is a growing complacency and sense of entitlement resulting in the leaders taking the people for granted, pushing through policies without regard to the people’s feelings. If they persist with this attitude, they deserve to be out of power. But if they have learnt valuable lessons from the General Election of 2011, and sincerely go back to those laudable principles of the earlier years, continually adjusting to change through renewal and reinvention, then they surely deserve to be around for as long they are serving the people well.
Interviewer: Do you want the Workers’ Party to overthrow the PAP in the next General Election, and form the next government?
Me: No. The Workers’ Party has said, candidly and realistically, that it is not ready to form the next government so soon. But I would like to see a greater representation of the opposition in parliament with each General Election. Nobody wants to see one-party dominance entrenched permanently in the Singapore political landscape; it simply cannot be good for the nation in the long run.
Interviewer: Has the PAP ever approached you to join them?
Interviewer: Has the opposition ever approached you to join them?
Me: Mr J.B. Jeyaratnam—he passed away some years ago—did try to interest me in the party he formed shortly after he had cleared himself of his bankruptcy. But no, I wasn’t interested. There have been small overtures and feelers from certain members from the other opposition groups. But in general, I’m not at all inclined to get into politics.
Interviewer: Did you ever fear being sued, or jailed or forced to go into exile, like many other political dissidents?
Me: No. Never once did I think I would be jailed, or forced to flee the country. But in 1994, there was the fear of a defamation suit when my article ‘The Great Affective Divide’ angered Mr Goh Chok Tong. Fortunately the fear was unfounded, and in the twenty years since, I have continued to play my role as a political commentator.
Interviewer: Some Singaporeans believe that the PAP is leaving you alone and not punishing you, because it is serving their purpose beautifully! You see, when they are criticised for not allowing freedom of speech, they can say, ‘Look at Catherine Lim. She’s been a government critic for years, and see, nothing has happened to her.’
Me: That’s a silly conspiracy theory. The PAP works in a straightforward, forthright manner, not in any roundabout way. If they want to come down hard on you, they will do so. I think there are two reasons why they are leaving me alone. Firstly, I am an independent voice, and not linked with any opposition party, or any foreign organisation that is hostile to them. Secondly, they know I am no threat at all to them. I am no rabble-rouser, no provocateur, only a writer of political commentaries that I put up on my website for those who want to read them.
Interviewer: After your ‘Great Affective Divide’ kicked up a ruckus, one of the ministers called you a bo tua bo say. Now that was a pretty strong rebuke! How did you take it?
Me: Well, I suppose as a critic, I have to expect robust rebuttals, even name-calling. I should develop thick, durian-type skin! This bo tua bo say rebuke is the strongest in an Asian setting, for it means that you have no respect whatsoever for those in authority. It is bad enough when adults use it to scold a disrespectful child; it is much worse when leaders use it against adult members of the public. Because it means that you’re a real idiot for having no sense of your proper place in the social hierarchy.
Interviewer: All your commentaries have been critical of the PAP. Have you ever written anything in praise of them?
Me: Well, in my commentaries, I try to present a balanced picture, giving due credit to the PAP at the same time that I am criticising them. But yes, years ago, I wrote an article that was pure praise! That was when the terrible Asian tsunami caused our neighbour, Indonesia to suffer great loss of lives and destruction of entire villages. Our government went to their help instantly, calmly, without fanfare, without conditions, setting an example for the far richer and more powerful countries in the world.
I remember I was so impressed by the generosity of the help given. I was also impressed by the sensitivity and thoughtfulness shown by the government when they sent over personnel who could speak the Indonesian language, to ensure proper and tactful communication. Moreover, a year or so after the tsunami, there was follow-up action, to make sure, for instance, that the clinics that had been set up were functioning properly. There must have been many Singaporeans like myself who were just so proud of our government!
Interviewer: But you must admit that that was very rare, very exceptional praise from you. You tend to criticise, not praise!
Me: Yes. I suppose it is because praise doesn’t serve the same function as criticism does. It just ends there, whereas criticism draws attention to an issue that may be serious enough to need corrective action.
Interviewer: Has the PAP ever said anything good about you? Paid you a compliment?
Me: Gracious, no! But in April, 2013, I read a report in the Straits Times, that was a compliment of sorts, and it came from Mr Lee Kuan Yew—imagine! A friend had called me to direct me to the report, since she knew I often did only a cursory reading of the ST. It was actually a full-page excerpt from the ‘Afterword’ of a book by the American author and syndicated columnist Tom PLate, called ‘Conversations with Lee Kuan Yew’. Mr Plate wrote that he had asked Mr Lee to offer some self-criticism, and Mr Lee referred him to me! He must have been most astonished because he had called me ‘PAP’s most persistent critic’ in his book. I was equally incredulous. I was just so relieved that when Mr Plate quoted from the transcript of a speech I had given in 2012, a rather hard-hitting one, he did not reproduce some of the brutally blunt adjectives I had used for Mr Lee— ‘vindictive’, ‘ruthless’, ‘ a man trapped in a time warp’, ‘his presence more toxic than tonic’, etc. Instead he quoted the end of my speech in which I summed up the legacy of Mr Lee. I had said: ‘Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy will be so mixed that at one end of the spectrum of response, there will be pure adulation, and at the other, undisguised opprobrium and distaste. But whatever the controversies that surround him, everyone will agree that for a man of his stature and impact, neither the past nor the present holds an equal.’
I suppose this was my ‘compliment’ to Mr Lee, and in referring Tom Plate, his biographer, to me, he was returning the ‘compliment’ (both compliments needing those strong, qualifying inverted commas!) But I must tell you, it made me very happy. Because Mr Lee never minces his words, and says exactly what he feels.
Interviewer: What is the thing that you dislike most about the PAP?
Me: What I consider their lack of empathy, their disregard of the people’s feelings and sensitivities. It seems to me that the PAP’s attitude is that as long as they provide excellently for the material needs, they have done enough. They believe that matters regarding freedom of expression and open debate are completely irrelevant, even a nuisance. They have punished political dissidents in the most horrific ways, such as incarcerating them for years, decades.
Interviewer: Was there any occasion when you were really angry with the PAP?
Me: Yes, the Mas Selamat incident, when a top terrorist escaped from prison with incredible ease. It wasn’t the carelessness, almost unbelievable, on the part of a government that prides itself on its competence, that enraged me. Three other things did. Firstly, the Minister in charge at that time simply and casually announced in parliament that he was sorry it happened. Surely the proper thing for him to do, for such a major lapse, was to offer to resign, out of respect for the people. Secondly, those who bore the brunt for the shocking incident were the ‘little people’, that is, low-level officers at the prison such the security guards who were penalised in one way or other. Thirdly, when, at long last, after a massive search in Singapore, Mas Selamat was captured (in Malaysia), it was revealed that after he escaped he had holed up with his relatives in Singapore. Everyone was shocked. What? If that was true, surely the Singapore police would have nabbed him immediately, as the first strategy in a manhunt like this would be to cordon off all relatives, indeed the relatives of the relatives. There would have been round-the-clock surveillance.
A very senior PAP official, in response to the queries, was reported in the newspapers to have said matter-of-factly that there were 100 of those relatives, implying that the number was too large to deal with. I almost fell off my chair in amazement. Surely he didn’t think that Singaporeans were so dumb as to think that this number was a justifiable deterrent to the search and capture of one of the most dangerous terrorists in the region?
The Mas Selamat incident had been most upsetting to me because it confirmed for me the government’s total disconnect with the people.
Interviewer: In one of your articles some years ago, you said something very provocative. You said that there was no real loyalty towards Singapore, and that in the event of a crisis, Singaporeans might quietly pack up and go. Now surely that was a terrible thing to say!
Me: I hope that things have changed. I don’t know. I’m still inclined to believe that a large section of the population has come to equate the PAP, the political party, with Singapore, the nation, because the party has been in power for so long. PAP equals Singapore, and vice versa. This is terrible! It could mean that if Singaporeans have any loyalty at all, it is most likely only loyalty to the good life made possible by the PAP. Just that, a self-serving loyalty. It is also a shifting loyalty, ready to move to where the good life can continue to be enjoyed. I am almost tempted to think that well-to-do Singaporeans who have second homes in countries such as Australia, UK and Canada, have this kind of long term plan. The Singaporean version of ‘the boat people’, the name given to those fleeing Vietnam during the years of the Vietcong war, remember? It is a most disturbing picture. Here is one instance where I’ll be only too happy to be proved wrong!
Interviewer: It is said that Singapore, small, vulnerable and without natural resources, can only survive if it is ruled by strong leadership, as shown by the PAP.
Me: I fully agree that no tiny nation-state like ours can survive without strong leadership. We saw that kind of leadership in the early years of PAP rule. But after nearly half a century in power, I don’t know whether PAP leadership can be described unequivocally in such terms. Indeed, I think that at present, after the shock of the General Election of 2011, and the post-election confusion, there is a lack of direction in the PAP leadership.
Interviewer: Here’s something to think about. Every National Day, it is part of the celebrations to have ordinary Singaporeans, hundreds of them, write their wishes on festive balloons or balls that are floated along the Singapore river or out to sea. Suppose for the 50th Anniversary, Singaporeans are told to do something different: write, with total honesty, in sealed messages that will later be burnt, how they really feel about the PAP, what they really want the PAP to do. What would your message be?
Me: For the PAP to sit up, review the growing problem of the disenchantment and mistrust of the people, and say with all sincerity and purposefulness, ‘Here’s our 50th Anniversary resolution—to acknowledge that there is a problem after all, whether it is called an ‘issue’ or ‘divide’ or ‘crisis’, and begin the hard work of solving it.’