Published Work

A Writer’s Roller-Coaster Ride

The following is a selected chapter from my latest book, ‘Roll Out the Champagne, Singapore’, launched on 16 Oct by my publisher, Marshall Cavendish.


Once a young writer from the US whom I had met at a Writers’ festival in Hong Kong many years back, told me about something he had done, which made me actually blush with embarrassment for him. He had gone into a bookshop to see how his book, newly published, was being displayed. Annoyed that it was half-hidden among other publications in the display window, he immediately brushed aside its rivals to give it the most prominent spot in the window.

I suppose Singaporean writers, at least those in my generation, could never be so brazenly self-promoting!

Apart from the need to help our publishers promote our books, we are impelled by something that may be called ‘writer’s vanity’, that is, we want to have only good things said about them. We bristle at negative reviews, glow over good ones. And the one that is one hundred percent complimentary puts the writer on cloud nine for days.

I was lifted to such heights, years ago, by a review that, very oddly, comprised only one word: ‘Unputdownable.’ It was an ugly lexical concoction, an unwarrantable forcing together of different grammatical items—a prefix, a verb, a preposition and a suffix. As a rather old-fashioned teacher of English and literature, I would never have permitted such linguistic licence. But I forgave the infraction because I liked the flattery.

So with great care and eagerness, I unpacked the tributes contained in that one word. Firstly, it meant that I had fulfilled an essential requirement for novelists, as stated by a highly regarded writer and essayist, E.M. Forster who insisted that a good novel must tell a good story. Well, I concluded that since the reviewer could not put down my novel of more than 300 pages, I must have told a good story. Secondly, I reasoned, in addition to the good story, there must have been literary merit as well. For the experienced reviewer, if he found none of that after the first few pages, would have put it down. Thirdly, by using a single word, followed by an exclamation mark to emphasize his approbation of my book, he must have intended to draw attention to it.

I had thus argued myself into a state of blissful delirium that lasted for days.

But bouquets come with brickbats. Once I was in a bookshop, browsing through a magazine. A young man, looking very stern, walked up to me and said angrily, ‘I don’t like your writing. Why are you so biased against men? Why are the males in your stories portrayed in such a bad light? So you are one of those detestable feminists?’ I don’t remember what, in my surprise and shock, I had said in my reply. I only remember that days later, I had a well-prepared speech in my head that would be my answer to his questions, if we happened to meet again and he came marching up to give me another scolding.

It was an awkwardly defensive and diffuse speech which probably would not have pacified my critic: I was not against men, indeed I counted men as among my good friends, I was no aggressive, cigar-chomping, bar-crashing, bra-burning feminist, I was just feeling sorry for the poor abused women I remembered from childhood, I had actually made honorable mention of men here and there in my stories, and so on and so on.

But the criticism that sent me on a stomach-churning coaster-roller ride came, not from an individual, but an entire community in Singapore. Thankfully, a very happy event, which I counted as among the happiest in my life, had taken place prior to the hostility, as if to soften it in advance. And ironically, it was that very event that had set off the animosity.

It was the selection, in 1981, of my book of short stories, entitled ‘Or Else, the Lightning God’, by the Cambridge Examinations Syndicate as a literature text for students. I had not been officially informed about the decision, and only knew about it when a journalist from a major newspaper called me to ask for an interview. I shrieked in great excitement into the phone, probably alarming the journalist, ‘What? When? Why? Did Cambridge say why they chose my book? Did they like it? When is it going to be used in the schools? Tell me, quick!’

It was the best thing that could happen to a writer who was also a literature teacher. Perhaps the greatest thrill was in knowing that my stories might be studied not only by students in Singapore, but almost worldwide, for the Cambridge language and literature syllabi, as I understood, were more or less the same for students in the other Commonwealth countries.

For a while, I envisaged students in Nigeria or India or Sri Lanka who had never been to Singapore, indeed, might never have heard of Singapore, reading, with a mix of fascination and puzzlement, about people and happenings in an entirely different cultural and geographical setting. For one thing, I had written the book purely for a local audience and had liberally sprinkled local expressions throughout, especially in the dialogue, such as ‘tolong, tolong‘ uttered in despair by a very sick man who thinks he is being haunted by the ghost of a servant girl he had raped and who had subsequently died from a messed-up abortion.

How would my young non-Singaporean readers react to tales about the Chinese practice of conjuring ghosts up from the grave; the travails of a poor bondmaid (there is no word in the English dictionary for unwanted female children subjected to a certain system of bondage in Asia ); the young girl who surreptitiously stole a bit of durian (a tasty, creamy fruit native to SouthEast Asia) and was punished by her rich relatives who forced her to eat huge amounts of it until she became ill; the old, illiterate Hokkien woman angrily calling the curse of the powerful Lightning God upon her disrespectful, highly-educated daughter-in-law.

As I was borne along on a stream of elation at what I would regard as one of the most significant events in my life as a writer, I had no idea that resentment was building up against me in the Eurasian community. The cause of their anger was one particular story in the book, entitled ‘Kenneth Jerome Rozario.’ It is about a Eurasian schoolboy who comes from a broken home, lives with an aunt who has little time for him, gets his girlfriend pregnant and has to leave school. The story ends with him sitting on the ledge of a high-rise building, his legs dangling over the edge. There is a blissful smile on his face as he listens to a gently mournful song coming from his radio, inviting him to a happier world. His family and girlfriend are frantically pleading with him not to jump.

The community resented, not the negative portrayal of one of their own, but my inclusion of a dialogue between two Chinese teachers in Kenneth’s school, one of whom makes disparaging comments about Eurasian behaviour and propensities. I wish I had been given the chance to explain that in a work of fiction (unlike a work of non-fiction, such as a social commentary), the views expressed by the characters in dialogue are not necessarily those of the writer, but are there to serve some literary purpose, such as to delineate a character more sharply, contrast him/her with other characters, provide a local flavour and authenticity, reinforce the writer’s use of irony, etc.

The complaint against me was taken right up to the Minister of Education, together with a request for the book to be withdrawn as a literature text for the exams. I was not told about the matter, and only found out indirectly from a newspaper reporter who had come to know about it. I was very upset. Suppose that rare honour and pleasure of having my book studied by students in all the schools in Singapore was taken away from me? Suppose I had alienated my Eurasian friends, one of whom I had known for years? Most of all, I was angry that a simple literary device had not only been badly misunderstood but made the subject of a complaint that was taken up to the highest levels.

For a while, I was furious enough to wallow in the peevish self-indulgence of exaggerated rhetoric: So will the Indian community also make the request to the Ministry to withdraw my book because another story tells about a Mr Velloo who is poor, shabbily dressed, quarrelsome, his mouth permanently reddened by his ceray chewing? Will the Teochew community complain too about dialectal bias because one of my stories is about a proud Hokkien patriarch who refuses to allow his daughter to marry into a Teochew family?

But, to my great relief, the incident ended happily for me. Indeed, I could not have wished for a better ending. What happened was that the Ministry of Education had dealt with the issue in the most sensible, diplomatic, and best of all, professional manner. They had decided not to accede to the request to withdraw my book, but at the same time were quick to assure the complainants that the matter would not end there. The Ministry’s inspectors would in future conduct workshops and training sessions to help literature teachers deal with sensitive topics, such as race, religion, sex, moral traumas and social taboos, exemplified in the lives of individuals, are a staple in literature. They would hold discussions for a clearer understanding of the literary devices used by writers to handle particularly complex themes.

I had no part in all these decisions and learnt about them only much later. But I was deeply impressed by the Ministry of Education’s solution to a tricky problem. It was an ingenious move. In one fell stroke, it did the following things: defused the situation by taking away the racist element, turned a potentially divisive, emotion-charged issue into a purely academic one, pre-empted all such incidents in the future, indirectly freed Singapore writers of unnecessary constraints, and lastly, and best of all, established the basis for a sound approach to the teaching of literature in schools.

So my little book had taken me on a giddying adventure—up into the clouds of elation, down in a hard landing of anxiety, exasperation and annoyance and then back again on a smooth ride of self-pride and contentment, that continues to this day.

I am sometimes intrigued by the parallel universes that those esoteric, weird quantum physicists tell us about, where all possible outcomes of events can take place, where, for instance, John Kennedy had not been assassinated, where Singapore is still part of Malaysia. I don’t want to think of the parallel universe where the ‘Kenneth Jerome Rozario’ incident, as I have come to think of it, had an unfortunate ending. If it is true that small incidents can be the spark for a conflagration, the mishandling of a minor issue could have snowballed into a crisis. It could have been exploited by racist elements, become an openly divisive issue, and damaged the fragile bonds of our multi-ethnic, pluralistic society. In that kind of dreadful universe, the joyous celebration of a national 50th birthday would not be possible.

Published Work

The BKBC Interview

The following is a selected chapter from my latest book, ‘Roll Out the Champagne, Singapore’, launched on 16 Oct by my publisher, Marshall Cavendish.


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?

Me: Yes.

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?

Me: No.

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.’

Something to Tell and Share,Speech

Launch of latest book

My latest book ‘Roll Out the Champagne, Singapore‘, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Singapore next year, was launched on 16 Oct by my publisher, Marshall Cavendish. Below is a transcript of my speech.


Good evening everybody. I want to begin by thanking all of you for taking time off from your busy schedule to be here this evening, to help celebrate the launch of my latest book. It’s such a pleasure for me to see a large gathering, like this, of family, friends, ex-colleagues in education, fellow writers, fans, well-wishers, supporters. Also, very importantly, the ardent, secret admirers who will not be named!

I would also like to express my deepest appreciation to all those at Marshall Cavendish for making this event possible. It’s just so amazing how much hard work, sustained effort and meticulous attention to detail go into the production and launch of a book. I had the easiest job—all I had to do was write.

I am sometimes asked this question: ‘Of all your books, which is your favourite?’ and I have always given this coyly teasing answer: ‘My next one’. Well, after today, I think I’ll have to say that this book will be my favourite. The reason is that it came about in the most unexpected way, and was written in one continuous torrent of furious, manic energy and enthusiasm that I’ll probably never experience again.

In June this year, Violet Phoon of Marshall Cavendish approached me to do a commemorative book for the occasion of Singapore’s 50th anniversary in 2015. My immediate answer was No. I didn’t think that my hard-hitting political commentaries would be at all appropriate for a celebratory event. You see, I had got into the habit—bad habit!—of equating the nation Singapore with the ruling party, the PAP, (probably because the PAP has been around for so long), and hence of perceiving the 50th anniversary as yet another PAP-dominated event. Violet patiently explained that I didn’t have to tell stories only about the PAP; I could also tell my own, and other Singaporeans’. Suddenly I realised that writing such a book could be an exciting challenge—documenting, commemorating and celebrating the lives of ordinary Singaporeans including myself, at a time when we pause to take stock of our lives in a much-loved country that we were born in, or had adopted.

Catherine Lim at her book launchSignificantly for me, it was nearly 50 years ago that I adopted Singapore, after leaving Malaysia. Right from the start, I had felt completely at home among fellow Singaporeans who had readily welcomed me into their midst. Indeed, through the years, in my different roles as teacher, writer and political critic, I’ve had nothing but warmth and understanding from them, especially during that tempestuous time when the PAP government was enraged by my political commentaries, and for a while, family and friends actually feared I would be thrown into jail, sued into bankruptcy, forced to flee into exile.

What a lot has happened since then, and what a lot of stories to share—stories about experiences that could be fearful or funny, exhilarating or exasperating, deeply moving or profoundly disturbing, in short, tales expressing a wide range of emotions that would resonate well with Singaporeans simply because they reflect our essential ordinariness, our humanness, as we relate to each other and the powers that be. So my book would be a celebration in the broadest sense of the word—it would celebrate life in its totality, its rich diversity, the ups and downs, the shadows and bright spots. And what better occasion to share these experiences than on a milestone birthday that belongs to everyone.

So I sat down and began to select, from my wealth of experiences as educator, writer and political critic, what could suitably go into the book.

Or rather the experiences selected themselves. You know, I’ve come to believe, in an almost mystical way, that when you open your mind and heart in gentle surrender to the creative process, it takes over and does marvellous things! Suddenly from the vaults of memory, experiences from the past leaped out, demanding to be written and shared, like children clamouring for attention.

Here are some examples. I was a young teacher newly arrived from Malaysia, nervously facing a class of unruly teenaged boys. I was trying my best to introduce myself when suddenly a boy from the back shouted out the F word at me. In stunned silence, the class watched intently to see my reaction. I don’t know how I managed to retain my composure and to say, coolly and calmly to the offender: ‘Alright, now that you’ve told me your name, what’s your question?’ The class erupted in laughter. I had won them.

Another example. Twenty years ago, my articles provoked the wrath of then PM Mr Goh Chok Tong. Suddenly, to my shock, I was in the midst of a political storm. But right from the start, I was aware of the support of ordinary Singaporeans who, even if they feared to support me openly, were only too glad to do so privately when they met me—in the streets, in supermarkets, in restaurants. There is an incident from this period that I must have told many times, but I’ll tell it once more because it will amuse you.

One day, shortly after the eruption Mr Goh’s fury, I was in a post office in Holland Village, when I heard somebody call my name. I turned round and saw a young man standing at attention and holding his right arm out stiffly in front, in the manner of a Heil Hitler salute. Then he said loudly and sternly, ‘ Give it to them, the bastards, give it to them!’ Again, just this year, my Open Letter to the PM elicited the same warm encouragement (though not in the same dramatic fashion) from total strangers I met in public places. I must tell you about an interesting email regarding this controversy. It came from a close friend who pretended to give me a good scolding in classic Singapore English. I immediately replied in cool, classic Queen’s English. I will read you our fun correspondence. This was what my friend wrote:

‘So you criticise PM Goh twenty years ago because effective divide and all that, and now you criticise PM Lee because mistrust crisis and all that. So in twenty years’ time more, you criticise new PM Lee, grandson of Lee Kuan Yew, is it? People got seven-year itch, you got twenty-year itch, is it?’

And this was my reply:

‘In twenty years’ time, I will be in my nineties, and hence in danger of losing all my faculties. But the fine example of a nonagenarian like Mr Lee Kuan Yew still exhibiting mental sharpness, is both inspiring and deserving of emulation. So you may be right about the emergence, for the third time, of my political ‘twenty-year itch’ which, hopefully, may coincide with the 70th birthday of Singapore. However, being intellectual in character, it should not be put in the same category as that seven-year occurrence which, being of a base, sexual nature, is distinctly inferior, and unworthy of mention, much less of comparison.’

On the whole, I’m just so appreciative of all the support from fellow Singaporeans in my continuing run-ins with the government. You can have no idea of the deep sense of relief, reassurance and comfort that a political critic feels when she knows she is not alone.

And there are many examples, through the years, of how I have bonded with Singaporeans, from all walks of life, in cosy solidarity through a lot of commonalities. Such as a common attachment to the materialistic 5Cs (I confess I can’t do without creature comforts!), a common use of our rather delectable lingua franca Singlish, a common recognition of our kiasuism in its various forms, some laughable, some quite embarrassing, especially when they become excessive and invite that awful label, the Ugly Singaporean.

But just recalling factual events in my book, mere reportage, wasn’t my cup of tea. I’m a compulsive storyteller with a runaway imagination to match! I wanted to exercise that hyperactive faculty by turning dry facts into tantalising stories. And the more rip-roaring the tale, the better! I wanted to marry fact and fiction in a glorious union, to form a new genre called faction that would be the defining feature of my new book. And now I’ll give you an example of a piece of faction, where I used 3 factual items that many of you here must be familiar with.

Factual Item Number 1: Do you remember that about thirty years ago, Mr Lee Kuan Yew proposed, to a startled Singapore university audience, that in order to solve the problem of a declining population, the government should consider bringing back the practice of polygamy? Mr Lee admiringly cited the example of a former Prime Minister of Japan, Mr Tanaka who spoke openly about his mistresses and concubines, and the children he had with them. Mr Lee moreover used convincing illustrations from the world of Nature: he said that only the most aggressive and virile lions and bucks in a herd got to sire the most offspring and achieve the highest status in the herd.

Factual Item Number 2: When he was PM, Mr Goh one day casually made a comment about Singapore men, that was quickly picked up and circulated. He observed that Singaporean men were kia bors, that is, they were afraid of their wives, were henpecked, were always under the wifely thumb. He even implied that the Kia Bor Syndrome was a national phenomenon.

Factual Item Number 3: Successful Singapore men, once they have achieved the 5 Cs of Cash, Car, Condominium, Credit Card and Country Club Membership, secretly yearn to have a 6th C to complete their happiness, namely, a Concubine. I’m absolutely certain that all you men in the room now, who are fifty five and above, have that secret yearning. Wives, do check that out when you go home this evening.

You can see how these factual items, each so provocative in itself, could all be creatively pulled together in a tale about Singaporean men. My hero’s name is Benny Tham, and he is in his late seventies. Benny has achieved the 5Cs many times over, but he sees himself as a failure, because he has not managed to achieve the ultimate 6th C, has never managed to taste the special delights of that rambunctious, prolific Mr Tanaka. The reason is that he is a confirmed kia bor, as he sadly admits. His wife continues to be domineering and vigilant; for instance, she makes sure that all the maids she employs are certifiably middle-aged, married and ugly.

But it is not jolly storytelling all the way. My tone becomes hard-edged when I come in as political satirist. As is well known from my political writing, my main grouse against the PAP is their harshness towards political dissidents, their relentless hounding of those who dare challenge them. I came up with a piece of satirical faction called ‘Surprise, Surprise’, which describes the fiftieth anniversary celebration in the national stadium. At one level, the story is a straightforward, innocuous description of one scene after another in the stadium; at another level, it is an indictment of this PAP intolerance. The indictment is only clear at the end of the story, with the description of the last scene, intended to startle, even shock the reader. I had tested the story on some friends, none of whom could guess the ending!

Another grievance of mine as a political observer has to do with the PAP’s controversial White Paper in which the projected population of 6-7 million by the year 2030 would have a large component, a very large component—40%—of foreigners. As a Singaporean deeply concerned about our nation’s long term future and the need for a sense of identity among Singaporeans, a true Singaporeanness, I can’t help wondering if the policy of freely granting citizenship to foreigners could severely compromise this national identity.

So I wrote a futuristic story called ‘ Singapore’s 80th Birthday’. It is the year 2045. Singapore is still under the PAP—do I hear a groan somewhere?!—but has been transformed beyond recognition. For it is part of a large political entity, called ‘The Co-Prosperity Sphere’ created and headed by China, now the dominant world power, the new hegemon, determined to increase her sphere of influence even further, especially in Africa and Asia, through a sustained campaign of soft-power politics, the politics of charm and magnanimity. Singapore is her ideal client state, the perfect protege, the poster child. For the President of Singapore is China-born President Zhi, who came from China as a young adult, gained citizenship easily, advanced rapidly and became the PAP government’s favourite candidate for public office. On Singapore’s 80th anniversary, celebrated in the most lavish way with big money from China, in a glittering mega stadium that is one of the best in the world, President Zhi makes a speech addressed to the world, to showcase China’s might. Sounds a little scary, doesn’t it? You can see that my imagination is in overdrive again!

But even this super-active imagination was of little use when it came to certain facts and opinions that I wanted to share with my readers. I am sometimes asked questions such as: Has the PAP ever approached you to join them? Has the opposition? When you got into trouble with the government, there were all kinds of rumours, about the secret police visiting you in the middle of the night, of the threat to revoke your citizenship, etc. Are these rumours true? Do you want the PAP out of power? Do you think the Workers’ Party will form the next government, etc, etc.

Obviously the answers to these questions don’t lend themselves easily to stories; they are best dished out straight, in a precise and unembellished manner. So I had to think of a different kind of faction to deal with these special conditions. I came up with the hypothetical interview which I called the BKBC Interview, BKBC standing for ‘Bo Kia Bo Chap‘ a Hokkien expression which means ‘completely unafraid, can’t be bothered about consequences’. So the ‘Bo Kia Bo Chap‘ interviewer, a bold, brazen, young person peppers me with hard questions which I answer with equal flamboyance and gusto.

Catherine Lim at her book launchBut the noisy exuberance gives way, at the end of the book, to a gently reflective summing up of my feelings of deep attachment to the country that I had adopted, and that has adopted me, as I had stated in my dedication. The last chapter, entitled ‘With Love’, was inspired by a poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning which begins with the lovely line: ‘How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.’ The chapter is thus a listing, a counting of the ways of my attachment to Singapore. I shall read you some of them:

All my recollections of the good things that happened to me when I first came to Singapore… All my recollections of all the kind acts of fellow Singaporeans… All my favourite hawker centres where I got the best chicken or ‘char siew’ rice, the best ‘nasi padang’, the best rice dumplings, that should put Singapore on the world gastronomical map… All the comforts that I probably could not have enjoyed living in big cities elsewhere, such as being able to drink straight from the tap, being able to call for a taxi after a midnight game of mahjong, and feel totally secure during the entire ride home.

The ways also include some dear, abiding images and memories:

My eyes mist over and there is a catch in my throat when I see this image, from so long ago, of our first Minister of Housing who visits the slum dwellers in Chinatown and sees a man lying on a plank bed, under a blanket. The man apologises for not being able to stand up to greet the minister because he has no trousers on. It is his brother’s turn to use the one available pair. The minister’s eyes well, and there and then he decides to embark on a massive housing scheme for the poor.

There is another mist-in-the-eye moment for me when I read about that marvellous young doctor who catches the dreaded Sars disease while attending to patients. He drives himself to hospital for treatment and knows he’ll never see his family again. He drives round and round the house, unwilling to let go of the sight of his wife and two young daughters waving goodbye to him.

‘Oh, I’m sorry I’ve forgotten to bring my wallet,’ I tell the ‘roti prata’ seller at the hawker centre. He says cheerfully, ‘Never mind, Ma’am!’ Then he lends me ten dollars for the taxi fare home.

I am in a restaurant having lunch with a much-loved, highly respected ex-president of Singapore, who has retired and is enjoying his retirement (I am referring to the late Mr Wee Kim Wee) We are sharing stories. He asks whether the buffet lunch includes tandoori chicken, clearly his favourite. I go to check. No, there is no tandoori. I mention this to the chef. Suddenly there is a look of bright purpose in the chef’s eyes. In fifteen minutes, somebody comes to our table with a big plate of freshly cooked tandoori. The president is obviously very popular, because at the end of our meal, we are informed that somebody has paid the bill.

I never celebrate my birthdays. Soon I’ll be seventy. An ex-student insists on getting together with other ex-students to organise a big party for ‘Old Teacher’. It turns out to be the biggest, rowdiest, happiest birthday bash anyone could have.

I am in a foreign country and waiting in the customs section. The officer sees my Singapore passport, exclaims, ‘Ah Singapore!’, then waves me on.

I am awarded a scholarship to do a PhD programme and allowed to take leave from my job in the Curriculum Department of the Ministry of Education. It is the happiest, though most demanding two years of my life. If I had not come to Singapore, that dream of post-graduate study would never have been fulfilled.

I am having lunch of my favourite ‘bak kut teh’ in my favourite cafe in my favourite shopping centre. The controversy over my bold Open Letter to the Prime Minister has not abated. A young couple comes up to me while I’m enjoying the steaming ‘bak kut teh’ soup, gives a strong thumbs up signal and says, ‘Carry on with your good work.’ Good work. Wow. I have never regarded my political writing in those lofty terms.

And of course I had to end the book on an unabashedly sentimental note:

Let a hundred flowers bloom. Let a hundred feelings of appreciation and love bloom in the heart of one who had eagerly adopted Singapore many years ago, and had had no idea then that the country would reciprocate with its own adoption, in the fullest sense of the word.

Thank you, ladies and gentlemen.

Catherine Lim at her book launch

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 ​to 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

Sir

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