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


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