Recently I was pleasantly surprised by an article on my role as a political commentator, written by Dr Kenneth Paul Tan, a respected academic and intellectual. To date, it is the most exhaustively researched, complete, comprehensive and, in my mind, the most insightful, trenchant and provocative analysis of my run-in with the PAP government 15 years ago, which continues to this day.
Very briefly, Dr Tan portrays the PAP government as an unremittingly patriarchal leadership with zero tolerance for strident female critics who dare make them lose face publicly. And he portrays me as a survivor in such a climate precisely because I have deliberately—or subconsciously—disguised my ‘masculine’ qualities of aggression and confrontation by an outwardly gentle, deferential ‘feminine’ demeanour!
I am both surprised and delighted by this very refreshing take on the infamous ‘Catherine Lim Affair’.
Download and read Dr Kenneth Paul Tan’s article, “Who’s afraid of Catherine Lim? The State in Patriarchal Singapore”
Catherine Lim, born in 1942, is an award-winning Singaporean novelist, short-story writer and poet, with 18 books to her name, published in France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Israel, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, the UK and the US. Her literary works are often witty and at times supernatural portrayals of women, culture and love in traditional Chinese society. But this petite lady, often dressed in elegant cheongsams, is also famous—many would say infamous—as a political commentator and strong advocate of political liberalisation in patriarchal and paternalistic Singapore. In 1994, Lim wrote two political commentary pieces for the state-directed local broadsheet The Straits Times. Her intervention in the public sphere produced a new public vocabulary for thinking about Singapore’s political condition, and continues to inform how prospects for political liberalisation are described today. The two pieces were widely discussed among Singaporeans in 1994, and the second in particular drew a strong reaction from the state that foreign journalist Kieran Cooke (24 February 1995) described as more appropriate to “a government teetering on the edge of collapse than… one of the world’s most enduring political machines”. The state’s grossly disproportionate reaction was, this article will argue, vividly illustrative of how Lim’s actions had touched a nerve in state-society relations in Singapore, revealing how such relations were, and continue to be, structured in terms of gender and the unconscious.
This article will begin by discussing how images of the Singapore woman are constructed and legitimised in the public sphere. It will then demonstrate how these gender images have corresponded to the Singapore state’s “masculine” image and society’s “emasculated”, “infantilised”, and “feminised” images. Through a close reading of the spectacular interactions in 1994 between Catherine Lim and the state, this article will identify a strategy for political engagement that can be radically transformative without provoking the full violence of the state. Such a strategy may offer civil activism a way out of the dilemma it has faced since Singapore’s independence, between being crushed by an antagonised strong state and labouring passively within the terms and boundaries set by an all-defining state.
The relationship between Catherine Lim and the state in 1994 is, in this article, carefully reconstructed and analysed using close reading techniques. This analysis is set within an account of Singapore’s recent political history, specifically in the context of critical moments when ideological work was at its busiest. By drawing on psychoanalytical perspectives, some of the more significant political actions and behaviours during this moment of crisis will be explained as symptoms of repressed anxieties and insecurities. Insights into the gendered nature of the relationship between the state and Catherine Lim—and more generally between the state and civil society—will be drawn from contemporary feminist theory, especially the ideas of Luce Irigaray.