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Champagne and Knuckle-Dusters, or, Modern Life in Singapore

Novelist and poet Catherine Lim, the most persistent critic of Singapore's government, talks candidly about her new memoir, the half-century anniversary of the city-state, and the death of founder Lee Kuan Yew.

Ten years ago, when I left New York to take a job in Singapore, a colleague asked me, “Isn’t that the place where they spank you for chewing gum?”

As I would come to discover, yes and no. The sale of chewing gum is indeed tightly controlled, while the spanking referred to the punishment by caning of 18-year old American Michael Peter Fay in 1994. He was found guilty of vandalizing cars, not chewing gum. Corporal caning is no laughing matter: in Singapore, the rattan cane is four-feet long and half-an-inch thick.

State-sanctioned spanking and gum taboos were what the tiny country was known for a decade ago, but with the passing of the 91-year-old founding father of the Republic of Singapore, Lew Kuan Yew, this past March, the city state’s rise in a mere half-century from “Third World to First” (the approved phrase) briefly became global headline news.

As most news agencies noted, that rise in economic prosperity came without a concomitant strengthening of human rights that existing First World countries hold so dear. The nation that Lew Kuan Yew made and guided (his son, Brigadier General Lee Hsein Loong, is the current Prime Minister) is a place of many, many rules and very few rights. As my famous namesake author hyperbolically phrased it in the title of an article for Wired Magazine back in 1993, Singapore is “Disneyland with the Death Penalty“.

In modern Singapore, there is no freedom of press, no freedom of assembly; habeas corpus has been effectively suspended by an Internal Security Act that has been in place since 1963. The minute control of daily life that runs from rules for chewing gum to corporal punishment shows no sign of abating.

This is particularly true of government suppression of the media, especially commentary about the Lee family or the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP). In fact, the day of Lew Kuan Yew’s funeral procession, a feckless 16-year-old posted a profanity-laden rant on Youtube—as teenagers do. In most First World countries, this probably would have passed virtually unnoticed. In Singapore, the kid was arrested, charged, and may face years in prison.

But this is nothing new. In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo murders in Paris in January, five individuals who had been recently prosecuted by the Singapore government over aspects of freedom of speech posted an article expressing their opinion on the relevance of the attack. Their conclusion is that, “It is a sad fact that the attacks against the free and independent media in Paris could not have happened in Singapore. Not because murders never happen in Singapore (they do), but because there would not be enough independent journalists and cartoonists to kill.”

The Op-Ed piece, titled ” Singapore’s Hypocrisy on Paris and Free Speech”, posted January 17, 2015, to Asia Sentinel, may be read in full here, though this link is blocked in some Southeast Asian countries. In sum, writers and commentators in Singapore have learned to tread lightly, or risk catastrophic lawsuits or jail time.

However, for nearly three decades one voice has been a strident and outspoken critic of Singapore’s rulers. Yet surprisingly, this writer has suffered no oppressive lawsuits and hasn’t spent a minute behind bars. That she is a spritely, pixie-faced Chinese lady of a certain age, known for her splendid cheongsams and pastel-jacketed airport fiction, comes as an even greater surprise. Her name is Catherine Lim, and in honor of the republic’s 50th anniversary, she has published a book titled Roll Out the Champagne, Singapore!

Where Angels Fear to Tread

There is a credible Wikipedia page for Lim, and she has her own blog, so I don’t want to go too deeply into her background here.

Pertinent information: she was born in Malaysia and moved to Singapore in 1967. Little Ironies: Stories of Singapore, a collection of short stories, was published in 1978, while her first novel The Serpent’s Tooth, was published in 1982; since then, she has published eight more story collections, four more novels, plus two collections of poetry.

It was not until 1994 that Lim wrote an Op-Ed piece titled “PAP and the People: A Great Affective Divide” that started her career as a political commentator. The article is even-handed, some might say mild, yet it made a major impact; even Lee Kuan Yew responded in a 1998 book, Lee Kuan Yew: The Man and His Ideas“.

Supposing Catherine Lim was writing about me and not the prime minister. She would not dare, right? Because my posture, my response has been such that nobody doubts that if you take me on, I will put on knuckle-dusters and catch you in a cul de sac … Anybody who decides to take me on needs to put on knuckle-dusters. If you think you can hurt me more than I can hurt you, try. There is no other way you can govern a Chinese society.

Lim is far from a street-level rabble-rouser. She has lived a comfortable life in her adopted country and prides herself on not being part of the hoi polloi (she once confessed to me that she has never ridden the subway in Singapore, preferring the ubiquitous, if pricier, taxis).

Nonetheless, in her memoir she addresses issues that pertain to the entire population. She points out, for example, “Singaporeans are not happy people. According to the Happy Planet Index 2012, Singapore is a lowly 90th out of 151 countries.”

According to a BBC report, she notes, “Millionaires are minted in Singapore in the shortest time. What does that say of the increasing social income gap? The possible emergence of an elitist class detached from the rest?”

Not one to hide, Lim boldly interprets these statistics:

While economic surveys extol Singapore’s “freedom” and “transparency” that have resulted in such amazing world business, these terms, ironically, have exactly the opposite meanings in the political surveys. “Freedom” is used only to draw attention to its absence in civil society, and “transparency” to its absence in the government’s relationship with the people, leading to resentment and distrust.

Openly expressing such sentiments has landed others in jail. How does Lim get away with it? She was kind enough to exchange emails with me to discuss her new book.

Flag fly-by during National Day celebrations – Photo Courtesy William L Gibson

A Lim for All Seasons

You had announced to friends and fans that you were giving up writing to watch nature documentaries at home. Then this book came out. What were some of the reasons that you decided to follow your publisher when she suggested you write it?

The book was the result of the dogged perseverance of my publisher, a nice, friendly lady. When Violet first approached me to join the many writers bringing out books to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Singapore’s independence, my answer was a determined ‘No’, not only because I felt my blunt political writing would be dreadfully out of place for such an occasion of celebration, but also because I was enjoying a very protracted period of idleness, when I was doing nothing but indulging my love of the pursuit of knowledge for itself.

But Violet persisted, cunningly appealing to my vanity: she said I was definitely capable of weaving together two major narratives, that is, my own personal history and that of the nation, reminding me that it was also about 50 years ago when I came to settle in Singapore. I accepted the challenge, immediately sat down to work out how the two narratives could be interwoven, and then realized that it could be a fun endeavor, after all.

You told me that it took you only a month to write this book from beginning to end. Can you describe your writing process?

This book was a first in that it took a mere 30 days, a record in my life as a writer, and was written in one continuous flow of creative adrenaline. I would first write out in longhand, on odd scraps of paper, the theme and outline for each chapter, then go on to furiously type it out on my computer, editing as I went from sentence to sentence and paragraph to paragraph, and finally the completed chapter. I wanted to make sure that each chapter was clear and cohesive, and that it was nicely linked with the preceding as well as the following chapters, to form a smooth, pleasantly constructed, integrated, easy-to-read narrative as a whole.

I think once I was able to meet the initial creative challenge of interlacing the two completely different narratives, the Singapore social and political story on the one hand and my own story of my childhood in Malaysia and adult years in Singapore, on the other, the rest came easily. Part of the challenge was to hold as a constant the celebratory theme of the national golden jubilee, and then select certain aspects of the Singapore situation and my personal circumstances, that could be yoked together to fit into this theme.

The result would be a kind of collage that I wanted to suffuse with plenty of self-deprecating and satirical humor. I’m actually at my best when I indulge in boisterous, playful humor, as when I make fun of myself and fellow Singaporeans, of our famous attributes of ‘kiasuism’ (calculating, self-centered behavior that fears losing out to others in any way), our worship of money and the creature comforts it buys, unabashedly summed up in the ‘5 Cs’ that young Singaporeans are supposed to aspire: Car, Cash, Condominium, Credit Card, Country Club membership.

The humor takes on dark tones in those chapters where I deal with the recurring themes of my political commentaries — the climate of fear, the lack of democratic and civic liberties, the harsh treatment of political dissidents. My own favorite chapter is Chapter 9 entitled ‘Surprise, Surprise!’ where I turn the political situation on its head, and represent the PAP leadership as actually being so benign as to allow political refugees abroad to return home, as part of the anniversary celebrations!

Did these various pieces, so different in themselves, exist as sketches or did they come all at once?

I’m not sure I can describe the creative process behind my writing, both fictional and non-fictional, as so much of it seems to be at the spontaneous, impulsive level, at a level of consciousness that does not lend itself to clear, explicit description. I can say with certainty that even when I’m not writing, a whole lot of ideas and notions, disparate and not at all connected, float around in my head, in a state of creative flux. I like to think that they come together, in a coherent, integrated manner, in the most unexpected way, under the most mundane circumstances, for instance when I’m showering or putting away the groceries after a shopping trip. I call this my delightful Archimedes moment; my equivalent of running down the street naked and shouting ‘Eureka!’ is usually to abandon whatever I’m doing, sit down quietly with pen and paper and connect the dots to see what pattern emerges.

For instance, I had wondered how, in this light-hearted, largely humorous book, I could include certain severe criticisms of the PAP that just had to be direct, undisguised, unembellished, in short, where I had to come in as the straight-talking, unapologetic political commentator. These questions must have been floating around in my head for a while, like so many buzzing question marks, before they all straightened up delightfully into the pleasing exclamation marks of the magical Eureka moment, which was when I suddenly hit on the creative device of using a hypothetical interview.

As soon as I came up with that strategy, I was inspired to make use of certain popular local expressions which Singaporeans use freely in everyday speech, and which thus have much literary and expressive value. In Chapter 8, ‘The BKBC Interview’, BKBC stands for the Hokkien expression, ‘bo kia, bo chap’, which means ‘showing no fear, being completely, recklessly unbothered about consequences’.

This book is a blend of memoir, fiction, and nonfiction observations. What is the creative linkage between your fiction, which tends to be apolitical, and your political commentary?

This book is not a direct political commentary simply because, as I’d earlier explained, it arose from unusual circumstances where a whole lot of goals, all different in themselves, had to be combined into a single, general goal of making it one hearty, fun, provocative book for my readers. Firstly, because it would be published as a commemorative book for the 50th anniversary, it had to have an overall celebratory tone, and hence had to deal with the positive aspects of Singapore life, both at the national and everyday level. But because it would be impossible for me to write a book about Singapore without coming in as a serious political critic and thus exposing the negative aspects, I would have to resort to all sorts of creative devices, including fiction, to get across my not-so-amiable views.

Secondly, because it would also be my story as well, and hence a memoir, I would have to include only those incidents from my personal life that had a parallel in the life of the nation, and concentrate only on those incidents which could be fictionalized for a better fit, as well as those political views which could be softened by satire so as not to be too jarring in a commemorative book. In short, I was practicing a fine selectivity, and claiming a great deal of literary license, as I played around with my raw material, a mishmash of stuff, to pull off, like the creative chef, a culinary coup d’etat!

Moving away from the creative process, I’d like to touch on politics.

In this book, you directly address skeptics who say (in your words) “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 criticized 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.'”

Your response is basically that this is a “silly conspiracy theory”. You point out that you are “an independent, not linked with any opposition party,” and second that you are “no rabble-rouser.” In other words, you pose no political threat.

While these things are true, they haven’t saved other bloggers in similar positions. You’re also quite careful in what you say. It seems to me that you are a very careful seamstress when it comes to tailoring your commentary. You know right where the line is, and how not to cross it.

Yes, it is a surprise to myself and to many of my friends that while the government has left me alone all these years, they have gone after other bloggers. I’m not referring to the online bloggers who are mainly young, uninhibited and bold in the extreme, but to older, more serious-minded, mainstream critics like myself, for instance, the columnist ‘mr brown’, the academic Cherian George and the ex-civil servant Ngiam Tong Dow, who, for some reason or other, had been more or less silenced by the government. I am surprised because they were not only less hard hitting than myself but spoke or wrote much less frequently.

I think the reason is, as I’d previously mentioned, the government doesn’t see me as a threat. If I had been sympathetic to any of the opposition parties, or to any organization hostile to the PAP, or worse, if I had been suspected of being funded by any of these bodies, they would certainly have gone after me hammer and tongs. But the truth is that I am fiercely, stubbornly independent, regularly refusing to accept any invitation from both the opposition and pro-PAP organizations to take part in meetings, seminars, or discussions. I suppose, ultimately, I am this darned difficult, highly opinionated, eccentric woman who is best left alone!

But you were right to point out that perhaps one of the reasons for my being left alone is the fact that I do not cross forbidden lines, like those related to religion and race. These issues interest me far less than the political one of the relationship between the government and the people, which even in the best of times, has never been one of real trust and regard. I had written about this emotional estrangement between the PAP and the people in my first commentary way back in 1994.

In a general sense, what do you think is the importance of criticism of government for democracy?

There is no question about the importance of the role of criticism in a democracy, provided it is responsible criticism, one that is informed, principled and measured in tone (I get nervous when I see critics, especially those online, ranting and raging, using all kinds of expletives and berating the government for everything and anything). Indeed, constructive criticism is a reflection of a mature society, and if practiced freely and openly, leads to society’s progress in the best sense of the word. It is something, unfortunately, which governments find hard to swallow. In Singapore, through half a century of uncompromising, authoritarian rule, the leaders have become habituated to the stern ‘if you’re not for me, you’re against me’ stance.

In your book, you point out that political criticism is especially difficult in Asia. Often the critic is cast in the role of a badly behaved child. How have you found ways to navigate this cultural minefield while maintaining a “good character” with your audience?

Despite its modernity, Singapore is still a Confucianist society where criticism of seniors, employers and rulers is frowned upon or at least avoided. (Foreign journalists tell me they have a difficult time getting Singaporeans to talk about politics).

But the situation is changing fast with the Internet population. One often hears the older generation lamenting that young Singaporeans are getting to be too demanding, presumptuous, disrespectful and ungrateful. My take on the whole matter is that the Confucian ideal of respect for the old and for authority is perfectly compatible with the need to speak out and openly criticize what one sees as serious flaws in the leadership, provided of course that this is done in an informed and balanced way, in a courteous manner, and above all, with sincerity and honesty. In the end, it seems to me these two attributes trump everything else, in every domain of life, whether public or private.

Finally, and this is really an unavoidable question, now that Lee Kuan Yew has deceased, how has your position changed, if at all?

Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s demise has not changed anything. Indeed, it should not change my position as a political commentator. If I have been fair, honest, sincere and respectful, I should continue to be so, regardless of the changing political landscape. What will change is that in future commentaries, I will never comment on anything about Mr Lee’s policies that, because he is now gone, he would be unable to refute or hold me accountable for, since I have always believed that political critics should take responsibility for what they have written and be prepared for whatever consequences that may arise.

Neither Mr Lee nor any of the other PAP leaders had ever called me up in response to my commentaries, nor made any rebuttal of them (apart from an angry response from Prime Minister Mr Goh Chok Tong in 1994). I had interpreted this absence of displeasure (with much relief!) as an acknowledgment, even if grudging, of my good intentions behind those political articles.

I don’t know how long I will continue to be a political critic, as I’m already in my 70s. But it is likely that as long as I’m able to do so, I will continue to give lectures and write articles as a critic and analyst, when and as the occasion justifies it, for instance, in response to major political developments, such as the coming General Election, the first in the post-Lee Kuan Yew era.

Photo Courtesy of C.Lim

Future Tense

While Lim the woman continues to look forward, a memoir is backward looking by design. This one often dwells on political players who loomed large 30 years ago, but who are already becoming historical personalities to younger generations of Singaporeans (for Americans, think Gerald Ford; for British, John Major). Nonetheless, the book is valuable for the insight it brings to the personal experiences of living in an advanced economy, in which the rulers proudly resort to knuckle-dusters.

Fast-paced and often light-hearted, Roll Out the Champagne, Singapore! secures Lim’s legacy as a vocal critic of a powerful political machine. But more importantly, for readers everywhere, it offers a potent reminder that political systems, no matter how efficient or repressive, are never inevitable: change, no matter how remote, is always possible.

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