Author Catherine Lim laughs off proposal to set up political party

Her open letter to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong last month caused a stir.

In it, author Catherine Lim claimed that Singaporeans "no longer trust their Government and the Government no longer cares about regaining their trust".

There was no rebuke from political leaders. No call for her to step into the political arena.

She told The New Paper: "Deep down, I suspect the Government actually respects integrity."

"That's why the worst has not happened. When I speak up, no one calls me up."

That wasn't the case in 1994. She wrote two articles - her analysis of the leadership styles - and received a strong response. There were calls for her to step into the political ring if she wants to have her say. She did not.

That will not change any time soon either.

"I'm not fit for political office," she said. "I don't have the qualities and the talent.

"More importantly, I don't have the inclination."

The woman dubbed Mr Lee Kuan Yew's "most persistently perceptive critic" described herself as too "ferociously independent".

That's why she laughed off farm owner Ivy Singh-Lim's proposal to set up a political party.

"If I join a party, they would boot me out in two months because I'm so opinionated, I won't go by consensus," she added.

What the 72-year-old would rather do is pen her observations, like that open letter to Mr Lee.

Post-General Election 2011, she had decided not to write any political commentaries but watch and observe.

"I'm quiet because I have nothing new to say and I never like to say old things," she said.

Sensing a "distinct hardening of the government position" through actions like the $50,000 bond that some online news sites had to post and the PM's defamation suit against blogger Roy Ngerng, Ms Lim became nervous.

"I won't write it if I have nothing urgent to say," she added. "I deliberately made my opening line absolutely gripping."

That open letter netted more than 300 replies in a week on her website.

She was happy at how it sparked debate and raised awareness on government-people ties.

"If the relationship between the Government and people isn't good or healthy, they're finished," she declared. "Never mind the infrastructure, the bread and butter issues."

NEW BOOK

Next up is a book to mark Singapore turning 50 next year, to be launched in late October.

Expect her personal story, blended with political observations.

Her trademark cutting style, "one which the Government might take umbrage to", runs through topics like Central Provident Fund money, returning political exiles and foreigners-turned-president.

Asked what colour she would rather see in the Government - white for People's Action Party, blue for Workers' Party or rainbow for a coalition - she said: "I don't care."

"I want the Government, whichever party is around, to hold on to the original PAP principles of hard work, competence, self-discipline, responsibility and really live up to it."

WHO IS CATHERINE LIM?

She is a prolific fiction writer who has contributed her social analysis of life in Singapore, the Chinese culture and the People's Action Party.

Born in Malaysia in 1942, Ms Lim was a convent school student who mixed her Western-style education with a Confucianist upbringing. On her website, Ms Lim describes herself as a walking contradiction.

On politics, she describes herself as "an idealist (I yearn for the ideal of a truly democratic and free society), but also a pragmatist (I realise that in the end, the only freedom people want is freedom from poverty)".

She has two adult children and refers to herself as a swinging single.

Q&A

In 1994, Ms Catherine Lim wrote two articles: A Great Affective Divide and One Government, Two Styles.

Then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong reacted when she wrote that he was under the influence of his predecessor, former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.

What did you think of Mr Goh saying in Parliament then that those who land a blow on the Government's jaw must "expect a counterblow on your solar plexus"?

I was thinking, you're such a nice man, why do you use such violent imagery?

I didn't know where the solar plexus was. So I went to find out. If he had carried (it) out, he would have ruined my figure forever, I won't be able to wear my cheongsam any more!

Were you surprised that the Government's response to your open letter this time seemed mild, compared to what happened in 1994?

(At) that time, it was still a largely conservative government, a Confucianist government, which is why a minister called it bo tua bo soay (Hokkien for disrespectful).

It was shocking, as I never expected that. Actually (my piece then) was innocuous by many standards. But nobody had done that before... so how dare you make your Prime Minister lose face? That's probably why Mr Goh had to stress that he was in charge.

What about the compliment that Mr Lee Kuan Yew paid you? When author Tom Plate asked Mr Lee for self-criticism, he referred to you. Your opinion on Mr Lee's legacy was: "At one end of the response, there would be adulation and at the other end, undisguised opprobrium and disdain."

It was the best thing that happened to me in my political life, a compliment by Lee Kuan Yew when he regarded me as the PAP's most persistent critic.

He was prepared for Tom Plate to quote that. Why didn't he ask Plate to refer to people who have written extensively about him? I was really happy. Lee never minces his words...in a way, it has encouraged me to always be forthright. He probably respected me because I was not hysterical.

kohht@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on July 16, 2014.
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