Saturday, May 21, 2011

Heeding Catherine Lim after seventeen years

The little article that rocked Singapore

SINGAPORE— From Saturday's Globe and Mail
That little article was published in the fall of 1994 in Singapore’s Straits-Times newspaper. In it, Ms. Catherine Lim – until then best known as a novelist – committed the shocking act of pointing out that while the long-ruling PAP had done a good job running Singapore’s economy, it had done little to endear itself to those it governed. “There is very little in the way of affectionate regard,” she wrote.

It was a truth the government didn’t want to hear. In the weeks that followed (and particularly after she wrote an equally blunt follow-up column), Ms. Lim was attacked in print and in person by the government of then-prime minister Goh Chok Tong, who accused her of “demolishing the respect for and standing of the Prime Minister and his government by systematic contempt and denigration in the media” – a serious accusation in a country where government critics often wound up defending themselves in court on charges of libel, or worse.

Suddenly, Ms. Lim’s columns weren’t welcomed by the Straits Times any more. She was told that she had angered the country’s paramount political figure, Lee Kuan Yew, the country’s authoritarian founder who once said “if you are a trouble maker … it’s our job to politically destroy you.”

“I understand [why the government was angry]. I knew that what I had done – which seemed innocuous to Western eyes – was to them a gross violation of the Confucianist ethos” of respecting your seniors and superiors, Ms. Lim explained in an interview Friday.

Flash forward to 2011, and Ms. Lim has reason for her good humour. The recent elections – which saw a best-ever result for the opposition – saw criticism of the government become commonplace on the Internet and particularly on social-media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. During the campaign, Ms. Lim, who now blogs on her own website (, saw her writing “go viral, I think that’s the word,” she says with another giggle. Political scientists credit her with helping get out the youth vote, which swung heavily behind the opposition.

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