Excerpts from “Who’s Afraid of Catherine Lim?”

Excerpts from “Who’s Afraid of Catherine Lim? The State in Patriarchal Singapore”

by Kenneth Paul Tan (2009)

PDF Link to Journal Article:


1. Patriarchal: Characteristic of a system of society or government controlled by men.

2. Ad Hominem: Responding to arguments by attacking a person’s character, rather than to the content of their arguments (Wiki).

Extracts from Article:

1) Lim’s [second political commentary piece for The Straits Times] drew a strong reaction from the state that foreign journalist Kieran Cooke described as more appropriate to “a government teetering on the edge of collapse than . . . one of the world’s most enduring political machines.”

2) Through [coercive] instruments, the state has effectively castrated political opposition and alternatives in civil society, preventing them from mounting effective political challenges to the state.

3) The [state] has taken the form of an official national discourse that defines the conditions of possibility for what can be legitimately thought, expressed and communicated in Singapore. As Catherine Lim observed, “Singapore is often seen as the creation of the PAP, made to its image and likeness” (Lim, 3 September 1994).

4) In contrast to a “masculine” state that possesses universal vision, the people are presented as selfish, ignorant, deficient, dangerous and “feminine,” and thus cannot be trusted with matters of public significance unless tightly supervised by state-approved committees (Woo and Goh, 2007).

5) Civil society actors who [challenge the state’s] authority – as a wife might challenge her husband’s authority – will [be] derogatorily described as hysterical, and treated with condescension, ridicule, reproach or even punishment.

6) In her second commentary, Lim further elaborated on the “great affective divide” but introduced a second related thesis: that then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong’s promise of a more open, consultative, kinder, and gentler style of government was being “subsumed under” his colossal predecessor Lee Kuan Yew’s authoritarian style.

7) The prime minister’s press secretary, Chan Heng Wing (4 December 1994), wrote a letter to The Straits Times the following week. His tone, in stark contrast to Lim’s, was defensive, mocking, harsh and foreboding. His ad hominem arguments belittled her analysis by suggesting that the novelist could not tell the difference between “real life” and “fiction” and that she demonstrated a “poor understanding of what leaders in government have to do.”

8) [Chan] maintained that the prime minister welcomed “alternative viewpoints” only if they were correct ones.

9) Thus, public consultation was not meant to serve as a process of decision-making, but as a propaganda tool for getting people to buy into what had already been decided by the state.

10) The Straits Times then published a number of letters from Singaporeans who came to Lim’s defence, including the leader of an opposition party who argued that:

The PAP’s attitude towards criticism is wrong. . .The Government should accept criticism as a form of feedback. / The PAP has not changed. Its leaders still believe that if you are not with them, you are against them. How should ordinary people criticise the Government then?
(Jimmy Tan, 7 December 1994).

11) In his reply to Lim’s apology, the prime minister explained that his response was aimed at getting Singaporeans to “know where the limits of open and consultative government lie.” [He introduced] a golfing metaphor – “Out-of-Bound” (OB) markers – to signify these political limits, a metaphor that has come to dominate contemporary discourse on Singapore’s public sphere.

12) [Lim] was transformed [into] an uncouth, insolent, insubordinate, immoral, traitorous and dangerous woman who dared to overstep her boundaries in traditional Asian (read patriarchal) society. . .a vocal Catherine Lim was presented as a westernised monster threatening to devour the values of Asian civilisation.

13) The state, perhaps, did not want to have to deal with Lim’s inconvenient message, or it chose to focus not on a woman’s substance but on her manner and tone.

14) In parliament, the prime minister described Lim’s political commentaries and criticism from other Singaporeans as an “attack” that the government would have to reciprocate: “If you land a blow on our jaw, you must expect a counter-blow on your solar plexus” (quoted in The Straits Times, 24 January 1995).

15) Outdoing his successor yet again, the “formidable PAP juggernaut” [Goh Chok Tong] raged against Lim, employing a battery of [violent metaphors] to reinforce his point:

Everybody now knows that if you take on the PM, he will have to take you on. . . If he didn’t, then more people will throw darts, put a little poison on the tip and throw them at him. And he’ll have darts sticking all over him.
[. . . ]
everybody knows if I say that we are going in a certain direction and that we’re going to achieve this objective, if you set out to block me, I will take a bulldozer and clear the obstruction.
[. . . ]
The PM has to carry his own big stick, or have someone carry it, because now it’s his policy and his responsibility to see his policy through. I would isolate the leaders, the troublemakers, get them exposed, cut them down to size, ridicule them, so that everybody understands that it’s not such a clever thing to do. Governing does not mean just being pleasant.
[. . . ]
You will not write an article – and that’s it. One-to-one on TV. You make your point and I’ll refute you. . . Or if you like, take a sharp knife, metaphorically, and I’ll take a sharp knife of similar size; let’s meet. Once this is understood, it’s amazing how reasonable the argument can become.

16) Writing about [LKY’s] eternal/paternal dominance over the nation’s history [and] self-understandings, Souchou Yao argues that the Father’s refusal to die – in his promise to rise from the grave – will stunt the growth of an already immature citizenry, preventing the “coming of a new epoch” by preserving the overcompensating logic of economic competition.

17) [Singapore’s stern father] consistently infantilises Singaporeans by insisting that they are not yet ready for liberalisation and democratisation, especially when they threaten to de-centre the PAP from its position of power.

18) [The Catherine Lim affair points] out the potential of a strategy of assuming the feminine role deliberately and even excessively, and in that role proactively criticising the state in a gently ‘‘spousal’’ way to make a strongly argued point without incurring the state’s full-blown violence.

19) Catherine Lim was able to expose the unconscionable violence of a patriarchal state without being destroyed by it, raise sympathy for the underdog, and mobilise forces of resistance against an authoritarianism through which such high-handed threats of violence were possible.

20) Her potentially castrating actions also set the stage for a state that defined itself in the hyper-masculine terms of rationality and self-control to behave – ironically – in a melodramatic, overly-emotional and even hysterical fashion that would have readily been associated with a debased femininity.

21) Catherine Lim’s affair with the state in 1994 was a “three-steps forward, two-steps-back dance” – but the net movement was still forward.

Source: “Who’s Afraid of Catherine Lim? The State in Patriarchal Singapore,” by Kenneth Paul Tan (2009)

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KENNETH PAUL TAN is Vice Dean (Academic Affairs) and Associate Professor at Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore, where he has taught since 2007. His publications include journal articles and book chapters on democracy, civil society, media and multiculturalism.

Kenneth Online: Facebook | | LKYSPP | Interview


Snapshot with Catherine Lim (2015)

CATHERINE LIM’s works deal largely with the East-West divide, Asian culture, women’s issues, as well as Singapore’s culture, history and politics. She has won national and regional book prizes, and was made a Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters by the French Ministry of Culture and Information. (bio from SWF)

Catherine Online: Website | Wikipedia | Interview | Excerpts | “A Great Affective Divide”

4 thoughts on “Excerpts from “Who’s Afraid of Catherine Lim?”

  1. It’s petty much the modus operandi for the PAP isn’t it?

    We see it here in their attack of Catherine Lim, instead of addressing the issues that were brought up by her analysis they painted her as a threat to “Asian Values” (whatever the hell those are, probably condoning child abuse by victim blaming the child).

    Amos Yee gets painted as a mentally unstable delinquent.

    Chee Soon Juan as a psycho thug gangster, ironic since the words LKY said to deter opposition paints himself as a psycho thug gangster with talks of “cul de sac” and what not, projection mayhaps?

    I’m sure even Roy had his fair share of ad homs directed to him by the PAP.
    Sadly I can’t say I know much about Roy, his saga happened when I was overseas.

    They’ve just shown themselves to be nothing more than a bunch of circle jerking politicians who treat the country as a business outlet, one we the ordinary citizens have no say in.


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