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: Academia.edu

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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)

PDF Download: Academia.edu

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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 | Academia.edu | 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”

Excerpts from “Meritocracy and Elitism”


Excerpts from “Meritocracy and Elitism in a Global City: Ideological Shifts in Singapore”

by Kenneth Paul Tan (2008)

PDF Link to Journal Article: Academia.edu

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1. Meritocracy: Government or the holding of power by people selected on the basis of their ability.

2. Elitism: The advocacy or existence of an elite as a dominating element in a system or society.

Extracts from Article:

1) In practice, meritocracy is often transformed into an ideology of inequality and elitism.

2) Robert Klitgaard (1986: 1) discusses how [meritocracy] gets co-opted by the winners, who then become an elitist, “self-conscious, exploitative ruling minority” bent on perpetuating their power and prestige.

3) (cont.) Elitism sets in when the elite class develops an exaggerated “in-group” sense of superiority, a dismissive attitude toward the abilities of those who are excluded from this in-group, a heroic sense of responsibility for the well-being of what the in-group “laments” as the “foolish” and “dangerous” masses, and a repertoire of self-congratulatory public gestures to maintain what is sometimes merely a delusion of superiority.

4) Conspicuously wide income and wealth gaps, instead of serving as an incentive, can breed a culture of resentment [and] disengagement among the system’s losers.

5) Not only has the term “meritocracy” become enshrined and celebrated as a dominant cultural value in Singapore, it has also come to serve as a complex of ideological resources for justifying authoritarian government and its pro-capitalist orientations.

6) Through its long incumbency, the PAP has secured important structural and tactical advantages such as effective control of the mass media, civil service, and para-political grassroots networks. . .a meritocratic electoral process would need to be more adequately competitive to provide an incentive for the “best” people (regardless of social background, ideological inclination, and party affiliation) to come forward and serve as political leaders.

7) Although relentlessly elitist in its recruitment of parliamentary candidates where qualifications and achievements are concerned, the PAP has maintained that its candidates come from all walks of life.

8) To legitimize its choices, meritocracy must demonstrate not only that the “best” are chosen, but also that the “best” can be drawn from any social background.

9) A meritocracy that defines merit almost exclusively in terms of educational and professional qualifications and commercial success has made the traditional PAP-controlled grassroots sector seem much less relevant and effective in contemporary public life.

10) James Cotton (1993: 10–11) observes that the “[PAP] party has … become a shell, a convenient electoral machine for maintaining in office an elite which is ultimately self-selected, self-promoted and self-defined.

11) In a study of the structure of government-linked companies (GLCs) in the early 1990s, Werner Vennewald (1994) observed a high concentration of control in the hands of a small number of permanent secretaries, the powerful civil service chiefs who tend to hold multiple and interconnected directorships of various public-sector bodies and committees. . .Ross Worthington (2003) [concludes] that state-society relations in Singapore are “elitist and oligarchic” with community organizations, trade unions, and industry associations negligibly represented in GLCs.

12) Insisting that PAP government decisions are the best possible ones generates a false sense of security and a general feeling that there is no need to keep a watchful eye on the daily business of government. Such conditions open the way to serious mistakes and corrupt practices in the future.

13) The PAP government is popularly perceived, even by its many admirers, as arrogant, insensitive, compassionless, and convinced of its own superiority, what Ezra Vogel (1989: 1053) calls a “macho-meritocracy.” Vogel also observes how meritocracy emits an “aura of special awe for the top leaders … [which] provides a basis for discrediting less meritocratic opposition almost regardless of the content of its arguments.”

14) As the long-time political winners, the PAP has been able to define merit in Singapore’s politics [and] influence strongly the people’s understanding of who deserves to win. Through higher monetary deposit requirements and increasingly stringent qualifying criteria for various elected positions in government, the PAP has also been able to influence the question of who can afford and qualify to stand for elections.

15) Veteran journalist Seah Chiang Nee (2006) observes how only “a few newer MPs are social workers or people with good community links, but compassion, charity and humility generally rank low in priority in a candidate’s qualities.”

16) The idea that money will draw the “best” people into politics and give them fewer reasons to be corrupt ignores the possibility of people going into politics for the “wrong” reasons: the lure of personal prestige and monetary gain can produce a dangerously intelligent and self-interested class of political elites who will readily compromise the national interest to satisfy their own needs and who will have the unchecked power to do this indefinitely.

17) Through encounters with alternative political websites, the disadvantaged and the disenchanted learn to articulate their condition in ways that the official discourse of meritocracy has excluded.

18) As the economic and political elite are rewarded (or are rewarding themselves) with larger prizes, a vast and visible inequality of outcomes will replace the incentive effect with a sense of resentment [among] those who perceive themselves as systematically disadvantaged.

19) As public-sector careers become more lucrative, civil service and ministers’ salaries will [turn] into a preoccupation with staying in power mainly for the money and achieving this through image politics, vote-buying, and so on.

Source: “Meritocracy and Elitism in a Global City: Ideological Shifts in Singapore,” by Kenneth Paul Tan (2008)

PDF Download: Academia.edu

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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 | Academia.edu | LKYSPP | Interview