Catherine Lim: responding to comments on my open letter


First published on

Here’s Catherine Lim response to all the comments- critical or supportive- of her recent open letter to the Prime Minister. She wrote the Q and A session with herself on her blog earlier today:

Q: Has the PM replied to your letter to him?
A: No. An open letter doesn’t normally elicit a reply which a private, personal one presumably would. But I didn’t want to do the latter, as I wanted to share my views with as many fellow Singaporeans as possible.

Q: Why did you use this Open Letter format, a marked departure from your usual, formal-essay type commentaries?
A: To convey a sense of directness and urgency, in keeping with the seriousness of the issue discussed in the letter.

Q: Was the Roy Ngerng defamation suit the direct cause of your writing the letter?
A: Actually, it was a series of happenings in the political scene which I had been observing with increasing dismay, culminating with the defamation suit.

Q: Some people are saying that in describing the present situation as a ‘crisis’, you’re being too alarmist since it involves only a minority.
A: It is a crisis, or at least a crisis-in-the-making because if the disgruntlement of a minority of 40% of the electorate in the years leading to the 2011 General Election, had actually resulted in the worst ever performance of the PAP, shocking everybody, its increasingly bolder and more aggressive manifestation today could have even more drastic consequences. In any society, change is always brought about by the vocal minority who act, not the silent majority who don’t.

Q: Graffiti and mass protests are common in every country. Why see them as a ‘crisis’?
A: In Singapore, they are unique and are becoming a new phenomenon in the political landscape. Unlike in other countries where they are an everyday thing, here they signal a degree of resentment never seen before. And one senses, uneasily, that this could be just the beginning.

Q: Shouldn’t Singaporeans be grateful when they compare themselves with people in countries where there is grinding poverty and squalor?
A: It is human nature to compare both downwards and upwards. Those who come home from their travels after seeing standards of living so much below theirs, are usually the grateful haves who can afford frequent travelling abroad. The have-nots see themselves stuck in their own, very real poverty and do a resentful upwards comparison with their well-to-do neighbours.

Overall, there is general indignation against the ‘millionaire ministers’ up there. Lastly, there is a growing sub-group of young, struggling professionals who cannot afford to have their own cars and apartments and do the same bitter comparison with their better-off counterparts in other countries.

Hence, this commonly used ‘you-should-consider-yourself-so-lucky’ argument is a double-edged sword and may not be so convincing after all.

Q: Do you fear any reprisal from the top for this letter?
A: I hope not. I’ve been doing this sort of thing for twenty years now.

Q: The PAP leadership, for all its faults, is a far better government than the horribly corrupt and incompetent ones we see in so many countries in the world today.
A: I think it’s far more useful to benchmark PAP performance against their own promises about improving the well-being of the people and their own past excellent records, than to use some external criteria. No sensible, thinking Singaporean would ever say, ‘As long as the PAP leaders prove to be much better than the rogue governments in the world, we should give them carte blanche to do as they please!’

Q: Surely people are more concerned about bread-and-butter issues, than the human rights of the political detainees you mentioned.
A: Actually human rights which may seem to be remote ideological abstractions are linked to practical, bread-and-butter matters. Indeed, in the end, without the first, you can’t have the second. It was precisely the PAP’s habit of ignoring the voices of the few calling for the right of free expression and open debate, that had led them, in the first place, to have a sense of power and entitlement that, in turn, enabled them to decide, pass, and enact, with greatest ease, one policy after another. Some of these policies badly affected the people’s bread-and-butter, such as the policy allowing an influx of foreign workers.

It’s a long causal chain that people get to see eventually.

Q: Many of your readers have expressed appreciation for your having said so well what they themselves think and feel.
A: I want to thank them for their kind, warm encouragement. I love writing, and the special challenge of exploring and exploiting the vast resources of the English language to express my thoughts and feelings clearly, cogently and, if possible, elegantly.

Q: A few readers have complained about your use of ‘flowery’ words.
A: I try to use words that are precise in meaning and connotation, are just right for their context and convey exactly the intended mood and emotion. Also I avoid repeating key words, and look for good synonyms to use, for better stylistic effect. That means sometimes using words that appear too scholarly, academic, even rarefied, thus giving the impression of pedantry (which is probably what those readers meant by ‘floweriness’)

Q: At the end of your letter, you spoke about an ‘alternative’ that could be ‘just too scary’. Some thought you meant the opposition coming into power. What exactly did you mean?
A: I think my use of the word ‘alternative’ must have immediately made some readers think of ‘an alternative government’, that is, the opposition. What I had meant was the nightmarish scenario of a final showdown between the government and the people, when each side might be pushed to resort to extreme measures which they would later regret.

Q: Isn’t your letter just a bit too long?
A: I was amused by the comment from one reader that this very lengthy letter would surely fail in its purpose because it would put the PM to sleep halfway! Well, I shall have to explain that the topic of my political writing is usually the major one of the rather complex PAP government-people relationship. This topic entails much detailed exposition and analysis, necessarily resulting in a long commentary.

(I am glad that my website manager has very skilfully reduced the tedious effect of the lengthy text by breaking it up with quotes that are tastefully highlighted in blue)

Q: How would you answer those who ask you to get into politics?
A: With an alarmed No! I simply don’t have the talent, temperament or inclination to be a politician.

Q: If you were asked to give your i) most pessimistic ii) most optimistic prediction of this ‘crisis of trust’, what would they be?
A: i) Most pessimistic. The PAP returns to the old, relentless knuckleduster approach and crushes dissident voices so completely that they will never be a threat again.

ii) Most optimistic: The PAP comes to the conclusion that the best legacy which they can leave their successors is to regain and build up the trust of the people, and musters the necessary political will to do this.