[Singaporean Literature]

Strong Leadership and the Catherine Lim Case

George P. Landow, Professor of English and Art History, Brown University; Distinguished Visiting Professor, National University of Singapore, 1998-1999

According to Lee Kuan Yew: The Man and His Ideas, he had long pondered "the nature of leadership and how this related to the needs, desires and aspirations of a people" [126], concluding that Singapore and other Asian nations required firm leadership to produce essential social and political stability. In describing Lee's "political beliefs, leadership style and public persona," his biographers emphasize that "as the island republic's elected head of government, he was decidedly in charge. Critics and those who opposed him knew they would be countered without compunction. He once remarked that if he found an obstacle in the way of a policy or goal he thought needed to be achieved, he would not hesitate to run a bulldozer to clear the way."

As an example the authors cite the 1994 "case of Dr Catherine Lim," whom they describe interestingly only as "a Singapore academic." According to Lee Kuan Yew, Lim "wrote a series of critical commentaries on Lee's successor as prime minister, Goh Chok Tong. Many believed she was unlikely to have penned the piece if Lee were still at the helm." The Senior Minister himself has stated:

Supposing Catherine Lim was writing about me and not the prime minister . .. She would not dare, right? Because my posture, my response has been such that nobody doubts that if you take me on, I will put on knuckle-dusters and catch you in a cul de sac . . . Anybody who decides to take me on needs to put on knuckle dusters. If you think you can hurt me more than I can hurt you, try. There is no other way you can govern a Chinese society.

"Not for him," his biographers conclude," the notion that all men yearned for democratic freedoms, prizing free speech and the vote over other needs such as economic development. Asian societies, he contended, were different, having evolved separately from the West over the centuries. [126]

This account of the Lim case in Lee Kuan Yew: The Man and His Ideas raises some interesting points, the first of which is what, if anything, did the Singaporean government do to Catherine Lim? (One does know that she no longer either teaches applied linguistics or has a newspaper column.) What effect, if any, has this 1994 incident had upon her subsequent fiction? Furthermore, why do you suppose the authors of Lee's biography describe Lim, one of Singapore's best known and most prolific writers, solely in terms of her former academic position? Finally, what role does this incident tell us about Singapore's "culture of caution."


Han Fook Kwang, Warren Fernandez, Sumiko Tan. Lee Kuan Yew: The Man and His Ideas. Singapore: Times, 1998.

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