Rice Bowl begins polemically, levelling harsh criticisms at Singapore's pragmatic, regulated democracy, particularly for the way its educational system produces conformists rather than thinkers. According to Gopinathan, the educational system enforces "docility, obedience to authority and acceptance of hierarchy" in students (Gopinathan, 1985: 226). All these qualities appear in a scene in which a tape recorder easily substitutes for a university lecturer: "As Dr Jones's voice came over the speakers loud and clear. Marie watched, amazed, for everyone else took up their pens and began to write. No question, no argument, simply acceptance!" (Rice 55). The substitution of a machine for a teacher, as shown by Lim, serves ironically to mirror the transformation of mankind to mechanical automatons, incapable of critical intelligence.
Interaction among people that involves dialogue and questioning can widen their mental horizons But when an automated machine acts as a hub controlling the flow of information, students remain merely passive recipients. Any possibility of weaving a web of interaction between the teacher and students, or among the students themselves, is left totally untapped: their inarticulateness, which renders the whole process of critical thinking dysfunctional, condemns them to a state of intellectual impoverishment. They have become mere processors, not innovators.
Rice Bowl also attacks Singapore for the systematic depoliticisation of its students by perpetuating a crisis mentality. Political opposition is successfully marginalised here as students are indoctrinated with the belief that any attempt on their part to question the authority would weaken the stability of the country. The obsession with security, which Baratham's works also mention, is thus echoed in Lim's first novel:
She hated this society they had built. Built on fear; claustrophobic as garrison with walls going up higher and higher. They were misers grasping, accumulating, perpetually fearing the loss of their hard-won treasures. Their fears condemning the rest to live in prison. (257)
In this passage, the crisis mentality keeps the people in psychological bondage. In Rice Bowl, the fear instilled by crisis mentality sustains the political arder. In doing so, the political leadership has risked turning its citizens into people who are incapable of versatility. Here, characters are shown to fall back on their rigid and decrepit ways owing to the fear of change, and as a result, they have stunted their own psychological growth: "People like you cling to the old structures because you don't believe enough in man that he can rebuild" (49).
Pragmatism, the hallmark of Singapore's political system, also comes under the attack in Rice Bowl. Here, the pragmatic culture is shown to cultivate a nation of materialistic people: "They want flats, they want houses, they want cars, they want money in the banks and they're getting them under this systemw' (144). In this pursuit of material wealth, the development of a socio-political consciousness is subsequently deemed to be of secondary importance.
[This essay has been adapted, with kind permission of the author, from Politics and Self: A Study of Gopal Baratham and Suchen Christine Lim, her 1996 National University of Singapore Master's thesis. GPL]