Sunday, May 29, 2011

I have loved and lived

She may be pushing 70 but the effervescent author and political commentator - who recently grabbed attention with her blog posts on the General Election - has a zest for life that puts someone half her age to shame, Crispina Robert discovers

by Crispina Robert

May 29, 2011

Dr Catherine Lim saunters into the lovely wood-panelled Astor Bar at the St Regis eight minutes earlier than scheduled. She is immediately recognisable with her short cropped hair and dazzling smile. But more than her diminutive figure, our eyes fall on what she wears - an off-shoulder pearl-encrusted white blouse that not only shows off her tiny waist but, oddly, is both dramatic and appropriate for drinks at a six-star hotel.

I remark that it is a lovely top and she promptly launches into a story about how, in its previous life, it was the wedding gown of a former student. The original owner had outgrown it and Dr Lim, who clearly loathes trashing things of beauty, swooped in, cut off the bottom and made it into a blouse that is getting all the attention its new owner desires.

And in her slim-cut black slacks, heels and fire-engine red lipstick, at 69, Dr Lim still turns heads.

"Make sure you step on a scale every day,'' she says when I ask how she manages to look so trim and healthy.

Dr Catherine Lim Poh Imm, arguably Singapore's best-known author, is an intriguing study in contrasts as our nearly three-hour dinner demonstrates: She is at once a formidable intellectual (she talks animatedly about quantum physics, genetic engineering and paradigms of the mind), yet possesses a coquettish femininity that shows up in the way she admires a beautifully arranged dish or elegantly applies a fresh coat of lipstick in the middle of the conversation.

The eighth of 14 children to an accountant father and housewife mother, Dr Lim came to Singapore from Penang in her mid-20s to do her post-graduate degree in Applied Linguistics at the National University of Singapore. She began teaching English (in her family, the women are always either nurses or teachers she says) and by this time, she was married and had two children: Daughter, Jean, 45, now a doctor in Hong Kong, and Peter, 43, a journalist in the United States.

But that is probably where the ordinary story of a typical civil servant with 2.0 children living in a middle-income suburb ends. Feeling increasingly unhappy, Dr Lim decided to end her marriage. In the early '80s, it wasn't the done thing but she explains that she saw marriage as an "institution that was thumbing me down".

Looking back, she feels her ex-husband simply married the wrong woman. "Poor man, he should have married someone less problematic!" she says with a laugh. She also decided to leave the Civil Service (yet another "institution") and become a full-time writer, especially after her first novel Little Ironies in 1978 proved a hit.

Since then she has published 19 books, but her most famous piece came in 1994 when she wrote The PAP and the People: A Great Affective Divide, published by The Straits Times. This was followed by another article, One Government, Two Styles, which earned a searing rebuke from the Government, then headed by Mr Goh Chok Tong.


In 2007, she took her work online and lately, her blog posts on the General Election have gained her renewed attention.

Politics is clearly a passion with Dr Lim and she launches into mini monologues about the recent election. She takes the trouble to explain that it's not about any vindication of her own views but that, within the space of a fortnight, the political landscape in Singapore had shifted permanently.

"I am not one to go for rallies but I could feel a palpable sense of change in the air," says Dr Lim, who adds that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's apology midway through the hustings cemented her suspicions about how this was a completely different election.

She says a confluence of factors - a young, sophisticated electorate that compares upwards (to mature democracies not struggling nations), the impact of the Internet and the strength of the Opposition - came together in one heady mix, leading to the loss of a Group Representation Constituency, the first in Singapore's electoral history.

Despite these shifts in the political landscape, she has some niggling worries about the long-term outcome.

"There are many sound things about the Singapore system - meritocracy, the emphasis on hard work and discipline - don't throw these away! I am very scared now on behalf of the administration, the expectations are so high, poor thing ... give them time for goodness' sake. Sometimes a problem can only be solved incrementally,'' she says seriously.

It surprises me that she takes no pleasure in saying see-I-told-you-so. In fact, she feels very strongly that, in a crisis-ridden world, a strong government is crucial.

"The Western model of liberal democracy is declining and developing nations are looking for an alternative system,'' she says, adding that Singapore is poised to develop a unique political system that marries strong governance with free market capitalism.

"I sincerely hope they don't throw the baby out with the bathwater,'' she says on the desire for change.


But her truest allegiance to her adopted land is how, despite many opportunities to make her life elsewhere, Dr Lim has stayed put.

"This is testament to the PAP Government and I will say it - I cannot imagine living anywhere else. This place works, it is clean, my phone can be fixed in half a day and I can take a cab home at 2am without worrying about my safety."

Indeed, her charmed life in a District 10 apartment where she lives alone is one filled with purpose. She is planning to write two more essays on the GE and is working on a book of 33 short stories. She cooks her own meals, heads to the gym twice a week and has a busy social life filled with lunches and dinners with girlfriends, family and yes, it is true, the many suitors who want her attention.

I ask her why she hasn't remarried and she shakes her head vigorously, "Oh no! That's not for me. I rather enjoy my freedom and independence. Besides, after a while I get a little bored, to be honest!"

While she is busy with life, Dr Lim is under no illusions that death might come suddenly or illness might rob her of her fierce independent spirit. She has given her children specific instructions on what to do. "No heroic measures to keep me alive and please, no wake or funeral - Catherine Lim is the mind!

"I don't want people coming to look at a dead piece of meat in a coffin. They can have a memorial but it must be happy and elegant. I told my daughter, don't serve cheap wine or curry puffs but champagne and catered food!" she says, chuckling uproariously.

And, ever the perfectionist writer (she makes endless rewrites to get prepositions right), she has penned her own obituary. Isn't it a little morbid? I ask her.

"Oh, not at all! There is no fear. My epitaph: I have loved and lived life richly and deeply and I embrace its closure with an equal joy," she says, repeating the line twice for effect. "Do you like it?'' she asks, not really waiting for an answer because she knows it is true, all 18 carefully chosen words.

[She is a better Singaporean than me. I trust the PAP because I am not as smart as them and I trust that they are doing the right thing and most of the time, they are. But certainly they are not perfect and perhaps they have gone off-track. Catherine Lim is a better Singaporean than me because while she is clearly appreciative of the PAP, she is not uncritical of them. And so because she can appreciate and be critical, she is a better Singaporean than me.]

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