Singapore author Catherine Lim pens open letter to PM Lee

Catherine Lim receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award from Chiam See Tong and his wife, Lina Chiam. (Yahoo! photo)

"Dear Mr Prime Minister, we are in the midst of a crisis,” writes Singapore author and political commentator Catherine Lim.

In a commentary published on her site on Saturday morning, Lim voiced her concern that “the people no longer trust their government, and the government no longer cares about regaining their trust”.  

Lim, an acclaimed fiction writer, had in 1994 written a piece in The Straits Times that drew criticism from former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, among other political commentaries she has published since then.

She noted that citizens have taken to the streets in “high-visibility, high-risk protest never seen before”, for instance in the use of graffiti, “strident” online criticism despite government warnings and threats, as well as an increased frequency of mass gatherings at Hong Lim Park’s Speakers’ Corner.

“With utmost respect, Sir, I must point out that it is ultimately your inability or unwillingness to listen to the people,” she wrote. “After your initial show of contrition and your ardent promises of change (immediately after the general election of 2011)… your government now seems to be hardening its position and going back to the old PAP (People’s Action Party) reliance on a climate of fear.”

Lim addressed PM Lee’s ongoing assessment of damages suit with blogger Roy Ngerng, saying, “While you see yourself as simply going by the rules, Singaporeans see you as the PAP juggernaut ready to mow down the little people in its path”.

Gives credit to government

She lauded the government’s efforts to improve the lives of people since 2011, however, noting the changes in jobs, transport, housing, education and recreation that have pointed the country in a positive direction. To this, though, she also observed the evolving expectations of younger citizens, who “are seeing these so-called achievements (of the PAP government) as no more than what is owing to them from leaders who have chosen to pay themselves handsomely to do their job”.

“The expectations of the people, especially the young, go well beyond material needs, to encompass the long-denied need for freedom of expression, open debate and public assembly,” she said.

'Hard truths' for the PAP to face

In her piece, Lim called for the PAP leadership to make “true change”, which goes beyond anecdotes in speeches and occasionally appearing at hawker centres or the MRT.

“It has to be no less than paradigmatic, enacted at a much higher level of sincere purpose backed up by sincere action, no matter how difficult,” she wrote. “Only then can there be an overhaul of old mindsets and habits of governance, no matter how valued.”

She also argued, among other things, that statements made by PM Lee exhorting people to various objectives “will only fall on deaf ears, or worse, be construed as no more than PR announcements of much pretension and little worth”.

Lim then calls on PM Lee to “initiate change and sustain it”, and with a real intention for reform — calling the “Our Singapore Conversation” effort last year “a less-than-genuine effort”, given that the government has appeared to “shrug off the indifferent results”.

She also drew attention to voices like Professor Tommy Koh’s and PAP Member of Parliament Lily Neo, who discouraged the use of the defamation suit and suggested the need for better listening and communication with the people respectively. “It may be a good thing to start listening to them in order to start listening to the people,” she added.

Lim’s piece was on Saturday and Sunday morning shared widely on social media, garnering some 180 comments by Sunday noon.

Former Straits Times editor Bertha Henson posted her views on the letter on Saturday, voicing her agreement with Lim on the point of ministerial salaries.

“The relationship between ruler and ruled has become a transaction. Leaders are just contractors whom we pay to do a good job,” she wrote on her Facebook page in a public post. “I know one reason for high pay is to keep our politics ‘clean’. But I think it has come at the expense of trust and regard that people have for political leaders. Now which is more important?”