Profile: Catherine Lim

Published on 5 January 2016

Author and political commentator Catherine Lim explores a new direction in her writing.

BY Verena Tay

“One day, I met somebody who gave me the best advice. When I was telling him about how I wanted to emulate my friends who were doing such good work in social service, he looked at me and said,  ‘Don’t be stupid, Catherine Lim! Be a first-rate writer rather than a third-rate social worker.’ ”

By heeding this man’s encouragement, Catherine Lim has, indeed, become one of Singapore’s most renowned authors and political commentators over the last few decades. At first, she was a teacher. Then the publication of her first two collections, Little Ironies: Short Stories of Singapore (1978) and Or Else, the Lightning God and Other Stories (1980), not only launched her writing career that now spans more than 20 books, but also revealed her keen ability to observe and reflect life in her fiction. Later, the widespread public and government response to her essay, ‘PAP and the People: A Great Affective Divide’ (1994), gave her the impetus to continue monitoring Singaporean politics.

Explaining what drives her literary and political prose, Lim says, “I’m just passionate about people, what is happening in my country. There is a humanitarian streak in my writing, the need to speak for the people on the fringe.

“The genesis for both types of writing is completely different. The literary is based on inspiration, while the political is based on the need to draw attention to something in our society.

“When I was writing my stories, I was reliving my childhood incidents and I enjoyed sharing stories, telling stories, knowing that my audience would appreciate my stories. As a political commentator, I derived satisfaction from being aware of developments and sharing with Singaporeans who were equally concerned and who appreciated the role that I was playing.”

Now aged 73, Lim senses she will no longer be writing the same kind of novels or short stories that her readers are familiar with. She says, “I am going onto a higher level, more philosophical, even metaphysical, a mixture of fact and fiction in a broad context of space and time. This is a very nice period where I’ve opened my mind and am waiting for the ‘Eureka moment’.”

Lim has also established a new focus: mentoring. For instance, between August and November last year, she helped 20 people aged between 14 and 66 hone their skills in argumentative writing.

“Every week, I’m meeting up with young people,” she adds. “It’s very important for young people to talk to seniors, people with experience. Just to talk, even if I don’t have the solutions to the problem. I suppose I’m a kind of mentor, counsellor, confidante.”

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