The following is an excerpt of an interview with Catherine Lim that was published in the 2010 issue of Social Space Magazine. You can read the rest of it here.


Singapore is a society undergoing transitions. With a burgeoning migrant community, the advent of integrated resorts with casinos and an arguably increasingly effervescent non-profit, civil society sector, Singapore looks to be a society that is rapidly opening up. Yet, as writer and political commentator Catherine Lim controversially proposes, civil society and non-profit activists cannot create change without getting their voices heard and actively participating in the political process. She shares with Social Space, her thoughts on the indispensable ingredients for openness and political engagement in a society that wants to be truly global.

Has Singapore become a more open society?

I think it’s incipient. Things are changing and moving in a positive direction. This has nothing to do with any noble change of mindset on the part of the government. It is the inevitable effect of opening up, which is what the government knows people want. I was surprised to hear the Prime Minister say in January (2010) that he would focus on economic restructuring, addressing demographic changes and “updating the political system.”1 The government is also changing its tack because it knows that the profile of voters has changed. There are many young netizens nowadays and the government knows it has to engage them and win them over. However, it seems to me they are good at giving a semblance of openness without relinquishing much real power. They are not even devious about it! I like them for their honesty and lack of pretense in this respect.

The reason is that our leaders are not comfortable with “mess.” In January (2010), George Yeo made a speech in which he remarked that we must be prepared to have a little bit of messiness.2 This was the first time I have heard a minister say it. But it will still be a controlled mess and for me, that is a mockery. My thesis is this: For the government’s own survival, they need to allow for some disruption, to a degree which they can handle.

As it stands, the environment in this country does not allow for an open discussion of serious matters, let alone disruption. For example, there are no political clubs. In the past we had the Socratic Circle and the Roundtable. Nothing of that kind exists, not even in the universities. There is no foment, no excitement amongst students. To me this apathy is a bad sign because social and political awareness usually begins in the tertiary educational institutions.

Instead, everything is now on the Internet, which I am wary of, because there is a lot of scurrilous rubbish online under the cover of anonymity.

What are the ingredients needed for society to be more open?

A change of mind-set on the part of the government. The media and the related institutions still take their cue from the government, which also needs to change. As for the general community, there are too few voices to really make an impact.

Since 2007, the Economic development Board has been on a strong drive to woo international non-governmental organisations (INGos) to Singapore. does this spell the flowering of the civil society sector?

My concern is that the growth and development you describe is being seen by people as a general opening up. I take great pains to emphasise that this is not the case. The government might even be happy that this is happening because they can retort to naysayers that we are opening up. I feel things are probably worse than before, in that the government is more perturbed now. If such organisations had a mandate to implement change in Singapore, they would not have been allowed into the country in the first place. People have a calculus, an abacus to measure pros and cons. So such organisations see the pros in this country – the rule of law, favourable tax regime, efficiency, the idea that Singapore honours its word and does a great deal of humanitarian work across the world. This does not go unnoticed by organisations that choose to set up in Singapore.

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