Individuals Explored: A Conversation with Suchen Christine Lim

Suchen Christine Lim is a writer who is a recipient of the S.E.A. Write Award and many other accolades. In particular, she is also the recipient of the first Singapore Literature Prize. Born in Malaysia, she arrived in Singapore at the age of 14. Hanniel Lim interviews the writer for Tembusu’s Inaugural Dinner for Academic Year 2019/2020.

How did you end up in Singapore?

I was from Malaysia. I arrived in Singapore as a teenager—a long time ago, just before Singapore became independent, in the 1960’s.

We are currently having the Bicentennial this year. What do you feel about Singapore’s journey?

I think we have made really wonderful progress. When I first arrived, Singapore was grey and rat-infested. When you ate chao fan or char kway teow in Chinatown, you might see a rat peeping over your neighbour’s plate. [both laugh] We accepted it without making a hoo-ha or calling the police.

However, I remember feeling very miserable because Singapore was so flat compared to Malaysia. There were no hills. And now, not so much greenery. But if I had stayed on in Malaysia, I don’t think I would have had a chance to enter university, because of their policies concerning the different ethnic groups in Malaysia. So coming to Singapore gave me a chance to pursue an education.

Currently, we have rising concerns about inequality in Singapore. Do you think that Singapore has opportunities for everyone today?

Not quite sure. There are things in the system that might make it quite difficult for a poor person without the social capital, without the parents, without the money. Although there are many bursaries and subsidies to apply for, if you can’t read regulations properly, it might be very difficult.

I think what you have brought up is spot on. In fact, I am currently on a lot of financial aid in NUS, and there is a lot of bureaucracy.

Are you applying?

Yes, and I have to apply every year. And it can get very difficult. For example, sometimes my brother is unemployed, and if his unemployment coincides with the application period, I would have to declare all the household bills for the entire year. So it can get really scary.

Which means that even though you are a university student, you find it difficult. You’ll have to make sure you collect all the bills, listings, and whatever, so that you have evidence.

So you see what I mean by systemic difficulties built by bureaucrats who have not experienced the same needs. No matter how good their intentions, sometimes it cannot meet the needs, isn’t it?

I’m glad you have the experience—not that I’m glad [both laugh], but relieved that you can confirm the experience; it is not just out of a writer’s head.

Can I ask, are you born in Singapore?

Yes I am.

You say your brother is sometimes unemployed—is he the sole breadwinner?

Well, my mother passed away a few years ago. So we do have some savings that are left behind. We try to make the most of it. However, my father is already of age, unable to do much work. I do work on the side. I think my brother is having a really difficult time; he goes for therapy. I wouldn’t say he is a breadwinner, but we try to work things out.

I wish you well. Indeed, things can be worked out. I suppose the difficulties a person might face is that you can have someone with the same talent in a richer family so they don’t have to struggle with buying the books or thinking of the next term’s fees. Whereas someone on bursaries has to think of these issues like budgeting despite receiving aid.

I remember being really stressed out about money in National Service. I would not stay out and would usually eat in camp in order to save money.

Can I give you some hope and advice? Especially as an older person who has experienced difficulties. If we go through it, it makes us stronger. It makes us more sympathetic. Don’t let it harden you. It can make us sceptical and cynical about things. There is a Chinese saying that heaven will give you the things that you can bear and makes you strong.

Speaking of hardships making people cynical, I am considering the issue of inequality and hardship in a converse way. Do you think this generation, as much as it cares about inequality, is also becoming envious and unforgiving?

Do you mean the younger generation?

Yes, my generation.

Well, people who grew up with less would not expect the world or other people to provide for them. They would provide for themselves. We have to be independent. But at the same time, I wouldn’t tar a whole generation. I mean there are people like you, you know, who gives me faith in the next generation. And the people who write and those who struggle to help set up charities.

True, at the same time, my generation is getting more involved with humanitarian work.

I’ll talk in terms of subject: sociology, history, science, etc. You look at objects and people and society as a general whole, as a mass. Whereas if we read a novel, if we read literature, we look at the individuals. No matter how insignificant that individual might be in the eyes of society, the novelist can give him significance. He plays the hero, he’s the centre-stage, or he’s an anti-hero, and we see into the human heart, and not just talk about “this generation”, or “these people in society”—not in generalizations. So we need to see people as individuals and every individual is important.

Speaking of the power of literature, what do you think of the decline of the humanities, especially in the pre-university level.

I think it’s the next generation’s loss. It might be the short-sightedness of some parents or some educators when they do not encourage the study of the humanities. I think the reading of longer forms—I was just talking to somebody about it—we tend to read short texts now because of social media. Facebook is that one-screen page. Beyond that, you can’t get their attention. And they go for photographs, and those icons—what do you call that?


Yes, emojis [both laugh] to express feelings. Which is sad! It becomes robotic! A robot can do emojis very well. The only things that make us human and help us retain our humanity is the ability to think deeply from many angles and to be able to express this in a coherent—to put it this way—”essay”. We’re the only species who can write an essay, or story, or novel, or any long text. And the robots are only able to write very short text.

Do you find that this makes the current polarization in politics worse? I find that on both sides today, that people seem to be talking over each other and are unable to relate to each other.

[laughter] Are you talking about Trump and America and China?

Even in Singapore too! For example, over the issue of inequality we were talking about, I am caught in a tension between being thankful for the opportunities for being Singaporean while also acknowledging the issues of inequality. But sometimes it can be difficult to find people who can embrace the tension.

Unfortunately, we’re short on time. To close off, what advice would you give to young people today? When we are worried about inequality, what do you think are some principles that could guide us? When are we pursuing equality too far? What is the line between concern and envy?

If the person does not have wants what the other person has, and he goes out to steal or cheat, that would not be fair. And if the person who has and wants more, more, and more—like “America First”—then it creates a lot of problems for others and it is unjust, and greedy. So I look at Trump’s policy of America First, and you see how many problems he has created. The world is less safe because of what he has done.

My advice to students would be: You have to choose. There is a moral cost in our choices.

Thank you so much for your time.

I wish you all the best. Are you the editor?

Yes, I am the editor.

I hope you write one day. It won’t have to be novels, it could be non-fiction.

I’ve written some poems.

We need people who can write good articles.

This article is part of a series of interviews of Singapore’s cultural icons who were guests for Tembusu’s Inaugural Dinner for Academic Year 2019/2020. See the other interviews here.

Header and feature images by Malcolm Fu.

About the interviewer

Hanniel Lim is a Year 2 NUS student. Somehow, he still hasn’t declared his major.