Introduction to “Humanist of the Year: Catherine Lim”

By Paul Tobin

The word “humanism” originated from the 15th century Italian term umanista – which meant a scholar of classical Greco-Roman literature and its underlying ethical philosophy. By the enlightenment during the 18th century, the word became linked with the concepts / ideals / life stance that we understand today as Humanism. These ideals include (1) the primacy of reason – that evidence, observations and experiment, and rational analysis have the form the grounding for our knowledge (2) a human centered ethics which is based on a spirit of compassions coupled with critical thinking and finally (3) a skepticism and rejection of the supernatural – that life can be happy and meaningful without recourse to superstitions and myths.

Now while the term may be relatively modern, these ideals of humanism go much further back into time. In Greece, we find the Pre-Socratic philosopher Thales of Miletus (c. 624 BC – c. 546 BC) – who rejected mythological explanations for the natural world. He was able to use Babylonian mathematics to predict an eclipse which occurred in 585 BCE. Showing that the world was ordered  and not governed by divine caprice.

But humanist principles are not found only in the west but in other cultures as well. In China, Confucius (551-479 BCE) was already teaching secular ethics to his pupils in the 6thcentury BCE. In India, about 2000 years ago, we find Thiruvalluvar who wrote the Thirukkural which consisted of 1330 coupled written in Tamil treating the issues of ethics,(“aram”), the pursuit of knowledge (“porul”) and relationships (“inbam”) all without recourse to the supernatural.

The Humanist Society (Singapore) is a society dedicated, among other things, to keep these humanist ideals alive and to let the world know of these ideals.  One of the ways we let the society around us know about us and about humanism is to honour those among us who have live a life according to these ideas and whose prominence and impact on society enables them to be examples and ambassadors of humanist principles. Which brings us to Catherine Lim, the recipient for our inaugural Humanist of the Year award.

Dr.Lim who was born in Kulim, Kedah, moved to Singapore after receiving the BA from University Malaya and took up a teaching position.  She received her PhD in linguistics in 1988 and lectured in Socio-lingustics in Regional English language center (RELC).

Her first two books of short stories, Little Ironies: Stories of Singapore(1978) and Or Else, The Lightning God and Other Stories (1980). Both collections had the distinction of being selected as literature texts for the international GCE O’ Level Examinations managed by Cambridge University. Her first publication, Little Ironies, propelled her into the local literary scene and became an instant best-seller. awards.

Her works have since been published internationally, including in France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Israel, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, the UK and USA. They are also studied as literature text in schools and universities.

Her first novel was published in 1982 and it was entitled The Serpent’s Tooth. Other popular books that have been published since then were The Bondmaid (1995) and Following the Wrong God Home (2001).

Catherine has published seven novels, ten collections of short stories, two poetry collections and one semi-philosophical book about philosophy, life and death (Unhurried Thoughts at My Funeral).  Her latest book ‘A Watershed Election’ is a compilation of her political commentaries on the General Election of 2011, published  by Marshall Cavendish’

An article in the National Library Board website describes that Catherine’s “work deals largely with themes such as the east-west- divide, Asian culture, in particular Chinese culture, women’s issues and issues concerning Singapore’s culture, history and politics. As a writer, she would like her stories to convey respect and regard for human values. The independence of the human spirit is also an essential thread running through her works.”

She has received many awards through her writing career, from the National Book Council, Montblanc-NUS Centre for the Arts , from Thailand, from Murdoch University in Australia and from the French Ministry of Culture. She was also appointed ambassador by the Hans Christian Andersen Foundation in Copenhagen.

As a social and political critic, she has written articles for newspaper and in her blog about the hot button issues of the day.  We all know about Catherine locking horns with then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong.  But perhaps less well known is the fact that she is not a blind critic of the status quo. In a recent interview with Today newspaper (May 30th2011), she noted that there are many things RIGHT with Singapore, meritocracy, the emphasis on hard work and discipline.

Dr. Lim was born into a Taoist family. She converted to Catholicism at 15 and gradually evolved into a freethinker and prefers to be called a secular humanist. Catherine views are well known.  In her books such as “Unhurried Thoughts at my Funeral” where she portrays herself as dead and lying in her coffin. In that time, she recalls tales that brings to the forefront ultimate questions about the meaning and purpose of life, whether there is an afterlife, about evil, pain and suffering and how we can conceive of an entity like God in an age of scientific enlightenment.

Catherine also has a very broad interest in the sciences, one reporter noted that “she talks animatedly about quantum physics, genetic engineering and paradigms of the mind”.

More importantly, I think, Catherine emphasizes the HUMAN in humanism. This is what she said about being human:

“I love anything that is human, anything that defines us as human beings with all our flaws, all our struggles, but the thing that I’m most inspired by, the thing that is the whole basis of my spirituality is the conviction that our human spirit will transcend in the end all our little faults and feelings”.

I want to end this introduction with what Catherine told the Today reporter what she wanted to have as her epitath “I have loved and lived life richly and deeply and I embrace its closure with an equal joy.” And don’t we all want to have such a summary for our lives.