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Catherine Lim, one of Singapore's most outspoken novelists, poses in front of a traditional Chinese painting in her home.

Luis D'Orey/Reuters/Luis D'Orey/Reuters

Catherine Lim still can't believe the fuss she caused. The idea that she helped provoke a quiet revolution in this city-state - one that 17 years later has shaken the ruling People's Action Party to its foundations - reduces the pixyish 68-year-old to shoulder-shaking giggles.

"Who says that?" she says in her breathlessly rapid-fire English when she stops laughing. She doesn't wait for an answer. "Even today, I'm still trying to absorb the impact of that little article."

That little article was published in the fall of 1994 in Singapore's Straits-Times newspaper. In it, Ms. Lim - until then best known as a novelist - committed the shocking act of pointing out that while the long-ruling PAP had done a good job running Singapore's economy, it had done little to endear itself to those it governed. "There is very little in the way of affectionate regard," she wrote.

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It was a truth the government didn't want to hear. In the weeks that followed (and particularly after she wrote an equally blunt follow-up column), Ms. Lim was attacked in print and in person by the government of then-prime minister Goh Chok Tong, who accused her of "demolishing the respect for and standing of the Prime Minister and his government by systematic contempt and denigration in the media" - a serious accusation in a country where government critics often wound up defending themselves in court on charges of libel, or worse.

Suddenly, Ms. Lim's columns weren't welcomed by the Straits Times any more. She was told that she had angered the country's paramount political figure, Lee Kuan Yew, the country's authoritarian founder who once said "if you are a trouble maker … it's our job to politically destroy you."

"I understand [why the government was angry] I knew that what I had done - which seemed innocuous to Western eyes - was to them a gross violation of the Confucianist ethos" of respecting your seniors and superiors, Ms. Lim explained in an interview Friday.

Flash forward to 2011, and Ms. Lim has reason for her good humour. The recent elections - which saw a best-ever result for the opposition - saw criticism of the government become commonplace on the Internet and particularly on social-media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. During the campaign, Ms. Lim, who now blogs on her own website (, saw her writing "go viral, I think that's the word," she says with another giggle. Political scientists credit her with helping get out the youth vote, which swung heavily behind the opposition.

In the aftermath of the election, Ms. Lim's one-time nemesis, Mr. Lee, resigned from cabinet after more than five decades near the top of Singaporean politics.

Ms. Lim insists she has a lot of respect for the man credited as the founder of modern Singapore. In the days after the election, she wrote a one-person play based on Mr. Lee, thinly disguised as the character "Supremo."

In the play, Supremo has gone into self-imposed isolation, disgusted at what has become of the country he once ruled. But Ms. Lim says it's a sympathetic portrayal of a man who gave everything he had to Singapore. "Any extreme view of Lee Kuan Yew would be inaccurate. … [His record]is so nuanced, so ambiguous."

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But Supremo realized something Ms. Lim says Singaporeans are just discovering in the wake of the May 7 vote. "There is no way to go back to the Lee Kuan Yew period. It's over, over, over."

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About the Author
Senior International Correspondent

Mark MacKinnon is currently based in London, where he is The Globe and Mail's Senior International Correspondent. In that posting he has reported on the Syrian refugee crisis, the rise of Islamic State, the war in eastern Ukraine and Scotland's independence referendum.Mark recently spent five years as the newspaper's Beijing correspondent. More

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