The Inconsistent Story of Mr Richard Lim
Life! editor nonetheless remains engaging
By Cyril Wong
Life! and Sunday Plus editor Richard Lim’s collection of essays and articles gathered from his columns in these Straits Times sections is an inconsistent read.
The author claims to be one of the few writers from the generation of babyboomers born between 1946 and 1964 in Singapore who experienced, in his words, “the transformation of Singapore from Third World to First”. The essays in this book are divided into sections, of which the last is the least personal, dealing with socio-political themes and bordering occasionally on the propagandistic. The first section, “A Day in the Life,” is marked deeply by nostalgia and a personal agenda to retrieve some important lesson from the past.
An essay such as “A grave concern for an old man” about the author’s relationship with his grandfather works because of the personal tone of the writing. Due to the familiarity of the essay’s social context and the honesty of its straightforward prose, Singaporean readers will readily appreciate the author’s sense of regret and loss from having not appreciated the traditional values represented by his grandfather. A fun, anecdotal piece, “Trendies and a mummy”, about a mummy from an Orchard Road nightclub, is a delightful read particularly for its candid and personal narration. I especially like how the piece starts with a critical description of the hip and cosmopolitan pretensions present in a contemporary nightclub in Singapore like Branigan’s, which serves as a contrast to the later evocation of a nightclub which existed since the 50s. It is a skilfully economical way of representing how much has changed, as well as not changed, over the years.
The blurb by Lynn Pan on the cover of the book claims that casual journalism strikes a serious note most tellingly “when the touch is light”. However, there are essays in this book which are weak precisely because the topics they cover are dealt with too slightly. “The face that launched 1,000 junks” for example, a piece on the Kiu Long Tong Temple, leaves little impression. The essay has a weak linking motif about Ma Chor, a deity whom fisherfolk pray to for their safety, which occurs at the start and at the end of the piece. The story centres primarily on the chairman of the temple and his commitment to keeping its activities alive. The essay is not memorable and the allusions to superstition and clanship do not adequately cohere with each other.
The best essays, in my opinion, are “Time not spent with others, life not shared” and “Smack and the mortal being” from the second part of the book, “Life Within”. The former piece deals with Lim’s literary leanings and how they prevent him from sharing his life with others. It is a touching piece for the author’s ability to turn his critical eye upon himself and for the ambivalence at the end of the essay, where the tension between living in books and living for others is unresolved. “Smack and the mortal being” is a great piece about death and the preciousness of life, with a discussion on the nature of flu, drugs, monkhood, and the passing of youth. The themes are almost epic in their scope, but they are put across with great economy and at an unhurried pace.
Other essays in the collection, particularly those in “Life Outside”, deal with the author’s obsession with Buddhism and the attaining of kensho (a Zen-state of insight into a reality without words) with brief accounts of experiences abroad, such as being a priest for a week in Tokyo, or riding up the mountains in Sri Lanka. Insightful nuggets of information about the places Lim has been to and what he has learnt make such accounts worthwhile and engaging-enough reads.
Brimming with literary references, which sometimes serve only to draw attention to the fact that the author is well read, the essays often get bogged down by the weight of so many allusions. They may only serve as educational bits of information for readers who have not read as much as Lim. Such allusions, however, are more than appropriate for the essays in the section, “A Life in Books,” which deal with such famous writers as Conrad and Hesse. The reverential pieces on V. S. Naipaul and the New York Times book reviewer Anatole Broyard are almost powerful as they explore how life may gain significance and meaningfulness via literature.
Interestingly, a Freudian or psychoanalytical perspective of some of the essays in this book might reveal a libidinous propensity to dwell on issues of carnal desires and female sexuality. “Going to the mountains”, which deal with the dangers of living in movies and books and the author’s ongoing search for inner peace, ends with the image of Dai women entering a lake, “(g)loriously naked”, in a kind of cleaning ritual. The author dwells on their innocence, on their peaceful enjoyment of the moment of cleaning, then writes about the desire to go naked too and enter the water with them. In “A touch of Zen – or a woman’s hand”, the author reveals that one of his key reasons for seeking enlightenment is to escape carnal desires. In “Tomako, Noriko, Mariko”, he dwells on the character of Tomako and the unforgettable image of her running towards him, while elsewhere in the essay, he is drawn to Noriko’s legs, as well as her “forthrightness”.
The last section of the book, “National Life”, is the least convincing of all, although interesting for its socio-cultural allusions and commentary. With such high regard for the local government and its iconic ex-leader, Lee Kuan Yew, the essays often suffer from flawed logic and poor argument. In “The consistent story of Mr Lee Kuan Yew” for example, Lim defends Lee when the latter is depicted as paranoid and narcissistic by an Australian writer, but he does so by claiming that Lee would not have been able to turn Singapore into a world-class city state if he had such negative attributes. But why should it be impossible to believe that something may be done out of bad, as well as good intentions? Lim seems, in this case, overly earnest in promoting the ex-Prime Minister in a simply positive light, while preferring to avoid the negative aspects altogether.
In the final essay of the book, “Push and pull of golden pond”, Lim applies a misreading of Arthur Yap’s poem “still-life V” to the issue of how Singapore must always be able to deal with change in order to survive in the world and how it must “plug into the new, emerging global network”. The line that Lim quotes – “Where does rigour end & rigour mortis begin?” – comes from one of Yap’s many poems which engage, in a deliberately ambiguous way, with the uncertainty between such opposites as movement and stasis, activity and stillness, to show that such binaries may be illusory and that one may not be differentiated from the other. Lim quotes lines from “still life V”, then writes about how Singapore is not afraid of crossing the line between rigour/vigour and stasis. But Yap’s poem undercuts the certainty with which we tend to readily differentiate between the two.
Other than such inconsistencies in Lim’s collection, the book is often an engaging chronicle of personal experiences and intellectual aspirations, framed by the societal and historical context of Singapore.QLRS Vol. 1 No. 3 Apr 2002