Wrote a review of Irene Lim's 90 Years in Singapore, for JMBRAS, December 2020
Article can be found at https://www.mbras.org.my/journal.html
90 Years in Singapore, by Irene Lim, Pagesetters Services, 2020, 248pp, Paperback, ISBN 978-981-14-5416-5
Irene Lim hails from one of Singapore’s historically elite and well-connected families. Her memoirs record not only an eventful life, but also a beautiful one. Many chapters offer assiduous descriptions of the food, fashion, furniture, servants, fortunes, and scandals of the privileged, conjured from a distant past, almost a foreign country. In doing so, these memoirs also document Singapore’s rapidly evolving society and culture since the 1930s to the present: always multiracial, multilingual, and multireligious like today, but very differently so. They provide contrapuntal texture to the usually homophonic austerity of official national narratives that make up The Singapore Story.
So much more can be appreciated of Singapore’s complex past when its history – dominated by a masculine and aerial account of heroic leaders whose monumental actions shaped the nation and its destiny – is able to admit contrasting textures of more intimately human stories emanating from the home, the neighbourhood, and the community. Observant and insightful, Lim recounts such stories with sensitivity and attentiveness to even the tiniest details, and without didactic structuring.
Lim, in fact, has the gift of storytelling. She writes with clarity, precision, and kindness. Her characterization of people, things, and events reflects a desire to be accurate, complete, and good humoured. Although her prose is straightforward, economical, and emotionally restrained, the reader feels welcomed into her circle, where storytelling is an important socializing ritual. Indeed, her memoirs have their roots in a family ritual that she remembers even as a child, when many an evening was spent in the garden telling and listening to stories by and about family members.
The level of detail is extraordinary. One other reason for writing the memoirs, Lim reveals, was to stem the failure of memory that comes with growing older, an exercise in staying mentally active and healthy. After her husband died in 1989, Lim started to record her memories in letters sent to family members, especially her daughter Linda Lim, an economics professor at the University of Michigan. Professor Lim wrote an epilogue to the memoirs, discussing its broader social significance, in particular their reflection of a multicultural and cosmopolitan dimension of Straits Chinese identity. Historian Loh Kah Seng, who had interviewed her for a national heritage project, wrote a prologue to the book, discussing the memoirs as a micro-narrative of Lim’s “theatres of memory”, those places that are remembered and invested with meaning even when physically lost.
Lim’s primary theatre of memory has been her home. She offers an enormous amount of aesthetic detail describing domestic interiors. And yet, home is an unsettled and even unsettling place for someone whose life appears almost nomadic. The family moved house numerous times over the decades. Her father seemed dissatisfied with every house they occupied, always moving in search of better things, whether because of hygiene, tidiness, peacefulness, or safety. Her memoirs end on a sense of anxiety because of a possible en bloc collective sale that could force her to move yet again from an apartment that she hopes finally to settle into.
Constantly moving house parallels the numerous changes in Singapore at the social and national levels, which Lim sometimes laments with a tinge of nostalgia. People no longer visit their family and friends. Today, so many possess smart phones, but have no time to chat. Some types of food are no longer available or only inferior versions of them remain. And certain family practices that bring everyone together in cooperative activity, like the laborious making of jelly from seaweed, have stopped.
Storytelling is Lim’s way of anchoring, connecting, and making sense of a life and a country that are both always on the move and changing.
Kenneth Paul Tan, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore