Catherine Lim

Singapore Infopedia


Catherine Lim Poh Imm (b. 21 March 1942, Penang, Malaysia–) is the doyenne of Singapore stories. Lim is an accomplished and critically acclaimed author who has published a dozen collections of short stories, five novels, two volumes of poems and even a play.

She began as a teacher, then was a project director with the Ministry of Education, became a specialist lecturer with the Regional Language Centre (RELC), and finally became a full-time writer in 1992. She has won national and regional book prizes for her literary contributions. Her works are studied in local and foreign schools and universities, and have been published in various languages in several countries.

Early life
Born in Malaysia in 1942, Lim came from a large family of 14 children – four boys and ten girls; she was the eighth child.1 Her father was Chew Chin Hoi, a plantation accountant.2 Growing up in the town of Kulim, Kedah, on the border of Penang,3 Lim and her siblings were sent to English-stream schools.4 Lim herself was educated at the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus schools in Kulim, and nearby Bukit Mertajam before attending Penang Free School for her Pre-University education.

Her early school compositions were particularly Euro-centric, with English-named characters.6 Although her mother subscribed to traditional Chinese religious practices and she was brought up conforming to Taoist traditions, Lim converted to Roman Catholicism when she was 15.7 However, later on in life, she became a humanist, and was given the Humanist Society’s inaugural Humanist of the Year award in 2011.8

Lim received her Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Malaya at Kuala Lumpur in 1963.9 A few years later, in 1967, she arrived in Singapore, and has lived here since.10 She taught at various schools from 1970 before becoming a project director with the Curriculum Development Institute of Singapore (CDIS) in 1980.11 At CDIS she rose to become Deputy Director of English Language and Social Studies.12 Then in 1988, the Regional Language Centre (RELC), Singapore, appointed her to a Lectureship in “Sociolinguistics, Pragmatics and Methodology”.13 Four years later in 1992, Lim resigned from her lecturing position to become a full-time professional writer.14

In 1994, she also gained controversial fame for writing a pair of articles seen as political: “The PAP and the people − A great affective divide” and “One government, two styles”.15 In the first article, she opined that there was an emotive disconnection between the PAP and the people, and in the second that then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong’s “people-oriented” style was being submerged under “the old style of top-down decisions”.16 Upon the publication of her second article, Prime Minister Goh rebuked her, saying that she was undermining his authority and challenged her to enter the political arena, if she wanted to comment on politics regularly.17

 Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus, Kulim, Malaysia.18

c.1954–1958: Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus, Bukit Mertajam, Malaysia.19
c.1959–1960: Penang Free School.20
1963: BA English Literature, University of Malaya.21
1983–1988: Ph.D (Applied Linguistics), National University of Singapore.22
1990: Fulbright programme, Columbia University, New York, and University of California, Berkeley.23
Oct–Dec 1993: Filmscripting, Department of Film and Television, University of California.24

Teaching career
 Teacher in Kuantan, Malaysia.25

1970–1974: Teacher, St Andrew’s School.26
1974–1978: Teacher, St Patrick’s School.27
1978–1979: Teacher, Catholic Junior College.28
1980–1988: Project director rising to Deputy Director of English Language and Social Studies, Curriculum Development Institute of Singapore, Ministry of Education.29
1988–1992 : Lecturer, SEAMEO Regional Language Centre (RELC).30
Feb 1992 onwards: Full-time professional writer.31

Writing career
Lim is best known for her collections of short stories, particularly Little Ironies: Short Stories of Singapore and Or Else, The Lightning God and Other Stories. Her first publication, Little Ironies, propelled her into the local literary scene and became an instant local best-seller.32 It was the beginning of a wave of short story authors publishing collections of their work.33 

According to Lim, her first book of short stories came about while she was producing instructional materials, and her supervisors advised her to try having them published.34 Little Ironies was subsequently included in the syllabus for the Singapore-Cambridge N-Level English Literature examination in 1987.35 

Then in 1988, Or Else, The Lightning God and Other Stories was selected as one of eight literature texts for the international GCE ‘O' Level Examinations managed by Cambridge University.36 It was on the syllabus for the 1989 and 1990 examinations.37 Lim’s second novel, The Bondmaid, was picked up by Orion Books in Britain and Overlook Press in the United States. It was also translated into French, German and Dutch.38 Orion went on to publish three more of her novels. 

Upon becoming a full-time writer, Lim gave talks regularly at local and international seminars, conferences, arts festivals, writers' festivals and even on cruise ships like the Queen Elizabeth 2. She has also written numerous articles and commentaries on contemporary and cultural issues in local and international newspapers.39 However, in 2015, The Straits Times reported her announcement that she would reduce her output of commentaries and lectures, to concentrate on mentoring younger Singaporeans.40

1982: National Book Council Development (Fiction) (Commendation), for Or Else, the Lightning God and Other Stories.
1988: National Book Council Development (Fiction) (Commendation), for The Shadow of a Shadow of a Dream.
1990: National Book Council Development (Fiction) (Commendation), for O Singapore! Stories in Celebration.
1998: Montblanc-NUS Centre for the Arts Literary Award.
1999: Southeast Asia Write Award, Thailand.
2000: Honorary Doctorate in Literature, Murdoch University, Australia, for contributions to education and literature.
2003: Chevalier de L'Ordre des Arts et Des Lettres (Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters), Ministry for Culture and Communication, France.
2005: Appointed Hans Christian Andersen Ambassador, Hans Christian Andersen Foundation in Copenhagen.
2014: Inducted into the Singapore Women’s Hall of Fame by the Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations.41

Lim’s work deals largely with Singapore and Singapore Chinese culture, often juxtaposing traditional customs and beliefs with modernity and prosperity. Women in particular are often the protagonists as she examines traditional roles with contemporary Westernised urban life.42

Lim’s inspiration for her stories comes from her ironic sense applied to her personal life experiences, particularly her childhood in Kedah. Many characters and stories are drawn from childhood memories, the people she has encountered and things she reads. She finds the irony in human relationships and spins narratives from this into her stories.43

With her electronic novella, The Leap of Love, published on the internet by LycosAsia in 2000, Lim became the first Singaporean author to have a serialised e-novella.44 Although the e-novella was a failure, it was later published as a print book by Horizon Books in 2003.45 Local film producer Raintree Pictures then tried its hand at adapting two of Lim’s works, The Leap of Love and The Bondmaid, into movies.46 However, The Leap Years, the adaptation of The Leap of Love, made a loss when released in 2008.47 

Unhurried Thoughts At My Funeral (2005), a book in which Lim philosophically muses about her life using the imagined setting of her funeral, is probably her most unusual work.48

Selected works
Collection of short stories

1978: Little Ironies: Stories of Singapore.
1980: Or Else, The Lightning God and Other Stories.
1983: They Do Return...but Gently Lead Them Back.
1987: The Shadow of a Shadow of a Dream: Love Stories of Singapore.
1989: O Singapore! : Stories in Celebration.
1992: Deadline for Love and Other Stories.
1993: The Best of Catherine Lim.
1993: Meet Me on the Queen Elizabeth 2!
1993: The Woman's Book of Superlatives.
1999: The Howling Silence: Tales of the Dead and Their Return.
2009: The Catherine Lim Collection (an anthology of stories first published in the '80s and '90s).

2010: The Mother.
2014: Roll Out the Champagne, Singapore!: An Exuberant Celebration of the Nation's 50th Birthday.

1992: Love's Lonely Impulses.
2006: Humoresque.

1982: The Serpent's Tooth.
1995: The Bondmaid (1997–1998 international editions).
1998: The Teardrop Story Woman.
2001: Following the Wrong God Home.
2003The Song of Silver Frond.
2011: Miss Seetoh in the World.

2000: A Leap of Love (print publication in 2003).


2005: Unhurried Thoughts at My Funeral.
2018: Romancing the language : a writer's lasting love affair with English.


1994: Kampong Amber.

“I write because I enjoy it. I write about things that interest me – human behaviour, human relationships, the not-so-pleasant abilities people possess to deceive one another, seek revenge, inflict pain. And their capacity to bear it all as well.”49

“I draw my inspiration and material from life around me; from people I’ve known.”50

“I’m so sensitive to irony that if I see a situation, I witness something, I hear something, I read a report in the newspaper about something, and I see it as potential for a short story, my ironic sense immediately creates a narrative and then I sit down and write.”51 

 George Lim, retired teacher and businessman (Canada) whom she divorced in 1984. 

Children: Daughter, doctor (Hong Kong) and son, journalist (United States)

Nureza Ahmad

1. Peter Wicks, “The Short Stories of Catherine Lim,” in Literary Perspectives on Southeast Asia: Collected Essays by Peter Wicks (Toowoomba: USQ Press, 1991), 70. (Call no. RSING 809.8895 WIC)
2. Peter Wicks, “From Kulim to Singapore: Catherine Lim’s Literary Life,” in Singaporean Literature in English: A Critical Reader, eds., Mohammad A. Quayum and Peter Wicks (Kuala Lumpur: Universiti Putra Malaysia Press, 2002), 355. (Call no. RSING 820.995957 SIN)
3. David Chew, “Simple Small-Town Folks Matter Just as Much, If Not More,” Business Times, 23 September 1989, 14; S. Tsering Bhalla, “Beyond Cause and Effect,” Straits Times, 27 September 1992, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
4. Aunty Juliet, “The Child in Writer Catherine Lim,” Straits Times, 16 August 1988, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
5. Catherine Lim, oral history interview by Chew Hui Min, 9 April 2007, transcript and MP3 audio, 54:57, National Archives of Singapore (accession no. 002976), 22.
6. Catherine Lim, “Why I Wear the Cheongsam,” Straits Times, 4 June 1994, 19. (From NewspaperSG)
7. Bhalla, “Beyond Cause and Effect”; S. H. Ong, “An Interview with Catherine Lim,” in Singaporean Literature in English: A Critical Reader, eds., Mohammad A. Quayum and Peter Wicks (Kuala Lumpur: Universiti Putra Malaysia Press, 2002), 372. (Call no. RSING 820.995957 SIN)
8. Yen Feng, “‘I’ve No God – And Am Proud of It’,” Straits Times, 23 July 2011, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
9. “Doyenne of Writers,” Straits Times, 3 August 2008, 23. (From NewspaperSG)
10. Stephanie Yap, “Chirpy in the City,” Straits Times, 9 August 2008, 2 (From NewspaperSG); Catherine Lim, oral history interview, 9 April 2007, 23, 25.
11. Koh Buck Song, “Catherine’s Golden Age,” Straits Times, 1 February 1992, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
12. Yaw Yan Chong, “Teaching of English Becoming ‘More Creative’,” Straits Times, 12 April 1988, 10 (From NewspaperSG); Wicks, “Short Stories of Catherine Lim,” 73.
13. Wicks, “Short Stories of Catherine Lim,” 73.
14. Koh, “Catherine’s Golden Age.” 
15. Catherine Lim, “The PAP and the People – A Great Affective Divide,” Straits Times, 3 September 1994, 34; Catherine Lim, “One Government, Two Styles,” The Straits Times, 20 November 1994, 12; Lydia Lim, “Chastised Once, But Writer Stands By Her Views,” Straits Times, 21 June 2003, H18. (From NewspaperSG)
16. Catherine Lim, “One Government, Two Styles,” Straits Times, 20 November 1994, 12; Lim, “Writer Stands By Her Views.” 
17. Chua Mui Hoong, “PM: No Erosion of My Authority Allowed,” Straits Times, 5 December 1994, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
18. Wicks, “Short Stories of Catherine Lim,” 72.
19. Wicks, “Short Stories of Catherine Lim,” 72.
20. Wicks, “Short Stories of Catherine Lim,” 72; Catherine Lim, oral history interview, 9 April 2007, 22.
21. “Doyenne of Writers.”
22. “RELC Takes in Its First PhD Candidates,” Straits Times, 29 July 1983, 11 (From NewspaperSG); “Doyenne of Writers.”
23. Koh, “Catherine’s Golden Age.” 
24. “Catherine Goes Back to School,” Straits Times, 18 September 1993, 16. (From NewspaperSG)
25. Wicks, “Short Stories of Catherine Lim,” 73.
26. Wicks, “Short Stories of Catherine Lim,” 73.
27. Wicks, “Short Stories of Catherine Lim,” 73.
28. Wicks, “Short Stories of Catherine Lim,” 73.
29. Lim Yi-En, Women in Bondage: The Stories of Catherine Lim (Singapore: Times Books International, 1999), 15 (Call no. RSING 823 LIM); Wicks, “Short Stories of Catherine Lim,” 73.
30. Wicks, “Short Stories of Catherine Lim,” 73; Koh, “Catherine’s Golden Age.” 
31. Koh, “Catherine’s Golden Age.” 
32. Gretchen Mahbubani, “Cultural Cringe…,” Straits Times, 6 September 1980, 29. (From NewspaperSG)
33. M. Loh, and Teri Shaffer Yamada, “Conflict and Change: The Singapore Short Story,” in Modern Short Fiction of Southeast Asia: A Literary History, ed., Teri Shaffer Yamada (Ann Arbor: Association for Asian Studies, 2009), 220. (Call no. RSEA 808.83108895 MOD)
34. Catherine Lim, “The Writer Writing in English in Multi-Ethnic Singapore: A Cultural Peril, a Cultural Promise,” in Singaporean Literature in English: A Critical Reader, eds., Mohammad A. Quayum and Peter Wicks (Kuala Lumpur: Universiti Putra Malaysia Press, 2002), 350. (Call no. RSING 820.995957 SIN)
35. Beng Tan, “Singapore Writers Make the Grade,” Straits Times, 13 March 1986, 13. (From NewspaperSG)
36. Hedwig Alfred, “S’pore Book is O-level Text Worldwide,” Straits Times, 16 January 1988, 14. (From NewspaperSG)
37. Tan Ee Sze, “Cambridge Picks Second S’pore Book as O-level Text,” Sunday Times, 4 June 1989, 14. (From NewspaperSG)
38. Ong Sor Fern, “Agent Helps Catherine Lim Make World Debut,” Straits Times, 16 January 1997, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
39. Ong, “Interview with Catherine Lim,” 369.
40. “Political Commentator Catherine Lim to Write Less, Mentor More,” Straits Times, 10 July 2015. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website) 
41. “Catherine Lim,” Singapore Women’s Hall of Fame, accessed 8 October 2018.
42. Wicks, “
From Kulim to Singapore,” 354–60; Leong Liew Geok, “Situating Gender, Evolving Identities: Women in Four Novels by Catherine Lim and Suchen Christine Lim,” in Singaporean Literature in English: A Critical Reader, eds., Mohammad A. Quayum and Peter Wicks (Kuala Lumpur: Universiti Putra Malaysia Press, 2002), 241. (Call no. RSING 820.995957 SIN)
43. Wicks, “From Kulim to Singapore,” 354–55; Catherine Lim, oral history interview by Chew Hui Min, 9 April 2007, transcript and MP3 audio, 45:02, National Archives of Singapore (accession no. 002976), 8–13.
44. Zackaria Abdul Rahim, “E-Novel By Catherine Lim,” Today, 29 November 2000, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
45. Clara Chow, “Leap from E-Novella to Real Book,” Straits Times, 12 April 2003, 12. (From NewspaperSG)
46. Serene Foo, “From Page to Screen,” Today, 13 November 2002, 23. (From NewspaperSG)
47. Akshita Nanda, “Screen Does Not Boost Print,” Straits Times, 7 April 2015, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
48. Kristina Tom, “The Meaning of Lim,’ Straits Times, 24 March 2005, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
49. P. C. Wicks, “A Sketch of a Singaporean Writer of International Repute,” Sunday Times, 23 February 1992, 28. (From NewspaperSG)
50. Wicks, “Sketch of a Singaporean Writer.” 
51. Catherine Lim, oral history interview, 9 April 2007, 5.
52. Yap, “Chirpy in the City.” 

Further resources
Aunty Juliet, “The Child in Writer Catherine Lim,” Straits Times, 16 August 1988, 4. (From NewspaperSG)

Leong Liew Geok, “Book-Doomed Love in the Ten Courts of Hell,” Straits Times, 21 April 2001, 16. (From NewspaperSG)

Li-Ann Wee, “Singapore More Open Now- Writer,” Straits Times, 11 October 2000, 45. (From NewspaperSG)

Sandra Leong, “Affective to a Fault,” Straits Times, 14 February 2004. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website) 

The information in this article is valid as at December 2018 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic. 

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