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Book Review: Miss Seetoh in the World

Book Review: Miss Seetoh in the World

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Margaret Chen, Founder and Editor of www.iCUBED.us wins a signed copy of Catherine Lim’s book.

Singaporean best-selling author Catherine Lim has come full-circle since her days of criticizing the ruling PAP in the government controlled newspaper Straits Times back in 2004, with the release of her new book MISS SEETOH IN THE WORLD.  Like her previous books, Ms Lim’s feminist liberalism comes through loud and clear in her namesake protagonist, modeled after Ms Lim herself.  Miss Seetoh is an accomplished English teacher with secret aspirations to be an unmarried authoress. 

As a political satire MISS SEETOH IN THE WORLD is noticeably Asian by being notably non-confrontational.  News reports of the situations alluded to in the story were much edgier than they have been presented in Ms Lim’s book, and the conclusions drawn at the end of this book amount to an endorsement of the government, for its performance on the whole.

Elements of Singapore’s history are thinly disguised, as we follow the story through the decade or so of Miss Seetoh’s adult working life and glimpse, in the circumstances of her disastrous marriage to an outwardly eligible, church-going, rule-following, fault-free yet humorless, smug, and vindictive husband, the vast and immovable gulf between persons who subscribe to vastly different world views.  The world-famous attempts of the Singaporean government at social engineering – eugenics and government sanctioned “traditional -conservative” attempts at matchmaking – have proven to be less successful than the government’s notable success at creating a unique, self-governing Asian nation from very humble beginnings. 

MISS SEETOH is an accurate social commentary about the gender differential that has happened around the modern world where women have been effectively emancipated from traditional roles without the attendant emancipation of men from their strict gender roles as “lord of the mansion”. Nor has there been a realistic review and appraisal of men and womens’ expectations from the institution of marriage, since women’s lib liberated women but left men living still with Victorian era mindsets.  In practice, women have “come a long way baby” but without consciously and formally acknowledging the changes that have taken place, and without remembering to adjust the views and roles of men to complement the redefined roles of working, thinking women.

Miss Seetoh’s female friends are stereotypes and caricatures, not convincingly drawn but somehow necessary to illustrate a point that recurs throughout the book — that of the unreliability of human nature, our limited understanding of things outside our experience, and our fallible reliance on superstitions, our lack of convictions and penchant for group-think (going along with the crowd) whether from laziness or lack of ability to be logical and analytical, but yet harboring a disturbing lack of self awareness.  There is no shortage of egotism in a few of Miss Seetoh’s suitors and friends, who lie to others and to themselves in an attempt to hide their inadequacies, including in the fictional person of the political challenger, Mr V.K. Pandy.

How does a government motivate, govern and lead a nation with no natural resources, surrounded on all sides by countries larger, more populous, better armed and with longer histories?  Is there time to waste listening to the dissenting voices of those with political ambitions intent on overthrowing a legitimate government working hard to build a nation worthy of respect? 

In the story of the political challenger, is the books’ satisfying denouement where the political underdog, returns literally from the dead, and then shows himself to be vengeful and underhanded and by his actions, loses the respect of one of his most ardent supporters – Miss Seetoh.  His story completes Miss Seetoh’s growth from a naive, idealist with liberal Western values living displaced in a conservative Asian context, to a mature woman with a clear sense of herself and her personal convictions. It is a happy ending for all, and Miss Seetoh is rewarded with her dream of self sufficiency and independence, due mostly to her hard-earned clarity of purpose, like the clarity of purpose of the determined and unwavering government policies she once questioned, but that in the end proved to be effective at providing economic prosperity for its citizens, herself included.

Editor’s note: New Nation Man gives a big thank you for all who wrote in and apologises that he won’t be able to publish all of them.