Rules of debate must also be adhered to

I agree with Professor David Chan that facts (empirical data) and the "5Cs" are of paramount importance in public debates (Let's get the psychology of debate right; April 28).

History is a powerful tool for propaganda and for building national consciousness.

Therefore, an interpretation of history needs justification and warrants high-quality public debate involving historians, academics, civil society advocates, lawyers, community leaders and private citizens.

Arguably, historian Thum Ping Tjin's assertion that the Government, in particular the late prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, was the biggest purveyor of fake news in Singapore, was an interpretation, and at best, an untested hypothesis.

The parliamentary committee hearing on deliberate online falsehoods was not the ideal environment for public debate on that assertion.

The purpose of the hearing was to gain recommendations on how Singapore can tackle online falsehoods.

The Select Committee's terms of reference were to examine and report on the phenomenon of using digital technology to spread falsehoods online, the motivations and reasons for doing so, the types of individuals and entities that engage in such activity, the consequences it can have, as well as how Singapore can prevent and combat it.

I had the privilege of observing the clarification by Mr Simon Milner, Facebook's vice-president of public policy for Asia-Pacific.

During the session, when Mr Milner objected to Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam asking too many questions, Select Committee chairman Charles Chong overruled his objection, citing the terms of reference.

It is clear that the Select Committee was strictly adhering to the "terms of reference", regardless of the witnesses' backgrounds.

While the witnesses had the right to either stand by their submissions or make amendments, they had no right to demand who in the Select Committee ought to question them, what type of questions ought to be asked or what style of questioning ought to be allowed.

Hence, it was not fair of the group of more than 200 academicsto criticise the Select Committee in defence of "academic freedom" and "social status" of the witnesses, ignoring the terms of reference which the witnesses had accepted and agreed to.

We must get not only the psychology of debate right, but also, importantly, the rules of the game.

S. Ratnakumar

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 02, 2018, with the headline 'Rules of debate must also be adhered to'. Print Edition | Subscribe