Operation Coldstore and the perils of academic misinformation

Singaporeans have been abuzz over the extraordinary marathon exchange at the Select Committee hearings on deliberate online falsehoods involving Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam and Dr Thum Ping Tjin, an Oxford-based historian.

Netizens are wondering why a hearing on the fake news problem came across instead as a technical, and sometimes testy, academic debate on contending interpretations of Singapore's post-war history.

The following key points are pertinent.

First, Dr Thum lit the fuse to his own bonfire. In his formal submission to the Select Committee, he had made two key assertions: first, that "the politicians of Singapore's People's Action Party" had, over the decades, been regularly disseminating "falsehoods".

Second, he alleged that, beginning with the February 1963 internal security dragnet Operation Coldstore, official governmental announcements that "people were being detained without trial" because of "involvement with radical communist conspiracies to subvert the state", were in fact, a "lie".

He asserted that Coldstore itself was mounted for political and not security reasons, to enable founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew to secure "political gain" over his opponents.

Officers from the Special Branch raiding the headquarters of the Barisan Sosialis in Victoria Street on Feb 2, 1963. Dr Thum Ping Tjin's argument, that Operation Coldstore was mounted for political and not security reasons, is an example of misinform
Officers from the Special Branch raiding the headquarters of the Barisan Sosialis in Victoria Street on Feb 2, 1963. Dr Thum Ping Tjin's argument, that Operation Coldstore was mounted for political and not security reasons, is an example of misinformation in the form of a slanted argument, says the writer. ST FILE PHOTO

It was almost as if Dr Thum was baiting the Government, and Mr Shanmugam - known for his pugnacity in the courtroom - duly responded. That is to say, when one waves a red flag in front of a bull, one should not be surprised when the bull charges.

A second pertinent point arising from the hearing is that Dr Thum repeated his "central contention", that "there is no evidence that the detainees of Operation Coldstore were involved in any violent Communist conspiracy to subvert and overthrow the Singapore Government".

FLAWED METHODOLOGY

He added that "thus far, no historian has come out and contradicted the central thrust of my work". This is inaccurate.

On April 1, 2015, I launched at the National Library my book Original Sin? Revising The Revisionist Critique Of The 1963 Operation Coldstore In Singapore.

The book essentially critiqued the notion by Dr Thum and similar "revisionist" historians that Coldstore was mounted for crass political reasons rather than legitimate security ones.

In other words, it is simply untrue that his scholarship has been unchallenged.

My critique of his "central contention" has been in circulation for almost three years now. What is doubly curious is that Dr Thum was present at the launch, something that can be attested to by the almost hundred attendees present.

If Dr Thum regards the critique of his "central contention" in Original Sin? as flawed, scholarly convention is to acknowledge and debunk the critique, not ignore it outright.

After all, neutral scholars such as Singaporean historian S. R. Joey Long have reviewed the book, saying it is an "admirable study of Singapore's post-war history", while a veteran scholar of Singapore's political history, Professor Thomas J. Bellows from the University of Texas at Austin, has said the book is "an excellent piece of analysis".

 
 

Mr Shanmugam alluded to this shortcoming of Dr Thum's methodology, when citing Oxford historian Richard Evans' criterion of an objective historian as someone who "takes into account the arguments and interpretations of other historians who have examined the same documents".

Third, Dr Thum at several points dismissed as "unreliable" the memoirs of leading Communist figures such as Chin Peng, the secretary-general of the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM), and senior functionaries such as Fong Chong Pik, better known as the Plen, among others.

Both Chin Peng and Fong confirmed the existence of the Communist United Front - Dr Thum's "Communist conspiracy" - in Singapore throughout the 1950s up to Coldstore.

If Chin Peng should be faulted for trying to put forth his side of the story, should not the recollections of former Barisan Sosialis secretary-general Lim Chin Siong, and the 2016 memoir by Dr Poh Soo Kai, former assistant secretary-general of the Barisan, be similarly added to the trash heap? Are they not equally self-serving in seeking to put forth their sides of the story?

Dr Thum does not appear to think so. He even appeared on the same panel as Dr Poh at the latter's book launch. Are we to conclude that only those memoirs by figures that share Dr Thum's views are academically "reliable"?

Fourth, Dr Thum seemed unclear about how Communist United Front tactics often worked in practice. He mentioned that because internal CPM documents seized by the Special Branch indicated that the Hock Lee bus riots in May 1955 took the CPM "by surprise", there was thus no Communist conspiracy in Singapore.

However, the seasoned CPM specialist and former leftist C.C. Chin has argued that the CPM did indeed "place its cadres in leading positions" in episodes such as the Hock Lee incident, but was often "unable to control the development of events".

The reality of the United Front's tactics on the ground was that direct, minute-by-minute CPM direction of episodes like Hock Lee was not always possible because of Special Branch pressure. Hence they could well be "taken by surprise" at the way incidents suddenly developed.

There were other instances where lower-level Communists carried out actions without the explicit direction of the senior leadership - again precisely because Special Branch pressure prevented a tighter command and control structure from consolidating.

In short, as Mr Shanmugam argued, it was not that "there was no conspiracy". Rather, "there was a conspiracy but it was not tightly organised". The idea was to seed rather than closely direct trouble - and be ready to opportunistically exploit explosive situations, like, as Mr C.C. Chin put it, "a match thrown into explosives".

Fifth, as Mr Shanmugam said, "the essential documents on which the Operation Coldstore was decided upon", were the two December 1962 confidential telegrams sent to London by senior British officials in Singapore, Commissioner Lord Selkirk and his deputy Philip Moore, who had originally been very sceptical about the need for mass arrests.

Dr Thum had earlier argued in his deposition that the Dec 7 document by Moore "needs to be understood in the context that security action had already been decided on, and they were looking for justification for the security action".

However, if "security action had already been decided upon" before Dec 7, why then in the very document itself, did Moore explicitly state that previously, "there was nothing very definite to go on, apart from circumstantial evidence and stale security records" that Communist influence in the Barisan posed a potential security threat?

The entire tone of the document confirms that Moore had, up till then, not yet been completely persuaded that such action was necessary. However, from Dec 7, he changed his tune dramatically because of new evidence he cited that had come from a Special Branch source in the Barisan about the extent of communist penetration of that party.

Similarly, Selkirk, in his own telegram a week later, stated that like Moore, because of "new evidence", he had now become convinced about how deeply communist-penetrated the Barisan was, and the potential for a "resort to violence if the opportunity occurred". He repeated his concerns a fortnight later, insisting that "it would be wise to make arrests of communists in Singapore as soon as possible".

This is why, perhaps, the most significant development in the entire debate was when Dr Thum appeared to admit that his previous analysis of these historic policy about-turns by both men could have been "reworded". In so doing, he implicitly conceded that Coldstore was mounted for security reasons after all, as the mainstream account has long maintained.

CORROSIVE EFFECTS

What then is the wider relevance of the Shanmugam-Thum exchange?

First, it highlights the problem of misinformation. Misinformation embraces not only erroneous facts but also dubious or slanted arguments.

Dr Thum's argument, that Coldstore was mounted for political and not security reasons, is an example of misinformation in the form of a slanted argument.

His flawed analysis of Coldstore may be due to untidy scholarship. Part of the reason may be his heavy involvement in high-profile political commentary and activism.

According to Dr Thum's friend, cartoonist Sonny Liew, Dr Thum "comes across as someone who cares about more openness and democracy, as a way to reach better governance and policies, an idealist who seeks practical ways to realise his ideals".

This is laudable. But it also means it is not clear where Dr Thum the academic historian ends and Dr Thum the partisan activist begins. Such fuzziness seems to have crept into his scholarship.

Dr Thum's flawed analysis is problematic because of the "slow-burn" effect. Younger generations of Singaporeans immersed in such skewed interpretations of the past by Dr Thum and similar voices may develop historical amnesia, and worse, outright cynicism towards public institutions.

This may have a corrosive effect over the longer term on Singapore's ability to produce critical masses of psychologically and emotionally committed local talent to meet future administrative, civil society and economic leadership needs.

Second, even if Dr Thum does not intend it, misinformation about Singapore's past can be further embellished and "weaponised" today by hostile forces, to become disinformation designed to drive a wedge between citizens and the Government or between different groups in Singapore.

The English political satirist George Orwell wrote in 1946 that no writing "is genuinely free from political bias", and that the "desire to push the world in a certain direction" exists in all writers.

Hence, British historian G. R. Elton counsels that careful scholars must "constantly regard their own preconceptions" so as to avoid the temptation to "sculpt the evidence rather than derive from it".

This remains wise advice for not just Dr Thum, but other scholars and writers seeking to "push the world in a certain direction" - myself included.

Finally, the Shanmugam-Thum debate suggests that strategies for fostering closer cooperation among scholars and relevant stakeholders, to better safeguard against academic misinformation and mitigate its deleterious slow-burn effects on the public, are needed.

Novelist William Faulkner long ago warned that "the past is never dead, it is not even past". Hence, it behooves us to be better equipped academically to interrogate that past as accurately as possible - or face the consequences.


 • Kumar Ramakrishna is Associate Professor, Head of Policy Studies and Coordinator of the National Security Studies Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 04, 2018, with the headline 'Operation Coldstore and the perils of academic misinformation'. Print Edition | Subscribe