170 academics sign open letter defending diverse views, historian Thum

At least 170 academics have voiced concern about academic freedom in Singapore, with several saying that diverse views should be encouraged and not quashed.

The academics based here and overseas have signed an open letter on the issue, in which they also defended historian Thum Ping Tjin, who was questioned for six hours last month by a parliamentary committee that was looking at the issue of deliberate online falsehoods.

The letter posted online last week and addressed to the committee's chairman, Deputy Speaker of Parliament Charles Chong, said public hearings on the dissemination of fake news are welcome.

It, however, expressed concern over how Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam, a committee member, "proceeded to interrogate Dr Thum, treating him and his widely respected scholarship with disdain". "This is likely to have a chilling effect on freedom of expression and academic freedom in Singapore," the letter added.

It asked Mr Chong to apologise to Dr Thum over "his unacceptable treatment by your committee", and to ensure the committee is not used to intimidate Singaporeans.

At the hearing last month, Mr Shanmugam grilled Dr Thum on his academic work and his interpretation of historical documents. In particular, he focused on a paper Dr Thum wrote about Operation Coldstore in 1963, when more than 100 leftist unionists and politicians were arrested.

In his written submission to the committee, Dr Thum said there was no evidence the detainees were involved in any conspiracy to subvert the Government, and the Government had been the main source of falsehoods in Singapore. He eventually conceded there were parts of his paper which he could have worded better.

Academics who signed the letter include specialists in history and politics, such as Professor Prasenjit Duara, former director of the Asia Research Institute of the National University of Singapore (NUS); Associate Professor Lily Zubaidah Rahim of the University of Sydney; and media studies professor Cherian George of Hong Kong Baptist University.

Professor Mohan Dutta of NUS said the incident is likely to send the message that "for a scholar to offer ideas that challenge established knowledge claims, there are great personal risks".

Singaporean economist Linda Lim, a professor at the University of Michigan, added that it intimidates and discourages citizens who are not academic experts from voicing their own independent opinions.

Several also told The Straits Times that while debates are part and parcel of academic life, they should be done within the conventions of the academic community. "Our Parliament is not the place to dispute research, especially when conducted as more of an interrogation than a respectful academic debate," said Ms Li Yan McCurdy, a Singaporean PhD candidate at Yale University.

The preamble to the letter says it will be delivered to the committee towards end-April. Mr Chong and committee member Seah Kian Peng did not respond to requests for comment.

Earlier this month, a group of civil society activists also issued a signed statement criticising the committee's conduct of the hearing, saying, for instance, it seemed uninterested in soliciting witnesses' views.

The committee received 170 written submissions and heard testimony from 65 people. It will reconvene next month to deliberate on a report of its findings to Parliament.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 13, 2018, with the headline '170 academics sign open letter defending diverse views, historian Thum'. Print Edition | Subscribe