Contest of ideas and views on local politics should involve Singaporeans alone: Desmond Lee

Social and Family Development Minister Desmond Lee at the launch of an Early Childhood Development Agency initiative at My First Skool in Jurong West on April 12, 2018.
Social and Family Development Minister Desmond Lee at the launch of an Early Childhood Development Agency initiative at My First Skool in Jurong West on April 12, 2018.ST PHOTO: TIMOTHY DAVID

SINGAPORE - The contest of ideas and views on Singapore's politics and how to run the country should involve Singaporeans alone, said Social and Family Development Minister Desmond Lee.

That has been a long-standing principle of the Government - one that is supported by Singaporeans from all walks of life, he told reporters on Thursday (April 12) at the launch of an Early Childhood Development Agency initiative.

"Foreign interests should not directly or indirectly try to get involved in the politics that affects the lives of Singaporeans, because it is our lives at stake...And it's important that Singaporeans be entirely responsible and take responsibility for our destiny,"Mr Lee said.

His comments came a day after the Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority (Acra) rejected an application to register the company OSEA Pte Ltd, which was set up to provide editorial services to the website New Naratif, run by historian Thum Ping Tjin and freelance journalist Kirsten Han.

Acra said allowing the registration would be contrary to Singapore's national interests, noting that the purposes of the company "are clearly political in nature" and that it has links to foreign funding.

OSEA Pte Ltd was to be a wholly-owned subsidiary of British-registered company Observatory Southeast Asia (OSEA UK), which had received a grant of US$75,000 (S$98,000) from the Foundation Open Society Institute (FOSI), said Acra.

It added that FOSI - a Swiss charitable entity - is closely associated with Open Society Foundations (OSF), which is founded and led by American billionaire investor George Soros.

Mr Lee pointed out that OSF has a "a history of involvement in other countries' domestic situation".

He cited how it attempted to manipulate views against the Catholic Church on controversial issues affecting the Irish, and also "purported to get involved in the politics of Malaysia".

"In this day and age, particularly where online falsehoods can be a tool of choice to involve yourself in other people's business...(Singaporeans have to) be in charge of our own destiny, and we seek Singaporeans' continued support for this principle," said Mr Lee.

New Naratif had rejected Acra's statement on Thursday, saying FOSI and OSF do not have any involvement in its editorial decisions or day-to-day operations.

Separately, Mr Lee also elaborated on an opinion piece published in The Straits Times that he co-wrote with Senior Minister of State for Communications and Information Janil Puthucheary.

"No one is saying that people cannot have different interpretations of history or different interpretations of events," Mr Lee said.

But when mistruths are being purveyed - "especially when there is a sense that is being done with a motivation"- different sectors of society, including academics, historians and the media should come out to correct the falsehoods and present the facts, he added.

His co-written commentary, titled 'History is not the preserve of historians', was a response to an April 8 commentary by ST editor at large Han Fook Kwang.

Mr Han had said that it is now more challenging for the Government to take on its critics in a new world full of other ideas and narratives compared with the past, citing the example of Law Minister K. Shanmugam questioning historian Thum Ping Tjin for six hours over his research on Operation Coldstore during the Select Committee hearings.

Instead of attempting to win every argument, the country's younger leaders have to gain the trust of Singaporeans,Mr Han said.

He had also called for more scholars and historians to join in the discussions and shed light on Operation Coldstore. This is best done by them, he said, as such research involves not just "rational or scientific truths", but interpretations of events that involve both facts and opinions. Politicians would always have their motives questioned even if they are legitimate, Mr Han added.

Mr Lee and Dr Janil - both members of the Select Committee on deliberate online falsehoods - took the view that Mr Han had suggested politicians should have no role in interpreting history, while historians can be relied on to "pronounce authoritatively on the historical 'truth' because they view history objectively".

Such a position cannot be right, they said, as it ignores the fact that some historians, including Dr Thum, do indeed have political agendas.

On Thursday, Mr Lee acknowledged that some Singaporeans have "evinced a certain unease" about the way Dr Thum was challenged and questioned during the public hearings.

But it is important to recognise that this is how the Government builds robust discussions, he said.

"It cannot be that the Government takes a backseat and allows clear misrepresentations to go out in the public arena. That's something we hope that Singaporeans can understand, and also discern about these facts."

Some had remarked that the commentary by Mr Lee and Dr Janil had missed the forest for the trees.

"The article is essentially about building trust as one of the cornerstone of political leadership, and not so much about interpreting historical events. (Mr Han Fook Kwang) merely advised caution, not absolute abstinence," wrote Mr Michael Han in a Facebook post that has been shared nearly 500 times.

Asked about assertions that his commentary on Tuesday had made a selective interpretation or misinterpretation of Mr Han's article, Mr Lee said: "I think that (if one) takes a careful look at Mr Han's editorial, our opinion piece clearly answers to that."

He added that he has the "greatest of respect for Mr Han". "He is a seasoned veteran in journalism, and he's a good member of society... In this day and age of open and robust discussion, we welcome his views, but that also means we will have to state our position and clarify what we think are not accurate, or not correct views of how factual history should be interpreted."