Graphic novelist Sonny Liew says he and group that met Mahathir 'too wide-eyed and naive'

Graphic novelist Sonny Liew (pictured) attended the meeting with his friends, historian Thum Ping Tjin, journalist Kirsten Han and activist Jolovan Wham. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Graphic novelist Sonny Liew said he and the rest of the group who recently met Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad were "much too wide-eyed and naive" in doing so.

In a response to questions from Today, Mr Liew wrote in a Facebook post on Monday (Sept 3) that the meeting, which took place in Kuala Lumpur last Thursday, "was a perfectly innocent if rare opportunity in our own minds".

He added: "But in retrospect, we should have asked a lot more questions and been a lot more prepared for potential pitfalls."

Mr Liew, who won at the prestigious Eisner awards for his graphic novel The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, attended the meeting with historian Thum Ping Tjin, journalist Kirsten Han and activist Jolovan Wham.

The group has come under fire from some corners of the Internet after Marine Parade MP Seah Kian Peng wrote in a Facebook post on Saturday that Dr Thum had invited Tun Dr Mahathir to bring democracy to Singapore, and that "it appears quite clear to me that PJ Thum does not wish Singapore well".

In his own description of the meeting, Dr Thum said he had asked the Malaysian leader to "take leadership in South-east Asia for the promotion of democracy, human rights, freedom of expression and freedom of information".

The meeting also included political dissident Tan Wah Piow, a former student union leader who fled Singapore in 1976 after failing to report for national service enlistment and was stripped of his citizenship in 1987.

Mr Liew wrote: "PJ, Kirsten, Jolovan and myself all to some degree or another have some reputation for being at odds with the authorities, and once you throw Wah Piow into the mix, it should have been clear that the situation could be a little volatile."

Both Dr Thum and Ms Han have since come out to defend themselves.

On Monday, Dr Thum said the notion that he is a traitor to Singapore is "ridiculous and unfounded", adding that he loved his country.

Ms Han said Mr Seah's statements were "baseless" and had triggered "a torrent of accusations of treason" and death threats against the group.

Local non-governmental group Community Action Network has also put up an online letter saying Mr Seah was "propagating misinformation". Mr Seah has not responded to those who said his statements were not backed by evidence,

In his statement on Facebook, Mr Liew said that before the meeting with Dr Mahathir, he had thought he could "wing it, and play things by ear, finding out more about exact arrangements only once I arrived in Kuala Lumpur".

But the group was surprised to find out that Malaysian social activist Hishamuddin Rais had sent out a press alert about the meeting with Dr Mahathir, and that there would be an impromptu press conference after the meeting.

"For myself, I'd only agreed to proceed once we were assured that those of us (Jolovan, Kirsten and myself) who didn't want to be part of the press conference could choose to do so - which I thought would mean that we would get to meet Dr Mahathir in a personal, unpoliticised capacity," he wrote.

"Again, this was a naive thought, as events since have demonstrated."

Mr Liew added that he does not really know Mr Tan, " so I am not trying to argue that he or anyone else was trying to manipulate us... just that it was my own responsibility to be much better prepared".

He said Dr Thum, whom he has gotten to know a little better over the last year or so, "comes across as a real idealist, someone who believes passionately in making the world a better place by arguing for the importance of democratic values and active participation in civil society".

But he added that Dr Thum "might still a little naive when it comes to political manoeuvrings".

Referring to the criticism of Dr Thum over the meeting with Dr Mahathir and the Select Committee hearings on deliberate online falsehoods earlier this year, Mr Liew wrote: "I can only speculate about the reasons why so much pressure is being brought to bear on PJ, but maybe what's clear is that it's not enough to have good intentions - political savviness also makes a difference."

Mr Liew added that his friends and family have expressed concern that he might somehow end up getting charged with treason or get into serious trouble.

"Personally, I don't think that's anyone's goal or intention, and I mostly see it as an important lesson on negotiating public discourse," he said.

He concluded: "It was nice getting to meet Dr Mahathir and observe him up close. I hope one day he will find the time and inclination to read The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, and even more improbably, let me know what he thinks of the book - that would be a meeting I would definitely go for, hopefully having learnt to be much less wide-eyed."

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