Select Committee on fake news

Thum's submission a political piece, says Charles Chong

It's not a dissertation so he must expect to be questioned, he says in reply to academics' letter


Historian Thum Ping Tjin's written submission to the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods "is not an academic dissertation but a political piece", and he must expect to be questioned about the claims he put forth in it, said Mr Charles Chong.

Responding to an open letter signed by over 200 academics here and overseas defending Dr Thum, Mr Chong said yesterday it was Dr Thum who chose to use the hearings to make a political point about Operation Coldstore - a security operation that took place 55 years ago, long before the Internet existed.

"Having done so, he cannot then plead that his claims should not be questioned, or that he should not be judged on his answers," said Mr Chong, an MP for Punggol East who chairs the parliamentary panel.

He noted that Dr Thum had in his submission referred to his position as founder of website New Naratif, which Mr Chong described as a group involved in political activism.

"There is nothing wrong with political activism in itself. But it is odd to make political points - as Dr Thum did - and then hide behind the shield of academia when questioned,"said Mr Chong.

In a two-page statement, Mr Chong, who is also Deputy Speaker of Parliament, set out his response to the letter which expressed concern over how Dr Thum was questioned by committee member and Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam for six hours last month, "treating him and his widely respected scholarship with disdain". Circulated online over the last two weeks, it also called for Mr Chong to apologise for the committee's treatment of Dr Thum.

In his written submission to the panel, Dr Thum charged that the 1963 Operation Coldstore - during which over 100 leftist unionists and politicians were arrested - was carried out for political gain. The People's Action Party Government had been the main source of falsehoods in Singapore, he asserted, as there was no evidence that the detainees were involved in a communist conspiracy to overthrow it.

In his reply, Mr Chong said: "Dr Thum is entitled to his views. But when he puts them before a Select Committee, he must expect to be questioned about them. And indeed Dr Thum wrote that he was willing to appear before us. It is therefore surprising that the letter suggests Dr Thum was questioned 'without warning'."

  • Charles Chong: Thum not an academic historian

  • It is not accurate to describe Dr Thum Ping Tjin as an academic historian, said Mr Charles Chong.

    He said yesterday that the Select Committee has "had some difficulty" identifying Dr Thum's precise academic position. In his written submission to the committee, Dr Thum described himself as a research fellow in history, but said in his oral testimony he was holding a visiting professorship in anthropology at Oxford University, said Mr Chong.

    He added: "Oxford has confirmed that he is not in fact an employee, and that he is a visiting fellow with the fertility and reproduction studies group in the School of Anthropology. And before that he was a visiting scholar (not a research fellow) at the Oxford Centre for Global History, another unpaid position."

    In response to queries, Oxford's head of communications Stephen Rouse said last week that Dr Thum is a research associate at its School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography. He is a visiting fellow of the fertility and reproduction studies group within the school, and therefore an affiliate of it.

    Mr Rouse added that research associates are not employees, but "are valued colleagues with whom we have shared research interests". Dr Thum was awarded a doctorate in history by Oxford in 2011.

The open letter said the truth cannot be "put on trial in a parliamentary committee", and that Mr Shanmugam is not an expert who is qualified to undertake a peer review of Dr Thum's research.

"This is surprising," said Mr Chong. "Legislators all over the world regularly have robust exchanges with witnesses, including academics," he said, noting how Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg was questioned by congressional committees in the US.

"I do not understand why a special immunity is being claimed for academic historians," he said, adding that it was not accurate to describe Dr Thum as an academic historian.

He said the letter makes the point that Dr Thum's articles have been peer-reviewed. "But it is not at all clear whether all the assertions Dr Thum made in his written statement had been peer-reviewed, and how they had acquired the status of unquestionable truths."

Mr Chong said that during the hearings, Dr Thum was asked to explain his position, by reference to relevant documents, and had made several concessions.

These included how his writings were misleading in parts; that the British authorities, contrary to his claims, had believed that Operation Coldstore was necessary for security reasons; that he had not read or heard of the writings of some of the Communist Party of Malaya's former leaders; and that some members of the Barisan Sosialis did in fact consider "armed struggle" a legitimate option to pursue at some stage; and that he had disregarded the views of Communist Party of Malaya secretary-general Chin Peng on many aspects without making it clear that he was disregarding them.

"These concessions substantially undermined his thesis that Operation Coldstore was launched purely for party political advantage," said Mr Chong.

As the letter points out, he said, none on the Select Committee are trained historians. "If Dr Thum could not defend his claims under questioning, surely this must reflect on the quality of his writings and research, not the process?"

Mr Chong also said the letter's concerns about academic freedom are misplaced, noting that more than 20 academics from Singapore and elsewhere had given oral evidence to the committee, and several questioned at length.

While individual members of the committee did not always agree with the academics who gave evidence, "we all benefited from the learning they brought to bear on the questions before us".

He added that the hearings were held in public and videos of proceedings available online, and transcripts will be produced. "Unless they lied or prevaricated, every witness before us, and the evidence they gave, is protected by parliamentary privilege."

Separately, six academics from Oxford University's Project Southeast Asia initiative also issued a statement on Monday, calling on the committee to issue a public apology for the "unacceptable treatment" of Dr Thum, a coordinator and trustee with Project Southeast Asia.

The committee will reconvene next month to deliberate on a report of its findings to Parliament.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 18, 2018, with the headline Thum's submission a political piece, says Charles Chong. Subscribe