WP chief responds to critics on singling out of historian Thum

Workers' Party chief Pritam Singh (far right) at a press conference held by the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods last Thursday. With him are committee chairman Charles Chong (left) and fellow committee member Janil Puthucheary. The co
Workers' Party chief Pritam Singh (far right) at a press conference held by the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods last Thursday. With him are committee chairman Charles Chong (left) and fellow committee member Janil Puthucheary. The committee's report outlining the threat of fake news included an addendum accusing historian Thum Ping Tjin of lying about his academic credentials.LIANHE ZAOBAO FILE PHOTO

Workers' Party (WP) chief Pritam Singh has responded to criticisms that a parliamentary committee tasked to study the issue of fake news singled out historian Thum Ping Tjin, saying that Dr Thum, too, had done the same with the People's Action Party (PAP) in his representation.

"As much as I agree PJ was singled out, he also singled out the PAP for special treatment in his representation," he wrote on Facebook last Saturday following a comment by freelance journalist Kirsten Han.

"There was no way they were going to let that stand on the parliamentary record, unrebutted. Singling out the PAP was PJ's prerogative, consequences included."

Dr Thum had written in his submission to the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods earlier this year that "'fake news' has not, historically, had much of an impact in Singapore - with one major exception: The People's Action Party (PAP) Government has, historically, spread 'fake news' for narrow party-political gain".

He said that in the 1963 Operation Coldstore, the PAP Government lied about radical communist conspiracies to detain its political opponents.

In public hearings in March, Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam, who was on the Select Committee, questioned Dr Thum for almost six hours on his research. Last week, the committee, of which Mr Singh is a member, issued a report outlining the threat of fake news and recommending ways Singapore could deal with the problem.

It also included an addendum which, among other things, accused Dr Thum of lying about his academic credentials.

Last Friday, Mr Singh wrote about the report on his Facebook page, highlighting his view that Singapore should target only falsehoods distributed to undermine a society, and that any measures should not reasonably be expected to stifle a frank and healthy exchange of opinion required for a functioning democracy.

Some Facebook users asked him to elaborate on his views about the committee's dealings with Dr Thum. In response to Facebook user Bertrand Seah, Mr Singh said: "I have views on how the Select Committee could have dealt with the oral testimony differently. But there are eight other elected MPs who have their own views, too."

Ms Han said in a comment that she had "expected the WP to show more backbone in taking a stance against bullying".

Mr Singh replied: "I can't get into the Select Committee's processes etc, so I can't say anything more about the PJ imbroglio then I already have.

"But I will say this episode may not be the best one to use as a barometer for the WP's stance against bullying, but I can respect that you have a different view about it and why you feel so strongly about it."

 

Mr Singh also engaged commenters on the committee's broader report and recommendations, which include introducing new laws to give the Government powers to stop the spread of fake news and impose criminal sanctions on those who deliberately start and disseminate fake news that leads to serious harm.

A few commenters raised the concern that such new laws would stifle free speech.

Mr Singh responded: "Any new legislation will be an exercise in redefining norms. But the extent to which technology and particularly social media has weaponised information and even compromised democratic institutions cannot be ignored, whether you support the opposition or not.

"The real point you make is about the extent of those legislative powers and how they ought to be checked or circumscribed. That's a point I do not disagree with."

To another commenter who questioned the need for new laws, Mr Singh said: "The Select Committee's recommendations still have to be debated in Parliament. There is no law proposed as yet."

He added: "In the Select Committee, the challenge for me as an opposition politician of the WP is to accommodate and find a balance between many legitimate views."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 25, 2018, with the headline 'WP chief responds to critics on singling out of historian Thum'. Print Edition | Subscribe