Gather facts to forge consensus on history: Koh Poh Koon

Saga involving historian highlights need for facts to be corroborated by many sources

The recent saga involving historian Thum Ping Tjin has highlighted the need to see history not just from one particular perspective but in a more comprehensive way, said Senior Minister of State for National Development and Trade and Industry Koh Poh Koon.

This is to "ensure that facts are curated and can be corroborated across many different sources", said Dr Koh, who spoke to reporters yesterday at a Singapore Bicentennial event.

"As we go through this journey, it is important that we gather the facts for which everybody can have some degree of consensus," he added.

Dr Koh was responding to a question about whether the debate over Operation Coldstore in 1963 - in which more than 100 leftist unionists and politicians were arrested - would have any impact on efforts to study Singapore's history for the bicentennial next year.

Dr Thum was questioned for nearly six hours by the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods in March over his submission, which had stated that Operation Coldstore was mounted for political rather than security reasons.

He stated that there was no evidence that the detainees were involved in any violent communist conspiracy to overthrow the Singapore Government.

Upon questioning by the Select Committee, he acknowledged that his writings were misleading in parts and that the British authorities had honestly believed that the Operation Coldstore arrests were necessary, and that some members of the leftist party Barisan Sosialis had considered "armed struggle" a legitimate option to pursue at some stage.

At yesterday's event at the National Library, 130 volunteers underwent a four-hour training workshop, where they learnt interviewing and information gathering skills on how to document "bicentennial-worthy" community stories through their families and friends.

About 220 volunteers have been trained since the programme started in February, and the Singapore Bicentennial Office hopes to rope in 3,800 volunteers in total.

Also present at the workshop was Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Josephine Teo, who co-chairs the ministerial steering committee in charge of efforts to mark the 200th anniversary of the founding of modern Singapore.

She said these personal stories from volunteers will help "weave a much richer tapestry", adding to academic efforts to document Singapore's history. Some of these stories, harking back to 700 years of Singapore's history, will be showcased from June.

"We work with a number of historians - these are scholars who have devoted a good part of their scholarship and their life in understanding how Singapore got to where it is today," said Mrs Teo, who is also Second Minister for Manpower and Home Affairs.

Asked if there are any "out of bounds markers" to what the volunteers can explore, she replied: "We have remained very open, and that will be the case. When you collect stories, you listen to all these stories and they are a part of the whole collection."

Senior Minister of State for Defence and Foreign Affairs Maliki Osman, who leads the volunteer engagement efforts with Dr Koh, said two persons can have the same experience but define it differently.

"That is where diversity (of views) comes in, allowing for Singaporeans to discover for themselves what makes us uniquely Singaporean," he added.

Volunteer Nur Fateema Aziz, 16, said she was eager to find out more about the dark days of the Japanese Occupation from her grandmother, who is 77.

The Secondary 4 student from Madrasah Aljunied Al-Islamiah said: "It's important for me to know better about Singapore's history, and the achievements of past Singaporeans that allow me to stand here today."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 22, 2018, with the headline 'Gather facts to forge consensus on history: Koh Poh Koon'. Print Edition | Subscribe