Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam spent close to six hours yesterday mounting a case that research fellow Thum Ping Tjin had fallen short of the standards of an objective historian when he accused the People's Action Party of using fake news to detain political opponents.
In particular, he grilled Dr Thum on a research paper he had written about the historical circumstances surrounding the 1963 Operation Coldstore, when more than 100 leftist politicians and unionists were arrested and detained.
Dr Thum, who was speaking at the Select Committee hearings on deliberate online falsehoods, contends there is no evidence the detainees were involved in any violent communist conspiracy to overthrow the Singapore Government.
But Mr Shanmugan argued there was a communist conspiracy in the 1950s and early 1960s to mount an armed struggle against the state.
He took Dr Thum through various historical accounts made by the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) leaders and other researchers that were in conflict with certain points made in the paper by the historian.
Following questions, Dr Thum accepted that there were parts of the paper which he could have worded better.
Extracts from the exchange
ON STANDARDS FOR HISTORIANS
Mr K. Shanmugam: These are the essential documents on which the Operation Coldstore was decided upon: The telegrams, the underlying notes and, of course, this entire huge brick on open front... Based on what I quoted you from the professor from Cambridge (Regius Professor Richard Evans), can I suggest to you that you have pretty much breached a number of rules that he set out. Let's not argue about it. You can just disagree.
Dr Thum Ping Tjin: Yep, I disagree.
Mr Shanmugam: I would say you have fallen completely through the standard of an objective historian. You can also disagree.
Dr Thum: Disagree.
Mr Shanmugam: Your views on communism, CUF (Communist United Front) in Singapore, Operation Coldstore, which you have been repeating at multiple fora, are contradicted by the most reliable evidence... You ignore and suppress what is inconvenient and in your writings you present quite an untrue picture. You can agree or disagree.
Dr Thum: I disagree. Of course, I disagree.
He also agreed with Mr Shanmugam that his statements concerning a December 1962 telegram from Lord Selkirk, the British Commissioner to Singapore during Operation Coldstore, were misleading.
In the course of the six hours, Dr Thum, a research fellow at Oxford University in Britain, also said he had not read accounts of some of the communist leaders cited by the minister.
Among other things, Mr Shanmugam noted that the paper does not cite CPM secretary-general Chin Peng.
"You say there is no evidence of any communism in the progressive left... and in saying that, you ignore the first-hand accounts of the secretary-general of the CPM," he said.
"A proper, competent historian who makes such a sweeping statement as 'there is no evidence' would say, 'The Number One man in the organisation does say things which are contradicted by me, but I disagree with him for this reason.' Then people can assess whether you are being accurate or not."
Dr Thum replied that he had not cited accounts by CPM leaders like Chin Peng because he judged them to be unreliable.
He also said it was impossible for him to have cited every possible relevant historical source in one academic paper, or explain why he did not cite each one.
His paper does, however, include a footnote with a historiography that includes many sources not directly cited in his paper, he said. "According to the conventions of historical writing, it is assumed that you will read all those other sources and you are responding to all those other sources," he said.
"So, there really is no need to cite things which are not part of my central argument."
What is Operation Coldstore?
On Feb 2, 1963, hundreds of armed policemen fanned out across Singapore to round up more than 100 leftist politicians and unionists in a major swoop code-named Operation Coldstore.
Among those rounded up was top Barisan Sosialis leader Lim Chin Siong.
The islandwide crackdown, reportedly a continuation of security operations mounted since 1948 to contain the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM), shattered the underground communist network in Singapore.
A Straits Times report at the time said the operation was "aimed at preventing subversives from establishing a 'communist Cuba' in Singapore and mounting violence just before Malaysia". That was in reference to the merger of Singapore with the Federation of Malaya, Sabah and Sarawak to form Malaysia, which took place on Sept 16, 1963.
As the communist threat faded over the years, many of the detainees were released and went on to lead quiet lives.
Some had been detained for more than 15 years.
In recent years, Operation Coldstore has become the subject of debate, with former detainees such as Dr Poh Soo Kai alleging that the crackdown was politically motivated.
Historians such as Dr Hong Lysa have made similar claims.
In a bid to shed new light on Singapore's political developments in the 1960s, researchers have based their work on confidential records of the British colonial authorities that were declassified in the past decade or so.
The Government has said the arrests were justified as the CPM was a major security threat.
The CPM's secretary-general Chin Peng had said in his memoirs that Operation Coldstore broke up the party's underground network throughout the island.
Dr Thum also said that much of his research was based on documents from the Special Branch, the agency that preceded the Internal Security Department.
"According to Special Branch records, there was no sustained communist underground conspiracy after 1953, 1954 or so because it had been heavily smashed," said Dr Thum.
Mr Shanmugam told Dr Thum that his interpretation of those documents was flawed, and that even if there had not been any instructions for violent action from the CPM leaders, it did not mean there was no communist conspiracy among the lower levels of the organisation.
For example, Dr Thum noted that Special Branch papers showed that several communists arrested after the Hock Lee bus riots said they had nothing to do with organising it. While there was a communist presence in Singapore at the time, he argued, there was no organised conspiracy to mount violent acts.
Mr Shanmugam countered that there may have been specific groups of CPM cadres who were organising actions, such as the bus riots, without instructions from the top.
"The ultimate Marxist-Leninist aim of having a united front organisation that would infiltrate a variety of trade unions, middle schools, political parties on the road to struggle was completely in place," he said.
"Operational difficulties meant that on specific occasions there were no instructions given for specific actions. In fact... the cadres took it on themselves to go and do a lot. That doesn't prove there's no conspiracy."
He also put to Dr Thum that his views on communism, the Communist United Front and Operation Coldstore were contradicted "by the most reliable evidence".
"It ignores evidence which you don't like. You ignore and suppress what is inconvenient and in your writings you present quite an untrue picture," Mr Shanmugam said.
Dr Thum replied: "I disagree."
He pointed out that since his paper's publication in 2013, it has been peer-reviewed and "thus far no historian has... contradicted the central thrust of my work".
After 51/2 hours of the hearing, the committee took a five-minute break. Mr Shanmugam ended his questioning of Dr Thum about 20 minutes after the sitting resumed. The other members of the Select Committee did not have any questions for Dr Thum.
In his written submission to the committee, Dr Thum said that fake news has not had much of an impact in Singapore, save for one major exception: Operation Coldstore.
"Beginning with Operation Coldstore in 1963, politicians have told Singaporeans that people were being detained without trial on national security grounds due to involvement with radical communist conspiracies to subvert the state," he wrote.
"Declassified documents have proven this to be a lie," he said. "Operation Coldstore was conducted for political purposes, and there was no evidence that the detainees of Operation Coldstore were involved in any conspiracy to subvert the government."
Among other things, he called for the repeal or review of the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act, the Sedition Act and Section 298 of the Penal Code, which criminalises the deliberate intention of wounding the religious or racial feelings of any person.