Historian Thum Ping Tjin, Shanmugam cross swords on Singapore's communism-related past

Historian Thum Ping Tjin, Shanmugam cross swords on Singapore's communism-related past

PJ Thum Shanmugam
On the final day of the Select Committee's public hearing on deliberate online falsehoods, Law Minister K Shanmugam and Oxford historian Thum Ping Tjin sparred for almost six hours. 

SINGAPORE: Law Minister K Shanmugam and historian Dr Thum Ping Tjin crossed swords repeatedly over the interpretation of historical events such as Operation Coldstore and the Hock Lee Bus riots on the last day of the public hearing by the Select Committee on deliberate online falsehoods.

During the session on Thursday (Mar 29), Mr Shanmugam spent almost six hours questioning Dr Thum’s perspective on a wide variety of texts, including books from Lenin and Malayan Communist leader Chin Peng as well as Dr Thum’s own thesis and papers.

Mr Shanmugam fired many salvos to refute Dr Thum’s written submission suggesting that there are no examples of fake news which have had a major impact on Singapore offline, with one exception.

"There is clear source of 'fake news' which has spread falsehoods, with major impact, and hitherto escaped sanction. That is the politicians of Singapore's People's Action Party," Dr Thum said in his submission. 

The historian claimed that detentions made under the Internal Security Act between 1963 and 1987, including for Operation Coldstore, were examples of this. He also said that declassified documents have shown that the detentions were made for political purposes rather than security ones.

During Operation Coldstore in 1963, the Special Branch, the predecessor of the Internal Security Department, arrested more than 100 activists, dealing a heavy blow to communist activity in Singapore.


Mr Shanmugam said while the Select Committee was not for examining the evidence for Operation Coldstore or the activities of the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM), there was a need to look at them because they had been cited in Dr Thum’s submission. 

In the lengthy session, Mr Shanmugam went through a number of points raised in a paper written by Dr Thum when he was at the Asia Research Institute (ARI). Particular attention was paid to two telegrams that were cited in that paper from the UK Commissioner to Singapore Lord Selkirk in December 1962, outlining the action that could be taken against the communist threat.

In detailed questioning, Mr Shanmugam took issue with Dr Thum's view that the notes helped point to the fact that there was no communist conspiracy in Singapore.

The existence or otherwise of such a conspiracy was at the heart of much of the debate between Mr Shanmugam and Dr Thum.

"There is no evidence in the Special Branch documents ... that the detainees of Operation Coldstore were involved in any communist conspiracy to subvert and overthrow the government,"Dr Thum said.

Towards the end of his evidence, Dr Thum reiterated his view that while individuals in Singapore were communists, there was no conspiracy. 

This drew a sharp response from Mr Shanmugam: "The ultimate Marxist-Leninist aims of having a united front organisation that would infiltrate a variety of trade unions, middle schools (and) political parties on the road to struggle was completely in place. Operational difficulties meant that on specific occasions there were no instructions given for specific actions … the cadres took on themselves to go and do a lot. 

"That doesn’t prove there was no conspiracy. In fact, that proves there was a conspiracy but it was not tightly organised," said Mr Shanmugam, who also took Dr Thum to task on some of the specifics of what he said in his ARI paper.

"You agreed that looking at it, you should have reworded it (parts of the paper) ... really ought to have been more accurate," said Mr Shanmugam, to which Dr Thum agreed. 

"These are the essential documents which the Operation Coldstore was decided upon. The telegrams, the underlying notes and, of course, this entire huge debate on (the Communist) open front," he added. 

The law minister then suggested to Dr Thum that he had "breached a number of rules" with regard to academic historical processes, and that Dr Thum had "fallen completely through the standard of an objective historian". 

"Your views on communism, Operation Coldstore - which you have been repeating at multiple fora - are 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 disagreed to the suggestions and at multiple points during the session maintained his position as a historian who interprets historical evidence with nuances, instead of subjecting it to yes or no answers to Mr Shanmugam's questions.

"I'm an academic, Mr Shanmugam, nuance is very important to the truth," he said.

The two also disagreed on the reliability of various historical sources and documents as well as the definition of a "communist united front" in extended exchanges where numerous historical records were brought up and displayed.  


In his written submission, Dr Thum recommended teaching people about information and how to process it. This might prove to be a more effective strategy in combating fake news as an alternative to legislation, he said.

Instead of wrangling with the vague definitions of what fake news is, the Government could consider educating Singaporeans to be “more thoughtful, critical, and sceptical towards information, regardless of source”.

One of Dr Thum’s recommendations to the Select Committee was to expand media literacy programmes to focus on teaching how the information industry works, to be politically aware and to interrogate information regardless of source.

He added that there is also a need to reform or repeal existing laws, including Section 298 of the Penal Code which criminalises the deliberate intention of wounding the religious or racial feelings of any other person. 

The Government could also repeal the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act to allow more publications to be set up. This, Dr Thum said, would allow Singaporeans to see issues from multiple perspectives from mainstream media sources.

Dr Thum also wrote in his submission that he was a research fellow in history and coordinator of Project Southeast Asia at the University of Oxford, but clarified during the hearing that he is now a research fellow in anthropology. He added he is "still a historian".

Source: CNA/fs/hm