History of Singapore a matter of concern to all Singaporeans: Desmond Lee and Janil Puthucheary

History of Singapore a matter of concern to all Singaporeans: Desmond Lee and Janil Puthucheary

Janil Puthucheary at Select Committee hearing
Dr Janil Puthucheary speaking at a Select Committee hearing. 

SINGAPORE: The history of Singapore is a matter of concern to all Singaporeans and not just historians, Mr Desmond Lee and Dr Janil Puthucheary said on Tuesday (Apr 10) in response to an opinion piece in the Straits Times by its editor-at-large Han Fook Kwang last weekend.  

In their response published in the paper titled "History is not the preserve of historians", the pair took issue with Mr Han's suggestion that "politicians should have no role in interpreting history and that history should be the preserve of only historians". 

Mr Han had said that this was because the views of politicians are bound to be coloured by political interests. On the other hand, all historians can be relied on to pronounce authoritatively on the historical 'truth' because they view history objectively.

"This cannot be right," said Mr Lee, who is Social and Family Development Minister, and Dr Puthucheary, who is Senior Minister of State for Education, as well as for Communications and Information. 

The two politicians added that Mr Han "ignores the fact" that some historians, including Dr Thum Ping Tjin who recently engaged in a six-hour debate with Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam about Operation Coldstore, "do indeed have political agendas". 

They said that Dr Thum is an "activist, as much as he may be a scholar", who instead of "applying himself solely to peer-reviewed historical research" also "chose to make a submission to Parliament, asserting that the main sources of fake news in Singapore over almost 60 years have been the Government of Singapore and Lee Kuan Yew". 

"Are we to keep silent and receive this view passively because he is a 'historian', in possession of the 'truth' and we are 'politicians', in possession of mere 'opinions'?" asked Mr Lee and Dr Puthucheary. The pair also pointed out that as a result of the Select Committee's questioning, Dr Thum "conceded that his writings (about Operation Coldstore) were misleading in parts". 

Mr Lee and Dr Puthucheary are both members of the Select Committee on deliberate online falsehoods, which recently concluded eight days of public hearings on the issue. Dr Puthucheary's father Dominic was a member of the Barisan Sosialis, and was among members detained as part of Operation Coldstore. 

"The history of Singapore is a matter of concern to all Singaporeans because it is our story - citizens, journalists, politicians and historians," their response also read. "We value the work of historians, but Singapore's story cannot be theirs alone."

Mr Lee and Dr Puthucheary said that for Mr Han to suggest Dr Thum should not be questioned because his work was peer-reviewed was a "claim to privilege that is available to no other professional expert, let alone the Government or elected MPs". 

They also challenged Mr Han's argument "that truth should not matter in politics, that we should favour opinion over facts in politics, that politicians should not concern themselves with facts for their motives would always be questioned". 

"Let there be no doubt where we stand on this: When others manipulate facts for their own ends, political leaders who are unable to demonstrate the fallacy of the assertions or expose the motives of the manipulators, do not deserve to be leaders, no matter what generation they belong to," said the pair. 

The two ministers, who are seen to be part of the Government's fourth-generation leadership, pointed out that Singapore's political leadership "has always set a high value on honesty, transparency and being straightforward with the electorate", which is why the Government "has sometimes gone out of its way to tell citizens uncomfortable truths, even if there is a political price to pay in doing so". 

"If Singaporeans were to conclude that their politicians cannot be trusted because the facts do not matter to them, we would have a very different kind of politics and a very different Singapore," they said. 

"And that is why, even 55 years later, we make no apologies for exposing the fallacy of Dr Thum's allegations about Coldstore, especially the assertion that the late Mr Lee had lied," they added.