SINGAPORE: The chairman of the Select Committee on deliberate online falsehoods, Mr Charles Chong, on Tuesday (Apr 17) responded to an open letter written in support of historian Thum Ping Tjin.
The open letter, signed by about 230 academics from around the world and addressed to Mr Chong, took issue with the “unacceptable treatment” of Dr Thum and the way he was questioned for nearly six hours by Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam at one of the Select Committee hearings.
“His academic work and personal integrity was essentially put on ‘show trial’, without warning, in an attempt to intimidate and discredit our academic colleague,” read the letter.
Responding on Tuesday, Mr Chong wrote: “In his written representation to our Committee, Dr Thum alleged that the Singapore Government is the chief source of fake news in Singapore. He specifically referred to Operation Coldstore, and charged that the founding Prime Minister of Singapore, the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew, was the primary liar.
“Dr Thum is entitled to his views. But when he puts them before a Select Committee, he must expect to be questioned about them. And indeed Dr Thum wrote that he was willing to appear before us. It is therefore surprising that the letter suggests Dr Thum was questioned ‘without warning’.”
The open letter also said that the Committee’s treatment of Dr Thum has “wider implications for freedom of expression and academic freedom in Singapore” – concerns that Mr Chong said in his response were “misplaced”.
He noted that more than 20 local and foreign academics had given oral evidence, several were questioned “at length” and some disagreed with members of the Committee.
“All were forthright in their views and I would be very surprised if any of them were intimidated by the process,” said Mr Chong. “To be sure, individual members of our Committee did not always agree with the academics who gave evidence to us. But we all benefited from the learning they brought to bear on the questions before us.”
He added: “Legislators all over the world regularly have robust exchanges with witnesses, including academics. Mr Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, has just finished two days of questioning by US congressional committees. I do not understand why a special immunity is being claimed for academic historians.”
DR THUM USED COMMITTEE TO MAKE POLITICAL POINT: MR CHONG
Mr Chong also said it was Dr Thum who chose to use the Select Committee on deliberate online falsehoods to make a political point about Operation Coldstore – a security operation that took place 55 years ago before the Internet existed.
“Having done so, he cannot then plead that his claims should not be questioned, or that he should not be judged on his answers,” Mr Chong wrote.
Pointing to Dr Thum’s written submission to the Committee, Mr Chong said it was not an academic dissertation but "a political piece".
“There is nothing wrong with political activism in itself. But it is odd to make political points – as Dr Thum did – and then hide behind the shield of academia when questioned,” said Mr Chong.
He also urged the authors of the open letter, who were not named, to “look more carefully” at the actual answers Dr Thum gave at the hearing, noting that the historian had made a number of concessions. He had agreed that his writings were misleading in parts, that he had not read the writings of some former leaders of the Communist Party of Malaysia, and that he had disregarded the views of Malayan Communist leader Chin Peng.
“These concessions substantially undermined his thesis that Operation Coldstore was launched purely for party political advantage,” said Mr Chong.
“As the letter points out, none of us on the Committee are trained historians. We only read Dr Thum’s written representation when it came in in February. We asked him to defend a claim that he had put to us,” he added.
“If Dr Thum could not defend his claims under questioning, surely this must reflect on the quality of his writings and research, not the process?”