PJ Thum’s treatment will dampen Singaporean academics’ willingness to speak out

Politicians’ disparagement of historian’s research signals that alternative interpretations of the city state’s past will not be tolerated, says Linda Lim

April 21, 2018
Merlion statue, Singapore
Source: iStock

Many governments are debating what to do about the spread of online “fake news”. Singapore is no exception, and it has constituted a parliamentary Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods. Among several academics to make written submissions and to be called to give evidence in a March hearing was Thum Ping Tjin (P. J. Thum), a former Rhodes scholar who, following his doctorate, still maintains research connections to the University of Oxford.

Among other arguments, Thum’s submission stated that the People’s Action Party, which has monopolised power in Singapore since full self-government was established in 1959, has historically spread disinformation for partisan advantage. 

Between 1963 and 1987, it incarcerated about 2,500 individuals, who were accused – but never tried or convicted – of being part of a communist conspiracy to overthrow the government. One incident of mass political detention, 1963’s “Operation Coldstore”, occupied a few sentences in Thum’s five-page submission. Yet his published research on the subject – based largely on declassified British colonial documents – became almost the sole focus of a six-hour interrogation led by K. Shanmugam, Singapore’s minister of law and home affairs. The hearing included attempts to disparage Thum’s academic credentials, as well as aggressive, detailed questioning of his facts, sources and interpretation. Online attacks along similar lines soon followed.

Whatever the merits of Thum’s research, or the appropriateness of critique by government officials not qualified in the methods and standards of historical research, the exchange had little to do with “deliberate online falsehoods”. Its disproportionate duration prevented consideration of valid concerns about state-propagated falsehoods that might occasionally happen for various reasons (and not just in Singapore).

This led observers to surmise that Thum’s treatment was politically motivated. As noted by the originator of an open letter defending him, now signed by more than 250 academics worldwide, Thum is “a well-known critic of the historical narratives used by Singapore’s ruling party to justify its domination”. A separate statement protesting against Thum’s treatment and defending his scholarship has also been issued by colleagues at Oxford.

In response to the open letter, the select committee chair argued that it had been Thum’s choice to “use our committee…to make a political point…Having done so, he cannot then plead that his claims should not be questioned, or that he should not be judged on his answers.” The chair also claimed that it was inaccurate to describe Thum as “an academic historian” because his recent positions at Oxford have been unpaid.

Thum’s status as an “activist” was used to discredit him as an academic – and even before this episode, it was an open secret that he is barred from academic jobs in Singapore. My concern about his treatment is the chilling effect that it will have on academics in Singapore (reflected in the paucity of Singapore-based signatories to the open letter). The already small number of Singaporean historians working on the country’s post-war history will be further suppressed by the strong signal sent that the authors of Singapore’s official history will not tolerate academic historians who present alternative interpretations. 

More generally, the incident will deter academics from addressing sensitive subjects in their research, and from participating in civic activities such as public hearings. It will exacerbate the impoverishment of local intellectual life, previously analysed by another expatriate Singaporean scholar, Cherian George.

Since my own concerns were posted on Facebook, many Singaporean academics have expressed to me their distress at the incident, their “nervous(ness) about doing research in Singapore”, their concern that “safe spaces for vigorous debate have now been quashed”, and that it will now be more difficult for Singapore universities to “hire good scholars, Singaporeans and foreigners alike”. 

As an economist, I am concerned because Singapore’s economic future hinges on indigenous innovation – which, by definition, requires a habit of questioning established ways of thinking and doing. Thum’s treatment will also make non-academics more reluctant to voice independent opinions, and to participate in civil society.

Most disturbingly, the absence of restraint shown by an all-powerful state in persecuting a single individual risks undermining citizens’ trust in it. Without that, political stability, social cohesion and national progress will be imperilled.

Linda Lim, a Singaporean economist, is professor emerita of corporate strategy and international business at the University of Michigan.

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Print headline: Chilling in Singapore

Reader's comments (6)

Dr Lim's suggestion that “Operation Coldstore”, occupied a few sentences in Thum’s five-page submission." implies that Dr Thum's comments on Operation Coldstore were incidental to his submission to the comment. This is false or at best misleading. Anyone who has read the submission and/or Dr Thum's other publications, speeches etc in Singapore would recognise that a major purpose of his submission was obviously to make his point about Coldstore. Secondly, Dr Lim implicitly questions the appropriateness of critique by Singapore government officials about 1960s history on the basis that they not qualified in the methods and standards of historical research. To me, this is pure arrogance by the historians arguing this. It amounts to saying that historians are qualified to write about past political events, but politicians who are the actual practitioners of that field are unqualified to speak of the history of their own field. Palpable nonsense.
I think the questioning of the credential and the credibility of Thum was necessary and relevant because in his written submission to the Select Committee he posits that the founding father of Singapore Mr Lee Kuan Yew was a liar and a source of major fake news in Singapore’s history. He alluded to how LKY put many political opponents in jail during “Operation Coldstore” falsely accusing them as communist agents who were bent on overthrowing the elected government by whatever means. He stated in his written submission that he was a Research Fellow of History at Oxford. Oxford University later clarify that Thum is a Research Associate with the School of Anthropology i.e. he is an external associate that the school works with on some projects. He is not a paid staff of Oxford. Imagine if you are a lay preacher and you go to the Vatican and tell the Pope that Peter was not the first pope in fact it was Paul and the whole foundation of Catholicism was built on dubious ground? Imagine what would happen to you if you do that at the Vatican! Dr Thum was rightly given a public smack-down by the Select Committee as his claim cuts into the basic foundation and value of how modern Singapore was constructed. Thum being an Anglophile depended on the written English account of the declassified papers of the UK Special Branch when Singapore was part of the British Empire as well as written English accounts of academics, researchers and political figures of that time. He read mainly written accounts in English of the whole events to the exclusion of written accounts in Chinese by the leaders of the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) who were active in the overthrow of the government of Malaya (present day Malaysia & Singapore) in the 1940s to 1960s. He admitted that he did not read the written accounts in Chinese even though it was published and readily available to any Chinese reader in Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong. He said to the effect that history is an argument and not a narrative as it is impossible to know all the facts. In other words, history is subject to interpretation depending which source you want to rely on. Being an Anglophile, he chose to depend on the English written account that he can easily get his hand on. In statistics we call this Sampling Bias. I think Thum is an intelligent and brave man. However, I would rate him very low on common sense and EQ. He was rightly questioned by the Select Committee and was not able to substantiate his claim when he admitted that he selectively chose only to present the English written accounts of history that supported his argument. Teachers and academics are to be respected as they play an important role in the education of the next generation and also help us to better understand the world around us based on their research and writing. They should be given the benefits of doubt if they expound theory or conjecture that is not what we expect them to be – that is why a peer review process is important. However, if they want to expound conjecture that is “earth shattering” in the political sphere they need to be able to stand up to scrutiny. They should not hide behind the mantle of academia and say that they were cross-examined mercilessly by a Senate or Select Committee. I think any good theory or conjecture has to go through the process of verification whether by fellow academics in a peer review or by a Parliamentary Select Committee if the academics has submitted his “ground breaking” political conjecture to a Senate or Select Committee especially if it pertains to the principle established by the founding father of Singapore Mr Lee Kuan Yew on which the foundation Modern Singapore was built. Mr Thum’s claim would have been more legitimate if he had passed the scrutiny of the Select Committee. However, he came through a bit short as he was very selective in how he supported his argument as was highlighted by the Select Committee. I however applaud all the academics that came out to support him as it shows that there is strong camaraderie among the academics. It just like when you are crossing a river in a ferry and somebody fell into the water – your first instinct is to help. Even if you were to find out later that the person was actually pushed overboard as he tried to start a fight with the crew by insulting the captain’s dead father.
Be careful with the "replies" possibly including mine. Some of the replies do not address Prof Linda Lim's comment that Dr Thum was unfairly treated. The point of career Historians - is that they have an professional written opinion based on researched information (in this case released British Archives). It is perfectly fine to rebut such academic opinions in an open academic and published arena. It is not fine for Dr PJ Thum to be treated like a criminal in a 6 hour interrogation. It would be perfectly fine for the representatives of the LKY estate to sue Dr Thum for defamation - which they have not done (yet). All we ask for is a fair treatment of all citizens, including academics and historians. It does not matter if DrPJ Thum is right or wrong. That point is not being debated. That point can be debated - but not in Prof Lim's commentary.
Prof. Lim’s spin about “attempts to disparage Thum’s academic credentials” obfuscates the fact that the issue was caused by Thum Ping Tjin’s own imprecisions pertaining to his personal history. Contrary to his written or oral claims, Thum (a) is not a “Research Fellow” at Oxford and (b) does not hold a “visiting professorship in anthropology” at Oxford. Given the significance of his allegations, it is relevant to consider Thum’s actual academic ranking (as an unpaid research associate he is a relatively junior historian), Oxford status and any personal falsehoods. Thum is not an ‘academic historian’ on Oxford’s academic staff. Oxford university’s website does not list Thum as academic staff, research staff or other staff (including the websites of the history faculty and school of anthropology). Upon checking, the university clarified that Thum is not a paid staff of Oxford. Thum is really a research associate (not a research fellow) and visiting fellow at Oxford (with the Fertility and Reproduction Studies Group in its School of Anthropology). As such, Thum is an unpaid external affiliate (based outside the university) working with members of the university on a project. Linda Lim’s spin that a “separate statement protesting against Thum’s treatment and defending his scholarship has also been issued by colleagues at Oxford” omitted to mention that all seven “Oxford colleagues” were trustees or advisors on a project involving Thum (he also claimed to be a “Research Fellow at the University of Oxford" on the project’s website). Oxford’s other 13,400 staff did not sign that statement. As Yeohlc pointed out, it is hubris to implicitly argue that it is inappropriate for Thum’s research to be rationally critiqued by the most relevant and senior government official on this issue because he is “not qualified in the methods and standards of historical research.” It’s also a double standard when Linda Lim – despite lacking the remit and qualifications of the Select Committee’s chairman – goes on to critique the committee on how it used its time (disproportionate duration) and on which priorities she thinks are relevant (state-propagated falsehoods). It’s unlikely that an academic without internal security qualifications – such as Thum and his peer reviewers – could possibly find out more truths about Operation Coldstore than what is already known by the Singapore government and its Internal Security Department. Singapore’s officials and practitioners have a deeper perspective about that history from having actually experienced the communist era of the 1950s and 1960s. On the other hand, the major shortcoming of Thum’s research is his overreliance on declassified colonial files in the British National Archives – this is unlikely to be all the information that Britain has on 1960s Singapore. Much critical information may not have been documented and filed. Some files may not have survived to be archived. As well, it’s possible that there are still some secret files which have not yet been declassified and transferred to the British National Archives (e.g., read “Sins of colonialists lay concealed for decades in secret archive” and “Foreign Office hoarding 1m historic files in secret archive” and “Ministry of Defence holds 66,000 files in breach of 30-year rule”). In any case, the Singapore files and Malaya files should take precedence over the British files, given the greater responsibility for Singapore’s internal security lay with Singapore’s self-government and Malaya’s central government. If the Coldstore detainees were not communists, this would likely have been leaked by former Special Branch officers from 1960s. Instead surviving Special Branch officers have reiterated the existence of the communist threat. For example, a former Director of the Internal Security Department Mr. Yoong Siew Wah (who has severely criticized Lee Kuan Yew on other matters) has written that detainee Lim Chin Siong was the unchallenged communist leader of Singapore’s Communist United Front aimed at overthrowing Singapore’s governments and he was actively involved in Communist United Front activities in opposition to the 1963 formation of Malaysia (including Singapore). No wonder Thum’s revisionist history (55 years later) is at odds with the early 1960s U.S. intelligence analysis, top Malaysian leaders and the U.S. President, who all agreed that there was a very real communist threat in Singapore during that period. In particular, the U.S. government’s authoritative National Intelligence Estimates (e.g., declassified NIEs from July 1962, February 1963, December 1965) noted that: the proposed Federation of Malaysia was promoted by the UK and Malaya governments primarily to check the “Communist threat” in overwhelmingly-Chinese Singapore; in Singapore, the “predominantly Chinese, pro-Communist Barisan Sosialis Party” was the chief threat to achievement of the merger, as they constituted a powerful opposition to the merger and were seeking an opportunity to upset the precariously situated Singapore Government; after merger, the Barisan Sosialis Party were likely to make uncertain the viability of the new state by continuing efforts to displace the Lee Kuan Yew government through strikes, riots and parliamentary means (which they have at least an even chance of success); China’s communist government was likely to seek control of the new state by supporting the subversive efforts of internal, Chinese-oriented, leftist parties throughout Malaysia. According to the 1965 NIE, Singapore's stability that year in part was the result of leftist weakness following the Singapore government’s steady effort since 1963 to reduce Communist influence in the labor movement, student organizations and the Barisan Sosialis Party.
In reply to Yang GJ. Let me ask you a hypothetical question : If you are a Chinese folk dancer and you decide to enter into a break dancing competition to show off your art. What rule do you think you have to compete under? How high do you think you will score with the judges? I think this question of choosing the right forum and arena to present our art or conjecture is important for any profession, occupation or art. It shows if one understand the relevance of situational context and the appropriate response under different context. If the person does not care about situational context and the appropriateness of response either the person is a highly optimistic, delusional or simply he does not care what others think - it has nothing to do with his profession.
Linda Lim’s spin that “1963’s ‘Operation Coldstore’, occupied a few sentences in Thum’s five-page submission” omits to mention that it was Thum’s ‘Exhibit A’ (he had stated that “declassified documents have proven this to be a lie”) for his main point that the elected PAP politicians and government since 1959 – including the country’s founding PM Lee Kuan Yew – have been liars and the biggest perpetrators of fake news in Singapore. Indeed, a significant part of Thum’s written submission related to his main point. The majority of the parliamentary select committee’s members (i.e., the elected PAP politicians) – whose predecessors actually lived through the communist era of the 1950s and 1960s – likely viewed Thum as a foreign-funded activist using the committee’s platform to spread ‘fake news’ aimed at discrediting a key element of modern Singapore’s stability and development. (The select committee’s members also included the son of a former detainee of Operation Coldstore as well as the soon-to-be leader of the main opposition Workers Party). Independent officials also knew there was a communist threat in 1960s Singapore. Declassified U.S. documents describe a July 1964 meeting with the U.S. President Johnson, where Malaysia’s Deputy Prime Minister Tun Razak estimated that about 30% of the Singapore Chinese have Communist orientation and that these Communists were endeavoring to seize control of the city-state of Singapore and make it a Communist bastion in Southeast Asia — a sort of Cuba. He explained that creation of the new Federation of Malaysia was the only effective means of fighting that Communist threat. In a July 1962 meeting with the U.S. President Kennedy, Malaya’s ambassador had explained that the Communists exercised a good deal of influence on Singapore’s Chinese majority through lies and deceit. The Singapore government has consistently held academics, individuals, groups, news media and other organizations accountable for falsehoods (e.g., watch “LKY: Third World Perspective Press on 14 April 1988” on YouTube) according to the laws of the country. Singapore’s commitment to the Rule of Law is acknowledged in both The World Justice Project’s Rule of Law Index as well as the World Bank’s Worldwide Governance Indicators. Despite the incumbent government’s tough approach for six decades, the historical reality is that there has been a continuing gradual growth of dissent and alternative opinions expressed by controversial academics (such as Linda Lim and Cherian George), fringe journalists, dissenters and the minority fringe of Singapore society. For example, even though Linda Lim paints a dim picture of impoverished intellectual life in Singapore, even her friend Cherian George had an intelligent debate with that same select committee (e.g. watch “multi-pronged approach needed to combat falsehoods” on YouTube). Linda Lim's spin “the paucity of Singapore-based signatories to the open letter” omits to mention that there have been only 16 Oxford-based signatories to the open letter. Oxford has 13,400 staff. Contrary to Linda Lim’s hyperbole, life for Singapore’s academia will not worsen or change due to this mountain-made-out-of-a-molehill incident. The appropriate questioning of Thum (compared to how Mark Zuckerberg was treated by Congressional interrogators): will not have a “chilling effect” on academics in Singapore; will not “dampen” their willingness to speak out about issues, participate in civic activities such as public hearings or address sensitive research subjects; and will not affect the continuing ability of Singapore universities to attract excellent local and foreign academics. It’s absurd to pretend that Singaporean academics would be distressed or nervous due to a minor and unremarkable incident in six decades of Singapore’s history. Lim and Thum – who are part of Singapore's tiny echo chamber of fringe opinions – do not represent most Singaporeans. Linda Lim surely knows that Singapore’s political stability, social cohesion, national progress and people’s trust in government would not be “imperiled” by this minor episode. - Fact: 91% of people in Singapore indicate they trust their government, the second highest rating in world in the 2016 Gallup World Poll (only 35% in Obama’s U.S., 33% in France, 26% in Italy, 46% in Britain, 28% in Spain, 28% in South Korea and 30% in Japan 46% answered “yes” to the question “In this country, do you have confidence in the national government?”). As well, the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report (2016-2017) ranked Singapore first in the world in public trust in politicians. - Fact: On political stability, Singapore was ranked first in the world in the World Bank’s Worldwide Governance Indicators 2016 report. In Singapore’s 2015 general elections, the incumbent government won 70% of the vote on 94% voter turnout (that’s 66% of all eligible voters compared to only 29% of eligible voters for British PM Theresa May’s government or 26% of eligible voters for U.S. President Trump’ administration). This was the 14th general election in a row won by the incumbent government since 1959. - Fact: Singapore's social cohesion is exceptional, considering it is the world’s most densely populated full-functioning country and has a heterogenous population. 94% of people in Singapore indicate they are satisfied with the city or area where they live, according to the 2016 Gallup World Poll. Watch "An investigative interview: Singapore 50 years after independence - 45th St. Gallen Symposium" in YouTube. - Fact: Singapore was ranked first in the world for Government Effectiveness on the World Bank’s Worldwide Governance Indicators 2016. Of all people, Linda Lim should have known that Singapore’s comprehensive successes would not have been possible without the incumbent government inculcating “a habit of questioning established ways of thinking and doing” and taking determined action to put new ways of doing things into practice.

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