Shanmugam, historian Thum Ping Tjin spar over communist activities in 1950s-1960s

Historian Thum Ping Tjin (right) speaking to reporters after attending a hearing headed by the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods on 29 March 2018. Photo: Nicholas Yong/Yahoo News Singapore
Historian Thum Ping Tjin (right) speaking to reporters after attending a hearing headed by the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods on 29 March 2018. Photo: Nicholas Yong/Yahoo News Singapore

The final day of the Select Committee hearings on Deliberate Online Falsehoods turned into a wide-ranging history lesson on Singapore and Malaysia in the 1950s and 1960s, as Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam and historian Thum Ping Tjin sparred on Thursday (29 March) over the exact nature of communist activities in the two countries during the tumultuous period.

In a marathon session in Parliament House that went on for almost six hours and often got testy, seminal events such as the Hock Lee Bus riots and the Malayan Emergency were referenced, as well as communist leaders Chin Peng and Fong Chong Pik and the late Singapore prime minister Lee Kuan Yew and former Barisan Sosialis leader Lim Chin Siong.

In his submission to the Committee, Thum asserted that fake news has not had much of an impact in Singapore, with one major exception: the “falsehoods” that the People’s Action Party (PAP) used to justify the detentions of thousands under the Internal Security Act from 1963 to 1987.

“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. Declassified documents have proven this to be a lie.”

Shanmugam zeroed in on this point, and spent most of the session questioning Thum’s research into events of that era. Thum is a Research Fellow at the University of Oxford who has been writing and publishing on Singapore history since 2006. He is known for his interpretation of key historic events in Singapore during the 1950s-1960s that contradicts official accounts.

‘This is not scholarship, but sophistry’

“You ignore and suppress what is inconvenient,” said Shanmugam, asserting that Thum had failed to reach the standards of an objective historian. At one point, Shanmugam even made reference to the notorious Holocaust denier and self-styled historian David Irving.

“I’m suggesting to you, based on what you have said to us, what we have seen is not scholarship, but sophistry,” added the minister, which Thum vigorously disputed.

In response to Shanmugam’s numerous attempts to pin him down to an answer, Thum said in an exasperated tone, “Are you going to go through the ‘yes or no’ thing, or can I give a nuanced answer?”

At the end of a long exchange about purported communist conspiracies in the region and communist tactics, Thum drily remarked, “Very successfully too, since Malaya was taken over by the Communist Party. Oh no wait, they weren’t, were they? My mistake.”

The historian was referring to the 1948-1960 period when then Malaya was battling the communists and eventually managed to suppress their insurgency with the help of the British. Many historians agree that the communist movement in the region was crippled at the end of the Malayan Emergency.

Thum’s comment prompted the minister to quip, “Yes, I know that you can’t resist some jokes now and then.” To which Thum said, “Life is short.”

Speaking to reporters after his testimony, Thum said that he did not expect his work to be “dissected” to such a degree. “In some ways, it’s very flattering that the Minister of Law and Home Affairs takes such a keen interest in my work. What other academic in what other country would have a minister grilling him for six hours about one article?” he said wryly.

Thum added, “Ultimately, this is the Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods, and I don’t think we discussed it at all…so I’m not sure what his motivations were in doing this.”

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