Historian Thum Ping Tjin’s submission to the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods was not an academic dissertation but a “political piece”, said the committee’s chairman Charles Chong on Tuesday (17 April).
“It is odd to make political points – as Dr Thum did – and then hide behind the shield of academia when questioned,” said Chong in a five-page response to an open letter by more than 130 academics worldwide who accused the Select Committee of seeking to discredit Thum.
Chong added, “It was Dr Thum who chose to use our committee, on deliberate online falsehoods – to make a political point about Operation Coldstore…Having done so, the cannot then plead that his claims should not be questioned, or that he should not be judged on his answers.”
Heart of the matter
In his submission to the Committee, Thum had 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,” wrote Thum.
The historian was subsequently grilled by Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam on his assertions for six hours during a Select Committee hearing 29 March. The Parliament Secretariat later also asked Thum to clarify his academic credentials in light of “varying accounts” concerning them.
Oxford University has since clarified that Thum is a research associate with the School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography. Thum was awarded a doctorate in history by Oxford in 2011.
In his reply to the open letter, Chong claimed that Thum had alleged that the Singapore government is the “chief source of fake news in Singapore”. He added that Thum had made “a number of concessions” that “substantially undermined” his thesis that Operation Coldstore was really a political exercise.
Chong noted that Thum should have expected a robust line of questioning. He added that more than 20 academics from Singapore and elsewhere had testified before the committee.
“All were forthright in their views and I would be very surprised if any of them were intimidated by the process,” said Chong.