Former Internal Security Act detainees under Operation Spectrum at documentary screening of “1987: Untracing The Conspiracy” in 2016. Dr Thum’s submission to the Select Committee on fake news argued that People’s Action Party politicians did not tell the truth behind Operation Coldstore (1963) and Operation Spectrum (1987).
Straight off the bat, it was clear that we were about to witness some demolition work at yesterday’s Select Committee hearing. It was the way Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam questioned Dr Thum Ping Tjin about his academic credentials – that he was not a research fellow in History as he had maintained, but that he was now a research fellow in Anthropology. And that while he was attached to Oxford University, he was not a tenured staff member.
It was also clear that the minister would launch into Dr Thum’s key point in his submission – that the People’s Action Party politicians were responsible for the biggest pieces of fake news in Singapore, by not telling the truth behind Operation Coldstore (1963) and Operation Spectrum (1987) which had resulted in the incarceration of many people. He said so at the beginning of what would be a six-hour interrogation of the historian who is known for putting a different spin on the Singapore’s early history.
I say “spin’’ because I can’t tell who has the definitive version of history of Singapore’s pre-independence days – whether the early politicians (Lim Chin Siong et al) were communists planning armed struggle for political supremacy, or whether they were socialists whom first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew labelled as communists to destroy them politically, or to force them into jail or exile.
I say “spin’’ because I was thoroughly confused by all the references to books, quotes, telegrams, speeches and even footnotes that were originally in Mandarin and then translated into (bad English). Believe you me, I tried. Because any Singaporean would want to know how Dr Thum came to this conclusion that was in his written submission:
“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. Operation Coldstore was conducted for political purposes, and there was no evidence that the detainees of Operation Coldstore were involved in any conspiracy to subvert the government.”
Not that Dr Thum is unknown in intellectual circles. His Phd thesis and subsequent public lectures, videos and interviews have repeated the point, which has been contested by the Government and at least one academic. In recent years, there have been several alternative narratives to Singapore history that has seen publication, including the ex-detainees’ views of Operation Spectrum and exiled ex-Barisan Sosialis members’ recollections of Operation Coldstore.
In 2014, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had weighed in to defend the State’s narrative. In 2015, his office issued a strong statement decrying what it described as “historical revisionism’’which downplayed the communist role in pre-independence:
“Historical discourse and debate requires academic rigour, intellectual honesty and respect for evidence. These qualities have been sadly lacking among those championing a revisionist account of a key fight on our road to independence.”
It shouldn’t surprise anyone therefore that the G members of the panel to take a scalpel to Dr Thum’s views, just as they did with the Human Rights Watch report that was a key point in freelance journalist Kirsten Han’s written submission.
So, was the demolition exercise successful?
As a layperson sitting in on the first half of the hearing, I found some of Dr Thum’s responses to Mr Shanmugam’s questions disconcerting, especially when he professed ignorance of some published work that seemed to have a bearing on those early days. Mr Shanmugam made quite a lot of hay from Dr Thum’s utterances, to show that the historian was not quite an expert in the field. I thought the same too, but I will also concede that it is also true that no one can read everything, not even an expert, and that even an expert would be hard put to remember certain paragraphs or quotes in the materials that he had come across.
Mr Shanmugam cited chapter and verse to get Dr Thum to agree on what constituted communism and united front tactics before proceeding to ask questions about whether there was a communist conspiracy in Singapore by Barisan Sosialis members. He cited published sources, including those by Communist Party of Malaya’s secretary-general Chin Peng, which referred to the extent of communist infiltration in Singapore which had caused labour disruptions and student riots. There were references to how communists had to flee to Riau islands and had to ready themselves for a crackdown by government forces.
Dr Thum, on the other hand, said his analysis was based on recently de-classified contemporaneous British Special Branch documents that did not show any evidence of a communist conspiracy. As for other materials, he dismissed them either as inaccurate or irrelevant as they were written decades later for a self-serving purpose. His own research, he claimed, showed Chin Peng was too far away from Singapore to know enough of its circumstances.
So much of the first three hours was about whether Dr Thum had read this or that, or had investigated this or that point, and debates on definitions such as “communist-controlled’’ and “communist-inspired’’, and whether supporters of communism were really supporters of anti-colonialism.
It was extremely testy with side comments made by Dr Thum, which Mr Shanmugam didn’t care to countenance. Dr Thum was kept to a narrow line of yes or no answers which he chafed at, arguing that a historian also looked at the big picture and other sources to come to conclusions.
Mr Shanmugam was having nothing of it, and accused Dr Thum of dealing in sophistry rather than history, and ignoring other sources on the pre-independence period which were inconvenient to his line of argument. He practically called Dr Thum an academic fraud, who broke the rules of academic research (he cited a definition).
Was any light shed on Operation Coldstore?
Dr Thum’s point seems to be that there might be people who supported communism and who were actually communists, but this is not to say that there was a concerted communist conspiracy to de-stabilise Singapore with riots and armed insurrection. And those who were rounded up in Operation Coldstore were not communists, because the declassified documents had no evidence of this. Neither was Barisan leader Lim Chin Siong a communist, he maintained, as Mr Shanmugam cited evidence that seemed to point otherwise. Mr Shanmugam also suggested that Dr Thum had misread at least one telegram from a British colonialist about the nature of Barisan Sosialis future moves.
Dr Thum seemed to be relying on de-classified documents from the British archives, which Mr Shanmugam didn’t take issue with and did not cite as a source. In fact, it seemed a pretty strange debate because no one in the room had a clue what the British documents really said. Mr Shanmugam, in fact, asked Dr Thum to send the relevant documents to him, which led Dr Thum to remark that the Internal Security Department probably had them too.
It was a pity that the discussion on Operation Coldstore took so little of that six hours of grilling which was terminated rather abruptly. For me, it appeared to be a continuation of a discussion which was really started a few years ago when historians started querying the State’s version of history, drawing responses from the G, at a time when Mr Lee Kuan Yew was still alive.
Would the release of classified documents by the G shed more light on this period of Singapore history? Asked about this in Parliament in 2014, then Minister of Culture, community and Youth Lawrence Wong rejected this. “Our approach is not transparency for transparency sake. Our approach is transparency that leads to good governance.”
Anyone would ask what the six hours had to do with fake news. It seemed to be about which version of history Singaporeans should rely on. After the hearing, Dr Thum professed himself flummoxed at the line of questioning which had been a two-man show despite the presence of other panel members including Dr Janil Puthucheary, whose father, Dominic Puthucheary, and uncle, James Puthucheary, had been Operation Coldstore detainees.
Perhaps, what the six hours showed was the difficulty of ascertaining what is true and what is false. Who should we believe and how credible are our sources? How can we ascertain the intentions of people who say things or do things?