This letter is in support of a Singaporean historian, Pingtjin (PJ) Thum, a graduate of Harvard and Oxford universities, and academic freedom more broadly in Singapore. Dr Thum is a well-known critic of the historical narratives used by Singapore’s ruling party to justify its domination, which leaves him dangerously exposed to government harassment. Recently the Singaporean government held hearings into the “deliberate dissemination of falsehoods online”, i.e. so-called “fake news”. PJ and other Singaporean activists understand this to be about preparing the ground for laws that will enhance the government’s already extensive power to regulate the media/ internet – as recently enacted in neighbouring Malaysia, where “fake news” has been outlawed to shield the incumbent regime from corruption accusations. These activists therefore presented submissions to the parliamentary committee and were summoned to give oral testimony. Dr Thum argued in his submission that government efforts to regulate “online falsehoods” were disingenuous because government ministers had themselves made false claims about Singaporean history (including Operation Coldstore, the mass imprisonment of opposition activists in the 1960s on the grounds they were part of a “communist plot”). Dr Thum’s research shows these claims to be untrue. When he appeared before the committee, PJ was subjected to a six hour interrogation by the Minister of Law and Home Affairs. His academic work and personal integrity was essentially put on “show trial”, without warning, in an attempt to intimidate and discredit our academic colleague. You can view the testimony below. The first video starts at a point where the Minister impugs Dr Thum's abilities as a historian and compares him to the Holocaust denier David Irving. The second is a collection of excerpts from the interrogation.
Minister compares Dr Thum to David Irving
Excerpts from interrogation
TEXT OF OPEN LETTER
Dear Mr Charles Chong MP,
The undersigned are members of the global academic community, concerned with the study of History and/or Singapore, or with academic freedom more generally. We are writing to express our deep concern at your committee’s treatment of one of our colleagues, Dr Pingtjin Thum, and the wider implications for freedom of expression and academic freedom in Singapore.
Your committee recently held public hearings into the dissemination of “deliberate online falsehoods”, also known as so-called “fake news”. In principle, we welcome this approach, an unusual one in Singapore. While concern about the dissemination of deliberate falsehoods online is reasonable, cries of “fake news!” are also being used across the world to silence dissenting voices and restrict media freedom. It is therefore vital to take a measured and reasonable approach, and public consultations with experts and civil society groups can be one valuable way to ensure this.
However, your committee’s conduct suggests that the government of Singapore is more interested in restricting civil liberties than defending them against so-called “fake news”. Key civil society actors have been given only a few minutes to speak, after being kept waiting for hours. Dr Pingtjin Thum, meanwhile, was subjected to a six-hour cross-examination by a government minister. We are particularly alarmed by this. Despite declaring that your committee was not an inquiry into Operation Coldstore, the minister proceeded to interrogate Dr Thum, treating him and his widely respected scholarship with disdain. The clear objective was not to establish the extent of the threat from “fake news”, but to attack and discredit a prominent critic of the historical narratives used by Singapore’s ruling People’s Action Party. This is likely to have a chilling effect on freedom of expression and academic freedom in Singapore.
Genuine concern about online falsehoods, rather than mere political expendiency, also implies concern for the truth. The truth is not established by government diktat, nor can it be put on trial in a parliamentary committee. Scholars seek truth through rigorous research and subjecting their findings to critical peer review by fellow experts. Dr Thum’s work has emerged from this process, following training at two of the world’s best universities, Oxford and Harvard. The minister who interrogated Dr Thum has not undergone any such training; he is not even qualified to undertake a peer review of Dr Thum’s research.
If the government of Singapore is genuinely interested in discovering the truth about Operation Coldstore, there is a simple solution: open the state archives and allow historians free access to interrogate the documentary evidence.
In the meantime, we hope you will offer Dr Thum a full apology for his unacceptable treatment by your committee, and exercise your responsibilities as chairman to ensure in future that the committee sticks to its remit and its not used to intimidate your fellow citizens.
Dr Lee Jones, Reader in International Politics, Queen Mary University of LondonDr Michael Buehler, Senior Lecturer in Comparative Politics, SOAS, University of LondonDr Syed Husin Ali, Chairman, People's History Centre, MalaysiaDr Stephan Ortmann, Assistant Professor of Comparative Politics, City University of Hong KongProf Bridget Welsh, Associate Professor of Political Science, John Cabot UniversityProf Garry Rodan, Director, Asia Research Centre, Murdoch UniversityProf Edward Aspinall, Professor of Political Science, Australian National UniversityDr Charanpal Bal, Deputy Head (Global Class), International Relations, Bina Nusantara University, JakartaProf Gerry van Klinken, Anthropology, University of AmsterdamProf Henk Schulte Nordholt, Head of Research, Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies and Professor of Indonesian History, Leiden UniversityDr Gareth Curless, Senior Lecturer in History, University of ExeterDr Desiree Lim, Postdoctoral Fellow, Stanford UniversityProf Adriaan Bedner, Professor of Law & Society in Indonesia, Leiden UniversityDr Tom van den Berge, Senior Researcher, Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean StudiesDr Nicholas Harrigan, Senior Lecturer in Sociology, Macquarie UniversityDr John Landers. Honorary Fellow, Hertford College, Oxford Prof Matthew Cohen, Professor of International Theatre, Royal Holloway, University of LondonDr Marc Rerceretnam Lorraine Yang, PhD Candidate, University of LeedsDr Nicola Pocock, Postdoctoral Fellow in Migration, United Nations University International Institute for Global HealthProf Fridus Steijlen, Anthropology, Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies and Vrije Universiteit AmsterdamDr Tiziana Nazio, Senior Lecturer, University of TurinProf Anne Booth, SOAS, University of London Prof Chung Wai Keung, Associate Professor of Social Innovation, HKCT Institute of Higher Education, Hong KongDr Rui Graça Feijo, Researcher in History and Politics, CES/UCoimbra, PortugalDr. Xingli Giam (Assistant Professor, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, The University of Tennessee, Knoxville)Dr Angela Fedi, Associate Professor of Psychology, University of TorinoDr Alberto Fidalgo Castro, Postdoctoral Researcher, Universidade de BrasíliaDr Rosemary Gianno, Professor of Anthropology, Keene State CollegeOlivia Canessa Davies, University of ExeterProf Meredith Weiss, Political Science, State University of New York at AlbanyDr Katie Attwell, Senior Lecturer in Politics, University of Western AustraliaProf Prasenjit Duara, Oscar Tang Professor of East Asian Studies, Duke UniversityDr Koh Shuwen, Director, NUHSDr David Kloos, Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies, LeidenDr Chang Qizhong, Lecturer, National Institute of EducationDr Kieran James, Senior Lecturer in Accounting, University of the West of Scotland and Adjunct Lecturer, University of FijiDr Kevin TeoDr Hoi-Yu Ng, Postdoctoral Researcher in Education, University of Hong Kong