When historians deny new research

By Loh Kah Seng

When historians deny new research, they do so in the role of a father figure, urging prudence to new ideas. It really only reveals their own lack of ideas.

So S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) historian Kumar Ramakrishna has been taking issue with the work of my friend Thum Pingtjin on the political history of Singapore, notably, on Operation Coldstore and Lim Chin Siong. Kumar urges the reader to be discerning of cherry picking revisionist historians, to be aware of the bigger historical context and to adopt more nuanced perspectives.

It’s a clever piece of work, and Kumar drops names throughout and strives towards a global history of communism. But I’m afraid that all he does is to reveal his lack of substance and primary research – if this is the beginning of his work on Operation Coldstore, it’s a poor start indeed.

The ‘context’ turns out to be old wine in a new bottle – old arguments are rehashed about the power and subtlety of the communists behind the united front, their manipulation of riots, the heroes who detained them and saved the day. It is necessarily old wine because Kumar has no new ideas.

I will be the first to admit that the new Singapore histories are not immune from error and bias. I am a relatively young scholar, and so are PJ and many others who are looking at Singapore’s history in fresh new ways. We are still learning our trade and the histories we write will evolve and improve. We know the problems of reading sources and making interpretations. History 101.

But it is the new ideas, new records we gain access to, the excitement with which we write, that define our work – our own and as a collective. It’s hard to deny that the new histories provide a better explanation of how we have reached the present – Kumar still lives in a Singapore that is content with the state of affairs (and the affairs dictated by the state) and the Singapore Story. I am hopeful about my work contributing to the changes that are taking place in Singapore, changes that are positive for the most part and that will make us a more mature and inclusive people down the line.

So yes let’s read all histories carefully, and histories that deny new ideas are pretty easy to read.

Here is Dr. Hong Lysa’s response, excellent as always, on what it takes to be a good historian:


Kumar Ramakrishna’s article:


This was first published on Mr Loh’s facebook post. We thank him for allowing us to reproduce his posting.