On Thu (29 Mar), Law Minister K Shanmugam drilled historian Dr Thum Ping Tjin for some 6 hours over the interpretation of historical events such as Operation Coldstore and the Hock Lee Bus riots at a hearing by the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods.
The minister refuted Dr Thum’s submission that the major source of “fake news” came from the People’s Action Party (PAP) government.
In particular, Dr Thum referred to detentions made under ISA between 1963 and 1987. He asserted that declassified British documents have shown that the detentions were made for political purposes rather than security ones. In the case of Operation Coldstore in 1963, the PAP government arrested more than 100 people, including opposition politicians, said to be involved in communist activities to overthrow the government.
Dr Thum asserted that while Coldstore detainees may have left-leaning ideology, there was no conspiracy to overthrow the government.
This drew a sharp response from Mr Shanmugam, “The ultimate Marxist-Leninist aims of having a united front organisation that would infiltrate a variety of trade unions, middle schools (and) political parties on the road to struggle was completely in place. Operational difficulties meant that on specific occasions there were no instructions given for specific actions … the cadres took on themselves to go and do a lot.”
“That doesn’t prove there was no conspiracy. In fact, that proves there was a conspiracy but it was not tightly organised,” said the minister.
This was promptly rebutted by Dr Thum who said, “Wait. The lack of a conspiracy proves that there is a conspiracy?”. The minister laughed and said that is not what he said, he took a while to compose himself and said, “I am quite clear what I mean, I don’t need an answer from you. All I am saying to you is what you have said, doesn’t prove that there is no communist involvement in the Hock Lee bus riot.”
The minister also accused Dr Thum of ignoring and suppressing what is inconvenient in his research papers. “You agreed that looking at it, you should have reworded it (parts of the paper) … really ought to have been more accurate.”
Dr Thum disagreed and many times during the session, he maintained his position as a historian who interprets historical evidence with nuances, instead of subjecting it to yes or no answers to Mr Shanmugam’s questions. “I’m an academic, Mr Shanmugam, nuance is very important to the truth,” he said.
The two also disagreed on the reliability of various historical sources and documents as well as the definition of a “communist united front” in extended exchanges where numerous historical records were brought up and displayed.
Dr Thum later wrote on his Facebook page, “I had made my submission (to the committee) with the best intentions and in a constructive spirit, and I am disappointed with how Mr Shanmugam chose to insult me and my professional competence instead of engaging in an honest debate on equal footing.”
Select Committee member MP Puthucheary keeps quiet
It was reported that during the 6 hour exchange between the Minister and Dr Thum, Select Committee member MP Janil Puthucheary kept quiet.
Of all the people in the panel, MP Puthucheary would have known better if the Coldstore detainees were planning to overthrow the PAP government because one of the interned was his father, Dominic Puthucheary, who was also a founding member of PAP.
His father was later expelled from Singapore. Dominic and his family then settled in KL. MP Puthucheary became a doctor many years later and came to Singapore to work. He later ditched his Malaysian citizenship to become a Singapore new citizen, before joining PAP. He became an MP and was appointed Senior Minister of State for Education, and Communications and Information.
In 2013, his father gave an interview to the New Straits Times in Malaysia.
Born in Kerala in 1934, Dominic Puthucheary moved to Malaya when he was four months old.
In 1951, while Dominic was studying at the Johor English College, his classmate S.T. Bani later told Lee Kuan Yew about him. Bani and Lee then went to JB to look for Dominic as Lee was looking for cadres.
He recalled Lee “was very impressive and charismatic. I decided I had to join him. At that time, merger with Malaysia was uppermost in our minds as part of the nation-building process”.
In 1954, he was one of the founding members of PAP, “a fascinating moment of history, of nation-building. Lee built a party that was not racially based and with very strong intellectual content”, recalled Dominic.
Dominic helped to revamp the then Singapore Trades Union Congress and later became assistant general-secretary of Singapore’s General Employees Union. By 1961, he was leader of the Singapore Association of Trade Unions (SATU).
“Those were very exhilarating days,” he recalled. “I felt part of the large drama of the anti-colonial struggle. Colonialism distorted our lives, self-worth, dignity and potential. We didn’t have to mimic the West. We could stand on our own and be part of the larger Southeast Asia.”
Split from PAP to form Barisan Sosialis
In July 1961, Dominic was one of the Big Six trade union leaders who left with 13 PAP MPs to form Barisan Sosialis after losing the vote on the issue of full internal self-government and abolition of the Internal Security Council before merger with Malaysia. The breakaway group included 35 of the 51 PAP branches and 19 of its 23 organizing secretaries.
“Lee cracked down on them during Operation Coldstore in February 1963, arresting 115 alleged communists and supporters”, the New Straits Times described the event in its article.
Despite Coldstore, in the 1963 state elections, Barisan Sosialis won 13 out of 51 seats, becoming the second largest, as well as the leading, opposition party. Dominic was released after 10 months and had to sign a pledge to quit politics. He was then banished from Singapore.
Meanwhile, after Singapore separated from Malaysia in 1965, Barisan Sosialis members began to resign. By 1968, there were no opposition MPs in Singapore.
Dominic later joined Malaysian’s politics and in 1990, was elected MP of Nibong Tebal. His ban to travel to Singapore was also lifted.
In 2009, at the launch of the book, ‘Men in White: The Untold Story of Singapore’s Ruling Political Party’, he met Lee for the first time since he was banished from Singapore in 1963.
“I hoped for more time but it was a very short exchange of pleasantries,” he said. “I was asked about my ‘reconciliation’ with him at the launch. I was jailed but that’s the price I had to pay for what I believed. I did not consider it a personal issue.”
In 2011, PAP then asked his son, Janil Puthucheary to stand as a PAP candidate in GE 2011 to become a PAP MP. It’s not known if Lee was behind the decision to ask Dominic’s son to join PAP.
In any case, MP Janil Puthucheary, should be in the best position to know if his father was arrested in Coldstore for planning to overthrow the PAP government or for his ideological belief.