Six long hours proving nothing

by Chng Suan Tze

At the Select Committee Hearing on Deliberate Online Falsehoods, absolutely nothing was brought up as to why there is a need to have more legislation to combat deliberate online falsehoods. Historian Dr Thum Ping Tjin’s (PJ) submission said there was no need because there was already enough legislation to take care of deliberate online falsehoods.

However the Law and Home Affairs Minister, K Shanmugam chose to focus his attention on another part of PJ’s submission which states:

“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.”

He spent six long hours trying to debunk the above statement.

In order to prove PJ wrong and to justify the 1963 Operation Coldstore arrests, Shanmugam cross-examined PJ as if the hearing was a court of law and PJ was the accused. Shanmugam tried to assert that those arrested were communists or communist-controlled but all his ‘evidence’ was based on unreliable sources with no citation to support their claims. At one point Shanmugam tried to split hair over a sentence written by Chin Peng – forcing PJ to answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’. PJ managed to quickly add that Chin Peng was also an unreliable source.

Shanmugam tried to base his argument on the question of “IF” He said that IF Chin Peng was correct then it means that Singapore was controlled by the communists. PJ was forced to agree to the ‘IF” but again, PJ quickly pointed out that historical consensus had proven Chin Peng to be wrong.

Shanmugam cited accounts from ABL (Anti-British League) and CPM (Communist Party of Malaya) members such as Zhang Tai Yong and Ng Meng Chiang Some accounts were based on publisher – ‘Hong Kong's 21 Century Footprints’ which PJ pointed out were again unreliable and cannot withstand academic scrutiny.

Shanmugam also brought up accounts from “Drysdale” to which PJ Thum had to remind the panel that Drysdale is not a historian and not ‘historically reliable’. Shanmugam even brought up accounts from an article written by Aloysius Chin in 1994 (way after Operation Coldstore) claiming that Lim Chin Siong is a CPM member. PJ replied that Aloysius Chin's statement has no citation and his claims, therefore, cannot be verified.

What struck me most about the whole time-wasting session was the flawed reasoning of a Law and Home Affairs Minister! (Personally I am not schooled in the areas of Logic but anyone can see that the logic of the Minister is problematic.) How could Shanmugam use Lee Kuan Yew’s (LKY) accounts in LKY’s own books to prove that LKY has evidence to arrest people? LKY was the accuser; so how can you use the claims of the accuser to prove that the accuser is right? It is tantamount to telling a fox to prove that it didn’t eat the chicken based on the fox saying that it didn’t eat the chicken!

It got worse when Shanmugam started pulling out notes (based on some minutes of meeting or other – I stand corrected) about the CPM's intent to resort to arm struggle if constitutional means fail. I wondered how Shanmugam is possibly going to use this as evidence to support arrest and detention of people who were not proven to be communists or communist-controlled.

So it was not surprising that PJ had to ask whether one year from now, IF he thinks that he may steal a loaf of bread, would he then be arrested for having that thought?”

The whole session simply showed a minister in a position of power, on a raised platform, talking down to PJ and trying hard to prove PJ (an academician and historian) wrong. Kudos to PJ for patiently sitting through the six-hour battering – forced to give ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers…and hardly getting any opportunity to elaborate on his answers although he was promised many times that he would be given a chance to reply.

So Shanmugam based his “evidence” on subjective and unverifiable accounts of people to justify the Operation Coldstore arrests while PJ based his evidence on verifiable accounts from archival records to say that the arrests were unjustified. So who is the objective one and who is subjective?

But in an un-equal world, the one who has the monopoly over power, even after he loses an argument, can go on to condemn the winner of wrongdoing. And that was what Shanmugam did by concluding that PJ had “fallen completely through the standard of an objective historian”.

At the end of the day Shanmugam was unable to debunk the fact that in 1963 hundreds of people were arrested during Operation Coldstore and some were detained for many years based on sham evidence that they were communists/communist sympathisers, supporters and fellow travellers and that the real motivation for the arrests was to wipe out effective political opponents of Lee Kuan Yew.

And it was, of course, disappointing that the hearing was all about Shanmugam and his ‘evidence’. Nothing was mentioned about why there is a need for more legislation to combat deliberate online falsehoods.