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RSIS Seminar and Book Launch by Dr Kumar Ramakrishna in 2015

RSIS academic accuses Dr Thum of spreading “misinformation” about Singapore history

Tenured Associate Professor Kumar Ramakrishna from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) at NTU wrote an opinion piece on ST yesterday ('Operation Coldstore and the perils of academic misinformation', 4 Apr) attempting to discredit Dr PJ Thum.

According to his profile on RSIS website, Ramakrishna is also Head Policy Studies, as well as Coordinator of the National Security Studies Programme, "in the Office of the Executive Deputy Chairman". He is said to have a PhD in History from Royal Holloway and Bedford New College, University of London.

He started out by blaming Dr Thum for "baiting" the government at the recent hearing of the Select Committee on deliberate online falsehoods, "He (Dr Thum) asserted that Coldstore itself was mounted for political and not security reasons, to enable founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew to secure 'political gain' over his opponents. It was almost as if Dr Thum was baiting the Government... That is to say, when one waves a red flag in front of a bull, one should not be surprised when the bull charges."

He recalled that in 2015, he launched his book challenging the views of Dr Thum and other "revisionist" historians that Coldstore was mounted for political reasons rather than security ones. He said that Dr Thum did not debunk his critique and even went ahead to ignore it.

He then suggested that Dr Thum is not an objective historian, arguing that an objective historian should be someone who takes into account of arguments and interpretations of other historians who have examined the same documents.

In his article, Ramakrishna essentially supported Minister Shanmugam's assertion at the hearing that communist conspiracy existed but it was not "tightly organised". He added supporting arguments that lower-level Communists had carried out actions without the explicit direction of the senior communist leadership.

Spreading misinformation

He also accused Dr Thum of spreading misinformation, "Dr Thum's argument that Coldstore was mounted for political and not security reasons, is an example of misinformation in the form of a slanted argument."

Ramakrishna attributed Dr Thum's "flawed analysis" of Coldstore to his "heavy involvement in high-profile political commentary and activism."

"Dr Thum's flawed analysis is problematic because of the 'slow-burn' effect. Younger generations of Singaporeans immersed in such skewed interpretations of the past by Dr Thum and similar voices may develop historical amnesia, and worse, outright cynicism towards public institutions," Ramakrishna added.

"This may have a corrosive effect over the longer term on Singapore's ability to produce critical masses of psychologically and emotionally committed local talent to meet future administrative, civil society and economic leadership needs."

Such misinformation about Singapore's past can be further "weaponized" by hostile forces to become disinformation designed to drive a wedge between citizens and the Government, he said.

Ramakrishna concluded by advocating that strategies for fostering closer cooperation among scholars and relevant stakeholders to better safeguard academic misinformation and mitigate the deleterious "slow-burn" effects on the public, are needed.

Historian Hong Lysa debunks Ramakrishna not a historian 4 years ago

Four years ago, in a blog post, a renown Singapore historian, Dr Hong Lysa, took issue with Ramakrishna's approach to history.

Dr Hong Lysa was a Senior Visiting Fellow in the history department of NUS from 1984 to 2000, and concurrently from 1992, also a member of the Southeast Asian studies programme in NUS.

She is a historian who used to work on 19th century history of Thailand before turning to Singapore history. She co-authored The Scripting of a National History: Singapore and its Pasts (2008) and co-edited and contributed chapters to The 1963 Operation Coldstore in Singapore: Commemorating 50 Years (2013) and The May 13 Generation: The Chinese Middle Schools Student Movement and Singapore Politics in the 1950s (2011). She is co-editor of Dr Poh Soo Kai's historical memoir Living in a Time of Deception published in February 2016.

In 2014, Ramakrishna wrote a paper, 'Lim Chin Siong and that Beauty World speech: A Closer Look', trying to discredit Dr PJ Thum's research.

Said Dr Hong, "If Kumar Ramakrishna, author of 'Lim Chin Siong and that Beauty World speech: A Closer Look' had only identified himself as Associate Professor and Head of the Centre of Excellence for National Security at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Nanyang Technological University, I would not have bothered with his article at all."

"However, he also states that he is a historian by training. This makes it the business of historians, which I take great pride in being. As such, it is not possible to not take issue with his approach to history."

Dr Thum had asserted that Lim Yew Hock government abused the ISA when it detained Lim Chin Siong on 25 October 1956, on the pretext that he urged the crowd at Beauty World that day to 'pah mata' (beat up the policemen). Dr Thum's conclusion is based on his unearthing of what is so far the only copy of Lim’s fateful speech in the released Special Branch files in the UK archives which reveals that contrary to the charge, Lim had in fact urged the crowd NOT to 'pah mata'.

"The author (Ramakrishna) takes for granted that Lim Chin Siong, and everyone else who was arrested by the Lim Yew Hock government in the days and weeks leading to the speech was a member of the communist party, and by that token was ruthless, violent, subversive and dangerous. They all deserve to be arrested and detained without trial," said Dr Hong.

"Hence, to the author, even though Lim Chin Siong had urged the crowd NOT to 'pah mata', he was in fact encouraging them to do so 'in spirit if not in letter', for that is what communists do. Thum was thus taking the 'pah mata' comment of Lim Chin Siong 'totally out of context', the author avers."

In other words, Ramakrishna interpreted Lim's words not to 'pah mata' to mean the opposite - inciting the crowd to beat up policemen, because Ramakrishna had deemed Lim to be a ruthless and dangerous communist to begin with.

"What gives anyone claiming to be a historian, an academic even a student of social psychology the authority or legitimacy to claim that 'it does not matter that Lim Chin Siong did not literally tell the crowd to 'pah mata'?" Dr Hong questioned.

Furthermore, in the paper, Ramakrishna likened Lim to be 'a well-known violent extremist leader in Indonesia who said, "I am only a craftsman making knives, so how am I responsible for how those knives are used?"'

"Such a comparison, plucked out of the air by the author, cannot be the practice of historians and their consciousness of context," Dr Hong opined.

She noted that the whole paper written by Ramakrishna "is replete with insinuation, caricature, acrobatic leaps of logic, bald assertions disguised as fact, and confounding naiveness".

She concluded that Ramakrishna's paper, 'Lim Chin Siong and that Beauty World speech: A Closer Look', does not qualify as the work of someone who claims to be a historian.