Dr Thum was once praised by PM Lee for his boldness to take on a difficult challenge

In 2005, Dr Thum Ping Tjin, a former national swimmer who represented Singapore at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, became the first Singaporean as well as the first Oxford graduate to swim the English Channel.

He trained for almost a year to accomplish this feat. On 6 Aug 2005, he plunged into the cold waters of the Channel and attempted to swim across. The sea was calm at first but few hours later, the weather turned worse. Dr Thum didn’t give up and continued to persist in his endeavor. About 12 hours and 24 minutes later, he successfully reached the coast of France, becoming the first Singaporean to swim the Channel. After his swim, he returned to Oxford to continue his studies.

Four days later on 10 Aug 2005, Dr Thum got a surprise letter from PM Lee congratulating him. The letter, sent to his college in Oxford, praised him, then a 26-year-old, for “having braved 35 km of cold water for 12 hours to conquer ‘the Everest of swimming'”. This was reported on Straits Times.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong wrote, “You pressed on through bad weather and difficult conditions, showing fortitude and resolve. Your adventurous spirit, boldness to take on a difficult challenge, and strength to carry it through are an inspiration to us all.”

PM Lee added that he hoped Dr Thum’s feat would “encourage many more Singaporeans to dare to dream, and to act on those dreams for themselves, for their families, and for Singapore”.

Dr Thum told ST that his picking of Singapore’s National Day month to attempt the swim was no accident. He said, “Singapore is 40 this year, you can’t say she’s young anymore. Someone’s got to step up and say this is who we are – Singapore is a people who are brave and who are willing to go out into the world and be looked at by others as equals.”

He also said that he hoped to raise money for Action for Aids and sponsor the Methodist Schools Foundation.

Different treatment received 13 years later

Thirteen years later, Dr Thum again stepped up and this time, to defend what he believes to be the truth.

Last week (29 Mar 2018), he participated at the hearing of the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods. He wanted to contribute views to help the committee in deciding what to propose to the Parliament so as to deal with online “fake news”.

In Dr Thum’s written submission, he said that Singapore does not suffer from a lack of laws to address online falsehoods, as past arrests and convictions have shown that Singapore already has adequate laws to deal with the perpetrators of “fake news”. In fact, he argued that Singapore may be having too many laws that undermine, discredit, or debase debate and discourse here.

Dr Thum further asserted that perhaps the government may be the one “spreading” fake news, citing innocent people wrongly labelled as “communist” or “Marxist” insurgents being detained without trial during Operation Coldstore in 1963 and Operation Spectrum in 1987. He urged the government to open up its archives to settle the issue once and for all and to give a proper closure to the matter.

After Dr Thum made his submission, all hell broke loose for him at the hearing. He was literally grilled for 6 hours by the Law and Home Affairs Minister Shanmugam as if he was on trial.

The Minister raised various accounts made by Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) leaders and other researchers which were in conflict with certain points made by Dr Thum, who contends there is no evidence that the detainees were involved in any violent communist conspiracy to overthrow the government.

At one point, the Minister put to Dr Thum that his views on communism, the Communist United Front and Operation Coldstore were contradicted “by the most reliable evidence”, the views of Chin Peng, leader of CPM.

“It ignores evidence which you don’t like. You ignore and suppress what is inconvenient and in your writings you present quite an untrue picture,” the Minister said. Dr Thum disagreed as he has considered Chin Peng to be unreliable.

The Minister accused Dr Thum being fallen short of the standards of an objective historian.

Dr Thum continued to defend his research, “Operation Coldstore was conducted for political purposes, and there was no evidence that the detainees of Operation Coldstore were involved in any conspiracy to subvert the government.”

WP MP Chen Show Mao cheers for Dr Thum

Meanwhile, on his Facebook page, WP MP Chen Show Mao has written to give moral support to Dr Thum for his performance at the Select Committee hearing.

“I wondered how tired of it Dr Thum might have been behind his wry smile, even if nothing like how he felt about his swim,” MP Chen wrote.

MP Chen quoted Dr Thum’s recollection in his post with regard to how Dr Thum kept going during the difficult swim across the Channel.

“To be honest, I didn’t think I’d make it. I was fairly certain I’d just reached a point where everything would just collapse and they’d have to fish me out of the water,” Dr Thum recalled.

“I thought about my family, my friends, about Singapore. I sang the national anthem to myself, I sang my school song to myself, I sang every single inspirational theme I could think of… I thought of all the people who believed in me, and all the people who supported me. I thought of all the children who would benefit from my swim… I kept going, for just a few more strokes.”

MP Chen then said, “In the same vein, I feel like reminding Dr Thum to take to heart PM Lee Hsien Loong’s congratulatory message to him on his earlier endeavor (of swimming across the Channel).”

That is to say, Dr Thum’s adventurous spirit, boldness to take on a difficult challenge, and strength to carry it through are an inspiration to all Singaporeans.