Screenshot of article on Straits Times

One small misstep for being right for right’s sake, and one big missed opportunity for truth

by Micheal Han

Let me set the record straight. I do not know Han Fook Kwang (“HFK”) personally. I have read about him, but not met him.

The only thing we share in common is our surname; while the only difference is that I have more hair than him, much more actually (if you want to split hairs about it).

But when MPs Desmond Lee (“DL”) and Janil Puthucheary (“JP”) came forward to write a rebuttal this morning (entitled “History is not the preserve of historians“) of HFK’s article (entitled “4G leaders need to find their own way to forge ties with people“) written on Sunday, 8 April, I felt something’s amiss.

In a totally hyped environment of who’s manufacturing fake news and who’s the fount of truth, I felt that DL and JP had missed some of the good points raised by HFK in his article.

Sadly, of late, we see a lot of this unnecessary back and forth between Sylvia and Grace, Thum and Shan, and now Fook Kwang and Desmond and Puthucheary.

And if you just woke up, here’s where the line of scrimmage between them is.

First, DL and JP wrote as their opening salvo: –

“Mr Han Fook Kwang says politicians should have no role in interpreting history, and that history should be the preserve of only historians.”

But if you read HFK’s article, he simply did not say that. Not in the way as phrased. Note the operative words are “no role” and “preserve of only historians”. They are meant to be “absolute”.

The truth is, DL and JP are inferring; at times, overreaching. But such inference missed the forest for the trees.

In any event, the article is essentially about building trust as one of the cornerstone of political leadership, and not so much about interpreting historical event. HFK merely advised caution, not absolute abstinence.

In other words, politicians are not called to be eunuch in a harem, see and hear no evil; but wise counsels to a nation – always listening, encouraging, affirming, and building trust, mutual respect and hope.

The trust gap with the people can be bridged with this concluding words of HFK: “The objective is not to be able to win every argument but to be able to finally say: “Trust me, my approach is the better one.” That’s what leadership is about.””

Politicians are therefore gap-bridgers and not chasm-diggers.

Then, the DL and JP team went on to write:-

“This is so because the views of politicians are bound to be coloured by political interests, he says (HFK). Whereas all historians can be relied on to pronounce authoritatively on the historical “truth” because they view history objectively.”

Wait a second, did HFK say all that, or is it another leap of inference? If he did, then the copy of Straits Times I bought last Sunday was a parallel black-market version?

I reread HFK’s article and the closest I got was this:-

“It is best done by scholars and historians, not politicians whose motives would always be questioned even if they are legitimate. I hope more Singaporean historians – and there are quite a few who specialise in Singapore history – will join the discussion and throw light on the issues that have been raised.”

If you compare the two, you can divine the nuances and differences.

HFK did not say “all historians can be relied on to pronounce authoritatively on the historical “truth””. He wrote, “it is best done” by them because politicians’ motive risks being misinterpreted (or misperceived).

If you look at the unanimity on the majority side of our parliament when it comes to the reserved election and the potential GST hike, I think you roughly get what I mean.

Alas, there is a huge gap between constructive consensus and destructive groupthink (As an aside, I think we should not encourage groupthink, but thinking in different groups to allow for the flourishing of ideas and the approximation to truth).

Last but not least, the crew of DL and JP also wrote this:-

“For Mr Han to suggest after the fact that Dr Thum should not have been questioned because some of his writings have been peer-reviewed is to claim a privilege that is available to no other professional expert, let alone the Government or elected MPs.”

And again, HFK did not say, write or suggest that. The flavour is lost (or masked) in the sugar.

If you read his article, he balanced the views of Mr Shanmugam and Dr Thum by allowing both to ventilate in his column.

He juxtapositioned the law minister’s “parting shot” when he said, “Your views (Dr Thum’s) on communism, Operation Coldstore…are contradicted by the most reliable evidence. 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,” with that of Dr Thum’s counter when he said, “(my) work had been published and subjected to peer review, and…no historian has come out and contradicted the central thrust of (his) work.”

So, any discerning reader who reads those paragraphs side by side ought to come to the conclusion that the truth is still out there and somewhere between Shan and Thum.

That’s as objective as one can ever get because not only politicians, but historians, often disagree – as “the past is never dead, it is not even past” (William Faulkner).

In the end, it is still a matter of wise distillation, and not blind endorsement of one version against another.

We don’t live in a binary world of black and white when it comes to interpreting motives, intentions and goals giving rise to past events, but a world of more than 50 shades of grey.

In fact, in HFK’s article, he did write:-

“To be fair to Mr Shanmugam, I did not think he was as unreasonable as online critics made him out to be in the way he conducted the questioning. Watching the six-hour video recording, I thought it was as civilised as you can get when two men disagree with each other as strongly as the two did.”

HFK then added: “But it was a political exercise, not an academic discourse in search of the truth.”

And that’s why HFK “hope(s) more Singaporean historians…will join the discussion and throw light on the issues.”

He definitely did not say that historians are the custodians of society’s truth. And it is not about not questioning historians, but the proper forum to do so.

Let’s admit this. In that 6 hours of intense questioning, none is wiser.

In such a session, truth is often the spectator with his popcorn and soda watching the back-and-forth from one side of the court (of vested interest) to the other.

And it has surely divided this little red dot more than it has united it…recall gap-bridgers?

That’s the whole point of HFK’s article, and DL’s and JP’s article today had unfortunately missed it. Alas, one small misstep for being right for right’s sake, and one big missed opportunity for truth.

Lesson? Just one.

In my view, the fight for truth (or objectivity) risks becoming territorial, dogmatic and polarised.

And the reality is, when you shine the public spot light on an issue, you tend to get emotions high on it, and the desire to be right is often compelling, even possessive.

Most of the time, we are more teachable in private, where our errors or misinterpretations are kept within face-saving boundaries.

But when we are before the media or an audience, the vested interests harden or ossify, and we tend to get less receptive to ideas that differ from ours, even though there may be some validity to them.

Let me end with a short exchange between Sonny Liew and Shanmugam in the latter’s FB.

In one of the commentary threads, Sonny concluded with this:-

“With regards to interpretation – everyone will have their own, of course, but debate over them only works if they take place in an open and fair environment. Whether or not the conditions of the Select Committee hearing achieved those standards… well, perhaps that will also be open to yet more interpretation, even if my own is that it did not. But we can agree to disagree 

And here comes Shanmugam’s discourse…wait for it….ready?

“Thanks, note your point of view.”

And he got 153 likes just for that short comment.

I guess that’s what HFK was talking about when he urged politicians to build trust amongst the people.

Essentially, it is all about perception, and it is not just that we should not be arrogant. But we should not be seen to be arrogant. Cheerz.

This post was first published on Mr Han’s Facebook page and reproduced with permission. Links are inserted for reference