Select Committee owes Dr Thum Ping Tjin, a public apology

by Teo Soh Lung

In 1986, Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew said to senior lawyer Mr Lim Chor Pee at the Select Committee hearing on the Legal Profession (Amendment) Bill: “Mr Lim, you are not like Miss Teo. You were trained in a very reputable school of law.…” (he was referring to University of Cambridge).

I was seated in the room, listening to the insults and getting pretty angry. He not only insulted me, a graduate of the University of Singapore but also his panelist, Professor S Jayakumar, a former Dean of the Law School. But true to his character, Lee Kuan Yew didn’t care about the reputation of others when he wanted to make his point. He didn’t care about damaging the reputation of the only university his government inherited from the British. And the university authority accepted the insult without a murmur.

Mr Lim must have felt the warm, collegiate Cambridge feeling and fawned towards the prime minister. He was completely swept off the ground when the prime minister said to him:

“…Let’s be honest as one graduate of the Cambridge Law School to another. Would you like really to stand up before the Privy Council and advance this argument? [The argument was that a Judicial Service Commission has been provided for in the Singapore Constitution but not implemented.]

Mr Lim’s naivete was incredible! He telephoned me on Monday morning and suggested that we work on the prime minister’s proposal!

The point I wish to make here is that unlike Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Minister Shanmugam is a graduate of the National University of Singapore, the successor of the University of Singapore where I received my law degree. Dr Thum Ping Tjin on the other hand, is a Rhodes Scholar from the University of Oxford where he earned his second Bachelor’s degree in Modern History and Politics and a graduate of Harvard University where he received his first Bachelor’s degree in East Asian Studies.

In World Ranking of Universities, the University of Oxford, University of Cambridge and Harvard University have consistently ranked way ahead of the National University of Singapore. Perhaps the scorn of Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew had stunted its growth.

The Intent of the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods

What struck me most when I was watching the six hour grilling of Dr Thum was Minister Shanmugam’s determination to undermine and destroy Dr Thum’s scholarship. Using unnecessary hurtful words rather than evidence, he repeatedly prevented Dr Thum from elaborating his answers and demanded a “Yes or No” response. He was extremely unreasonable.

The minister began by attempting to undermine Dr Thum’s academic qualifications and status. I am sure he had checked that Dr Thum’s qualifications are not fakes.

What has a full time, part time, visiting or tenured academic position got to do with the fact that Dr Thum is a historian who has earned his degrees and doctorate from two of the world’s best universities? Harvard University and the University of Oxford have consistently ranked within the first 10 positions in the world while NUS has never been in the league.

Interpreting Memoirs

I was disappointed with Minister Shanmugam when he repeatedly emphasised the importance of a few Chinese language memoirs published in Hong Kong which Dr Thum admitted he had not paid much attention to or had not read them. I doubt if Minister Shanmugam read the Chinese memoirs. He may have read the translations which again poses a problem as to accuracy.

I am not a historian, but it is common sense that personal memoirs cannot be considered fully reliable.

Chin Peng’s memoir must necessarily be read with lots of scepticism especially when it was written by others half a century after the active days of communists albeit with his full cooperation. Likewise, Lee Kuan Yew’s memoirs must be read with a pinch of salt. Even my memoir “Beyond the Blue Gate” should be read by historians against the records of the Internal Security Department and other publications to check if there was really a national security threat in the 1980s.

In investigating Operation Coldstore, memoirs must be read together with declassified official documents of the British Archives. Even better would be the availability of documents from the Special Branch in Singapore. Memoirs no matter how relevant or important or honest, must be read with care because its authors are capable of embellishments, escapism and even genuine forgetfulness especially when these are written decades later – when they have retired and able to spend time reminiscing the past. The author’s perception of an event may also be inaccurate. Even published archived documents must be scrutinised with care for the officers recording incidents and minutes may have the tendency to make themselves look good and important.

Dr Thum had spent years browsing and scrutinising documents of the British Archives. I am sure he had spent much more time on these documents than the Minister simply because it was his business as a historian to do so. The minister may be assisted by historians like Professor Kumar Ramakrishna and given a crash course on Singapore’s pre-independence history. Second hand knowledge however, can never be the same as first hand knowledge.

Security Statements by Detainees

I have read Professor Kumar Ramachandra’s book “Original Sin? Revising the Revisionist Critique of Operation Coldstore” some time ago. I recall that he did not have full access to ISD files. He relied on the methodology of fellow historian, Lee Ting Hui for documents from the ISD. He wrote at page 15:

“… a very important – if potentially tricky – third category of government records are the “unpublished security statements” made by the detainees themselves. Lee (Ting Hui) admits that such sources had to be handled with “great circumspection” and cross-checked with other sources, including the views of officials familiar with the character and circumstances of the respective detainees. Lee concludes however, that once the veracity of such detainee statements have been cross checked for “internal consistency”, consistency with statements of other persons, or consistency with yet other sources” they represent “a good guide to understanding Communist activities”. The current study employs declassified and still – classified materials along the lines suggested by Lee”.

In my view, any reliance on “unpublished security statements” made by detainees is a serious error. Professor Ramakrishna should know that imprisonment under the Internal Security Act (ISA) is indefinite and Operation Coldstore prisoners suffered incredibly long imprisonment. He should also know that prisoners were tortured either physically or mentally or both. If he and Lee Ting Hui are serious in their research, they should disregard these “unpublished security statements.”

Having been an ISA prisoner myself, I know that prisoners sign such security statements in order to get out of indefinite detention without trial. Such statements are often dictated or assisted by Internal Security Department officers who may have good intentions when they advise the prisoners that making such statements were for their own good – that it was pointless to sacrifice their entire lives in prison. And that the key out of prison is in their own hands! I believe very few prisoners have the courage to refuse to make such security statements.


Dr P J Thum was invited to assist the Select Committee to find a solution to their misguided belief that new laws must be enacted to prevent the spread of “deliberate online falsehoods”. Like the other young activists, he made a written submission and offered himself as a witness in good faith. He should have been treated with respect and courtesy, even if the minister disagrees with his thesis or opinion. He was a witness and not an accused person in a court of law.

Sadly, what I saw was a deliberate though unsuccessful attempt to destroy Dr P J Thum’s scholarship. Minister Shanmugam has no right to tell Dr P J Thum at the end of his six-hour long cross-examination:

“What we have seen is not scholarship but sophistry. You can agree or disagree.”

Dr P J Thum was quick to respond: “Not only do I disagree. I object to this allegation of my professional ability.”

Minister Shanmugam and the entire Select Committee owe Dr P J Thum a public apology.

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