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S’porean academic Prof Lim stands up to defend Dr Thum when others keep silence

Mr Yeoh Lam Keong, the former GIC chief economist and adjunct professor at the LKY School of Public Policy, published a letter from Prof Linda Lim on his Facebook page today (13 Apr).

Prof Lim, a Singaporean and the Professor Emerita of Corporate Strategy and International Business at the University of Michigan, is one of the close to 200 world academics who recently signed an open letter supporting Dr Thum Ping Tjin and said that diverse views should be encouraged and not quashed. They defended Dr Thum, who was questioned for six hours last month by the Law and Home Affairs Minister during the Select Committee hearing.

Prof Lim, who was very disturbed by the recent 6-hour grilling received by Dr Thum at the hearing said, "I have written about academic freedom before in Today ('When academics speak their mind, society benefits') and my views there should be referenced as a backdrop to my signing the open letter."

"In this case, the grilling of Dr. Thum - not by his peers in an academic forum, but by a senior government official in a public hearing ostensibly focused on another issue, the problem of 'fake news' — discourages academics from (a) challenging established orthodoxies, which is their role and the process by which progress in knowledge is made, (b) exercising their right and even responsibility as members of civil society to comment on issues of public policy interest," she added.

"In such matters, diverse views are to be encouraged, expected and respected, not discouraged as the truly extraordinary six-hour public interrogation of Dr. Thum will do."

She said that going forward, few people will want to voluntarily share alternative views which are not conforming to official narratives, for fear of risking "hostile persecution by the powerful". As a result, the society will be the "poorer for it", she said.

She noted that the grilling of Dr Thum appeared to be over his credentials and academic integrity, which was "beyond the remit and the professional qualifications of the Select Committee". Indeed, none of the members in the Select Committee are academics to begin with.

She also observed that the questioning of Dr. Thum’s character had led to "further public denigration" of his character online in the same "unfortunately disrespectful tone" that the Select Committee used at the hearing.

It's not known if the Internet Brigade set up by People's Action Party (PAP) has been the one actively denigrates Dr Thum online.

She said that it's alright to disagree reasonably and civilly, especially in history, since different people can experience the same event very differently.

"The uncovering of new facts can also lead to new interpretations, and here it would be helpful if the authorities would give the public access to all the documents pertaining to a particular historical event — like Operation Coldstore — to make such evaluations," she added.

"Surely, more than half a century later, and with the demise of global communism, any national security implications of such disclosure have evaporated — or we have failed to secure the nation."

But the Select Committee’s untoward grilling of Dr Thum not only deters academics from addressing controversial subjects in their research and from participating in civic activities, it also intimidates and discourages citizens from developing and voicing their own independent opinions, and from participating in civil society, she opined.

"As an economist, I am particularly concerned about this because our economic future hinges on successful indigenous innovation, which by definition requires a collective habit of questioning established ways of thinking and doing, such as academics are trained and required to practice," she said.

"As a Singaporean, I am disappointed that the hearing did not consider the serious point Dr Thum raised of possible state promulgation of 'fake news', as for example, in the 1987 mass political detentions where those detained deny the accusation of being 'Marxist conspirators', for which they were not tried, and from which they are yet to be absolved."

Finally she said that such hard-line attitude demonstrated by the government undermines the trust in government which is necessary for Singapore's political stability, social cohesion and national progress.

Who is Prof Linda Lim?

Prof Lim teaches at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan (UM), where she served as Director of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies and as Associate Director of the International Institute.

At Ross, she was faculty advisor of the annual Asia Business Conference for 25 years, and maintains links with a large network of American and Asian UM alumni. With CSEAS of UM and Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, she organized an Indonesia Forum in Singapore in 2015, and a Myanmar Forum in 2016.

She teaches MBA courses and executive education sessions in UM and, has consulted and conducts executive seminars on Asian business and economics for multinational and Asian companies and associations, and government agencies.

She has done training and ambassador briefings for the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Trade Representative, has testified to the U.S. Congress’ House Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, and has addressed the United Nations General Assembly Economic Committee. She has also consulted for private think tanks (e.g. American Enterprise Institute), United Nations agencies (e.g. ESCAP, ILO, UNIDO) and the OECD Development Centre.

Prof Lim has served on a Singapore higher education task force (2004), and is on the board of the National University of Singapore America Foundation since 2005.

It is indeed admirable that Prof Lim, as a Singaporean academic, has stood up to defend her fellow Singaporean academic Dr Thum when those from our local universities have essentially kept silence.

It now remains to be seen if the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute which is under the Education Ministry would dare co-organize future international forums anymore with UM's Center for Southeast Asian Studies headed by Prof Lim.