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Charles Chong to Oxford: “frankly presumptuous of you to tell Singapore parliamentarians how to do our jobs”

On Monday evening, deputy Speaker of Parliament and Chairman of the Select Committee for Deliberate Online Falsehoods, Charles Chong issued a statement via the Parliament in response to criticisms highlighted in a joint statement on 20 April from Oxford Project SouthEast Asia on how the Select Committee treated Singaporean historian Thum Ping Tjin, saying that it is "presumptuous of you to tell Singapore parliamentarians how to do our jobs".

The joint statement by the trustees of Oxford Project Southeast Asia had expressed "in the strongest possible terms our concern regarding the treatment of Dr PJ Thum in recent hearings of the Singapore government’s Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehood".

In the statement, the trustees note that Dr PJ Thum was subjected to  six hours of questioning by the Minister for Law and Home Affairs which focussed on the findings of his academic research and pointed that the Minister repeatedly expressed disdain for Dr Thum’s research, rephrasing its findings in general terms that misrepresented it, and attempting to get Dr Thum to agree to those rephrasings by attempting to force him to provide only yes/no answers. The trustees also noted that Dr Thum has since been subject to unflattering and one-sided reporting by the media.

The statement affirmed that Dr Thum’s research has already met the rigorous standards of examination at Oxford, and in peer review by fellow historical experts on the region.

Mr Chong in response wrote, "The implication that research cannot be questioned runs counter to the basic principles of free speech and academic scholarship. You may also wish to actually watch the videos of Dr. Thum’s testimony before making such statements. He was taken through the arguments that he made, and other material was also shown to him. "

The statement from Project Southeast Asia also wrote, "There is an evident irony in a Select Committee addressed to deliberate information falsehoods which proceeds by impugning and restating empirical findings. The implications for academic freedom, and for freedom of expression in Singapore, are very troubling. Instead of a hearing with the stated objective of securing truth in information, the actual conduct of its questioning appears designed to intimidate those who seek to publish the truth." and calls on the Select Committee to issue an immediate and public apology for this unacceptable treatment of Dr Thum.

Mr Chong argued in his statement that sovereign legislators the world over exercise the right to question and clarify issues with witnesses and sometimes hard questions are asked.

"You may be aware that recently Mr Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, faced two days of questioning by the US Congress; and Facebook representatives faced 5 hours of intense questioning by the Indonesian Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat. It is frankly presumptuous of you to tell Singapore parliamentarians how to do our jobs, and to do so on the basis of inaccurate and questionable premises." wrote Mr Chong.

However, Mr Chong as Chairman of the Select Committee seems to have forgotten that the hearings were to establish the facts around Deliberate Online Falsehoods and to hear proposed solutions from subject matter experts, and not the contest of historical happenings in Singapore.

Below is Mr Chong's statement to the directors of Project Southeast Asia in full

I refer to your statement about Dr. Thum Ping Tjin’s testimony to the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods of Singapore’s Parliament, which I chair.

Your statement is based on a factually inaccurate premise. You wrote that Dr Thum “found that the contents of his submission were not the object of [our] inquiry, and were never directly questioned.” It would be surprising if Dr. Thum found it so, and it would be untrue if he had said that to you. It was Dr. Thum who submitted to us that the Singapore Government is the chief source of fake news in Singapore. In support of this contention Dr. Thum referred to his work on Operation Coldstore, and charged that the founding Prime Minister of Singapore, the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew, lied about the reasons for the operation. Dr. Thum was questioned specifically on this issue. It is not clear how you formed the opposite impression, which is simply untrue.

You also accused our committee of “impugning and restating empirical findings”. The implication that research cannot be questioned runs counter to the basic principles of free speech and academic scholarship. You may also wish to actually watch the videos of Dr. Thum’s testimony before making such statements. He was taken through the arguments that he made, and other material was also shown to him. The process was open and transparent. Dr. Thum was told that he was being questioned on matters that he had himself raised.

I am sure you know that sovereign legislators the world over exercise the right to question and clarify issues with witnesses. Sometimes hard questions are asked. You may be aware that recently Mr Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, faced two days of questioning by the US Congress; and Facebook representatives faced 5 hours of intense questioning by the Indonesian Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat. It is frankly presumptuous of you to tell Singapore parliamentarians how to do our jobs, and to do so on the basis of inaccurate and questionable premises.

Your other points are addressed by a statement that I made on 17 April 2018, which is annexed.

I am copying this reply to the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford.