Historian Dr Thum Ping Tjin was specifically targeted by the Select Committee on Deliberate Falsehoods over his academic credentials, stating that it afforded “no weight” to his views, as he is not a “credible representor” in its view.
In a 273-page report that was released on Thursday (20 Sep), the Committee, which is chaired by Deputy Speaker of Parliament Charles Chong, alleged that Dr Thum had “misrepresented” his academic credentials, and had “provided several different descriptions of his position”.
Select Committee find faults with Dr Thum’s self-description
Dr Thum, according to the Committee, “described himself” on two occasions – in his written representation in Feb and a public committee hearing in Mar as “a Research Fellow in History … at the University of Oxford”.
The Committee claimed in its report that “Oxford University confirmed that Dr Thum was not, and never was, an employee of Oxford University, and that “he was a Visiting Fellow with the Fertility and Reproduction Studies Group in the School of Anthropology.”
It added: “Prior to that, he was a Visiting Scholar (not a Research Fellow) at the Oxford Centre for Global History, which was another unpaid position.”
According to the Committee, Dr Thum said that “As of last year  I’ve actually switched to anthropology”, and that he held “a visiting professorship in anthropology” when he was questioned regarding his credentials.
On 13 Apr this year, Parliament Secretariat wrote to Dr Thum to clarify his academic positions.
Parliament Secretariat also noted that Dr Thum had subsequently described himself online as “a visiting research fellow in history within the department of anthropology.”
In response to the Secretariat, Dr Thum was reported as saying:
“Research Fellow in History”, was accurate as of Nov 2016 and has been corrected on the oral record.
I was a research fellow at the Oxford Centre for Global History (July 2013 – July 2014, Nov 2014 – Nov 2016). This was a typographical oversight that I corrected in my oral statement.”
Dr Thum also provided certain documents from Oxford University, which the Committee claims were proof of “visiting scholar arrangements with Oxford University” that afforded him “certain privileges in return for him paying a fee to the university”.
The Committee appeared to have held the belief that Dr Thum had attempted to mislead the Committee by allegedly misrepresenting his title:
Those visiting arrangements are different from the picture that Dr Thum sought to paint with his claims to be a “Research Fellow in History” and the holder of a “visiting professorship” – a picture that he held an academic position of some seniority with Oxford University.
It was noted in the Committee’s report that Dr Thum had, in response, explained the context of the usage of his credentials:
“Regarding “visiting professorship in anthropology”, it is not an official title and I was not representing it as an official title. It is a generic noun to communicate to a layperson the nature of my affiliation to Oxford. As I clarified further in my oral evidence, it was not meant to refer to a professorship in the sense of a tenured academic position.”
The Committee however argued against Dr Thum’s explanation, stating that the historian had initially “repeated his claim to be a Research Fellow in History when he appeared before the Select Committee, and changed his position only after further questioning”.
In April, trustees of Oxford Project Southeast Asia issued a statement to condemn the Select Committee and had urged the Committee to offer Dr Thum a full apology for its unacceptable treatment towards the historian.
The trustees wrote: “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.”
Methodology criticised by Select Committee
Dr Thum’s methodology in presenting historical evidence was also criticised by the Committee for what it has perceived as cherry-picking in a similar dispute regarding Dr Thum’s credentials, which took place in a public hearing in March that lasted for almost six hours, during which K Shanmugam had heavily scrutinised Dr Thum’s submission.
Dr Thum publicly questioned Mr Shanmugam’s aggressive probing, and suggested that “anyone who contradicts the official government narrative” would be intimidated and fearful of Mr Shanmugam’s relentless “grilling” during the hearing, adding that there appears to be a suppression of academic freedom and inquiry in Singapore.
In his written submission to the Committee, Dr Thum had was accused of suggesting that the Government was the primary vector of “fake news”.
Dr Thum said: “‘Fake news’ is not a problem in Singapore — with one major exception: the People’s Action Party government has, historically, spread ‘fake news’ for narrow party-political gain.”
Citing numerous detentions sanctioned by the PAP government under the Internal Security Act, Dr Thum wrote: “Beginning with Operation Coldstore in 1963, (PAP) politicians have told Singaporeans that people were being detained without trial on national security grounds due to involvement with radical communist conspiracies to subvert the state”.
“Declassified documents have proven this to be a lie. 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,” he added, having conducted extensive research on the history of Malaya with the help of declassified British archives.
“On the contrary, the then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew tacitly admitted to the British Commissioner in private meetings that the purpose of Operation Coldstore was political gain,” Dr Thum continued.
To illustrate his submission, he cited what he deemed to have been false information that was propagated by the Government regarding Operation Coldstore in 1963. during which more than 100 leftist unionists and politicians were arrested.
“None of the approximately 2,500 people detained under the various clauses of the Internal Security Act between 1963 and 1987 was ever put on trial for the charges they were detained under. The Internal Security Department has never produced any evidence that any of its detainees were involved in any illegal conspiracy. The numerous detainees who continue to try to clear their names have been met either with denials or silence.”
K Shanmugam: Dr Thum breached rules of academic process
Mr Shanmugam, who is also the Law Minister, alleged during the hearing that Dr Thum had “breached a number of rules” with regard to academic historical processes, and that the academician had “fallen completely through the standard of an objective historian”.
“Your views on communism, Operation Coldstore – which you have been repeating at multiple fora – 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,” Mr Shanmugam said.
Dr Thum, however, refuted Mr Shanmugam’s approach, which he had suggested to be rigid: “I’m an academic, Mr Shanmugam – nuance is very important to the truth.”
No mention of Dr Thum’s recommendations
Dr Thum also, in addition to making a reference to the PAP’s role in disseminating allegedly false information on Operation Coldstore, made the following recommendations to the committee:
- Media literacy education, in which Singaporeans ought to be taught ways to understand how the information industry works, to be politically aware, and to be sceptical of all information regardless of news sources;
- The repeal of the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act 1974 in order to enable the creation of more diverse news sources in Singapore;
- A Freedom of Information Act which automatically declassifies all government documents after 25 years unless they are specifically retained; and
- The establishment of an independent government watchdog (Ombudsman) with the authority to investigate complaints against the government and to censure government officials who mislead the public, given the purported track record of government spreading “fake news” as argued through the evidence on Operation Coldstore.
While his recommendations were also similar to those presented in the Select Committee and appeared to be logical solutions, the Select Committee made no mention of them, and instead focused on what it had alleged to be his “fake credentials”.
Complaints filed by international academic community to Select Committee
Subsequently, an open letter addressed to the Chair of the Committee, Mr Charles Chong, was circulated online, attracting signatories comprising academics on an international level.
The letter, as described by the Committee, amongst other things:
- expressed “deep concern” at the Committee’s questioning of Dr Thum, and its wider implications for freedom of expression and academic freedom in Singapore;
- stated that the Member who interrogated Dr Thum “had not undergone any [academic] training” and “is not even qualified to undertake a peer review of Dr Thum’s research”, suggesting that only other historians could question Dr Thum;
- sought a full apology from the Committee to Dr Thum; and
- asked the Chair to “exercise [his] responsibilities as chairman to ensure in future that the committee sticks to its remit and is not used to intimidate [his] fellow citizens.”
Mr Chong, however, argued in a public statement that it is unreasonable to expect Dr Thum to “only have been questioned by other historians, and not a parliamentary committee,” and that there was no good reason as to “why a special immunity” should be granted to academic historians.
The report added that according to Mr Chong, Dr Thum had made the choice “to use the Committee’s process to arguably make a political point,” and that “he could not then say that his claims should not be questioned, or that he should not be judged on his answers”.
Netizens appear to be appalled by the Select Committee’s seemingly hostile approach towards Dr Thum, and seem to be of the opinion that the painstaking probe into the historian’s credentials deviated from the real objective of the Committee.
David Wee said:
What’s the objective of the committee? Is it not supposed to be non-partisan and focus on its primary purpose?
Barry Smyth wrote:
It doesn’t appear to be independent given the members, so read into that what you will.
Shawn Byron Danker interjected:
Got Pritam Singh [Worker’s Party Secretary-General] sitting on the panel, soooo it’s kinda bipartisan?
Thor MG replied to Shawn Byron Danker:
Only 1 out of how many?
Suresh Kumar wrote:
A Select Committee should be non-partisan or in government position to be more reliable for this kind committee to be setup in the 1st place. There is a saying, ‘No politicians are saints’.
Liu Felix commented:
I think the committee has lost sight of it’s objectives. I think it’s a mistake to ignore online influences simply because you believe they are obviously lying. That’s like saying let’s ignore Donald Trump … because it’s obvious.
Shawn Byron Danker said:
that’s probably why they’re floating the idea that thum could be charged. it depends on the authority in charge if they wanna follow thru.
Jimmy Tang wrote:
Lol everyone who disagrees or has another opinion than that of the committee are not credible [to them] la.
DeLeviathan At Sg commented:
U also not “credible” … Same with “Seah Kian Peng”.
Imran Noor said:
Are any of those people in the committee historians?
Jeffrey Lee wrote:
People who live in glasshouses…
David Wong commented:
[This is] PAP’s heavy-handed method to squash people opposing them.