Singaporean playwright Alfian Sa’at took to Facebook on Thursday (24 September) to voice his support towards historian and founder of New Naratif Thum Ping Tjin over his recent investigation by the Elections Department (ELD).
Alfian started the post by a picture that has been circulating of the police gathered at the historian’s house to confiscate his laptop.
“While it was illustrative of the power the state wields, and how the police are used to enforce some very troubling broadly-worded laws, I also felt that the transmission of the image is meant to have a chilling effect. Because this is how state terrorism works—harassment, intimidation, and visible warnings to the public,” he wrote.
For those who are not aware, the ELD is investigating Dr Thum for allegedly breaching election rules over the period of the 2020 general elections in July.
According to the ELD, the New Naratif had published paid advertisements that amounted to the illegal conduct of election activity over the general election period.
Apparently, the ELD is of the opinion that the advertisements amounted to election activity pursuant to the definition of the same under Section 83(8) of the Parliamentary Elections Act (PEA).
In the post, the playwright recalled an event happened last year in which he invited Dr Thum to watch a play called ‘Merdeka’ before its opening, and received “some very illuminating notes” in return.
“I have never understood the charge that PJ’s scholarship is pernicious because it is so-called ‘revisionist’, or that it presents a ‘false history’,” said the local playwright.
Alfian also went on to explain that the reason for such anxieties is the popular idea of what history means, which is merely a “record of what happened”.
“But often we’re not only talking about certain empirical facts, like the date at which something happened or the people who were present at a meeting. For these, an infidelity to the facts will produce a false date and a false list of names.
“But often what we’re trying to do is construct arguments based on an interpretation of the sources,” he noted.
As an example, Alfian cited an incident in the play ‘Merdeka’.
“One of the incidents they surface is that of the ‘Fajar trial’ of 1954, where the editorial committee of the University Socialist Club organ, ‘Fajar’, were charged with sedition. The ‘crime’ was for publishing an article called ‘Aggression in Asia’, which criticised the formation of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation (with the participation of only two SE Asian countries, the rest were mostly big power meddlers) and colonialism in general. The trial concluded with the acquittal of all who were charged, which led the characters in the play to cheer,” he wrote.
He added that he got some noted from Dr Thum on this, in which he said: “For Fajar, it was a success in that they won the trial, but as Dr Poh [Soo Kai] recounts, they had wanted to stretch the trial out with speeches attacking colonialism. And internally, Malcolm McDonald, the Commissioner-General for Southeast Asia, who had been against the sedition trial from the start, urged the colonial government to end the whole thing as quickly as possible.”
If that’s not all, Dr Thum also noted on the “mass arrests without trial that happened two years later in 1956 and the eventual shutting down of Fajar in that same year”.
To this, the playwright pointed out that from the perspective of political tactics, given that the accused were not given a chance to explain their defence would mean a kind of “failure”.
“They were unable to seize the courtroom as a pulpit from which to propagate anti-colonial ideas which the press would carry and broadcast. One can argue that the ‘victory’ of the Fajar trial has been mythologised as a milestone, when it was really a brief uptick followed by a wave of repression. But as anyone can tell, we are not arguing about the dates of the trial, or the names of those who were charged,” he said.
He continued, “These are obvious in the sources—the newspapers, the court documents. The main question is whether one is justified in claiming the Fajar trial as an instance of anti-colonial triumph. And it’s great to have these discussions! Without either of us needing to call the other a revisionist.”
As such, Alfian asserted that this is why he thinks it’s a mistake to think that Dr Thum is “trying to popularise ‘his version’ of history—with platforms like his podcasts, his youtube channel, etc.”
“His scholarship has been invaluable in showing me how one can write a history based on previously neglected or unavailable sources, such as Chinese-language sources, or recently declassified documents.
“If anything, I’d say if there’s anything a historian like him has popularised, it’s the idea that what lies behind history is a historical method,” he added.