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The thumping of PJ Thum

I had wondered how the parliamentary Select Committee would respond to the academics’ petition about their colleague, Dr P J Thum. When the riposte came, I was somewhat surprised at the accusations. They were about how Dr Thum and his fellow academic, Dr Philip Kreager, were “subverting the parliamentary processes’’ of a sovereign nation.

What were the accusations based on?

  • Dr Thum had “input’’ in the statement drafted by Project Southeast Asia as well as the open letter signed by academics round the word. Both had called for an apology from the committee for maligning his credentials and his work. Dr Thum is the Project’s “co-ordinator’, while Dr Kreager is the chairman. Dr Kreager was also shown to be actively lobbying on Dr Thum’s behalf.
  • Both men are also the only two directors of Observatory Southeast Asia UK Ltd, which had received US$75,000 in funding from an entity connected to Mr George Soros, the billionaire financier who has a penchant for interfering in the affairs of other countries. The company, which the G claims has a political agenda, had tried unsuccessfully to set up a Singapore branch. Hence, they were not just academic colleagues but business partners and political activists as well.
  • Given the similarity between the statement and the online petition that secured the signatures of 280 academics round the world, Mr Charles Chong, who chairs the select committee, implied that the petition was authored by Dr Thum or Dr Kreager or both. In other words, it wasn’t a spontaneous academic outpouring of support for Dr Thum’s “battle against parliamentarians in an ex-colony’’.

The committee’s responses left me befuddled.

If all the above, gleaned from, among other things, the inadvertent release of email correspondence, are true, so what? It is natural for friends and colleagues to rally around someone they believe to have been mistreated. It is also natural for that someone’s input to be sought.

I suppose the committee wanted to point out elements of “dishonesty’’ that might not have been obvious to the academics who put their names down. Perhaps, the committee hoped to persuade the audience that if Dr Thum could be dishonest about this, what about everything else that had come before?

I wonder, however, whether said academics will be dissuaded if Dr Thum or Dr Kreager were upfront about its origins. Maybe they would argue that the content of the missive was more important than its authorship.  Would there be even more signatures if Dr Thum had made a personal appeal for support?

The parliamentary committee is weaving a tangled web of foreign intervention, dark money, conspiracy and subversion. It’s beginning to look like Dr Thum et al were involved in a cloak and dagger operation to undermine Singapore politics which the G is on a concerted campaign to destroy.

Mr Chong wrote: “We must protect our independence and the institution of Parliament. The information now available suggests that there has been a coordinated attempt, with foreign actors involved, to try to influence and subvert our parliamentary processes. This is a serious matter.”

I wonder what’s next.

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In a debate, you try to win over the other side to your point of view. But when politicians get involved, I would think that the objective is usually not to persuade the other side, but to win over the audience. So as an interested member of this audience, this is my view.

I think it is perfectly all right for the Select Committee to quiz Dr Thum over his assertion that the G is the biggest liar of all with regards to Operation Coldstore in 1963. It was a chunk of his submission along with recommendations about media literacy and freedom of information. I am not surprised the committee didn’t question him on other parts of his paper, which had been canvassed before in its previous hearings.

Reading Dr Thum’s submission, I had expected that after taking a big swipe at the G, his recommendations would be about how to restrain the excesses of a dominant government. But he seemed content to level that big swipe and go back to neutral gear.

I don’t see how any government would be content to let the record stand unchallenged.

My own (layman) view is that Dr Thum dented his own academic authority when he said he did not take the words of Chin Peng, the former secretary-general of the Communist Party of Malaya seriously because memoirs are usually “self-serving’’ (my words) and not as rigorous as contemporaneous material. Interesting point, except that he also dismissed contemporaneous material which showed that the British were convinced that a communist insurrection was about to take place.

These two points would have been enough material for anyone interested in that period of Singapore’s history to chew over.  Instead, the committee also quizzed him on foot notes and names of communists who are said to have done this or that, over six hours. You can call it a pain-staking interview or a tedious interrogation to wear down a controversial G critic. The jibes and asides about Dr Thum’s academic ability, even likening him to a Holocaust denier, did not help the committee’s case.

Methinks people are upset about the way the hearing was conducted, rather than the right of the committee to question his submission.

I have to say that Dr Thum’s manners before the committee undermined his own credibility. First, he waffled over his credentials, which invited a jibe from the select committee that he is really an unpaid appendix of Oxford University, and not an “academic historian”. I don’t care for the committee’s brutal response which was contained in its reply to the open letter; I got the point the first time.

Second, unlike Facebook’s Simon Milner who was steadfast under relentless grilling and maintained a serious mien throughout, Dr Thum came across as cavalier and even jocular in his responses, which he accompanied with  facial antics before the television cameras . Mr Milner has more reason than Dr Thum to feel aggrieved: He was questioned about events that happened overnight across the world about what his boss, Mr Mark Zuckerberg, said about data privacy.

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As a member of the audience, I lapped up the thrusts and counter-thrusts of the saga. But the saga has two facets that worry me.

First, is questioning parliamentary conduct or accusing Members of abuse a form of “subversion’’? It sounds like a very big word to use, almost on par with showing contempt for the judiciary. How “privileged’’ are the proceedings of Parliament?

Second, doesn’t this episode lend credence to the perception that it is best to stay away from perceived troublemakers? Being a critic, even a constructive one, can be a lonely thing. Too many Singaporeans do not wish to be tainted by association. Has no one wondered why the academics here, save a handful, did not sign the open letter? Is this out of self-preservation or political conviction?


This latest episode only gives my mother more ammunition to nag me to shut up.



PS. If anyone wants to know why I didn’t put my signature down on the open letter (I am a part-time academic), it’s because I already have my own platform to say whatever I want, in the way I want.


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An ex-journalist who can't get enough of the news after being in the business for 26 years

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