Charles Chong vs PJ Thum again – ignoring the facts or an unthinking media?

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By Howard Lee

Chairman of the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods Charles Chong issued a new letter on 30 April claiming collusion between Dr Thum Ping Tjin, who submitted a proposal to the Select Committee that pointed to the ruling People’s Action Party as a perpetrator of falsehoods, and his colleagues at Project Southeast Asia in the University of Oxford.

“He said Dr Thum may have had a hand in crafting an open letter signed by academics worldwide as well as a statement from University of Oxford researchers,” declared the national broadsheet, The Straits Times.

Mr Chong is, of course, entitled to his opinion and insinuations, but such insinuations must be made based on the facts of the case, and analysed to the best of his ability. This is how social discourse can lead to social progress.

Yet the sequence of events extracted from Chong’s ‘leaked’ email from Dr Philip Kreager, Thum’s colleague at Project Southeast Asia, proved to be contradicting Chong’s allegations.

For one, the dates of the emails should have told Chong that his claims made no sense. Kreager’s email to his colleagues, where he let on that Thum could be drafting a “reply”, was written on 22 April 2018.

This was clearly after the petition that went public on 13 April and the statement from Project Southeast Asia on 17 April. In other words, it would be logical to deduce that the “draft reply” that Kreager was referring to was meant to be a response to Chong’s response to Project Southeast Asia’s statement, not the statement itself.

Ironically, any coordination to write a statement that could “subvert Parliamentary process” appears to have been initiated by Chong’s response to Project Southeast Asia’s original statement.

What happened to this follow-up response that Thum was supposed to have drafted? We now learn that Project Southeast Asia sent it to Chong on 26 April, four days before Chong’s latest accusation.

In it, Kreager merely affirmed what was set out in Project Southeast Asia’s statement on 17 April – that Thum was indeed affiliated with the school, that they stand by academic integrity to have their research questioned, but still felt Thum was interrogated. How Thum could have added anything more to this short follow-up from Kreager is anyone’s guess.

And not surprisingly, Kreager also added a rejoinder to Chong’s latest accusations. “The conspiracy that Mr Chong claims to have discovered in our private correspondence exists only in his own imagination,” he wrote.

Chong’s accusation of coordination for the Project Southeast Asia statement must hence be put to rest. But how about the allegation regarding Thum’s and Kreager’s involvement in the petition?

A quick examination of the petition would  reveal that among the signatories, the representatives from the University of Oxford began at around the 60th entry. Kreager himself signed off at 236th. If he had been party to “a coordinated attempt to influence and subvert Singapore’s parliamentary processes”, he sure took a while expressing that resolve. How he could have owned any authorship in the petition or its process is, once again, anyone’s guess.

Furthermore, the entire Oxford community stand at no more than 20 in the petition. Out of the current 284 signatures from Australia, Brunei, Holland, Hongkong, Israel, Malaysia, Switzerland, the United States, the United Kingdom, Vietnam and even Singapore, these 20 – while significant given their origin – can hardly point to any nefarious plan by Thum and Kreager to “engineer support”.

On the other hand, the contrary is true: that 284 individuals around the world saw a fellow colleague being brow-beaten by a bunch of politicians, and that no right-minded independent-thinking academic should stand for it.

So again, Chong’s second allegation must be put to rest. Indeed, with what appears to be confirmation that the petition was sent by a Dr Lee Jones from Queen Mary University of London to Chong on 1 May, Chong is now essentially caught in a quagmire with his accusation.

We have been told several times by the very Committee Chong chairs that the facts matter. However, it would be clear that something as factually simple as the dates of the correspondence and the simple sequence of events were completely taken out of context. In this case, the facts of the case appear to have been completely ignored.

Allegations of collaboration between Thum, Kreager and any other party that Chong wishes to drag into this long-drawn affair, hangs poorly and must be dismissed and roundly condemned. Indeed, there is very little that Chong can do now other than to issue an unconditional apology for his accusations.

As a responsible member of a society we wish to build based on facts and logical reasoning, Chong has fallen short in his deductions. The need to prove credibility is now his, not Thum’s.

But what worries me more is the fact that our media have simply parroted the lines used by Chong, without even bothering to examine the sequence of events so blatantly obvious in Chong’s allegations.

Wilbur Schramm, one of the authors of Four Theories of The Press, once described the failings of media when it attempts ‘objective journalism’ at the expense of public knowledge.

“In adhering to objective reporting, the press has tried to present more than one side of the story; but in doing so, the suggestion is, the media have not bothered to evaluate for the reader the trustworthiness of conflicting sources, nor have they supplied the perspective essential to a complete understanding of a given situation.”

These words were published in 1956. It is sad to see that they still hold immensely true today. This is hardly a just day in the fight against falsehoods.

The author gave evidence before the Select Committee and is also a signatory to the petition. He is currently doing his PhD on media governance in Singapore.