History is not the preserve of historians

Desmond Lee and Janil Puthucheary

Mr Han Fook Kwang says politicians should have no role in interpreting history, and that history should be the preserve of only historians (“4G leaders need to find their own way to forge ties with people“; April 8).

This is so because the views of politicians are bound to be coloured by political interests, he says. Whereas all historians can be relied on to pronounce authoritatively on the historical “truth” because they view history objectively.

This position cannot be right.

Mr Han ignores the fact that some historians – including Dr Thum Ping Tjin – do indeed have political agendas.

Dr Thum is an activist, as much as he may be a scholar, as is evident from his online writings. He could have applied himself solely to peer-reviewed historical research, and measured his success on the basis of what academics might have said of his work.

But Dr Thum the activist chose to make a submission to Parliament, asserting that the main sources of fake news in Singapore over almost 60 years have been the Government of Singapore and Mr Lee Kuan Yew.

Let there be no doubt where we stand on this: When others manipulate facts for their own ends, political leaders who are unable to demonstrate the fallacy of the assertions or expose the motives of the manipulators, do not deserve to be leaders, no matter what generation they belong to.

He alleged that Mr Lee had lied about Operation Coldstore and that the authorities then had no good security reasons for the arrests that were conducted.

Mr Han, Dr Thum and others are now suggesting that Parliament, comprising the people’s elected representatives, when presented with this charge, should not question Dr Thum.

Are we to keep silent, and receive this view passively because he is a “historian”, in possession of the “truth”, and we are “politicians”, in possession of mere “opinions”?

What about other historical subjects like our Separation from Malaysia, Konfrontasi, our water story, the history of race relations in Singapore, education policy, bilingualism?

Is Mr Han suggesting that parliamentarians should not consider all these subjects, if scholar-activists were to make similar outrageous or false claims?

As a result of the questioning by the Select Committee, Dr Thum conceded that his writings were misleading in parts; that the British had honestly believed that the Operation Coldstore arrests were necessary; that he had not read (and sometimes not heard of) the writings of some senior ex-Communist Party of Malaya leaders and cadres; that some members of the Barisan Sosialis did indeed consider “armed struggle” a legitimate option to pursue at some stage.

The history of Singapore is a matter of concern to all Singaporeans because it is our story – citizens, journalists, politicians and historians. We value the work of historians, but Singapore’s story cannot be theirs alone.

Future historians, as well as journalists, will now have the benefit of hearing what Dr Thum said at the Select Committee, and they can assess for themselves what value to give his assertions.

For Mr Han to suggest after the fact that Dr Thum should not have been questioned because some of his writings have been peer-reviewed is to claim a privilege that is available to no other professional expert, let alone the Government or elected MPs.

The claim is especially hard to understand, considering that Dr Thum’s proclamation that his work is “solid and, thus far, no historian has come out and contradicted the central thrust of my work” – an assertion that Mr Han quotes approvingly – is obviously false.

The Straits Times published an article last week by a scholar, Associate Professor Kumar Ramakrishna (“Operation Coldstore and the perils of academic misinformation“; April 4), who has written extensively on this subject, challenging Dr Thum’s work.

Mr Han also argues that truth should not matter in politics, that we should favour opinion over facts in politics, that politicians should not concern themselves with facts for their motives would always be questioned.

Let there be no doubt where we stand on this: When others manipulate facts for their own ends, political leaders who are unable to demonstrate the fallacy of the assertions or expose the motives of the manipulators, do not deserve to be leaders, no matter what generation they belong to.

Singapore’s political leadership has always set a high value on honesty, transparency and being straightforward with the electorate. That is why this Government has sometimes gone out of its way to tell citizens uncomfortable truths, even if there is a political price to pay in doing so.

If Singaporeans were to conclude that their politicians cannot be trusted because the facts do not matter to them, we would have a very different kind of politics and a very different Singapore.

And that is why, even 55 years later, we make no apologies for exposing the fallacy of Dr Thum’s allegations about Coldstore, especially the assertion that the late Mr Lee had lied.

If Singaporeans were to conclude that journalists cannot be trusted either because facts do not matter to them, we would have a very different kind of journalism too. We would certainly have lost the battle against deliberate online or offline falsehoods.

“Post-truth” politics is not for Singaporeans and Singapore. No one – journalists, scholars, citizens and the political leadership included – should tolerate it.

Mr Desmond Lee is Minister for Social and Family Development and Second Minister for National Development. Dr Janil Puthucheary is Senior Minister of State, Ministry of Communications and Information and Ministry of Education. Both writers are members of the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods – Causes, Consequences and Countermeasures.

SPH/ST