Toh Han Shih
In his recent meeting with Singaporeans who are critics of their government, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad sent out pointed signals supporting alternatives to the People’s Action Party (PAP), which has ruled Singapore for nearly six decades. On August 30 at his office in Putrajaya, Malaysia’s administrative capital, the 93-year old leader met five Singaporeans who did not always see eye to eye with their government, and a former Malaysian dissident.
Mahathir appeared to endorse alternatives to the PAP’s narrative in a post on the Facebook of Thum Ping Tjin, a Singapore historian who espoused a version of Singaporean history critical of Singapore’s founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. The Facebook post contained a photo of Thum with a smiling Mahathir who held a book co-edited by Thum, a Harvard graduate, Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University and champion swimmer. The book, “Living with myths in Singapore”, is a collection of essays which critiqued various narratives of Singapore’s government. The authors include Teo Soh Lung, a Singaporean woman who was detained in 1987 in the crackdown on an alleged Marxist plot by Singapore’s secret police, the Internal Security Department (ISD). A retired American professor of Asian studies, Carl Trocki, praised the book, “This is an exciting book which strengthens a trend in Singapore’s intellectual life to critique the self-serving mythology of the country’s authoritarian state.”
On his Facebook post, Thum said, “I urged him to take leadership in Southeast Asia for the promotion of democracy, human rights, freedom of expression, and freedom of information. I also expressed hopes for closer relations between the people of Malaysia and Singapore, and presented him with a copy of “Living with Myths in Singapore”.”
At this time of writing, the Singapore government has not reacted to the meeting. But Thum told the Independent, “The Singapore government continues to adhere to its tired playbook of accusing those who disagree with it of colluding with foreign powers. It has already accused me of such behaviour.”
In April, Singapore’s Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority (ACRA) rejected an application by Thum and Kirsten Han, a Singaporean journalist, to register a company. ACRA said this company has links to foreign funding from a group led by billionaire George Soros, which was set up to pursue a political agenda the world over. Han, Thum and Sonny Liew are part of the team managing the New Naratif, a Southeast Asian information portal. Han and Liew were among the Singaporeans who met Mahathir on August 30.
The Malaysia-born Liew posted on his Facebook a photo of a smiling Mahathir holding Liew’s cartoon novel, “The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye”. This work of fiction gives an unflattering portrait of Lee Kuan Yew during the tumultuous history of Singapore prior to its independence in 1965. Singapore’s National Arts Council withdrew its S$8,000 to this work, citing “sensitive content” and its potential to “undermine the authority and legitimacy” of the Singapore government. The book was a best seller and won awards in Singapore and abroad.
The Singapore-born dissident who met Mahathir at Putrajaya, Tan Wah Piow, was previously accused by the Singapore government of being a mastermind in the alleged Marxist plot in 1987. On August 31, Tan posted on his Facebook, “Can anyone guess why The Straits Times no longer describes me as a “Marxist mastermind” – a term used by the Singapore Goverment during the 1987 Operation Spectrum to justify the arrests without trial of two dozen activists?”
Tan, a former student activist for labour rights, fled Singapore for the UK in 1976, for fear of persecution by the Singapore government.
Tan posted on his Facebook photos of himself with a smiling Mahathir and Hishamuddin Rais, a former Malaysian dissident. Hishamuddin, who has been a film director, stand-up comedian and political activist, was arrested in 2001 for an alleged conspiracy to overthrow the Malaysian government.
Han recounted in her blog, “(Mahathir) pointed to activist Hishamuddin Rais, who had been arrested and jailed under the Internal Security Act, and joked, “He was my former enemy.””
Han wrote, ““I should hope during my time, it wasn’t too harsh,” he said at one point in our meeting, while on the subject of human rights like freedom of speech.”
She added, “I came out of the meeting with few answers but a little more clarity. Although he’s been talked up as a champion for democracy in Malaysia—don’t we all love a clear-cut narrative—there are many ways in which Mahathir hasn’t changed. He’s still got his problematic views and stubborn positions, his own way of seeing things. Regardless of one man’s opinions, the people of Malaysia have moved the needle.”
Mahathir’s meeting with these alternative figures lasted 80 minutes, longer than his 30-minute meeting with Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on May 19. In an interview with the Financial Times on May 29, Mahathir said, “I think the people of Singapore, like the people in Malaysia, must be tired of having the same government, the same party since independence.”
Mahathir’s meeting came at a sensitive time when on the same day in Singapore, Malaysian Minister of Economic Affairs Mohamed Azmin Ali met Singapore Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan and Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan. Khaw posted on his Facebook a photo of himself smiling with Azmin Ali, saying they should soon announce their decision on the Rapid Transit System and high speed railway between the neighbouring countries.
(Toh Han Shih is a Singaporean writer based in Hong Kong)