Chairman of the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods, Charles Chong, has asserted that historian Dr Thum Ping Tjin’s written submission to the committee was “a political piece” in a two-page letter today. Chong added: “It is odd to make political points – as Dr Thum did – and then hide behind the shield of academia when questioned.”
Chong was responding to an open letter signed by 230 academic around the world that took issue with the “unacceptable treatment” of Dr Thum who was questioned for six hours when he appeared before the Committee to give oral testimony.
Today, trustees of Oxford University’s Project Southeast Asia called on the Committee to “issue an immediate and public apology for this unacceptable treatment of Dr Thum”, as well. Thum, who is also a trustee of the group, did not sign the letter.
Responding with a statement today, Chong wrote:
“In his written representation to our Committee, Dr Thum alleged that the Singapore Government is the chief source of fake news in Singapore. He specifically referred to Operation Coldstore, and charged that the founding Prime Minister of Singapore, the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew, was the primary liar.
“Dr Thum is entitled to his views. But when he puts them before a Select Committee, he must expect to be questioned about them. And indeed Dr Thum wrote that he was willing to appear before us. It is therefore surprising that the letter suggests Dr Thum was questioned ‘without warning’.”
Noting that over 20 academics had testified before the Committee and that several were questioned “at length”, Chong added:
“All were forthright in their views and I would be very surprised if any of them were intimidated by the process. To be sure, individual members of our Committee did not always agree with the academics who gave evidence to us. But we all benefited from the learning they brought to bear on the questions before us.
“Legislators all over the world regularly have robust exchanges with witnesses, including academics. Mr Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, has just finished two days of questioning by US congressional committees. I do not understand why a special immunity is being claimed for academic historians.”
Asserting that Dr Thum’s written submission to the Committee was a “political piece” and that the historian chose to use the Select Committee to make a political point on Operation Coldstore, Chong said:
“Having done so, he cannot then plead that his claims should not be questioned, or that he should not be judged on his answers.
There is nothing wrong with political activism in itself. But it is odd to make political points – as Dr Thum did – and then hide behind the shield of academia when questioned.”
Urging the authors and signatories of the open letter to look closely at the exchange between Dr Thum and the Committee, Chong noted that Dr Thum had made a number of concessions, that his writings may have been misleading in parts and that he had not considered the views of pertinent Communist leaders relevant to his writings. Chong asserted:
“These concessions substantially undermined his thesis that Operation Coldstore was launched purely for party political advantage.
“As the letter points out, none of us on the Committee are trained historians. We only read Dr Thum’s written representation when it came in in February. We asked him to defend a claim that he had put to us.
“If Dr Thum could not defend his claims under questioning, surely this must reflect on the quality of his writings and research, not the process?”
Last week, the Parliament Secretariat wrote to Dr Thum asking him to “clarify his academic credentials”. In a press statement, the Office of the Clerk of Parliament noted that Dr Thum had “stated that he was, amongst other things, a research fellow in history at Oxford University” in his written submission to the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods but informed the committee when he appeared in Parliament to give testimony that he held a “visiting professorship in anthropology.”
Pointing that Dr Thum later explained online that he was a “visiting research fellow in history within the dept of anthropology,” the Office said: “In view of these varying accounts, clarifications have been sought to ensure that the committee’s report correctly reflects Dr Thum’s positions, and to ensure that the committee is accurately apprised.”
Oxford University has since clarified that Dr Thum is a research associate with the School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography.