Thursday, 5 April 2018

Operation Coldstore and the perils of academic misinformation; History is not the preserve of historians

By Kumar Ramakrishna, Published The Straits Times, 4 Apr 2018

Singaporeans have been abuzz over the extraordinary marathon exchange at the Select Committee hearings on deliberate online falsehoods involving Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam and Dr Thum Ping Tjin, an Oxford-based historian.

Netizens are wondering why a hearing on the fake news problem came across instead as a technical, and sometimes testy, academic debate on contending interpretations of Singapore's post-war history.

The following key points are pertinent.

First, Dr Thum lit the fuse to his own bonfire. In his formal submission to the Select Committee, he had made two key assertions: first, that "the politicians of Singapore's People's Action Party" had, over the decades, been regularly disseminating "falsehoods".

Second, he alleged that, beginning with the February 1963 internal security dragnet Operation Coldstore, official governmental announcements that "people were being detained without trial" because of "involvement with radical communist conspiracies to subvert the state", were in fact, a "lie".

He asserted that Coldstore itself was mounted for political and not security reasons, to enable founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew to secure "political gain" over his opponents.

It was almost as if Dr Thum was baiting the Government, and Mr Shanmugam - known for his pugnacity in the courtroom - duly responded. That is to say, when one waves a red flag in front of a bull, one should not be surprised when the bull charges.

A second pertinent point arising from the hearing is that Dr Thum repeated his "central contention", that "there is no evidence that the detainees of Operation Coldstore were involved in any violent Communist conspiracy to subvert and overthrow the Singapore Government".


He added that "thus far, no historian has come out and contradicted the central thrust of my work". This is inaccurate.

On April 1, 2015, I launched at the National Library my book Original Sin? Revising The Revisionist Critique Of The 1963 Operation Coldstore In Singapore.

The book essentially critiqued the notion by Dr Thum and similar "revisionist" historians that Coldstore was mounted for crass political reasons rather than legitimate security ones.

In other words, it is simply untrue that his scholarship has been unchallenged.

My critique of his "central contention" has been in circulation for almost three years now. What is doubly curious is that Dr Thum was present at the launch, something that can be attested to by the almost hundred attendees present.

If Dr Thum regards the critique of his "central contention" in Original Sin? as flawed, scholarly convention is to acknowledge and debunk the critique, not ignore it outright.

After all, neutral scholars such as Singaporean historian S. R. Joey Long have reviewed the book, saying it is an "admirable study of Singapore's post-war history", while a veteran scholar of Singapore's political history, Professor Thomas J. Bellows from the University of Texas at Austin, has said the book is "an excellent piece of analysis".

Mr Shanmugam alluded to this shortcoming of Dr Thum's methodology, when citing Oxford historian Richard Evans' criterion of an objective historian as someone who "takes into account the arguments and interpretations of other historians who have examined the same documents".

Third, Dr Thum at several points dismissed as "unreliable" the memoirs of leading Communist figures such as Chin Peng, the secretary-general of the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM), and senior functionaries such as Fong Chong Pik, better known as the Plen, among others.

Both Chin Peng and Fong confirmed the existence of the Communist United Front - Dr Thum's "Communist conspiracy" - in Singapore throughout the 1950s up to Coldstore.

If Chin Peng should be faulted for trying to put forth his side of the story, should not the recollections of former Barisan Sosialis secretary-general Lim Chin Siong, and the 2016 memoir by Dr Poh Soo Kai, former assistant secretary-general of the Barisan, be similarly added to the trash heap? Are they not equally self-serving in seeking to put forth their sides of the story?

Dr Thum does not appear to think so. He even appeared on the same panel as Dr Poh at the latter's book launch. Are we to conclude that only those memoirs by figures that share Dr Thum's views are academically "reliable"?

Fourth, Dr Thum seemed unclear about how Communist United Front tactics often worked in practice. He mentioned that because internal CPM documents seized by the Special Branch indicated that the Hock Lee bus riots in May 1955 took the CPM "by surprise", there was thus no Communist conspiracy in Singapore.

However, the seasoned CPM specialist and former leftist C.C. Chin has argued that the CPM did indeed "place its cadres in leading positions" in episodes such as the Hock Lee incident, but was often "unable to control the development of events".

The reality of the United Front's tactics on the ground was that direct, minute-by-minute CPM direction of episodes like Hock Lee was not always possible because of Special Branch pressure. Hence they could well be "taken by surprise" at the way incidents suddenly developed.

There were other instances where lower-level Communists carried out actions without the explicit direction of the senior leadership - again precisely because Special Branch pressure prevented a tighter command and control structure from consolidating.

In short, as Mr Shanmugam argued, it was not that "there was no conspiracy". Rather, "there was a conspiracy but it was not tightly organised". The idea was to seed rather than closely direct trouble - and be ready to opportunistically exploit explosive situations, like, as Mr C.C. Chin put it, "a match thrown into explosives".

Fifth, as Mr Shanmugam said, "the essential documents on which the Operation Coldstore was decided upon", were the two December 1962 confidential telegrams sent to London by senior British officials in Singapore, Commissioner Lord Selkirk and his deputy Philip Moore, who had originally been very sceptical about the need for mass arrests.

Dr Thum had earlier argued in his deposition that the Dec 7 document by Moore "needs to be understood in the context that security action had already been decided on, and they were looking for justification for the security action".

However, if "security action had already been decided upon" before Dec 7, why then in the very document itself, did Moore explicitly state that previously, "there was nothing very definite to go on, apart from circumstantial evidence and stale security records" that Communist influence in the Barisan posed a potential security threat?

The entire tone of the document confirms that Moore had, up till then, not yet been completely persuaded that such action was necessary. However, from Dec 7, he changed his tune dramatically because of new evidence he cited that had come from a Special Branch source in the Barisan about the extent of communist penetration of that party.

Similarly, Selkirk, in his own telegram a week later, stated that like Moore, because of "new evidence", he had now become convinced about how deeply communist-penetrated the Barisan was, and the potential for a "resort to violence if the opportunity occurred". He repeated his concerns a fortnight later, insisting that "it would be wise to make arrests of communists in Singapore as soon as possible".

This is why, perhaps, the most significant development in the entire debate was when Dr Thum appeared to admit that his previous analysis of these historic policy about-turns by both men could have been "reworded". In so doing, he implicitly conceded that Coldstore was mounted for security reasons after all, as the mainstream account has long maintained.


What then is the wider relevance of the Shanmugam-Thum exchange?

First, it highlights the problem of misinformation. Misinformation embraces not only erroneous facts but also dubious or slanted arguments.

Dr Thum's argument, that Coldstore was mounted for political and not security reasons, is an example of misinformation in the form of a slanted argument.

His flawed analysis of Coldstore may be due to untidy scholarship. Part of the reason may be his heavy involvement in high-profile political commentary and activism.

According to Dr Thum's friend, cartoonist Sonny Liew, Dr Thum "comes across as someone who cares about more openness and democracy, as a way to reach better governance and policies, an idealist who seeks practical ways to realise his ideals".

This is laudable. But it also means it is not clear where Dr Thum the academic historian ends and Dr Thum the partisan activist begins. Such fuzziness seems to have crept into his scholarship.

Dr Thum's flawed analysis is problematic because of the "slow-burn" effect. Younger generations of Singaporeans immersed in such skewed interpretations of the past by Dr Thum and similar voices may develop historical amnesia, and worse, outright cynicism towards public institutions.

This may have a corrosive effect over the longer term on Singapore's ability to produce critical masses of psychologically and emotionally committed local talent to meet future administrative, civil society and economic leadership needs.

Second, even if Dr Thum does not intend it, misinformation about Singapore's past can be further embellished and "weaponised" today by hostile forces, to become disinformation designed to drive a wedge between citizens and the Government or between different groups in Singapore.

The English political satirist George Orwell wrote in 1946 that no writing "is genuinely free from political bias", and that the "desire to push the world in a certain direction" exists in all writers.

Hence, British historian G. R. Elton counsels that careful scholars must "constantly regard their own preconceptions" so as to avoid the temptation to "sculpt the evidence rather than derive from it".

This remains wise advice for not just Dr Thum, but other scholars and writers seeking to "push the world in a certain direction" - myself included.

Finally, the Shanmugam-Thum debate suggests that strategies for fostering closer cooperation among scholars and relevant stakeholders, to better safeguard against academic misinformation and mitigate its deleterious slow-burn effects on the public, are needed.

Novelist William Faulkner long ago warned that "the past is never dead, it is not even past". Hence, it behooves us to be better equipped academically to interrogate that past as accurately as possible - or face the consequences.

Kumar Ramakrishna is Associate Professor, Head of Policy Studies and Coordinator of the National Security Studies Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.

4G leaders need to find their own way to forge ties with people
Their objective should not be to win every argument, but to gain the trust of Singaporeans
By Han Fook Kwang, Editor At Large, The Sunday Times, 8 Apr 2018

What did the recent stand-off between Workers' Party chairman Sylvia Lim and government ministers in Parliament have in common with Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam's interrogation of historian Thum Ping Tjin during the Select Committee hearings?

The obvious similarity: Ms Lim and Dr Thum refused to yield their ground in the face of government pressure, even if they did concede some points.

Another similarity: In both instances, the resulting debates detracted somewhat from the original purpose of the engagements - to discuss the Government's 2018 Budget, and to hear views on how to tackle the growing proliferation of deliberate online falsehoods.

But there is one more parallel: They showed how much more challenging it is for the Government today to take on its critics compared with the past. And that what worked then may no longer be effective.

To recap, Ms Lim was asked to apologise for saying she suspected the Government might have decided to postpone increasing the goods and services tax (GST) after its trial balloons showed how negative the ground was.

Ministers accused her of dishonourable conduct and abusing parliamentary privilege for suggesting that the Government had "said one thing in public but (planned) secretly to do another".

She countered that while her earlier suspicion might have turned out to be wrong, she was merely doing her job as an elected MP by holding the Government to account, and she would make no apology for that.

In the Select Committee hearings, Mr Shanmugam questioned Dr Thum for six hours over his research, particularly his account of Operation Coldstore, the 1963 security exercise in which more than 100 people, including key leaders of the opposition Barisan Sosialis, were detained without trial for being involved in a communist conspiracy to undermine Singapore's security.

Dr Thum had claimed in his submission to the committee that, in Singapore's case, the Government had been the main source of falsehoods, citing his research findings that there was no evidence in Special Branch documents that the detainees had been involved in any communist conspiracy to subvert the Government. Instead, he asserts that they were arrested for political reasons.

It is not possible to summarise their six-hour ding-dong here, except perhaps to say that they agreed to disagree.

Mr Shanmugam's parting shot: "Your views on communism, Operation Coldstore - which you have been repeating at multiple fora - are contradicted by the most reliable evidence. It ignores evidence which you don't like, you ignore and suppress what is inconvenient and in your writings, you present quite an untrue picture."

Dr Thum countered that his work had been published and subjected to peer review, adding: "They have found my work to be solid and, thus far, no historian has come out and contradicted the central thrust of my work."

So, what to make of the two political clashes involving Ms Lim and Dr Thum?

For me, there are two lessons.

First, truth and politics are not natural bedfellows. I am not referring to rational or scientific truths, like 2+2=4, or that the Earth revolves around the Sun.

The truths that politicians often talk about are not of these types but about interpretations of events, involving both facts and opinions.

That Operation Coldstore was launched on Feb 2, 1963 is a fact, but exactly why it was conducted and for what purpose is a matter of interpretation from the historical records. It is best done by scholars and historians, not politicians whose motives would always be questioned even if they are legitimate.

I hope more Singaporean historians - and there are quite a few who specialise in Singapore history - will join the discussion and throw light on the issues that have been raised.

It is tempting for those in power to want to dictate the national narrative. But politics is the art of the possible, not the search for truth.

Politicians seek to change the world and improve the lives of people by forming a consensus on what is to be done. Singapore leaders have been very successful doing this over the years, and the result has been spectacular in improving the lives of the people and transforming the city.

How was this done?

Not by insisting that theirs was the only truth but by demonstrating that their way will produce the desired results. Ultimately, it is about trust between leaders and the people, formed over many years of delivering what had been promised.

Which leads me to the second lesson.

Singapore's younger leaders need to develop their own way of establishing this relationship with the people.

Watching ministers take on Ms Lim and Dr Thum, one got a sense of deja vu.

There was a period in Singapore's history when political opponents of the ruling party faced the full brunt of the Government's impressive force - in Parliament, in Select Committee hearings and in the court of law.

I hope younger leaders today, especially the fourth-generation leadership, do not draw the wrong lessons from this. They are not in an enviable position - caught between the old world where the politics was unforgiving and the new world with different ideas about authority and leadership.

To be fair to Mr Shanmugam, I did not think he was as unreasonable as online critics made him out to be in the way he conducted the questioning. Watching the six-hour video recording, I thought it was as civilised as you can get when two men disagree with each other as strongly as the two did.

But it was a political exercise, not an academic discourse in search of the truth.

Singapore's fourth-generation leaders have to find their own way to deal with the messy, noisy world that is full of other ideas and narratives. The objective is not to be able to win every argument but to be able to finally say: Trust me, my approach is the better one.

That's what leadership is about.

Han Fook Kwang is also a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

History is not the preserve of historians
By Desmond Lee and Janil Puthucheary, Published The Straits Times, 10 Apr 2018

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.

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.

Public Hearings on Fake News: 27 - 29 March 2018
Revisiting Operation Coldstore

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