02 April 2018

Will the real Dr Thum please stand up?

As events have proven, Dr Thum Ping Tjin made an unreasonable, ill-considered, and indefensible claim in his submission to the fake news Select Committee. As argued before, Thum had fallen short of his duties as a historian and public intellectual, in refusing to consider more recent events as well as historical incidents in Singapore that reasonable people might agree were caused by fake news or even deliberate falsehoods.

There was therefore no need for this blog to refute Thum's actual claim about Operation Coldstore being a fake news operation by the Singapore government. There are some who believe that the select committee hearing has done that in its 6-hour session with Thum. Thum himself has alleged his entire life's work was grilled in the committee hearing. To explain and evaluate what transpired in the public hearing, we may have to consider that there is more than one Dr Thum, that they could be separate individuals espousing different opinions, inhabiting the same body at different times.


Thum Ping Tjin, c. 2018

Aside from opining in his written submission that Operation Coldstore was a fake news operation authored by Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Thum has made the following claims in the subsequent public hearing with the select committee:

There is no evidence for a communist conspiracy in Singapore in declassified Special Branch records.

Various organisations, as named in a passage of Lee's memoirs quoted by committee member Mr K Shanmugam, were not involved in a communist conspiracy, and not in fact communist because evidence for this were not provided in declassified Special Branch records he has studied.

Memoirs and other first-hand accounts are not that reliable or credible.

His claims, if flawed and lacking credibility, would have already been debunked in an academic peer review process.

These are claims that were not made by Thum in 2013, and might've been disavowed by the Dr Thum of 2013.

Thum Ping Tjin, c. 2013

Outside academic circles, members of the public would have been introduced to the research of Dr Thum around 2013, when he delivered a lecture organised by Function 8, a civil society group formed by former Operation Spectrum detainees. This was shortly before the publication of his Asia Research Institute (ARI) working paper, "The Fundamental Issue is Anti-colonialism, Not Merger': Singapore's “Progressive Left”, Operation Coldstore, and the Creation of Malaysia".

The Thum of 2013 presented the findings of his research of the recently declassified Colonial Office archives in a careful, considered manner. These archival materials included minutes of Internal Security Council meetings; MI5 assessment of Lee Kuan Yew's evolving Operation Coldstore plans (which referenced and reproduced a small selection of Special Branch reports); minutes of the Merger talks between the Federation, Singapore, and the British High Commission; dispatches between the various Secretaries of State for the Colonies and Lord Selkirk; and Selkirk’s reports to the Secretary on his one-to-one communications with Lee and Tunku Abdul Rahman.

What did Thum say about a communist conspiracy with the evidence he presented? That MI5 felt that a sufficiently strong security situation did not exist to warrant widespread arrests and detentions, and Lee's list of proposed arrests subsequently grew smaller and smaller. That the MI5 and the Security Council agreed the security situation had been changed once Barisan Sosialis made public statements supporting the Brunei Revolt of 1962. Incidentally, the leader of the revolt received assistance and training from Indonesian agents.

Thum Pin Tjin, 2013 vs 2018


The careful and precise Dr Thum of 2013 would have easily objected to the statements made by the Dr Thum of 2018.

Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence; just because declassified archives from UK lacks detailed evidence for the existence of a communist conspiracy doesn't mean a communist conspiracy cannot exist, and that other better situated sources may have it. (This is an uncontroversial point of logic that could easily have been stated and agreed to in half an hour and not the 6 that Shanmugam took.)

The Dr Thum of 2013 would've taken the Dr Thum of 2018 to task for saying repeatedly, "This isn't in the Special Branch archives" as a fall-back answer justifying his main claims to the select committee.

Given that part of the declassified material contained first-hand subjective reports and opinions by Selkirk, the Dr Thum of 2013 would not have hastily rejected the credibility of memoirs and other first-hand recollections. The Dr Thum of 2013 was even a key speaker an Operation Coldstore book launch. That book was an anthology of first-hand recollections and opinions from Coldstore detainees. Dr Thum did not reject the credibility of this publication, and appeared to agree with historian Dr Hong Lysa that memoirs and first-hand accounts, however much after the fact, do supplement and add to the historical record, after a process of vetting and cross-interrogation with other sources.

The Dr Thum of 2018 said that if his work was inaccurate or if he had neglected to include any sources, he would have received a bad peer review, which he had not. But the Dr Thum of 2013 would have made it clear that his ARI working paper, like other working papers, is a preliminary paper released to share ideas and solicit feedback before actual submission to a peer reviewed publication, and thus was not peer reviewed, and would therefore never receive a bad peer review.


The question is whether Dr Thum's ARI working paper has since been published in a peer reviewed journal or conference. It appears that the answer is in the negative.

Thum Pin Tjin, c. 2015?

Why is the Dr Thum of 2018 such a qualitatively different character from the Dr Thum of 2013? Both are public intellectuals. Both apply historical methods to analyse the past. Yet one was careful, and the other careless. One made qualified statements in public, the other was led to eventually qualify his statements in public.

Perhaps the Dr Thum of 2015 could explain. After all, this Second Doctor was the one who engineered Dr Thum's transformation from an academic who gave public lectures on his area of research to a celebrity figure commenting first on general history and then increasingly on subjects far outside history. The Second Doctor made a podcast series on the history of Singapore (an area of research he was not a specialist in, but applied historical method), a YouTube video with The Online Citizen commenting on the general election, as well as his own YouTube series called "The Show with PJ Thum", which featured a humorous, Pythonesque opening sequence.

The Second Doctor clearly had a sense of panache and humour that the First Doctor didn't readily exhibit. The Second Doctor could be a joker, but he also knew how to play to the gallery. The Second Doctor, as a celebrity academic or an academic shock jock, might well be the man who inspired the Third Doctor's submission.

Yet it is the Third Doctor's own words at the public session of the select committee that were chosen to explain what exactly he meant by "fake news", which organisations precisely he thought were definitely not communist or communist-linked, and claimed that was proven by his working paper. It is likely Thum in 2018 got such a thumping from the member of the committee due to his own careless and untenable claims and conduct.

Will we see a return of the First Doctor? Will there ever be a Three Doctors special? As what some fans would say: the best doctor is always the first doctor they are acquainted with, and for some, and quite rightly so, that is the First Doctor from 2013.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

"The careful and precise Dr Thum of 2013 would have easily objected to the statements made by the Dr Thum of 2018.

Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence; just because declassified archives from UK lacks detailed evidence for the existence of a communist conspiracy doesn't mean a communist conspiracy cannot exist, and that other better situated sources may have it. (This is an uncontroversial point of logic that could easily have been stated and agreed to in half an hour and not the 6 that Shanmugam took.)"

That the 'absence of evidence is not evidence of absence' is correct, but you seem to contradict yourself. Thum's claim is, as you say, that 'there is no evidence for a communist conspiracy in Singapore in declassified Special Branch records'. That is absolutely correct, as you have accepted, yet you have somehow glossed over the simple fact that the onus is on Shanmugam to prove that there was one, instead of Mr Thum's to prove a null.

akikonomu said...

"you have somehow glossed over the simple fact that the onus is on Shanmugam to prove that there was one, instead of Mr Thum's to prove a null."

Shan presented to Thum several passages from the memoirs of Chin Peng, Fong, other members of the Anti British League who were simultaneously members of the Malayan Communist Party, and works by other historians, admitting and proving the existence of the communist conspiracy, and plans to:

1. infiltrate organisations like labour unions and student groups
2. hijack the anti-colonialist and anti-imperialist movements
3. adopt the guise of legal protest and organisation while the communist party was officially banned and proscribed in Malaya.

Shan: In fact, you can see from what Fong Chong Pik said, the cadres took on themselves to do a lot. That doesn't prove there's no conspiracy. In fact, that indeed proves there was a conspiracy but it was not tightly organised.

The record speaks for itself.

Trebuchet said...

Yes, that is the crux of the matter! Also, I await the moment at which our Doctor dons a floppy hat and a colourful scarf.

Yong Ngian Kow said...

Just putting my few cents worth of thoughts down to give a different perspective of the whole situation. I am a nobody Singapore citizen who has been living in Singapore for more than 60 years. First of all, we are all not gods and have what is known as the human conditions. We are therefore subjective beings and our decision are strongly influenced not only by facts but by emotions, desires and our background programming. We always make what is known to us at the time as our considered best decisions taking into consideration what we know at the time and what our so-called trusted allies feedback to us. I am happy that Dr Thum has the courage to give his facts and his point of views on matters like cold storage to clarify how we should remember Singapore History. A fact such as opposition members were arrested is a fact. Why they were arrested may not be so clear as a historical fact. Mr Lee, although I considered him a great man, is still subject to the human conditions. How does he really know that the oppositions are communist or not. It was a judgement call that he had to make as leader at the point in time given the chaos, emotions and information available at the time.

Yong Ngian Kow said...

The British were also subject to the same human conditions, and might have made a different judgement of the situation at the time and so recorded as such. No one is the wiser. So when the declassified document are recently released, who is to say they are right and the other people are wrong. Both groups made their judgement call based on their background, experience etc. A lot had been said about LKY, his judgement, decisions made at the time that led his team to take a certain course in history. And Dr Thum somehow hintedthat LKY was dishonest and self interested etc. This part is probably his opinion and read on his findings and he is entitled to it. Really there is no such thing as totally right or totally wrong in such matters. He also mentioned that LKY's team made a mess during the 1st year of office. This in itself is significant. Had he not done what he went on to do, imagine how Singapore could have ended up.

Yong Ngian Kow said...

I of course are in no position to say whether it would be better or worse. However as a leader of Singapore at the time I would really expect him to make some very tough decision just like any CEOs in a business organisation would do so that the whole country can be mustered to move in the best direction possible. A lot of things always seem to be the way to go in hindsight. Unfortunately at the time of governing, crucial decision may have had to be made that does not have the benefit of these hindsights. What one can say is that the results spoke for themselves. All Singaporean were better off for the decision that LKY made. It was not worse, and of course could have been better. You cant keep on ruminating and not set a course forward using your best judgement available at the time as a leader. If so then you are no leader. Interested parties with a different perspective of issues get hurt at the time - known as collateral damage. However as a leader, you have to work on the probabilities. Otherwise, the nation will be neither here nor there as can be seen in a number of countries world-wide. In the end whatever happens is whatever happens. The question to ask is as a nation are we better or worse off because of it. Again if not worse off, it could of course have been better but I believe most people are happy with what had been achieved. In rounding off, I am glad there was a public discussion on this. I would say that both our Minister Shanmugan and Dr Thum conducted the matter in a very civilised manner. Dr Thum was courageous in standing his grounds on the facts although his conclusion in some cases may have been his own judgement of things. Anyway he is young and upcoming and I like that we have people like that in Singapore who can speak well and stand up to scrutiny. However, the facts he raised is only one set of facts and the rest his judgement call which I suppose a historian has to make to give his perspective of things. It could have been more balanced though. Just think, he should also not forget that the fact that he was able to go to cambridge and be the first to swim the english channel may have been partially made possible by the decisions that LKY's team made. A historical possibility could be that he ended upolikesome beggars on the street of India. Who knows. Probably only GOd. In conclusion, what has been done is what has been done with good results for the good of the singapore nation overall although you cant really get away with partial self interest involved which in itself is a motivation for action - thats what being a human being is all about. I think the important thing to remember is that LKY had been and still is a good influence for the nation and he did what he had to do as a leader of his times. This does not mean that the opposition is all bad. They were a neccesary counterparty and in time to come its good that the better ones like JB be remembered as a co-builder of our nation. My wish is that singaporean think more broadly and make their decision on what they think for themselves whichever way it goes rather than blindly listening and be led by either sides like sheeps.

El Lobo Loco said...

What's the difference?

Well, in 2013, LKY was still alive. If Thum had said what he said in 2018 then, you can be sure LKY would still be alive today (or until he was done with) disabusing Thum of his scurrilous claims.