Sunday, 6 May 2018

Charles vs. Tham: The Fake News Saga.

Is this an Oxford conspiracy? Is Dr Thum (as Charles Chong puts it) guilty of engineering academic support for his politically motivated cause? 

The backdrop of this has to do with 284 signatories worldwide "some of whom were academics - voicing concerns about a lack of academic freedom here."

And it goes even further back when Dr Thum was intensely questioned by our Law Minister Shanmugam for 6 hours with one brief toilet break during the Select Committee session on deliberate online falsehoods.

Mr Chong, its chairman, is now turning the turret on Dr Thum with today's caption: "Historian suspected of engineering academic support for himself?"

It is said that the best defence is a good offence and Mr Chong is mounting a quick offence against Dr Thum by hinting to his "possible involvement in "a coordinated attempt, with foreign actors involved, to try to influence and subvert" Singapore's parliamentary processes.""

I think the hot trail is quite undeniable (from a reasonable bystander's perspective). Hear me out here. 

Dr Thum has an alternative narrative about Operation Coldstore 1963 and Operation Spectrum 1987, which the ruling party take umbrage at. 
He wrote extensively about it and even submitted his "inflammatory" version to the Select Committee alleging that our founding father was involved in a political coverup. 

In addition, the company that he and Kristen Han set up is currently being investigated for their link to American billionaire George Soros, whose organization funds politically driven operations in sovereign states. 

Then, there is the New Narratif which encourages "active participants, rather than treated as passive consumers" and espouses "openness and transparency" that "are core parts of (its) ethos, providing (its) members with opportunities to engage not only with (its) team, but with one another."

And now, according to preliminary evidence gathered by Mr Chong, Dr Thum and his Friend Dr Philip Kreager (from Oxford Institute of Human Science) had kept "continuous contact" to draft the open letter in order to secure the 284 signatures in support; amongst them are a large number of well known academic, both locally and aboard.

You see, it's a fine thin line between disseminating one's research for purely academic purposes and evangelising the same to win converts to one's side to covertly challenge state politics. 

If Dr Thum had been a biologist publishing works on reversing cancerous cells' mutation or an ecologist spreading the word on how to save the environment, he would not be so easily seen as harbouring a political agenda. 

But he is a historian, writing about something extremely politically sensitive concerning a past event that is highly controversial, and frown upon by the ruling party because it is one part of our national narrative that we are scarce to want to revisit. 

The truth is, each of the above evidence standing alone could be perceived in either direction - the dice is still spinning. 

But when you put them all together, in their proper context, you tend to be able to connect the political dots, can you? 

So, in all good sense, I can't deny that Dr Thum would have been perceived to have a political agenda. And whether he had intended so, well, if the glove fits right? 

In any event, I'll leave that to his own conscience. 

But the aim of this post is not so much about Dr Thum and his alleged political ambition. It is more about our government and their political miscalculation. 

Let me start by punctuating every elaboration below - just for effect - with this theme: "They just don't get it." 

Here goes.

...they just don't get it. 

Mr Chong referred to the 6-hour questioning of Dr Thum in the papers today, and in the same breath, he wrote, "we must protect our independence and our institution of Parliament". 

Yes, I agree, protect you must, but at what cost? In other words, is the 6-hour questioning necessary? (Like what HFK wrote earlier last month, wouldn't it risk being perceived as a political platform as well?).

Yes, fight the good fight all you want for our independence and parliamentary institution, our freedom and democracy, and we will salute you, but do it with grace, wisdom and humility. 

Alas, I feel that our government missed the point about the 6-hour grilling. 

Every minister who came out in support of the Select Committee after the Shan-Thum exchange were largely acting as "echo chambers" bouncing off the groupish script that our government has the right to defend their position. 

But that's not the point. That's not what the people in general are aggrieved about. If you discern the majority's sentiments online, it is about how it was done and not why it should be done. 

Most of us know the "why" but it was the "how" that we felt was the wrong forum, that is, inappropriate and unnecessary, even embarrassing. 

I think I speak for the silent majority when I say that in the 6-hour questioning, our Law Minister acted more like a lawyer cross-examing a suspect with yes/no answers rather than as a moderator trying to understand the issue in its proper context. 

The bravado demonstrated in the SC session is simply glaring and jarring. 

...they just don't get it.

Mr Chong wrote that the email exchanges between Dr Thum and Dr Kreager show that Dr Kreager is ""actively campaigning for Dr Thum" by circulating the Oxford statement and asking for signatures to the open letter.""

And so, Mr Chong concluded that the "support" seems to have been primarily engineered by Dr Thum close concert with Dr Kreager.""

Well, Dr Thum may be the galviniser of his own cause, because he felt unjustly treated or he may have an axe to grind, but that does not detract from the fact that the open letter was supported by 284 signatories, some of whom were historians and history professors both here and abroad. 

Surely, Mr Chong is not saying that they had signed blindly right? Surely he is not implying that Dr Thum had somehow tricked them into signing right? 

Alas, there is no smoke without fire and no fall without desire. Likewise, the larger picture at hand is the content of the open letter, that is, why they had penned their signatures in support. 

Most of them see it as a bully tactic by our government and that is the real issue. This time it is the "why" they signed the open letter that is most relevant, and not the "how" it came about. 

I know we don't play the number game, (isn't democracy about numbers?), but if one or two people call you a donkey, you may ignore him. But if more than 200 of them, and most are highly learned, shouldn't one start looking for the saddle?

Dr Thum may have a hand in it, but that doesn't change the fact that the hands that signed it agreed with what was written in it. 

Sometimes, we miss the elephant in the room to nitpick over the creased carpet caused by the elephant in the room.

...and finally, they just don't get it.

Is Dr Thum a historian? Is he qualified? Is he trustworthy? Is he really from Oxford, affiliated to Oxford, lecturing in Oxford, or just an Oxford wannabe?

Mr Chong is flogging the dead horse again when he wrote in the papers that "it is still not clear what Dr Thum's precise academic affiliation to Oxford University is, adding that his titles given to the Select Committee thus far have been "inaccurate, non-existent or misleading.""

Note to myself: The elephant in the room just farted, loud and visible with smoke arising from its rear end, and yet, we are accusing each other of breaking wind...

Back to the point, I thought Oxford University had recently clarified all that. 

Dr Thum is a research associate with the University's Anthropology and Museum Ethnigraphy. And yes, he has a doctorate in history in 2011, and he is a Visiting Fellow of the Fertility and Reproduction Studies Group within the school, and therefore an affiliate of the school.

Yes, Dr Thum may have misrepresented his full credentials or was not clear about it to the Select Committee. But the fog would have been sufficiently cleared with that Oxford University's clarification right? 

The disconcerting question here is this, where is Mr Chong going with that? 

Bottomline? Dr Thum is a historian, there's no doubt about that. He is affiliated to Oxford, it's open and shut. And he has submitted a piece critical of Singapore's history to the Select Committee, there's all established. 

So, let's deal with the issue that truly concerns Singaporeans. 

Let's open the unredacted archive up and let us be the judge of what really happened during the Coldstore and Spectrum operations (if we are going for the truth and nothing but the truth). Let's earn our respect and admiration for being candid and forthright with us. 

Let's treat us as independent adults in a nation we are born and have grown up in for the last 52 years. Let's not pretend that the government is protecting our interests, security and unity by self-appointing themselves as the sole custodian of the nation's truth, past, present and future.

If the 4G leaders are calling for openness and transparency with the people, then let's walk the talk and talk the walk, and talk and walk together and in step with the people they took an oath to protect, guide and provide. 

And I believe one of the many goals of the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods is to fight obfuscation and avoid engaging in shadow boxing without causing a real dent to the edifice of falsehoods.

I think that goal is applicable to both sides, the government and her people. Cheerz.

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