How to understand 6-hour grilling of historian PJ Thum by K Shanmugam

There is a chasm between being intellectually robust and testifying under oath.

Belmont Lay | March 30, 2018, 08:36 PM

Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam pretty much cross-examined Singaporean historian Thum Ping Tjin for almost six hours on March 29, 2018 at the final day of the public hearing on online falsehoods.

The official videos of the hearing featuring Thum have been released in four parts (here, here, here and here) -- a testament to how lengthy the entire session was.

Media reports have managed to cover the salient points of what was said at the session, but how do Singaporeans even begin to watch the videos on the hearing?

To help you contextualise this hearing, which was essentially a showdown finale, here is a first-person experience of the proceedings by someone who sat through all six hours of it when it happened.

Why did the hearing get reduced to being about Operation Coldstore?

In short, Thum launched the first salvo on his own accord.

He had publicly claimed in his written submission to the Select Committee prior to this hearing that the People’s Action Party (PAP) politicians have been spreading “fake news” in its early nationhood.

He accused the PAP politicians of abusing their power, using "fake news" such as communist conspiracies to detain political opponents under the Internal Security Act (ISA)

Thum asserted there is no evidence that the 1963 Operation Coldstore detainees, consisting of 100 alleged leftist leaders and trade unionists, were involved in any violent communist conspiracy to overthrow the Singapore government, and the operation was conducted “for narrow party-political gain”.

Before this hearing, Thum has earned a reputation since 2006, when he started publishing on Singapore history, for coming up with counter narratives about how Singapore came to be through his own reading of historical documents.

He had also marketed his credentials as a credible historian in his written submission.

When asked by Shanmugam on whether Thum was still a research fellow in history though, he told the committee that he has switched to anthropology last year. In other words, Thum was no longer a research fellow in history, even though it was a role he identified himself as in his written submission this February.

What did Shanmugam make Thum concede in the end?

A good portion of the hearing was spent on dissecting an academic paper Thum wrote when he was at the Asia Research Institute (ARI), and which was included as a footnote in his written submission.

In the end, Thum accepted that there were parts of the academic paper which he could have worded better. This included his statements concerning a December 1962 telegram from Lord Selkirk, then British Commissioner to Singapore.

As a defence, Thum pointed out that his paper was published in 2013 and has been peer-reviewed, and "thus far no historian has... contradicted the central thrust of my work".


Thum also admitted to not having read several accounts of key communists leaders and their writings, especially those in Mandarin.

What was the purpose of Shanmugam's line of questioning?

Very broadly, Shanmugam brought up the history of communism and its disposition to use violent tactics to overthrow existing regimes, as well as the texts by communist leaders in Singapore that supposedly escaped Thum's scrutiny to show that the historian on Singapore had missed out evidence that contradicted his thesis.

Shanmugam said at one point: “You ignore and suppress what is inconvenient.”

The minister also asserted that Thum had failed to reach the standards of an objective historian, and even made reference to the notorious Holocaust denier and self-styled historian David Irving.

Shanmugam even accused Thum of lacking rigour: “I’m suggesting to you, based on what you have said to us, what we have seen is not scholarship, but sophistry.”

This was a point Thum vigorously disputed.

Was the hearing difficult to follow?

In all honesty, yes.

If you are a Singapore history buff, it would have made it easier to follow what was happening.

But for the general public, there would have been difficulty keeping up with the lines of questioning and rebuttals as they occurred live.

Why? Due to the fact that this was a hearing pinning down the details of what happened some 55 years ago.

There was a lot of reliance on obscure historical text references (obscure to the general public, at least), such as the historical account made by Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) head Chin Peng.

Chin Peng:


Shanmugam highlighted this particular text to show that Thum had discounted some sources to come up with his narrative.

Thum himself had argued he considers Chin Peng, and communist leaders Fong Chong Pik and Eu Chooi Yip, to be unreliable sources to inform him of his central thesis.

Is it fair to have history examined via cross-examination?

One reason why the public hearing is so highly unusual is due to how it was eventually carried out.

There is a chasm between intellectual honesty and giving testimony under oath. To observers, this hearing didn't reconcile one with the other in a convincing way.

Some people also see it as a clash between the disciplines of law and history.

Remember, this was a hearing on deliberate online falsehoods, but ended up being about one narrow aspect of Singapore's history.

Moreover, at many points during the hearing, Thum did not agree with how he had to answer questions via a "yes" or "no", and sought to qualify his answers in a more robust way.

This only resulted in reiterations of questions.

One takeaway that viewers of all the four videos would surely have is the question of whether Thum conceded on some points in the end due to sheer fatigue. The session started at 1.30pm and ended close to 7.30pm, with only two five-minute breaks in between.

And the focus will also be on the sheer stamina of Shanmugam as a senior counsel.

Some would also see it as an indictment of the narrative disciplines -- regardless of whether it is written by the winners or the revisionists.

Thum himself remarked that at the end of six hours of grilling, the topic on deliberate online falsehoods was not even broached as it was solely on discrediting his work.

Thum said: “In some ways, it’s very flattering that the Minister of Law and Home Affairs takes such a keen interest in my work. What other academic in what other country would have a minister grilling him for six hours about one article?”

“Ultimately, this is the Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods, and I don’t think we discussed it at all... so I’m not sure what his motivations were in doing this.”


Did the mainstream media articles do justice to the six-hour hearing?

There was no way any one report, or all of them combined, could have captured the entire breadth of what happened in the chambers.

The fact that Today, Channel News Asia and The Straits Times, and even Yahoo, converged upon a few talking points is not surprising.

One way for the public to digest all four videos will be to watch them on YouTube by doubling the playing speed and turning on the subtitles.

This way you can watch all six hours in three hours.

What were the things that the media didn't report but the public should catch a glimpse of?

There were plenty.

For example the early quip between Thum and Shanmugam.

At the start:


PJ: Mr Shanmugam, I'm aware of all of this. This is in the historical record. Are you getting somewhere with this question?

Shanmugam: I will, let's have some ground rules. We ask the questions. We refer you to such materials as we think is relevant. You try not to interrupt when the question is being asked. And then you answer the question that is asked.

PJ: (Sarcastically) Gosh, no one gets to answer the question to ask a question in Singapore, do they?

Shan: Have you been stopped from answering any questions in Singapore?

PJ: No, I was just making a joke. Thank you.

Shanmugam: I would ask that you avoid jokes here and treat the proceedings seriously. And if you do want to make a joke, try to have some truth to it.

PJ: Oh, truth is very important to me.

Shamugam: Yes, we will see about that in a while.

PJ: Yes, we will.

And the sarcastic remark at the end:


PJ: Now you are beginning to get it.

Shamugam: Well, I accept the sarcastic remark.

PJ: You are coming close to what I've been arguing, right? The lack of communist conspiracy in Singapore. I never deny that the individuals were communists...

Shamugam: Let's hold on. Let's hold on. That doesn't prove that there is no communist conspiracy.

PJ: Ah, we were doing so well.

Shamugam: That doesn't prove that there is no communist conspiracy. The ultimate Marxist-Leninist aims of having a united front organisation that would infiltrate a variety of trade unions, middle schools, political parties, on the road to struggle was completely in place.

Operational difficulties meant that on specific occasions there were no instructions given for specific actions, in fact, you can see from what Fong Chong Pik said, the cadres took on themselves to go and do a lot. That doesn't prove there is no conspiracy, in fact, that indeed proves there was a conspiracy but it was not tightly organised. But let's not get into this.

Was there any indication the hearing would have taken six hours before it started?

From a first-person front row perspective, the feeling is that Thum was caught off-guard by the extensive questioning of his academic work.

There was no indication before the session in what direction the hearing would go, or who exactly would be taking the lead amongst the various members.

Lo and behold, it was senior counsel K Shanmugam.

What did a typical back-and-forth sparring session look like?

Like this, which could go on for 20 minutes at a time:


Not the end

One thing is for sure: This is not the last we are going to hear about Singapore's use of the ISA to detain people in the past.

Following the hearing, Thum wrote on Facebook that what was conspicuously not discussed was 1987's Operation Spectrum: