The last week of hearings over deliberate online falsehoods concluded with the Select Committee going head-to-head with civil society activists, journalists, and academics. The highlight was undoubtedly Shanmugam’s 6 hour-long sparring session with historian Thum Ping Tjin. Thum’s research had argued that the detentions of Operation Coldstore were motivated by political rather than security considerations, and no evidence existed of a communist conspiracy to overthrow the state. Shanmugam doggedly attempted to disprove this by making reference to the memoirs of Chin Peng, a leader of the Communist Party of Malaya, to which Thum countered that Chin Peng’s account of events were unreliable.
Select Committee in Disrepute?
The session with Thum has drawn numerous criticisms about the Select Committee itself, notably that it resembled a show trial to discredit Thum rather than a public consultation. How did a public hearing about deliberate online falsehoods become a debate about Operation Coldstore? This meant that no time was spent on the actual recommendations of Thum’s submission, which included the call for an ombudsman and a freedom of information act. And even if it was a debate, it wasn’t anywhere near a fair one, with no impartial moderator (Committee Chair Charles Chong stayed silent throughout), and Shanmugam allowed to dictate the entirety of proceedings, including the framing of the questioning and when Thum was allowed to explain himself.
The criticisms from Thum’s hearing add to a long list of issues raised about the conduct of the Select Committee. This included scheduling difficulties, which meant some (Thum and independent journalists Kirsten Han and Andrew Loh) were rescheduled at the last minute, while others (journalist Bertha Henson) were completely cut out of proceedings. Meanwhile, activist Jolovan Wham waited hours into the night to speak, and was barely asked anything in a five minute-long exchange, while some official summaries were also criticised for misrepresenting statements made by invitees.
Ultimately, it is questionable whether the Committee achieved its stated objectives. The Government’s views on legislation are widely-known, and its treatment of differing views have been one of confrontation, giving this the impression of a legitimising process rather than a genuinely consultative one. Nonetheless, the debate over Operation Coldstore has helped to ignite public contestation over a foundational moment in Singapore’s political history.