Academic freedom faces ‘grave threat’ from parliament

Academics are normally happy to provide expert opinion and testimony to parliamentary hearings in democratic countries, but the way one expert witness invited to a Singaporean parliamentary committee hearing on ‘fake news’ was treated has caused consternation around the world.

Academics have protested that using parliamentary privilege to try to undermine academic integrity is a grave threat to academic freedom and will have a chilling effect on others in Singapore.

Thum Ping Tjin, a Singaporean scholar who is a currently a research fellow at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom and coordinator of the university’s Project Southeast Asia, was invited to a parliamentary hearing in Singapore at the end of March to provide expert testimony to the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods.

The hearings took place over eight days spread over three weeks. According to Thum, a prominent critic of the Singaporean government, those who agreed with the government appeared before the committee first.

During the hearing he found himself subjected to an aggressive interrogation by Singapore’s Minister of Home Affairs and Law, K Shanmugam, regarding Thum’s own research into Singapore’s history, which has in the past got him into hot water with the government, but which had little to do with the ongoing hearings on ‘fake news’.

Official Singaporean government videos of the hearing show six hours of bullying, personal attacks and cross-examination about Thum’s own historical research, which was a very small part of his submission to the committee.

With the minister intent on picking holes in his past research, Thum says the way the hearing was conducted was unfair and was used to destroy his credibility as an academic and discredit his research on Singapore’s modern history in the public’s eye.

“There is a big difference between a discussion conducted on the basis of engagement, mutual respect, and being willing to listen, and interrogation, and cross examination and show trial,” he told University World News, describing his interrogation as a “show trial”.

“Academics are going to be very afraid to speak up against the Singaporean government, and they’re going to be afraid to give any sort of independent view – even if evidence-based – in testimony to Parliament,” Thum said.

“It’s going to suppress freedom of enquiry and the willingness of academics to speak out, and the net result is that it is going to leave the field clear for the government to present its own perspective on the truth, without challenge.”

Open letters of concern

The incident sparked an outcry and led to an open letter signed by international scholars in defence of academic freedom, addressed to Charles Chong, chair of the Singapore parliamentary Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods, who is also the deputy speaker of Singapore’s parliament. The signatories expressed “deep concern at your committee’s treatment of one of our colleagues” and pointed to “wider implications for freedom of expression and academic freedom in Singapore”.

“The clear objective was not to establish the extent of the threat from ‘fake news’, but to attack and discredit a prominent critic of the historical narratives used by Singapore’s ruling People’s Action Party. This is likely to have a chilling effect on freedom of expression and academic freedom in Singapore,” the letter, with 284 verified signatures from the academic community, said.

“We are saying that this is not an appropriate use of a parliamentary enquiry and that the way that PJ [Thum] was treated was unacceptable,” says Lee Jones, reader in international politics at Queen Mary University of London, who organised the open letter. “Academics are quite happy to participate in robust exchanges in defence of their views but using a public enquiry to denigrate and intimidate academics is not appropriate,” Jones said.

Another 100 or so signatures were not included when Jones sent the letter to Chong. “They were members of the public from Singapore who shared the concerns of academics, but I did note in my letter to Charles Chong that it was a matter of wider public concern,” Jones says.

Colleagues at the University of Oxford wrote separately last month expressing “in strongest possible terms our concern regarding the treatment of PJ Thum” at the hearing.

Their letter said the minister, Shanmugam, had repeatedly expressed disdain for Thum’s research, which they pointed out had “already met the rigorous standards of examination at Oxford and peer review by fellow historical experts on the region”.

“There is an evident irony in a Select Committee addressed to deliberate information falsehoods which proceeds by impugning and restating empirical findings. The implications for academic freedom, and for freedom of expression in Singapore, are very troubling. Instead of a hearing with the stated objective of securing truth in information, the actual conduct of its questioning appears designed to intimidate those who seek to publish the truth,” they wrote.

Both letters called for an apology to Thum. A few academics from Singapore had also signed the international open letter, but not that many, Jones notes, saying: “People who are politically difficult don’t get tenure, for example, so it is understandable that although Singaporean academics may be very concerned, they don’t want to put their heads above the parapet.”

One of the few Singaporean signatories, Linda Lim, an economics emerita professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business in the United States, told University World News that Thum’s grilling would have a chilling effect on academics. It “discourages academics from challenging established orthodoxies, which is their role, and from exercising their responsibility as members of civil society to comment on issues of public policy interest,” she said.

Past run-ins

Thum has had past run-ins with the Singapore government, while he was at the National University of Singapore, over his research into Operation Coldstore – the imprisoning without trial in 1963 of over 100 people deemed to be part of a communist conspiracy to overthrow the government.

Thum had said in his original written submission to the committee that Singapore was not lacking in laws to address online falsehoods, arguing the country already had “a surfeit of laws” which “suppress free speech”.

He noted in his submission to the committee that fake news had not had a big impact in Singapore with the exception of Operation ColdStore, when politicians told Singaporeans that “people were being detained without trial on national security grounds due to involvement with radical communist conspiracies to subvert the state”, adding that “declassified documents have proven this to be a lie”.

Thum’s past research had been based on declassified British colonial archives. “My work points out all the background manoeuvring and politics as Operation Coldstore fundamentally was a political operation, not a security one,” Thum explains.

It had already had repercussions on his academic career in Singapore. “After I published and gave lectures about it in late 2013 and early 2014 I was told by someone senior at NUS [National University of Singapore] that I would no longer be able to work in Singapore. A directive had arrived from higher up, that once my contract expired then there would be no new contract, there would be no alteration, extension or renewal of my contract. So I’d better make alternative plans.”

“This person wasn’t supposed to tell me but they stuck their neck out, for which I’m forever grateful because then I was able to make plans to come back to Oxford, knowing what was going to happen."

Nonetheless, what transpired at the hearing was unexpected, he says. “I do feel a little naïve now because I really did go there in good faith,” he says.

“My expectation was that this was a political exercise to legitimise a law that they [the government] had already decided upon. But to me, the fact that they were willing to spend time in a public consultation exercise, even if it was a fake one, that was a step forward.”

“They hadn’t had a public consultation on a select committee in, I think, a decade,” he pointed out.


The issue escalated further when Chong, in a statement issued through parliament earlier this month, referred to the open letter in support of Thum, which had featured in the Singaporean media and suggested “there has been a coordinated attempt, with foreign actors involved, to try to influence and subvert our parliamentary processes. This is a serious matter.”

“The implication that research cannot be questioned runs counter to the basic principles of free speech and academic scholarship,” Chong added.

Chong also said in a statement copied to the University of Oxford’s vice-chancellor: “It is presumptuous of you to tell Singapore parliamentarians how to do our jobs”, and noted that the committee hearing had been “open and transparent”.

Jones says: “We are not attacking the right of the Singaporean government to hold parliamentary enquiries. We are saying if academics are to participate in parliamentary enquiries, they have to be treated properly, not subjected to a hatchet job on their work and their professional integrity.

“To say that if someone from outside is criticising the Singaporean government then it must be part of an international conspiracy is ridiculous and they know it’s ridiculous. Academics are concerned about academic freedom,” says Jones.

“Certainly, one could have a public enquiry about a major historical event and take testimony from various experts, so the idea that we were claiming the academic should be free from public scrutiny, that’s not the case,” Lee said.

Lim notes: “Diverse views are to be encouraged, expected and respected, not discouraged as the truly extraordinary six-hour public interrogation of Dr Thum will do.” In future, few individuals, academics or others, “will voluntarily subject themselves to the risk of such hostile persecution by the powerful, by sharing views which may not conform to official narratives,” she says, noting that parliamentary hearings “are a rare event” in Singapore.

The Thum case was interesting, she says. “It highlights how sensitive history is” to the ruling party in Singapore, adding the case would particularly have an impact on Singaporean historians.

In a follow-up submission in early May to the parliamentary committee, Thum provided detailed responses to the questions raised by the committee specific to his historical research.