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Monday, September 24, 2018

On the sliming of PJ Thum

Ervin Tan

"In the spirit of media literacy to defend against fake news, I became curious about what PJ Thum submitted to the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods.

Out of 170 papers submitted, PJ was singled out in the Select Committee's report and in the media.

The Select Committee says it gave "no weight" to PJ's views on the basis that he lied about his academic credentials.

As a discerning person trying to avoid being misled by fake news, I went to the source - PJ's paper - so that I could decide for myself whether PJ’s views were nonsense.

If so, I would know not to believe any nonsense in that paper if it arose again in future.

This is PJ's 5-page paper - the one which resulted in a six-hour cross-examination. It can be read within 10 minutes, so if you’re on the train this is an easy read. (note: link may download the paper automatically)

Starting with the credentials, PJ seems to have studied a lot.

1. Bachelor of Arts from Harvard (2000)
2. Bachelor of Arts (2004), Oxford
3. Master of Studies in Historical Research (2006), Oxford
4. Doctor of Philosophy in History (2011), Oxford
5. Attended Oxford on:
5(a) Rhodes scholarship (2002-2004) and
5(b) Commonwealth Scholarship (2006-2010)
6. Research Fellow at the Asia Research Institute NUS (2012-2014)
7. Research Fellow in History and Coordinator of Project Southeast Asia at the University of Oxford (2014-present)

The Select Committee's report alleges that the last position is inaccurately described, since PJ was a "visiting scholar at the Oxford Centre for Global History" and not a Research Fellow. Notably, PJ merely held an "unpaid position" at Oxford.

Now, we know what some people think of unpaid or low-paid work. So I can understand where this contempt for unpaid positions comes from.

The Select Committee has said nothing about items 1 to 6.

While I would not want to undergo surgery if I found out that my doctor in fact is a vet, I would still give weight to what a historian with PJ’s academic credentials has to say.

Wearing again a media literacy hat, I noted that the Select Committee made much of PJ’s credentials and the way he presented them, and that alone is supposed to discredit PJ’s views.

I therefore wanted to look at PJ’s views. Things PJ said include the following in quote marks (and my thoughts below each quote):

“The term “fake news”, however, has gained common currency across the world in the past year primarily due to U.S. President Donald Trump, whose election was allegedly aided by a Russian campaign to sow disinformation and fear among the American electorate.”

-- Surely this is correct. The Select Committee itself has pointed to disinformation campaigns allegedly conducted by Russia which posed serious threats to the US, Ukraine, etc.

“Fake news” is impossible to define with any reasonable accuracy”

-- I have not found a definition of “Deliberate Online Falsehood” in the Select Committee’s Report, but if anyone sees one do leave a comment.

“Sources [of fake news] are difficult to trace, difficult to prosecute, and domestic legislation will not stop foreign actors outside of Singapore”

-- This is a good point. If the Government is truly concerned about foreign interference, we would see laws that attempt to deal with foreign actors like the Macedonian teens who were paid to write fake news and influence the US elections.

“There is already existing legislation which can address “fake news” / Clause 45 of The Telecommunications Act 1999… Minister of Law and Home Affairs K Shanmugam cited this law and acknowledged that the current law had remedies to deal with falsehoods, but argued that it was ineffective…”

-- This is interesting. I was not aware of this law.

“There is clear source of “fake news” which has spread falsehoods, with major impact, and hitherto escaped sanction. That is the politicians of Singapore’s People’s Action Party. The major examples of this are the numerous detentions under the Internal Security Act (ISA, and its predecessor, the Preservation of Public Security Ordinance) from 1963 to 1987… Operation Coldstore was conducted for political purposes, and there was no evidence that the detainees of Operation Coldstore were involved in any conspiracy to subvert the government.”

-- I don’t know enough about Operation Coldstore (1963) save that people were detained without trial, but as someone interested in the founding years of Singapore I would like to find out more about this.

“Given the above, the solution to “fake news” should therefore be to: First, educate Singaporeans to be more thoughtful, critical, and skeptical towards information, regardless of source. This includes: The expansion of media literacy programmes… ”

-- This is sensible. Building media literacy is contained in the Select Committee’s first recommendation (out of 22), even though no weight was given to PJ's views.

“Second, constrain the ability of politicians to spread “fake news” and to increase transparency and accountability within the government. This would require:

· The repeal of the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act 1974, which effectively gives the government control over the media and disempowers the media to speak effectively and independently on information. A greater diversification and independence of responsible media is required to effectively combat “fake news”;

· An increase in transparency, for example through the establishment of a Freedom of Information Act which automatically declassifies all government documents after 25 years [5] unless they are specifically retained;

· The establishment of an independent government watchdog (Ombudsman) with the authority to investigate complaints against the government and censure government officials who mislead the public.”

-- These are interesting recommendations, and worthy of consideration and debate. In particular, the history of the NPPA and its effects in terms of who has the power to own and control media in Singapore is interesting and should be made widely known as part of any good faith commitment to media literacy.

Having actually read PJ’s paper, I can’t help but wonder:

1. Of all of PJ's views in his five-page paper, the focus is on the alleged “lie” about being a research fellow instead of a visiting scholar. Why not simply point to the *substance* of his paper and criticise it? The Select Committee did precisely this in respect of another written representation: “The Committee decided not to publish the written representation by Mr Alex Tan, being of the opinion that it was not made in good faith. It contained personal insults, irrelevant comments and sarcastic proposals.” (para. 15, Report of the Select Committee). This tells us in plain words what is wrong with the substance of Mr Alex Tan’s written representation.

2. If the detentions under Operation Coldstore were all justified because the detainees were part of a conspiracy to subvert the government, why not say that plainly? The Select Committee’s Dr. Janil Puthucheary is particularly well-placed to speak about Operation Coldstore since his father Dominic Puthucheary was one of the detainees of Operation Coldstore.

3. To give no weight to PJ’s paper because of his credentials (or lack thereof) suggests that if a different person repeated the content of the paper, we can give weight to the content. This is consistent with thought #1 above. But is PJ’s real offence his forceful questioning of the true nature of Operation Coldstore?

4. What does the Select Committee think of the Russian MFA’s 1-page submission:…

5. Does the use of state power to whack a citizen in this ugly way trouble anyone at all? Since PJ submitted his paper to the Select Committee, he has repeatedly been attacked while the substance of his paper has been overlooked. Are these the standards of decency and debate to which a 53-year old democracy holds itself – or should we do better and look to some of the most well-paid politicians in the world to lead by showing what mature, decent and thoughtful public debate looks like? Might it not assist the Government’s case on the legitimacy of Operation Coldstore by releasing papers from 1963 – papers which are 55 years old and which are unlikely to pose any threat to national security in 2018 – so that the public can decide for itself? Do we believe that the efforts to educate a population for the past 53 years have produced a discerning and fair-minded population who could be trusted to look at the relevant documents about Coldstore, and form their own view about whether detainees were involved in a conspiracy to subvert the Government?"
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