Of rogue historians and fake news

APRIL 8 — Academics, Intellectuals and ministers actively debating policy online. Sparring and jostling each other with online messages as the public look on enthused.

Sounds like a fairly robust political environment and frankly doesn’t sound a lot like Singapore where policy is usually a staid technocratic affair. However, the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods — a parliamentary body set up early this year to explore and tackle the problem of “fake news” — has taken the nation by storm.

The MPs and ministers who constitute the committee have been meeting with a range of academics, business leaders and technology experts to debate and discuss what actually constitutes “fake news” and how the government should respond.

The trigger for the public interest and broader debate appears to be footage from the questioning of historian/academic PJ Thum.

Thum, currently a research fellow attached to Oxford University, is known for presenting alternative views of Singapore’s history. A large portion of his research focusses on the history of Singapore in the early 1960s and he has argued that the Singapore government used what it termed anti-communist operations to deliberately weed out political opponents.

Thum was questioned for six hours largely on the basis of his views regarding the 60s crackdowns. However, beyond 1960s history what got people talking was the fact that senior ministers found the time to question a historian — for six hours!

Now the government of Singapore has always been rather prickly about historical matters. On a very deep level, I suspect the government, unlike so many of the general public, understands that history is important. If you control the historical narrative, you control the nation’s story and the perceptions that go with it.

So rogue historians might be more dangerous than you think.

Still, most countries when debating and formulating anti-fake news Bills don’t tend to prioritise academics and their research. The priority tends to be libelous material or racially and religiously charged content etc.

The iconic Gardens by the Bay... never mind how far Singapore has come, some people are fixated on its past and how it should be “presented.” — Reuters pic
The iconic Gardens by the Bay... never mind how far Singapore has come, some people are fixated on its past and how it should be “presented.” — Reuters pic

Regardless of who won or lost the argument, the debate with Thum only raised larger questions. For something to be categorically termed fake,, you need to have an idea of what is genuine and valid — but in terms of history, in many cases this is a matter of debate.

Even beyond history, where does a legitimate point of view end and “fake news” begin? What is “fake news” as opposed to someone practising their freedom of expression?

These points can be endlessly debated but the reality is that there has always been fake news.

By its very nature, news is subject to manipulation for political and commercial gain. Sometimes it is manipulated just for gossip or entertainment value. This has occurred for as long as humans have had formal large scale communication.

Therefore, personally, I find the idea of controlling/ restricting “fake news” about as useful as talk about controlling the weather. Strong anti-fake news Bills typically make governments the arbiters of the truth and this only opens the door to censorship.

Singapore already has some of the strongest laws in the world against libel, slander and defamation. These laws have been successfully applied to online content creators, makers of videos and people posting on social media, so what more can be achieved by further legislation?

The only robust defense against fake news is education — so citizens as a whole have the inclination and tools to check their sources of information. Added to that a vibrant online landscape where people can express themselves without fear is the best environment to have people stand up to and challenge reports that are patently false.

At the end of the day, what you believe about 1960s politics should be up to you — and influenced by your own reading, research and sources — not dictated or influenced by politicians.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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