Academics back Singapore historian grilled by 'fake news' panel

The Singapore government says steps are needed as fake news can threaten national security but some observers have raised fears the committee is laying the ground for new laws which could be used to stifle free expression. — AFP pic
The Singapore government says steps are needed as fake news can threaten national security but some observers have raised fears the committee is laying the ground for new laws which could be used to stifle free expression. — AFP pic

SINGAPORE, April 11 ― A Singaporean historian attacked for challenging the official narrative of the city-state's history during parliamentary hearings on “fake news” has won backing from over 130 academics from universities around the world.

In an open letter, they accused the panel conducting the hearings of seeking to discredit Thum Ping Tjin, who has questioned claims by Singapore's long-ruling party about communist activity in the 1960s.

Thum, an Oxford University research associate, was quizzed last month by the 10-member parliamentary committee, which is examining possible steps ― including legislation ― to tackle what it describes as online falsehoods in the tightly controlled city-state.

The government says steps are needed as fake news can threaten national security but some observers have raised fears the committee is laying the ground for new laws which could be used to stifle free expression.

The letter was signed by 133 academics from countries including Britain, the United States and Australia.

“Your committee’s conduct suggests that the government of Singapore is more interested in restricting civil liberties than defending them against so-called 'fake news',” read the letter addressed to the panel's chairman.

“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.”

The party has governed Singapore since 1959. The government did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

During the fake news hearings, Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam quizzed Thum over his research, which has cast doubt on claims that there was a conspiracy by communists in the 1960s seeking to overthrow the government.

During heated exchanges, Shanmugam insisted there was such a conspiracy. Over 100 people were detained in 1963 in Singapore in an operation that authorities said was aimed at defusing the communist threat.

Last week, several people questioned in the hearings including Thum accused the committee of misrepresenting their views.

Sixty-nine witnesses, including internet giants Facebook and Google, gave evidence to the committee and it will present a report to parliament based on the hearings in May. ― AFP

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