How historians and scholars engage in critical inquiry

In January 1999, the Australian National University’s History Department hosted Chin Peng as a Visiting Fellow. (yep, “transient researcher”) They prepared an office he could use to work on his memoir, with his real name “Mr B.H.Ong” on his office door.
A closed-door workshop centred on Mr Ong was organized during the course of his stay in Canberra. Very eminent historians and scholars of Southeast Asian history,as well as experts who had spent years studying what the British refer to as the “Malayan Emergency” (the list reads like “Who’s Who” in SEAn history) got to “dialogue” (yep, not grill or interrogate) with Mr Ong, asking him questions they have been dying to ask for the longest time. Edited transcripts of the proceedings were subsequently published by NUS Press, the book in the photo below.

In the spirit of not missing out on any relevant source material, we should note Mr Ong’s replies to questions on the relationships between the MCP and Barisan Socialis as well between the MCP and Mr Lim Chin Siong, Mr Lee Kuan Yew and the PAP. As a responsible historian, I highly recommend reading that entire section (hell, read the entire book, you never know when you may be scolded for not reading something…….) In any case, here are some extracts:

Harold Crouch: What sort of relationship did the people who become the Barisan Socialis in Singapore have with your people in Southern Thailand at that time? Had there been any contact at all?

Chin Peng: I think among them, there were some Communists, there were some non-Communists, for example Lee Siew Choh. We considered him as radical left.

Anthony Short: Lim Chin Siong never had any contact with the Party in southern Thailand, did he?

Chin Peng: I don’t think so. I don’t think so. Lim Chin Siong never admitted he was Communist Party member.

Anthony Reid: Can you tell us more generally what the united front strategy was, through the period from Malayan independence to Confrontation? Was there a coherent direction to this policy in relation to the PAP, and the Socialist Party in Malaysia? Or were they doing their own thing without any contact with you? (whoa!)

Chin Peng: I don’t think we can control it from far away. It would depend on the man on the spot. They discussed among themselves and they coordinated their activities, not controlled from the Central. Take the case of the Singapore left wing, I don’t think they used the name of communists. They all regarded each other as left-wing figures, and then they discussed themselves, they coordinated their policy, and they decided.

Anthony Reid: You kept issuing programmes and so forth. They must have had some idea of what the strategy of Communism in Malaya was supposed to be, or you think not even that?

Chin Peng: Yes. Our general idea was the underground and legal struggle should coordinate with the armed struggle. The main principle is that. And the armed struggle is the main form of struggle, the rest playing the role of coordination.
(from pp.190-192)

My reaction when I read this in light of the Shanmugam- PJ exchange over whether the “CUF” was “a conspiracy” is that (1) Mr Ong’s description of his party’s strategy does not “prove” or “disprove” the existence of a “Communist conspiracy.” He certainly states that the MCP had a “general” strategy and definitely a political agenda that used both violent and legal methods but it was impossible to come up with detailed plans controlled from a “center,” hence the importance of “men-on-the-spot.”

(2) It is not possible to “prove” or “disprove” a “Communist conspiracy” because to do so involves using words or concepts not used by historical actors themselves, who may have different perspectives on what they had done/were doing. And so Mr Shanmugam’s choice of “Communist conspiracy” begs the question of whether he was using a strict legal definition, the legal eagle that he is, and/or giving voice to the security perspective—what some historians call “the prose of counterinsurgency’— which we inherited from the British colonizers, the very group against whom Mr Ong and the MCP was fighting.

Clearly, these are not issues that may be usefully discussed in a “yes/no, then explain” way. This rigid approach denies historians as well as ordinary citizens the means of and space for addressing Singapore history in a critical manner. Ironically, critical thinking skills are what we would need exactly to react intelligently to DOFs.


*Facebook post by Siew Min Sai.



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11 Responses to “How historians and scholars engage in critical inquiry”

  • Titiana Ann Xavier:

    Chin Peng confirmed that Lim Chin Siong was not a communist. LKY had him detained on trumped up charges. In hindsight, LKY did it for selfish reasons. He wanted his son to succeed him. It can happen only if Lim Chin Siong is expunged. LKY had made it known that Lim Chin Siong was PM material.

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  • Bungalow:

    So it was the fertile imagination n machination which led to the incarceration of many many sinkimen n women? May he turn regularly in his grave or urn?

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  • patriot of Temesak:

    What “CRITICAL THINKING” are you talking about…the bast**d LKY “THINKS” for all PERIOD

    and…The CONDITIONED & BRAINWASHED but well-paid and well-fed dogs are TAUGHT to Bark & ATTACK on command!!!

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  • Just answer: YES or NO:

    Are you saying/implying Shanmugam was wrong in insisting his questions be answered only by yes or no? YES or NO

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  • Jiro:

    Critical thinking is not something the govt wants
    Sporeans to have, no matter what it says. But blind
    obedience – to the govt – is very high on the list
    of desirable qualities. (It is why the so-called
    scholars react/do not react the way they do.) It is
    a hangover from the early days of independence
    when LKY was pushing thru his policies. While it
    may have been helpful then, it is fatal to the
    country now. The problem is the govt does not have
    a clue as to how to handle people who think,
    disagree with its policies and argue with it. Thus,
    easier to continue pursuing this route. Yes and no
    answers fit right in with this We-will-do-all-the-
    thinking-for-you approach. So, shut up and sit down!

    The result is an electricity co that makes a Billion
    $ in profit raising rates, an MRT co hiking fares
    becos it refuses to include the money from retail
    in its profit statement, a field of dreams that will
    be removed while an old house remains, a mystery
    surrounding the country’s savings, and Much more.
    The running down of opposition members also echoes
    the current claims about communist conspiracies.

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  • LIONS:

    Singapore is made up of 30 pct Singaporeans and 70 pct SHEEPoreans?

    As for critical thinking,it seems THEY think ONLY *PRESIDENT/SAF SCHOLARS* are ENTITLED to it?

    Well,expect more scew-ups going forward….at the rate they are going.

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  • Aristotle on wisdom:

    Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.

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  • Just answer: YES or NO:

    Titiana Ann Xavier:
    Chin Peng confirmed that Lim Chin Siong was not a communist. LKY had him detained on trumped up charges. In hindsight, LKY did it for selfish reasons. He wanted his son to succeed him. It can happen only if Lim Chin Siong is expunged. LKY had made it known that Lim Chin Siong was PM material.

    Lim Chin Siong was PM material but LHL is “immaterial” (i.e., USELESS). YES or NO

    GD Star Rating
  • Attack Dog debate:

    He is schooled and trained in the only way of debate he knows – arrogant, domineering, disrectful, legalistic and prosecutorial “yes/no” explain” approach. Mutually respectful discusssion/debate is alien to him.
    The proverbial idiot who knows a lot about too little. What a public display and disgrace!

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  • nizhemoshou:

    Late LKY knew LCS was the biggest stumbling block to his ambition to be PM of post independent SG. That was bcos LCS was not only PM material. he [LCS] surpassed him in oratorical skills, Chinese language command , charisma and popularity with the chinese community at the time. So no need say, the sob just exploited the communism thingy at the time as an excuse to get rid of his political opponents.

    His propensity to fix people under guise for his own selfish motive n benefit was not only exposed by the British declassified documents decades later but also borne out in subsequent years in Operation Spectrum and his ruthless disposal of political opponents and dissidents like Francis Khoo, Francis Seow, TLH , JBJ, Roy to name a few . All the good men of SG with heart and brains to serve the country were destroyed by him for no reason than his megalomaniac desire for aggrandizement and establishment of a totalitarian regime and dynastic rule.

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  • rukidding:

    Well, what can I sy of a typical “keleng”…”sham” ???

    Otherwise,…why would he call himself …Shamxxxx ????

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