OPINION: Singapore, Indonesia and the Lessons of History

OPINION: Singapore, Indonesia and the Lessons of History
Credit: Creative Commons

What you need to know

Singapore can learn from its southern neighbor when it comes to recognizing and accepting its own history.

“Don’t even once for a moment forget your own history!” the words of President Sukarno of Indonesia’s last Independence Day speech of Aug. 17, 1966, known as his “Jasmerah” from the text of his Indonesian original (Jangan sekali-kali meninggalkan sejarah) continue to resonate ever more strongly as Indonesia grapples with the legacy of its Cold War past.

The 50th anniversary of the events following the still unexplained coup attempt on the long night of Sept. 30, 1965, witnessed the convening of an International People’s Tribunal on Crimes against Humanity in Indonesia in The Hague (Nov. 10-13, 2015) and a belated response from the current President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) administration in the form of a state-sponsored historical seminar in Jakarta in April 2016.

Despite these initiatives, the wounds left by the army-orchestrated killings of suspected communist sympathizers, when more people died in 18 months in Indonesia than were killed in Vietnam in the whole decade of the Second Vietnam War (1963-1973), are still to heal.

As leading Indonesian lawyer, Todung Mulya Lubis, who served as Chief Prosecutor at the People’s Tribunal, put it, “It is an absolute necessity that the truth is told in its entirety – honestly and sincerely. The wounds and pain will never be healed without truth telling.”

Contested narratives

Indonesia’s neighbor Singapore has also experienced its share of the suffering and internal division wrought by the Cold War. There is still much to be written in terms of its own history of decolonization.

In 2013, the British government’s records of this decolonization process began to be released under the 50-year rule. This has opened new possibilities for historians to conduct in-depth research on such subjects as the controversial Operation Coldstore of Feb. 2, 1963, when hundreds of armed policemen arrested more than a 100 leftist politicians and trade union leaders and detained them without trial under the Preservation of Public Security Ordinance.

The official Singapore history framed by late Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and his People’s Action Party is that this was to prevent a communist takeover.

Oxford-trained historian, Dr. PJ Thum (Thum Ping Tjin), is just the latest in a long line of historians to have questioned this official version. He joins a distinguished cohort to have written on the subject since the late 1990s, including Simon Ball, Tim Harper, Matthew Jones and Geoff Wade. The fact that he has done so based on the newly released documents has added depth to his arguments.

These were most recently developed in his November 2013 Asian Research Institute (ARI) Working Paper on “Singapore’s Progressive Left, Operation Coldstore and the Creation of Malaysia.”

It was this paper that was particularly singled out by the Singapore government in the person of Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam over a six-hour cross-questioning on the final day of the hearings of the Singapore Parliamentary Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods on March 29.

This had more the character of the particular-auricular questioning developed by the Spanish Inquisition under Chief Inquisitor Tomas de Torquemada in the late 15th century than an exercise in truth seeking.

As Dr. Lee Jones, Reader in International Politics at the School of Politics and International Relations at Queen Mary College, University of London, put it in his covering letter to the Open Letter signed by some 284 academics worldwide to express concern at Dr. Thum’s treatment:

“The truth is not established by government diktat, nor can it be put on trial in a parliamentary committee. Scholars seek the truth through rigorous research and subjecting their findings to critical peer review by fellow experts. Dr. Thum’s work has emerged from this process, following training at two of the world’s leading universities, Harvard and Oxford. The minister who interrogated Dr. Thum has not undergone any such training. [Indeed] he is not even qualified to undertake a peer review of Dr. Thum’s research.”

The Singapore government is like King Canute – placing its throne by the seashore and trying to stop the tide. That tide is the inexorable opening of archives worldwide through the increasing availability of such resources online.

The Singapore government is like King Canute – placing its throne by the seashore and trying to stop the tide.

One thinks here of the more than 3,000 archives in the Netherlands available through the archieven.nl website and the search capacity provided by MAIS-Flexis, a major online platform operating out of Groningen in the Netherlands that helps private and state archives upload their documents and enables an online alphabetical search of names and subjects.

If the government of Singapore is genuinely interested in discovering the truth about Operation Coldstore and cognate events related to its decolonization process, then there is a simple solution: open the state archives and allow historians free access to interrogate the documentary evidence.

Its reaction to the Open Letter by international academics accusing them of being “foreign actors” bent on “subvert[ing] parliamentary procedure” is frankly ridiculous.

Singapore is many times richer than Indonesia in per capita GDP, but when it comes to a sophisticated awareness of its recent history there is no question which state has the greater sensitivity and understanding of the deep wounds inflicted by the Cold War.

As Cicero wrote, “Historia vero testis temporum! Lux Veritatis!” – History is the witness of time! The light of truth!

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Editor: David Green