On meeting Mahathir and befriending PJ Thum

On Thursday, I attended a meeting with the Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, along with Tan Wah Piow, Hishamuddin Rais (Isham), PJ Thum, Jolovan Wham and Sonny Liew. Most of us were curious to meet the two-time prime minister in person, and to see this “new Malaysia” from up close. 

During the session we had the opportunity to ask Dr M a number of questions. He expressed a range of views, some of which—such as his views on the differences between racial groups and on LGBT rights—we didn’t agree with. I blogged my thoughts from the meeting; Jolovan Wham also shared his reflections on Facebook. It was clear that while we appreciated a rare opportunity to satisfy our curiosity and meet one of Southeast Asia’s major political figures, it was far from a wholehearted endorsement of Mahathir.

Which is why I was shocked to see a Facebook post made by PAP MP Seah Kian Peng, claiming, “PJ Thum and friends ( including Kirsten Han, Sonny Liew, Jolovan Wham) meet DR M, invite Dr M to bring democracy to Singapore, and suggest that Singapore is part of Malaya.”

Singapore is still in the middle of figuring out what to do about online falsehoods and misinformation. Mr Seah himself is a member of the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods; in fact, he was the chair of the five-hour hearing that I was a part of. Unfortunately, Mr Seah appears to have misunderstood the nature of the meet with Mahathir and the comments that have been made since. His post makes a number of allegations and claims that might lead people to have a very mistaken idea of what happened on Thursday, and our views. As someone who was present at the meeting, I'd like to set the record straight, so as to correct misconceptions that might be spreading online.

Apart from Dr M and his two personal assistants, only the six of us were in the room on Thursday. We did not attend this meeting as a collective, but as a group of individuals. 

Wah Piow and Isham are both part of a group called Forces for the Renewal of Southeast Asia, and were planning to organise a conference on democracy in the region. They wanted Mahathir to give the keynote speech at this proposed conference, and so extended an invitation to him, which he accepted in principle, subject to his availability when the time comes. The rest of us are not part of Forces for the Renewal of Southeast Asia, nor are we involved in the organising of the conference. I can't speak for Wah Piow or Isham, but my sense is that it's highly unlikely this conference would be held in Singapore, since Wah Piow himself cannot enter the country.

Following the meeting, PJ posted this on Facebook:

Screencapped on 1 September 2018.

Screencapped on 1 September 2018.

PJ said he "urged [Mahathir] to take leadership in Southeast Asia for the promotion of democracy, human rights, freedom of expression and freedom of information." PJ also expressed "hopes for closer relations between the people of Malaysia and Singapore". (I believe Mr Seah also read this same caption, as he provides the screencap to PJ's post himself.) PJ did not say that he asked Mahathir to bring democracy to Singapore, nor did I hear him say such a thing during the meeting.

The next day, PJ wished Malaysia a happy independence day ("Selamat Hari Merdeka"), and also wished the people of Singapore a "happy unofficial independence day".

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This appeared to confuse Mr Seah, who said: "On August 31, Malaysia’s 'national day', he posted an unusual greeting, 'Selamat Hari Merdeka to the people of the former Federation of Malaya', and suggested that Singaporeans should also rejoice on that day since it was Singapore’s 'unofficial independence day'." From my reading of Mr Seah's post, he appears to have taken PJ's FB post as a proclamation that "Singapore is part of Malaysia (or Malaya)".

But PJ's "happy unofficial independence day" wish to the people of Singapore isn't about declaring Singapore a part of Malaysia, but merely a reference to our own history.

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The Federation of Malaya officially declared its independence from the British on 31 August 1957. Six years later, the Federation of Malaysia (comprising of the Federation of Malaya, Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak) was also meant to be declared on 31 August 1963, although it was ultimately postponed to 16 September due to opposition from Indonesia and the Philippines. Nevertheless, then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew declared independence from the British on 31 August 1963.

"LEE: WE ARE FREE!" read page 1 of The Straits Times on 1 September 1963. This is also chronicled on HistorySG, an online resource run by the National Library Board. Here is the speech Mr Lee gave at the Padang on 31 August, now stored in the National Archives.

So 31 August is an "unofficial independence day" for the people of Singapore. As Lee Kuan Yew said, it signified the end of colonial British rule in Singapore. Instead of being shocked that a historian would wish Singaporeans "happy unofficial independence day", or commemorating the bicentennial of our colonisation, it would be better for Singaporeans to know about and remember the day we freed ourselves from the colonial "masters".

"It appears quite clear to me that PJ Thum does not wish Singapore well. It is interesting that Kirsten, Jolovan and Sonny should associate themselves with Thum," Mr Seah wrote.

I've worked closely with PJ for two years now. I know him to be someone who thinks and cares deeply about Singapore and its people. I know him as someone who piles both work and risk on himself, for very little reward, because he is committed to this country. He was told that he would never work in Singapore as an academic again, but he's still trying to come home permanently, because he wants to contribute to Singapore. I'd like to reassure Mr Seah here: in all the time that I've spent with PJ, I've never seen any indication or evidence that he wishes Singapore ill. (And this isn't even mentioning him being the first Singaporean to swim the English Channel, leading Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to say: "Your adventurous spirit, boldness to take on a difficult challenge, and strength to carry it through are an inspiration to us all.")

Mr Seah finds it "interesting" that I would associate myself with him. I find it to be a great honour and privilege to work with someone who cares so much. PM Lee was right; PJ is an inspiration.

No one at the meeting invited Mahathir to bring democracy to Singapore—as I said in my blog post, I'm not even pinning all my hopes on him to bring democracy to Malaysia (that's up to Malaysians). Nor did anyone who attended the meeting express the belief that Singapore is a part of Malaysia.


P.S. Mr Seah also brings in a comment that Teo Soh Lung apparently made on a TOC video, saying that "Singapore is part of Malaya la." I'm not sure why this comment has suddenly been pulled in, since Teo Soh Lung wasn't present at the meeting with Mahathir. I don't believe the video was related to the visit with Mahathir either, and I haven't seen the comment in its original context, so I would prefer not to comment. I would like to say, though, that it's also a little random to drag the Singapore Democratic Party into this, as Soh Lung hasn't been a member of the party for quite some time.

Kirsten Han