When local historian PJ Thum met Malaysian prime minister, Dr Mahathir Mohamad, he was immediately denounced by many people on numerous public platforms as a ‘traitor’.
This struck me as odd – calling someone a traitor implies that Thum has done something to betray Singapore. However, this does not seem apparent from his actions. On his Facebook page, he wrote:
“I met with Malaysian Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir today. I urged him to take leadership in Southeast Asia for the promotion of democracy, human rights, freedom of expression, and freedom of information.
I also expressed hopes for closer relations between the people of Malaysia…’
Assuming Thum was writing honestly, I find it hard to consider his actions traitorous. Surely the promotion of democracy and closer ties with Malaysia are all good things?
Yet, I can understand why many did not react positively to the meeting.
Mahathir has a problematic track record when it comes to his relationship with Singapore. A long-time rival of founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, he has crossed swords with us on numerous occasions. For example, he threatened to cut our water supply in 1999, giving an inflammatory speech in Johor Baru (to which the Malaysian crowd responded “Cut! Cut! Cut!”). Disturbingly, this is something he recently threatened to do again.
Furthermore, it is widely known that Mahathir had a relatively short meeting with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in May, and the relationship between the two is undoubtedly filled with some tension and much distrust, especially given PM Lee’s close relationship with ousted ex-Malaysian PM Najib Razak. Hence, intentionally or not, Mahathir’s mingling with Thum and his colleagues is, in some way, a diplomatic slight. In addition, Mahathir is not stupid; he knows Thum’s political views, and he may very well have expected that being seen with local anti-establishment figures will stir unrest between the two ends of Singapore’s political spectrum – this is perhaps something that he could turn to his advantage.
So yes, even though I too am passionate about democracy and political freedom in Singapore, I know that Mahathir is not our friend.
But is Thum a traitor? Like the word ‘fake news’, the word ‘traitor’ has a Trump-esque simplicity (and danger) to it – sufficiently derogatory and yet adequately vague, it has the uncanny ability to discredit its target without inviting meaningful scrutiny. Furthermore, its inflammatory nature makes it a perfect rallying cry for those already aligned against its target. Hence, it is a word that Thum’s opponents can easily ‘get behind’ and organize themselves around in strong, united defiance – and based on the level of consistency in the language used in the insults against him, they have indeed been very successful.
Yet, when you look beyond all this and focus on the real meaning of the word ‘traitor’, it does not seem apt. I doubt that what Thum did was an act of betrayal for Singapore; his actions in themselves are unlikely to cause any direct or substantial harm to our national interest.
Hence, calling Thum a traitor may be effective, but I don’t think it is fair. At best, you could say that he made a serious misstep, that his actions may have negative diplomatic implications, or that he acted in a manner that embarrasses Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy. I’m not necessarily agreeing with these views; I’m merely suggesting that there are better, more accurate, and more meaningful ways to frame one’s criticism of Thum rather than simply hurling inflammatory insults at him.
I have always feared that we are slowly becoming a society with increasing levels of political extremism and destructive, inflammatory language in our public discourse. Let us try to steer away from that.
In any case, if Mahathir had indeed considered that this would stir unrest (as discussed above) between Singaporeans on both ends of our political spectrum, then by attacking each other so vigorously, we are simply playing into his hand. Surely we Singaporeans are smarter than this.
Hence, I don’t think it is fair to call PJ Thum and colleagues ‘traitors’. However, I am unsure if meeting Mahathir (or at least publicizing it this way) was the right move to make. In fact, all in all, it was a pretty bad idea.
By Rio Hoe
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Cover photo credit: PJ Thum