The Problem With “Bringing Up The Past”

History is fraught with controversy. In trying to form an objective view of historical events, one will always be faced with the daunting task of reconciling opposing views of what really happened.

The recent diplomatic rift between Singapore and Vietnam erupted when PM Lee’s remarks resurfaced a highly controversial event in the history of ASEAN – Vietnam’s 1978 invasion of Cambodia.

Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded to the furore by maintaining that Singapore’s opposition to Vietnam’s invasion was based on principle. ASEAN condemned the invasion as it represented a threat to the collective security of the region, even if the invasion meant the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge regime which murdered 1.5-3 million Cambodians in the worst act of genocide since the Holocaust.

Vietnam maintained that its invasion of Cambodia was to safeguard its own border from Khmer Rouge attacks and to end the genocide of Cambodians.

Both sides of the fence offered contrasting narratives of what really happened.

However, many netizens pointed out that PM Lee was wrong to bring up such a controversial event in his eulogy of the late Thai PM. Out of the countless references to the late Thai PM’s legacy, PM Lee chose the most contentious one of all, and it served no practical purpose and only threatened to re-open a diplomatic can of worms.

Indeed, when a historical event is highly contentious and controversial, with no consensus on what really happened, bringing it up may end up doing more harm than good.

Goh Chok Tong’s comments on PM Lee’s alleged “slapping incident”

Former PM Goh Chok Tong, in his last National Day Rally speech to the nation, made a reference to an alleged event in Lee Hsien Loong’s early career as a junior minister.

This rumour first appeared in the book “Governance in Singapore”, written by Ross Worthington.

“Lee Hsien Loong had gone to the office of Richard Hu, the Minister of Finance, and removed a number of files without Hu’s permission. Hu took Lee to task for doing this and was supported by Tony Tan. Lee’s response was aggressive and insulting, he directly insulted Tan and Hu, a man of his father’s age… Suppiah Dhanabalan intervened and chastised Lee for his behaviour, demanding that he apologise to Hu, withdraw his remarks and not interfere in other minister’s portfolios. A heated exchange occurred into which a number of other issues intruded and eventually Lee lost his temper, and reportedly reached across the table and slapped Dhanabalan across the face.

Excerpt from “Governance in Singapore”

Worthington’s book was published in January 2003. Later that year, Goh repeated those same allegations in his televised address watched by hundreds of thousands of Singaporeans.

You may also have heard this old story about Loong. Back in 1990, Loong had a quarrel with Richard Hu. Dhanabalan sided with Richard. Loong lost his temper, reached across the table, and gave Dhanabalan a tight slap! The whole Cabinet was thrown into commotion. I then forced Loong to apologise.

I must be suffering from amnesia. I just cannot remember this incident! Now you know how creative Singaporeans are!

Excerpt from PM Goh’s speech

Goh’s comments raised many eyebrows and generated much controversy at the time. Although Goh maintained that he had no recollection of this event and meant to use the story as a running gag to refute that the event ever happened, rumours circulated among Singaporeans nonetheless.

In its aftermath, PM Goh was forced to clarify his remarks before further damage was done. In a National Day Dinner Speech to his Marine Parade constituency a week later, Goh maintained that the slapping incident never happened.

I brought up the story of Hsien Loong slapping Dhanabalan to dismiss the alleged incident as untrue. I tried to do it with subtle humour. But after the Rally, I discovered instead that half of Singapore believed it was true!

Excerpt from PM Goh’s speech at the Marine Parade National Day Dinner, August 24, 2003

Did this incident really took place? Or was it some invented fancy story? Despite claims from the cabinet that the slapping incident was untrue, Worthington, the author of the book who first circulated those rumours, never faced any defamation lawsuits.

Lee Hsien Loong who was DPM at the time later claimed that Worthington wasn’t sued because he was an Australian and “out of jurisdiction”.

Regardless of whether the event happened or not, it highlights the inherent problems in dealing with controversial historical events. Goh had intended to feature it in his National Day speech to debunk any myths that were still being circulated but his attempt at a humorous gag backfired and only drew national attention to this story.

If there was one lesson to be learnt from this fiasco, and the latest diplomatic rift with Vietnam and Cambodia, it’s this – sometimes, we should simply let bygones be bygones. Bringing up the past may do more harm than good.

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