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Company that historian Thum and activist Kirsten Han tried to set up 'contrary to national interests': Acra

SINGAPORE — Historian Thum Ping Tjin and freelance journalist Kirsten Han, who made headlines recently after taking part in the public hearing on online falsehoods, had sought to register a company indirectly funded by controversial Hungarian-American financier George Soros to organise activities such as workshops and “democracy classroom” sessions and support their media venture – a new website called New Naratif.

Company that historian Thum and activist Kirsten Han tried to set up 'contrary to national interests': Acra

Historian Thum Ping Tjin (left) and freelance journalist Kirsten Han had sought to register a company funded by foreign groups to organise activities such as workshops and “democracy classroom” sessions.

SINGAPORE — Historian Thum Ping Tjin and freelance journalist Kirsten Han, who made headlines recently after taking part in the public hearing on online falsehoods, had sought to register a company indirectly funded by controversial Hungarian-American financier George Soros to organise activities such as workshops and “democracy classroom” sessions and support their media venture – a new website called New Naratif.

But their application was rejected on Wednesday (April 11) by the Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority (Acra), which said in a statement that the registration of the firm, OSEA Pte Ltd, would be “contrary to Singapore’s national interests”.

“Singapore’s politics should be for Singaporeans alone to determine. We should not allow foreigners to interfere in how we should govern our country. Nor should we allow any group of Singaporeans to lend themselves to being used by foreigners to pursue a political activity in Singapore,” Acra said.

The application, which was made on Feb 8, cited Dr Thum and Ms Han as OSEA’s director and editor-in-chief respectively. Acra said it notified them on Wednesday of the rejection.

OSEA was to be a wholly-owned subsidiary of Observatory Southeast Asia Ltd (OSEA UK), a company incorporated in the United Kingdom last April. The latter owns New Naratif, which was launched in September last year. 

Acra noted that a Swiss charitable foundation called Foundation Open Societies Institute, which is closely associated with another foundation founded and led by Mr Soros, had issued OSEA UK a grant of US$75,000 (S$98,000). 

Mr Soros’s foundation – Open Society Foundations (OSF) – was “expressly established to pursue a political agenda the world over, and has a history of involvement in the domestic politics of sovereign countries”, Acra said. For example, OSF is said to have provided financial backing to organisations opposing the Catholic Church’s position in an upcoming referendum in Ireland, it added. “The organisations sought to build upon legislation legalising same-sex marriage, and thereby also impact other strongly Catholic countries in Europe,” Acra said.

The authority also pointed out that OSF has reportedly funded organisations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, which published a report last year “advocating changes to laws and the political system in Singapore”.

Mr Soros, 87, is a billionaire hedge fund manager who, in 1997, was blamed by then-Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad for triggering the Asian financial crisis – although Dr Mahathir later accepted Mr Soros was not to be blamed.

As for OSEA Pte Ltd, Acra assessed its purposes to be “clearly political in nature”. New Naratif has been publishing articles “critical of politics in regional countries”, the authority said.

“For example, its articles have claimed that certain regional governments are using violence to maintain political control, had manipulated events or framed them for political gain, and have ‘rigged’ their electoral systems,” it added.

“What happens in other jurisdictions is not the concern of the Singapore Government,” it said. OSF, the Foundation Open Societies Institute and other foreign philanthropies and groups can fund the causes they like elsewhere, it said. “In Singapore, however, our position is that none of them can be allowed to fund Singaporean organisations or individuals participating in our domestic politics.”

On its site, New Naratif described itself as an “ad-free platform” and “non-profit enterprise” that relies on its members to sustain its operations, with memberships starting from US$52 a year. Members get unlimited access to the site and invites to participate in discussions.

New Naratif said it also accepts donations, grants, and “any other source of funding, provided that the funders accept the terms of our Manifesto. In particular: full academic freedom and editorial independence”.

In a speech delivered during New Naratif’s launch on Sept 9 last year, Ms Han said the seed of the platform was planted in 2013, when Dr Thum got in touch with her over Skype to discuss an idea he had about building a site to make research on South-east Asia more accessible to the public.

Other members of the New Naratif team include award-winning illustrator Sonny Liew and British former diplomat Aisyah Llewellyn. 

TODAY has reached out to Dr Thum and Ms Han for comments.

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