SINGAPORE: While some political observers think that the final report by the Committee of Privileges (COP) has hurt the standing of the Workers’ Party (WP) significantly, others take a different view.
The COP’s findings and recommendations on the complaint against former Sengkang MP Raeesah Khan for lying in Parliament was released on Thursday (Feb 10).
The Committee proposed a S$35,000 fine for Ms Khan, and recommended that two WP senior leaders be referred to the Public Prosecutor for possible criminal proceedings.
WP secretary-general and Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh was the “operating brain” behind why Ms Khan’s lie was not clarified after Aug 8 and was repeated on Oct 4, the Committee said in the report.
The COP also said that given its findings, Mr Singh has been “untruthful” in his evidence to the Committee while under oath. This may amount to perjury, which is a serious criminal offence, it said.
Two other WP leaders, party chair Sylvia Lim and vice-chair Faisal Manap, were also said to have played a role in guiding Ms Khan to stick to her untruth in Parliament, but the report said that they had a “relatively subsidiary role”.
Mr Faisal has also been referred for possible criminal charges as he refused repeatedly to hand over documents which the Committee had asked for as evidence. Meanwhile, the committee noted that Ms Lim was prepared to “voluntarily tender” notes that she had taken during a disciplinary panel hearing, which the COP said “directly contradicted” Mr Singh’s evidence.
COP REPORT “CASTS A PALL” OVER WP
Associate Professor Eugene Tan said that the COP findings are “very damaging” for the WP, in particular their top leaders.
“If this sad saga doesn’t plunge the party into crisis mode, I don’t know what would. One immediate impact is that cadres, members, volunteers are going to re-examine their association with the party,” said the law professor from the Singapore Management University.
Dr Gillian Koh, deputy director of research at the Institute of Policy Studies, said that this “casts a pall” over WP, which is “disappointing” in contrast to the General Election in July 2020, when the party put 10 elected MPs in Parliament.
“The image of the party, the standing of these politicians have already been dented since November 1,” she said, referring to when Ms Khan first admitted that she had told a false anecdote in Parliament.
But Associate Professor Chong Ja Ian, a professor of political science at the National University of Singapore, said that there is “no practical immediate impact” on the party.
“Some party members and supporters may feel disappointed. Others may feel more determined to make their stand,” he said.
Ms Nydia Ngiow, managing director at strategic advisory firm BowerGroupAsia Singapore, said that the COP report raises questions about the People’s Action Party (PAP) and its motivations.
She called the recommendations to refer Mr Singh and Mr Faisal to the public prosecutor “an overreach and unnecessary”.
“Raeesah Khan was the one who lied in Parliament and she was left relatively unscathed with monetary fines,” said Ms Ngiow.
Ms Ngiow added: “These recommendations only add fuel to the fire that this entire investigation was politically driven and a witch hunt, portraying the PAP as opportunistic in leveraging the investigation as a means to bring down its main threat to power.”
She said that while a significant population of the older generation “is used to such high-handed methods in dealing with the opposition”, the younger generation may not be.
“Going ahead with the recommendations will only backfire on the PAP and push the younger voters away into the arms of the opposition,” Ms Ngiow said.
Mr Chong was also of the opinion that Ms Khan received “a slap on the wrist” with the S$35,000 fine. The possible maximum penalty under the existing regulations, could have been a fine of S$50,000 and/or a prison term.
“Should the offence be serious enough, there could be a prison sentence until the end of this term of government, presumably by 2025. That punishment was not meted out by the Committee of Privileges in this instance,” he said.
CHANCE FOR WP LEADERS TO DEFEND THEMSELVES
However, Dr Koh said that the report has been “conscientious” in establishing the conditions under which Ms Khan lied, and it has given clear reasons why the issues related to Mr Singh and Mr Faisal’s testimonies be referred to the public prosecutor.
“The most important point is this – we know that during the hearings, the public did not quite understand why the process seemed one-way, the Committee asked questions and the respondents could merely answer,” she said.
“So, if the matter is referred to the Public Prosecutor for the possible criminal offence of perjury, Mr Singh and Mr Faisal too could have recourse to legal counsel, offer fresh evidence, and defend themselves with the opportunity for cross-examination of those who give evidence.”
She added that it is "non-partisan" for the Attorney-General’s Chambers and public prosecutor to handle the matter, with the caveat that anyone in AGC previously associated with the ruling party should recuse himself from dealing with the matter.
On this, Assoc Prof Tan said it was a “wise and prudent move”, and both WP MPs will “have their day in court”, if they are charged.
“The standard of proof required in a criminal matter is beyond reasonable doubt,” he said.
However, the potential court case will still be a “dark cloud” over the party leaders and WP, and raise credibility issues for them, he added.
“They also have to deal with the AHTC (Aljunied-Hougang Town Council) law suit as well. So they have lots on their plate. The reality is that their resources, time and energy will be spent dealing with these issues which could otherwise be deployed to walking and working the ground.”
SPEED UP LEADERSHIP TRANSITION FOR WP?
A longer-term implication is that Mr Singh and Mr Faisal may lose their seats in Parliament, and may be disqualified from contesting in the next election - if they are slapped with criminal charges, and if either is found guilty and if he is then fined more than S$2,000.
In Singapore, any person convicted of an offence and sentenced to at least a year's jail or a fine of at least $2,000 is disqualified from elections.
Both are MPs in Aljunied GRC so a by-election may have to be called if two out of five MPs in the Group Representation Constituency are forced to step down before 2025, when the next General Election is due.
But as Mr Chong pointed out, this could take some time to pan out.
Assoc Prof Tan raised another possible scenario, saying that the COP report “raises the legitimate question” of whether Mr Singh should step down as Leader of the Opposition and as secretary-general of WP.
It also raises the question of whether the WP team in Aljunied GRC should resign so that a by-election can be called, he said.
“What is more significant is that the report marks a sad day for parliamentary democracy in Singapore. The first and sitting LO (Leader of the Opposition) implicated, the leading Opposition party showed highly questionable, if not egregious, conduct,” he said.
However, most observers felt that a “mature” opposition party should be able to weather this political storm.
“An effective organisation should be larger than any particular individual, leaders included. So if the Workers’ Party is a mature political party, they should have a process for replacing Mr Singh and Mr Faisal should it come to that,” said Assoc Prof Chong.
Dr Koh said that to recover from this, the WP should have effect a “sped-up leadership transition process to profile the other WP MPs more heavily in the days ahead”.
She noted that Aljunied GRC MPs Gerald Giam and Leon Perera, as well as Sengkang MPs He Tingru and Louis Chua have been relatively uninvolved or “untainted” by the controversy.
“This may also have been part of a strategy after it was clear that what Ms Khan did would have a wider ripple effect when the government bench did not look like it would brush aside this serious unforced error by the WP,” said Dr Koh.
Read the full COP report here.
THE COMPLAINT AGAINST RAEESAH KHAN
Former Sengkang Member of Parliament Raeesah Khan, a first-time MP from the Workers' Party, had given a speech on Aug 3 last year during the party's motion on gender equality.
In her speech, she mentioned that she had accompanied a sexual assault victim to the police station and said: "She came out crying - the police officer had allegedly made comments about her dressing and the fact that she had been drinking."
When asked to substantiate this by ministers and the police, Ms Khan could not give any details.
On Oct 4, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam called on Ms Khan to provide further details but she declined, citing the need for confidentiality.
On Nov 1, she gave a statement in Parliament admitting that she had lied. She had heard the anecdote in a support group and wanted to share the account, but did not want to reveal that she was a survivor of sexual assault, Ms Khan said.
Leader of the House Indranee Rajah filed a complaint against Ms Khan and she was referred to the Committee of Privileges.
Ms Khan resigned from the party and as an MP on Nov 30.