Conflicting accounts in Raeesah Khan saga open 'can of worms'; Workers' Party must limit damage, say analysts
SINGAPORE: The conflicting accounts of what happened after Ms Raeesah Khan lied in Parliament about a sexual assault case have opened a can of worms that reveal divisions in the Workers' Party (WP), said political analysts, adding that the matter has raised questions about the party's credibility.
On one end, Ms Khan told the Committee of Privileges that senior WP leaders had advised her to "continue with the narrative" after finding out about her lie, as well as “directed her not to respond to the police”.
These were among the revelations published on Friday (Dec 3) in a special report from the committee, chaired by Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin, which heard evidence over two days from Ms Khan and three WP members.
WP chief Pritam Singh, however, said at a press conference on Thursday that Ms Khan repeated the lie in Parliament in October - two months after she first alleged that the sexual assault case was mishandled by police - despite being asked to clarify the matter.
CREDIBILITY OF WP IN QUESTION: ANALYSTS
The competing accounts have sowed "uncertainty, confusion and perplexity in the Singaporean domestic populace, particularly the supporters of the Workers' Party", said Dr Mustafa Izzuddin, Senior International Affairs Analyst at Solaris Strategies Singapore.
"It appears we have only seen the political trailer, with the full movie yet to be aired," he told CNA on Saturday.
"One other implication is that the Workers' Party was not able to prevent their dirty linen from being aired in public despite there being experienced leaders in their party ranks."
Political analyst at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) Dr Felix Tan said the entire saga will "inevitably affect the credibility of the party and its leadership", with differing accounts leading to unnecessary speculation and detriment to the party both in the short and long term.
Ms Nydia Ngiow, senior director of public policy consultancy BowerGroupAsia, said that the Committee of Privileges' report has "definitely opened a can of worms as it relates to the WP, attributing even greater responsibility to the WP leadership than previously thought".
"This issue clearly shows a party divided and each new layer that has been unveiled potentially erodes trust that WP built from their members and constituents even further," she added.
Ms Khan's account of events raises even more questions about WP's credibility, she said, "particularly since what Pritam conveyed during the press conference on Dec 2 did not seem to portray a complete picture of the communications between the party leadership and Raeesah".
"Her account portrays the WP leadership as one that not only shirks away from taking tough and decisive actions in stemming issues before they escalate but more importantly, appears to condone dishonesty - raising serious questions about the competency of the party’s leaders, especially when they are looking to establish themselves as a trusted alternative within the opposition," she added.
Associate Professor of Law at Singapore Management University (SMU) Eugene Tan said the party will need to "fully cooperate" with the Committee of Privileges' probe and put their account in the public domain beyond what was stated at their press conference.
They will also need to rebut the evidence provided so far, which is "damning for the WP leadership", said Assoc Prof Tan. "It has the makings of a scandal which hints at lies by the WP leadership. This 'Liarsgate' is potentially damaging to all in WP."
He added that the party has to urgently and persuasively correct the narrative that is now in the public domain or face political consequences that are "too severe to even contemplate".
WHAT OBSERVERS SAY WP MUST DO
Dr Mustafa said that WP should take its time to digest the revelations from the Committee of Privileges hearings rather than "resort to a knee-jerk reaction".
The party should then respond "candidly and steadfastly, with the hope of bringing the matter to a close", he said.
"This episode is post-Low Thia Khiang Workers' Party's political baptism of fire in the 21st century," he added, referring to the former WP chief and opposition stalwart.
NTU's Dr Tan said WP "seriously needs to look at its processes on how they conduct themselves internally" and also in public.
"There is a need for the WP to regain voter confidence in the party moving forward. Furthermore, there is a need to look at how the party selects their candidates in the future," he said.
"There are still many questions left unanswered at this point in time. There is a need for damage control ... this entire fiasco might lead to serious divisions and splits within the political party, which would not bode well for the WP."
Dr Tan added that the WP leaders need to clear their name and regain public trust in the party, which has been on the ascent in the past few years.
Ms Ngiow said that while the immediate imperative is for WP to quickly establish and communicate clearly the facts to its party members and the public, "the bigger challenge lies in convincing these segments that the party can be trusted to provide an unvarnished account in the process, given the significant doubt surrounding some of the decisions taken by the party leadership".
"Going forward, the party will also be closely scrutinised on how it responds to the damaging account put forth by Raeesah Khan to the Committee of Privileges, as this could lead to further rounds of allegations and counter-allegations that will only harm - and potentially devastate - the party’s credibility in the coming months," she said.
She added that "suspicions and apprehension will continue to envelop the party in the interim - possibly leading to splinters within the party ranks", pointing to the "unfettered response" from members like Loh Pei Ying and Yudhishthra Nathan, who gave evidence to the Committee of Privileges.
"If these are not adequately addressed and a trust deficit continues to plague the party going forward, it could potentially have devastating consequences for the party, including possible leadership change ahead of its Central Executive Committee election next year," said Ms Ngiow.
SMU's Assoc Prof Tan said WP "must regain the narrative of this disturbing saga".
"We can expect the WP leaders to appear before the Committee of Privileges. There appears to be corroboration of what transpired in the saga and it is imperative that the WP leaders cast reasonable doubt on the evidence thus far. Much is at stake and the party must ultimately prevail in the court of public opinion," he added.
Dr Mustafa said that while the WP has taken a political hit from the spate of events, he feels the party's ideological brand will "outlast its present political predicament".
"It has sufficient time to regain the trust of the Singaporean domestic populace and bounce back to be the opposition party of choice before the next general election," he said.
"A significant challenge for the WP is whether it can retain the middle ground support it garnered in the last general election after this current political saga. Their support is critical for WP to retain its current constituencies while seeking to expand its reach to other constituencies."
Associate Professor of Political Science at the National University of Singapore Chong Ja Ian said the extent of the effects will only be known at the next election, and that even the polls will be coloured by events that occur afterwards.
"The WP is a political party. Like any organisation, issues will arise from time to time. We saw this with the PAP and TraceTogether," he said.
"What matters is how the WP is upfront about what happened and how they handled what is a very difficult set of circumstances. Let us not forget that at stake is the treatment of a survivor of sexual assault and the associated trauma she faces. This is not a simple matter of covering up or negligence. There are different sensitivities and considerations involved."
On the saga's overall impact on WP, he said it depends on people’s longer-term impression of the party as events unfold.
"That is not something anyone can predict at this point," he added.