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Could the Workers' Party have handled the Raeesah Khan incident better?

Could the Workers' Party have handled the Raeesah Khan incident better?

Member of Parliament Raeesah Khan speaking in Parliament on Nov 1, 2021.

Editor's note: After this story was published, the Committee of Privileges released its report to the media at about 11.20pm on Friday, detailing its findings based on oral evidence from Ms Raeesah Khan and three WP members.

SINGAPORE: Political analysts are divided over whether the Workers' Party (WP) could have better handled the incident involving its former Member of Parliament (MP) Raeesah Khan, who resigned on Nov 30 after she admitted to lying in Parliament.

Institute of Policy Studies' deputy research director Gillian Koh argued that WP's leaders should have publicly acknowledged that Ms Khan had lied soon after they learnt about it in early August, or at least in October when Ms Khan repeated the untruth in Parliament.

But Associate Professor Bilveer Singh at the National University of Singapore said it was reasonable that WP chief Pritam Singh gave Ms Khan the time she needed to set the record straight, given that personal elements – like her own experience with sexual assault – were involved.

Assoc Prof Singh added that the onus was on Ms Khan, as an elected MP, to correct what she had done.

On Aug 3, Ms Khan gave a speech in Parliament saying that she had accompanied a sexual assault victim to the police station and alleged that the police had mishandled the case.

About a week later, after being "repeatedly pressed" on the matter, she told WP leaders about "new facts and disturbing personal revelations", including her own sexual assault case, Mr Singh told reporters on Thursday. Mr Singh, WP chair Sylvia Lim and vice-chair Faisal Manap were informed of the lie.

Of "immediate concern" to Mr Singh was that Ms Khan had not previously informed her family that she was a victim of a sexual assault, he said.

"In view of a sexual assault and my assessment of her state of mind, I was prepared to give her the space necessary to address the matter with her loved ones," he said.

But she was told that "any parliamentary clarification on this matter was hers to make in her capacity" as an elected MP.

Ms Khan did not attend Parliament in September as she had shingles. At the next sitting in October, Ms Khan declined to reveal more details despite being pressed by Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam.

She claimed she had not been successful in contacting the victim.

This account was "wholly inconsistent" with the revelations that she shared with the party leaders in August, Mr Singh said on Thursday. He added that "almost immediately" after this sitting, Ms Khan agreed with party leaders that she had to set the record straight.

On Nov 1 in Parliament, Ms Khan admitted that she had lied about accompanying the sexual assault victim to a police station, and retracted the allegations against the police.

"SHOULD NOT TAKE THREE MONTHS"

Dr Koh said many people will understand that Ms Khan needed time to settle her personal issues, given that she cited this as a reason behind her misleading statement in Parliament.

"But that is balanced against ... how much time is needed," she told CNA on Friday, acknowledging that Ms Khan had shingles in September.

"But really, this is quite a serious matter of misleading Parliament ... So if it's so serious, yes time might be given, but you would imagine that should not take three months (for the truth to emerge)."

Dr Koh said the "sharp point" was when Ms Khan repeated the untruth "in front of her party leaders" during the sitting in Parliament in October.

"By that time, they could very clearly have just called a press conference and used their own platform and set it straight. And then wait for the next parliamentary sitting and also put it on parliamentary record," she added.

When asked about Mr Singh's assertion that it was up to Ms Khan to correct her statement, Dr Koh said: "She needed to set the record straight, but she couldn't take three months about it, and certainly not lie again."

"If she couldn't do it in a timely manner, and yet go on to reiterate the untruth, then how is that reasonable anymore?" Dr Koh asked.

"So I think that the Committee of Privileges is going to take this very seriously ... They will probably issue a penalty, even if they waive it, they have to make a statement that such behaviour is not acceptable."

Ms Khan was referred to the Committee of Privilege on Nov 1 for breach of parliamentary privilege. The committee will continue to look into the complaint against Ms Khan, the Office of the Clerk of Parliament said on Dec 1 after her resignation.

"THREE MONTHS IS NO BIG DEAL"

Assoc Prof Singh disagreed that WP should have revealed Ms Khan's untruth immediately after party leaders knew about it.

He told CNA on Friday that "each political party has got its own process of managing issues like this".

"Ms Khan did not act fast, she acted a bit late. But to me, three months is no big deal," he said.

"I think the sexual assault part needed to be managed at the family level. All this requires time," he added. 

"She was ill, then how to deal at a family level that she had been assaulted before ... I think Pritam would have seen the bigger picture and said 'okay', but I think after November that was it."

Assoc Prof Singh said it was clear from WP's press conference that the party would not support Ms Khan's untruth, and that she would have had to resign or be expelled eventually.

On Mr Singh leaving Ms Khan to set the record straight, Assoc Prof Singh said: "She is not a small girl, she is an MP. So how do you deal with an MP? Probably, Pritam and the WP leadership must have felt that she is a responsible officeholder and she will be able to do something in a way to save her and save her party."

If the WP had "gone out and hurt" Ms Khan, Assoc Prof Singh said there could have been a "backlash from the public", and that the party could have been seen as "oppressive" and "very authoritarian".

"So, I don't think Pritam wanted to appear like that. I think he wanted to appear consultative. He was clear that 'I'm not going to support your lies'," Assoc Prof Singh added.

HAS WP'S CREDIBILITY BEEN AFFECTED?

When asked how the WP's handling of the episode would have affected its credibility, Assoc Prof Singh said the party would have to "work very hard to regain the confidence of Sengkang voters".

MP Faisal Manap (WP-Aljunied) will support the remaining Sengkang GRC MPs He Ting Ru, Louis Chua and Jamus Lim, who will each take over a part of the Compassvale ward vacated by Ms Khan.

But Assoc Prof Singh said he wants to see WP's heavyweight figures like Low Thia Khiang, Sylvia Lim and Lee Li Lian to "boost up and bump up" WP's presence in Sengkang.

"Sometimes, shocks like this (the incident involving Ms Khan) are good for everybody," he added.

Dr Koh said the public will give the WP "some concession" as it is an opposition party "fighting hard".

"On the other hand, it's difficult to give them that concession because the public will feel this is a serious matter dealing with the integrity of its leaders," she said.

Source: CNA/hz(mi)

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