Raeesah Khan's resignation relieves pressure on Workers' Party after she lied in Parliament, say observers
SINGAPORE: The resignation of Raeesah Khan from the Workers' Party (WP) and as a Member of Parliament (MP) helped relieve some of the pressure the party was facing, political observers told CNA on Wednesday (Dec 1).
This was the best way forward for the party to assert zero tolerance for improper conduct by its MPs, they said, adding that this episode is a "blip" in the party's progress.
The party announced on Tuesday night that Ms Khan had resigned from the party and as an MP, after she admitted on Nov 1 to lying in Parliament about a sexual assault case.
But the resignation is not the end of the matter, observers said, pointing to an ongoing investigation by the Committee of Privileges, and WP's need to fill the void left in Sengkang and reassure Singapore residents about the conduct of its MPs.
Ms Khan was referred to the Committee of Privileges for breach of parliamentary privilege after lying in Parliament about the details of a sexual assault case, which she had claimed was mishandled by the police.
During WP's motion on empowering women on Aug 3, Ms Khan said she had accompanied a 25-year-old woman to make a police report three years ago, and that the victim had come out crying because a police officer allegedly made comments about her dressing and the fact that she had been drinking.
Ms Khan was pressed in Parliament for more details so that the police could investigate, but she refused, citing the need for confidentiality. She did not respond to requests from the police to provide details on the sexual assault case, the police said.
On Nov 1, Ms Khan admitted in Parliament that she was "not present with the survivor in the police station as I described", and that she wanted to retract the allegations against the police.
Following that, the Committee of Privileges started looking into her admission, and the WP formed a disciplinary committee to conduct a separate investigation.
On Tuesday, Ms Khan told party leader Pritam Singh that she intended to resign, hours before the party's Central Executive Committee (CEC) was scheduled to meet and discuss the panel's recommendation. Ms Khan also attended the CEC meeting and conveyed her wish to resign.
MUTUALLY BENEFICIAL DECISION
Associate Professor Eugene Tan at the Singapore Management University (SMU) said the resignation presents Ms Khan as taking responsibility for her actions, and that the party has zero tolerance for such conduct.
"Resigning is a more graceful option for WP and Ms Khan," he said, calling it a "win-win" outcome for both the party and her.
Associate Professor Bilveer Singh, a political science professor at the National University of Singapore, agreed that the outcome was mutually beneficial.
"(Ms Khan) is a social media person. She must have seen the antipathy towards her since the thing started. So, if you're a political animal, then I think you must have seen how hostile the ground has become," he said.
"So, there's a personal level there to get out while there's an opportunity to do so without being punished, hopefully."
By resigning, Ms Khan is "taking away ... the target" on the Workers' Party, after her actions were criticised by the public, said Dr Felix Tan, a political analyst at Nanyang Technological University (NTU).
"It takes away the pressure on the party itself and puts it upon herself. So, I think she's saving some face for the Workers' Party," he added.
Assoc Prof Singh believed that her resignation was part of a "damage limitation exercise" to ensure the party was "not hurt as much as possible".
"The longer she stays in the party, the longer she remains as an MP, the more she will hurt the WP," he said.
"To say it's her own decision (to resign), maybe, but I think it's more than her own decision, I'm very sure," he added.
While the WP mentioned that Ms Khan had intended to resign, Assoc Prof Tan did not discount the possibility that the party gave her "an ultimatum" to resign or be sacked.
"There is probably some pressure to ask her to resign, I think that is the best way forward," NTU's Dr Tan said. "Probably, the party did not want to be seen to be too draconian, to like fire her or to get rid of her."
Still, Dr Tan said the WP could have given her an option to stay on and "do her best in trying to move forward from the incident". However, he believes that resigning was the better option, given the severity of her admission.
"There is a moral kind of situation over here because you are lying, and it is not as easy as if you were blindsided or did not know what you were getting yourself into," he added. "If you lie, there was an intent to begin with, so it doesn't bode well."
Assoc Prof Singh said Singaporeans hold integrity in very high regard. "So if you undertake, and then you admit you've done it, then it's time to go," he added.
If Ms Khan continued being in Parliament, the WP could potentially be subjected to heavy scrutiny that would distract from its legislative agenda, Assoc Prof Tan said.
"(The episode) is a setback but not one that the WP cannot manage. Their political cachet as the leading opposition party remains salient and will tide them over," he added.
"SMALL BLIP" FOR WORKERS' PARTY
Dr Tan said the WP has survived similar incidents before, like when it expelled its former Hougang SMC MP Yaw Shin Leong from the party in 2012 after he failed to explain allegations of an extramarital affair with a fellow party member.
"That was far worse than what Raeesah has done. In terms of morality, adultery is not really condoned in Singapore society," Dr Tan said.
"So there were incidences that Workers' Party still managed to survive and still maintain support. I think this is probably just a small little blip. And I do hope that it will be a small little blip on their track record, so that they still can continue to do good work."
Assoc Prof Singh also called it a "small blip", saying that these things are expected in politics.
"Whether it's corruption, extramarital affairs or in this case just not telling the truth, which is actually to me very stupid," he said.
"So, for many people, it might not be as fatal as extramarital affairs or corruption."
Ms Khan's resignation might even boost the leadership of party chief Pritam Singh, said Assoc Prof Tan, highlighting similarities with how then-WP leader Low Thia Khiang handled the case involving Mr Yaw.
"It will stamp his authority ... The approach is similar: Cut the losses so that no WP MP will be a political liability and reduce the impact and, if possible, earn brownie points for the way the party dealt with the misconduct," he said.
Had Ms Khan completed her term as MP, Assoc Prof Tan suggested that her conduct would crop up at the next General Election, which must be held by August 2025.
"With more than 3.5 years left of the term, Ms Khan's misconduct will be less likely to feature on the campaign trail in 2025," he added.
Dr Tan felt that the issue would resurface at the next election, "knowing how Singaporeans are like and how our political landscape is".
"These sorts of issues will come back to haunt the political parties no matter when or where it is," he added. "But I think (the resignation) minimises the fallout so ... the political party can move on from this incident and nip it in the bud."
WHAT NOW FOR SENGKANG?
Nevertheless, Dr Tan said WP's three other MPs in Sengkang GRC – He Ting Ru, Louis Chua and Jamus Lim – have to work "really hard" to galvanise support from Ms Khan's ward of Compassvale.
The Court of Appeal ruled in 2019 that a by-election does not need to be called when a single vacancy arises in a GRC, as it dismissed an appeal to hold a by-election in Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC after Madam Halimah Yacob resigned to run for president.
In its Facebook post announcing Ms Khan's resignation on Tuesday, WP said it would hold a press conference on Thursday to share its plans on ensuring that Sengkang residents "continue to be cared for and represented".
"A lot more work ahead for the Workers' Party members in Sengkang," Dr Tan said. "Not just the MPs themselves, but also the (other) Workers' Party members and ... the supporters to help out and take over the role of Raeesah Khan."
Assoc Prof Tan said the WP could "deploy" its former MPs Mr Low and Mr Png Eng Huat in Compassvale to "beef up" its ground presence there and demonstrate that "normal service" has resumed.
The party will also need to demonstrate that residents in the constituency will be "adequately represented inside and outside Parliament".
"The WP will be sure to ensure that the residents do not feel that they have been let down, such as in estate management issues," he said.
Assoc Prof Singh said Sengkang residents will judge the WP's response not by what it says but by what it does on the ground.
"You need to double up to be seen to be doing more for Sengkang," he said, noting that the younger residents are "very critical", "very analytical and very demanding".
"So, I think delivering on the ground, not with words, is going to be the ... litmus test of how good the Workers' Party is and whether it's worth re-electing such a party in the next election."
FURTHER ACTION COULD BE TAKEN
Beyond attending to Sengkang, Assoc Prof Tan said the WP will also have to cooperate with the Committee of Privileges' inquiry into the complaint against Ms Khan, noting that this will continue notwithstanding her resignation.
"Parliament has the power to still sanction her," said Assoc Prof Tan, who is also an expert in constitutional law at SMU.
"Ultimately, the party cannot wash its hands of the Ms Khan debacle just because she has resigned from the party and her MP seat. The party may well be implicated for not appropriately guiding her and not doing enough after the allegations were made by Ms Khan."
Assoc Prof Tan added that the WP still has to impress upon Singapore residents that it upholds high standards of conduct and probity for its MPs.
"For this, the party has to state unequivocally what it knew of Ms Khan's allegations before her speech and what it sought to do after she made those allegations," he added.
The Committee of Privileges could still penalise Ms Khan, said Dr Tan, adding that the committee "should not be more forgiving" just because she resigned.
"They need to remain neutral in such a situation, that they have done their due diligence and that they have done their best according to the law," he stated.
THE BIGGER PICTURE
Assoc Prof Singh said if the People's Action Party (PAP) "pursues" further action, it could make the ruling party look bad, and lead to suggestions it was "revenge seeking".
Dr Tan said that "opportunists" in other parties could use the incident involving Ms Khan as fodder for political gain. "That's rather insensitive, what could arise from this," he said.
Now that Ms Khan has left the WP, Dr Tan said people should "not keep harping" on her actions or words, and realise that Singapore's current political and social landscape has evolved to include "woke" or cancel culture elements.
In a Facebook post on Tuesday, NTU Assistant Professor Walid Jumblatt Abdullah said Ms Khan's decision to step down was the right one.
"The faux pas aside, I think she was a trailblazer in many ways. The first opposition minority woman Parliamentarian; the first ‘woke’ politician in Parliament; and in GE2020, she inspired many youngsters," he wrote.
"It is always a sad day for the country when someone has to resign in this manner."