Analysts in Singapore disagree with WP’s handling of Raeesah Khan matter, some party members defend leaders

Workers’ Party (WP) leaders who were aware of Raeesah Khan’s lie to Parliament should not have let it remain uncorrected for almost three months. — TODAY pic
Workers’ Party (WP) leaders who were aware of Raeesah Khan’s lie to Parliament should not have let it remain uncorrected for almost three months. — TODAY pic

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SINGAPORE, Dec 3 — Raeesah Khan may have needed some time to speak to her family about her own sexual assault, but Workers’ Party (WP) leaders who were aware of her lie to Parliament should not have let it remain uncorrected for almost three months, political analysts said. One described this as an “abysmal failure of leadership and party discipline”.

The analysts also said that the WP leadership’s conduct over the issue could undermine the credibility of the party and its secretary-general Pritam Singh, though one observer noted that what Raeesah experienced was “a deeply human issue” for which there are no easy answers. Some WP members also felt that the blame fell more on Raeesah than on the party leadership.

Associate Professor Eugene Tan of Singapore Management University (SMU) said that for the WP’s top leadership “to let the lies be perpetuated for three months when it was within the power of the party to do the right thing” was “shambolic behaviour”.

“It raises serious questions about whether the party was complicit in the lies to Parliament.

“The WP fared miserably in this sad debacle. I expect the Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh to be asked to assist the Committee of Privileges in its probe,” he added, referring to the parliamentary committee’s investigation of Raeesah’s conduct.

Nydia Ngiow, senior director at strategic advisory consultancy BowerGroupAsia, described the WP leadership’s handling of the issue as “disappointing”.

“What we originally thought were decisive actions in the fallout of Raeesah’s confession in Parliament has now been altered by the fact that the leaders knew this was coming and yet still chose to take a reactionary approach.”

Singh revealed on Thursday (Dec 2) that party leaders knew the former Member of Parliament (MP) of Sengkang Group Representation Constituency (GRC) had lied in a parliamentary speech a week after she delivered it on Aug 3. Nearly three months went by before she set the record straight in Parliament on Nov 1.

Speaking at a press conference held at its headquarters, Singh said that the party did not act on it any earlier because he had wanted to give her time to talk to her family about the matter, and because she had to be the one to correct the untruth in Parliament.

In her speech in August, Raeesah initially claimed that a sexual assault victim she accompanied to a police station was treated insensitively by police officers, only to admit publicly three months later that she had fabricated the account.

She had heard about the incident from someone at a women’s support group that she had attended, but she did not want to disclose that she was attending the group session at first because she was a survivor of a sexual assault herself and “did not have the courage to publicly admit that I was part of it”.

Raeesah then resigned a month later after her bombshell admission.

‘Pathetic excuse’

Singh explained that he made the call to give Raeesah time to inform her family of her personal trauma, before letting her set the record straight, because it was her responsibility as an MP to do so.

Given that the lies were made in Parliament, he also said that it was the correct platform to make that correction.

Ngiow said that Singh’s assertion “severely underestimates the potential impact on the party and reveals a level of naivety and political miscalculation rarely seen under his leadership thus far”.

Assoc Prof Tan from SMU, a former Nominated MP, said that this stance the party took is a “pathetic excuse, not a purposeful justification, for its deep failings in this matter”.

Singh’s revelations meant that he, as well as chairperson Sylvia Lim and vice-chair Faisal Manap, were aware that Raeesah’s claims were untruthful when she repeated them in Parliament in the October sitting when questioned by Minister of Law and Home Affairs K. Shanmugam.

Assoc Prof Tan felt that Singh, who has a higher duty to Singaporeans and Parliament as the Leader of the Opposition, should not “have sat in Parliament and done nothing” when Raeesah repeated the lies.

This was also because ample time was already given to her to speak to her family about her personal trauma.

Assoc Prof Tan said: “He need not have waited till the November sitting. Given the gravity of the situation, the party could have issued a statement stating that Raeesah had misled Parliament in August and October. 

“Alternatively, he could have directed Raeesah to make a public statement before Parliament sat again in November and (for her to) repeat it then by way of Standing Orders of Parliament No 25.”

This refers to the written rules whereby the House regulates its proceedings and rule 25 states that MPs may make a personal explanation even when there is no question before the House.

When asked during the Thursday press conference whether he gave Raeesah a deadline for her to correct her mistakes, Singh said he did not.

“In my judgement, given where she was emotionally, I took the decision that she had to close that loop with her parents,” he said.

Although Ngiow said that she can empathise with the decision to give Raeesah time to sort things out with her family, the fact that it took the party three months to address the issue “publicly raises serious questions about the party’s intentions and actions, especially when they had clear opportunities to do so after the October parliamentary session where Raeesah knowingly perpetuated mistruths”.

“Instead, they chose to wait for another month, but to what end?” she questioned.

However, Associate Professor Chong Ja Ian, a political scientist at the National University of Singapore (NUS), said that even though an MP had fabricated her account, it was ”complicated” by her traumatic experience.

“It is not simply a matter of misleading, covering up — there is that, but it is also about Raeesah’s traumatic personal experience with sexual assault. How are you supposed to handle that?” he asked.

“Raeesah may be a public figure, but she is a person as well. Given the issue at hand, I think taking the human element into account is necessary,” he added.

Differing views

The revelations by WP on Thursday have led some analysts to change their mind on how the party had dealt with the matter.

Assoc Prof Tan had earlier felt that the opposition party’s standing was not severely dented, but he now said that the way they handled the whole incident “speaks of an abysmal failure of leadership and party discipline”.

“The party could have done more but failed utterly to do so,” he added.

However, Assoc Prof Chong said that it was difficult to gauge the public’s reaction to this given that the details have just been freshly furnished.

Ngiow said that the rationale put forth by Singh would raise doubts of his political judgement and ability to take decisive action, not just among the general public, but within its own party members as well.

Former Non-Constituency MP Daniel Goh, who is a WP cadre member, had posted on Facebook twice on his personal thoughts of how his party leaders handled the controversy.

Singh said at Thursday’s press conference that the party would look into his actions.

Assoc Prof Tan believes that WP’s leadership has already been undercut by its conduct, but Assoc Prof Chong said that differences in views are not necessarily a bad thing, especially if they are over positions and issues rather than personalities and personal differences.

“At a minimum, issue-based debates can inform the public about what is at stake over key issues — and often, reasonable people can disagree on these matters,” Assoc Prof Chong said.

A source from WP, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told TODAY he felt that the leaders could have been more decisive by initiating disciplinary proceedings when Raeesah confessed to them privately that she lied. Overall, he felt that they mostly did whatever they could given the circumstances.

He said that the onus was more on Raeesah to resign immediately after she admitted to the party leadership of her mistakes and explain it to the public.

When approached by TODAY, former WP Non-Constituency MP Yee Jenn Jong said: “It is every parliamentarian’s duty to be responsible for his or her own speeches. It was a bad mistake made by Raeesah, and fatal in Singapore’s context.

“The important thing to do is to move on and ensure that Sengkang residents continue to be taken care of, and I believe the party will do every bit it can on that.”

Future implications

All eyes would be on how Singh manages the fallout in the coming weeks and months, Ngiow from BowerGroupAsia said.

“It remains to be seen whether these new developments have set the party further back after its years of working to become a viable trusted alternative,” she added.

Assoc Prof Tan said that this debacle will not just haunt the WP for the rest of this term but also in its campaign trail in the next General Election.

Assoc Prof Chong from NUS said what matters now is how WP take on issues of national importance and represent their constituents and address their issues.

Given that the Sengkang GRC team is short of one MP, WP will have to work to overcome this.

“Misleading Parliament is obviously wrong and should not be accepted by the public.

“However, this entire episode and the complications surrounding it does highlight the many difficulties survivors of sexual assault face both personally and socially. I hope that bigger point is not lost in the political story,” Assoc Prof Chong added. — TODAY

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