'You're a good lawyer... I'm a good listener': 6 instances Pritam Singh, Edwin Tong clashed in committee hearing

The Dec 10 hearing saw several testy exchanges between WP chief Pritam Singh and Minister Edwin Tong. PHOTOS: GOV.SG

SINGAPORE - Workers' Party chief Pritam Singh on Friday (Dec 10) testified before a committee investigating a lie made in Parliament by his former party member Raeesah Khan, in a nine-hour hearing that saw several testy exchanges between the Leader of the Opposition and Minister for Culture, Community and Youth and Second Minister for Law Edwin Tong.

Among other statements, Mr Singh denied directing Ms Khan to lie, and said he told her to take ownership and responsibility of the issue. Mr Singh also said WP leaders knew about the lie on Aug 8 but took no steps until Oct 3 to get her to correct her falsehood, and that he saw no need to tell others in the party or the public that they knew about the matter early on as he felt it was not important to do so.

Footage released by the Committee of Privileges on Sunday (Dec 12) showed Mr Singh and Mr Tong - both lawyers - verbally sparring and things getting heated at various points over the chain of events around Ms Khan's untruth that led to her resignation from the party and as an MP for Sengkang GRC.

Mr Singh said more than a few times that he disagreed "vehemently" with positions put forth by Mr Tong, who in turn repeatedly told the opposition leader to not "play with words", "paraphrase" his questions or speak over him.

One such exchange saw Mr Tong saying, "I think sometimes you give it away when you try to interrupt", to which Mr Singh replied, "I'm only giving the truth away".

When Mr Tong said he would be the judge of that, Mr Singh said: "I'm sure you will."

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Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin, who chairs the committee, and the only WP and opposition member on the panel Dennis Tan were the other members to ask questions of Mr Singh.

The committee also comprises Minister for Sustainability and the Environment Grace Fu, National Development Minister Desmond Lee, Senior Minister of State for Manpower and Defence Zaqy Mohamad, Parliamentary Secretary for Health and Communications and Information Rahayu Mahzam, and MP Don Wee.

Here are six other testy moments that came up periodically during the nine-hour session.

1. Whether Ms Khan was going to own up in October

Mr Tong put forth that Mr Singh had said that regardless of whether Ms Khan's lie was brought up in Parliament during an Oct 4 sitting, she should clarify the truth of her own accord.

To Mr Tong, this meant that Mr Singh knew that the matter would be raised then, which contradicted an earlier statement the WP chief made - that because he was unsure whether the issue would come up, he saw no need to inform the party central executive committee or review her draft statement.

"You would have no doubt that… either way, this issue will come up in Parliament," Mr Tong said. "The two ways are: Either someone asks Ms Khan a question; or, if not, then she would stand up on her own."

Mr Singh said "not the latter", reiterating that he had told Ms Khan to take responsibility and ownership if the issue came up, and that Mr Tong had made a "completely wrong interpretation" of his position.

"It's a clever try," said Mr Singh. "You're trying to catch me in a gotcha moment… I'm sorry, Mr. Tong, you're a good lawyer. But I'm a good listener."

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When Mr Tong reiterated his point - that Mr Singh had said Ms Khan would have told the truth of her own volition - the WP chief said: "No, that's not my evidence."

Mr Tong then said Mr Singh was changing his evidence because he had realised the "bind" he was in.

"Nice try, Mr Tong. That's all I'm saying," Mr Singh replied. "You can't bind me with a piece of sewing thread, because that's what it is."

2. Why the WP held a press conference

The WP held a press conference on Dec 2, two days after Ms Khan resigned on Nov 30. This was the first time the public got to know that party leaders knew about Ms Khan's lie back in August.

Mr Singh said the press conference was organised to answer relevant questions that were going around.

"They were going around because your Nov 1 statement was less than open," said Mr Tong, referring to Mr Singh's Facebook post in the wake of Ms Khan's admission.

The post said Ms Khan should not have lied in the House, and that an MP's freedom of speech does not extend to communicating untruthful accounts. It did not mention that Ms Khan had confessed about the untruth to him, party chairman Sylvia Lim and vice-chairman Faisal Manap on Aug 8.

Disagreeing, Mr Singh said: "It's a nice attempt for you to question what we put in our press statements… it's an incorrect view, there was nothing to hide and this idea of protecting myself, my reputation - sorry, this is not what I entered politics for."

Mr Tong replied: "You may say that, Mr. Singh, but you have not given us one credible reason why…"

"Not to you," Mr Singh interjected.

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Mr Tong continued: "This material fact of your knowledge of the falsehood three months before it was disclosed in Parliament - why is that not in the statement?

"Well, the only logical inference is that you wanted to distance yourself from the lie that Ms Khan had told and the fact that you knew about it, and chose to do nothing about it… So the reality, Mr. Singh, is that you chose to take this out, because you knew that it would put you in a bit of a pickle."

Mr Singh said this was "completely incorrect".

"But I must say, a quite imaginative conclusion," he added.

3. The committee's 'agenda'

Mr Singh said that "implicit" in Mr Tong's questioning was that there was "some cover-up" being attempted, in relation to the WP leadership's behaviour once it knew of Ms Khan's lie.

"Because that was your line of questioning to the witnesses," said Mr Singh, referring to earlier testimonies before the committee by WP members. "I beg your pardon - I don't mean to be argumentative," he added.

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Mr Tong replied: "I will be very upfront with you and tell you that I have got no agenda, except to ask questions and work out what the facts are. And there's nothing implicit in my questions. It's direct."

He added: "If I'm going to make a suggestion to you, I will do so and tell you. So please don't read into my questions."

4. Appropriateness of raising mental health issue

Asked why Ms Khan could have lied in a text message to her aides where she said she had been told by party leaders to "take the information to the grave", Mr Singh said it was "telling" that Ms Khan had told a WP disciplinary panel that she suffers from the mental health condition of dissociation.

"It was the first time I heard of it. I asked her what dissociation was. She said 'It's when I talk without thinking'," said Mr Singh. "I asked her, 'Don't you think that's dangerous for an MP?' And she said 'yes'.

"It may be helpful for this committee to call for some psychiatric report or evaluation on Ms Khan."

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Mr Singh added that while her confession could be a lie in itself, it might be "helpful" to mention this.

"Things do add up now, as I hear what was said in the papers and what representation she gave and what she shared with the committee," he said.

Mr Tong pointed out that Mr Singh had earlier said that nothing of Ms Khan's general performance as an MP was out of the ordinary.

He called Mr Singh's explanation and his suggestion that the committee evaluate Ms Khan's mental health "quite inappropriate".

"I'm not sure that the event that you mentioned on Nov 29 is basis for us to call for a psychiatric assessment of Ms Khan," Mr Tong said. "I think we know why you raised that suggestion."

5. Impact on the police

Mr Tong said Ms Khan's lie was all the more serious as it had an adverse impact on the work of the police. She had made up details about the police treating a sexual assault victim insensitively.

But Mr Singh disagreed with Mr Tong, saying Ms Khan had not been able to substantiate her allegation to begin with.

"The police is not some broken-back organisation," Mr Singh added. "I solemnly and sincerely believe if you speak to any senior police officer worth his salt, he or she will tell you that in the course of investigations, there can be a number of situations where certain questions are put to a witness which are uncomfortable for that person."

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Mr Tong said that wrong had been done to the police as they had wasted time "chasing their tails for three months" to track down the case Ms Khan was talking about.

Mr Singh disagreed, pointing out that the police could not find a case fitting her description. This was revealed by the police on Oct 20.

"So what work was actually done? I am not aware. I am not saying no work was done, obviously work must have been done, done to check," said Mr Singh.

Mr Tong suggested that the police would have had to go through all its cases to check, since the allegation made in Parliament was serious and had to be addressed.

Mr Singh replied: "I do not believe I heard that from the police. I did not hear anywhere that they've gone through all the cases."

6. Being transparent with the public and TraceTogether

After Ms Khan admitted her lie on Nov 1, Mr Singh put up a Facebook post which made no mention that Ms Khan had confessed about the untruth to party leaders on Aug 8.

Mr Tong said it was important for Parliament and the public to know that the WP leadership was aware of Ms Khan's lie months back, but Mr Singh disagreed.

"What's wrong with being open and transparent; honest, give all the information?" Mr Tong asked.

In response, Mr Singh said: "Sure, I agree with you.. that nothing is wrong with it. Why don't you do the same when TraceTogether happened in late October? Why didn't the Government just come out and tell the truth straight away, don't wait for a parliamentary question?"

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In October 2020, Minister-in-Charge of the Smart Nation Initiative Vivian Balakrishnan became aware of the possibility that data collected by the contact-tracing TraceTogether app could be accessed by police, despite his earlier assurances that it would be used for Covid-19 purposes only.

But it was Minister of State for Home Affairs Desmond Tan who revealed this in January this year in response to a parliamentary question, sparking a public outcry that led to Dr Balakrishnan apologising in February and saying he took "full responsibility" for the error.

Mr Tong said he thought Mr Singh might bring this episode up.

"It's because it's very relevant," said Mr Singh. "This is a decision the Government made and a call the Government made. And this is the call I made."

Mr Tong said: "And I'm suggesting to you that this call you made was to suppress the information, suppress the fact that you knew because you knew that it will cast you in a bad light."

Mr Singh said he completely disagreed.

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