SINGAPORE - The lies told by Leader of the Opposition and Workers' Party chief Pritam Singh to a parliamentary committee set up to look into the conduct of his party's former MP Raeesah Khan could amount to perjury, a serious criminal offence, said the committee in its report released on Thursday (Feb 10).
Given the seriousness of the matter, Mr Singh should be referred to the public prosecutor for further investigation, with a view to consider criminal proceedings against him, added the Committee of Privileges.
This recommendation comes as the committee found Mr Singh to have played "the key and leading role" in advising Ms Khan not to come clean in Parliament after she first fibbed on Aug 3 about having accompanied a sexual assault survivor to the police station.
The committee, in its report, also found that Mr Singh had lied during the committee's hearings, in asserting that he had made clear to Ms Khan she should set the record straight in Parliament.
Describing this conduct as "dishonourable... and a contempt of Parliament", the committee said it was beyond its purview to recommend that any penalty be imposed on Mr Singh and two other WP leaders, Ms Sylvia Lim and Mr Faisal Manap, who also knew from Aug 8 that Ms Khan had lied.
But Parliament has the power to consider what should be done, and impose appropriate sanctions based on the findings, said the committee, in recommending that Mr Singh be referred to the public prosecutor.
The committee noted that Parliament has the powers to deal with unacceptable conduct on its own, and does not have to refer such matters to the public prosecutor.
Under the Parliament (Privileges, Immunities and Powers) Act, Parliament itself has the power to impose sanctions, including jail sentences, fines and suspensions.
For dishonourable conduct or contempt, Parliament can order an MP to be jailed for a period not more than his remaining term, impose a fine of up to $50,000, suspend him for a period not more than the remainder of the current session of Parliament, and ask the Speaker of Parliament to reprimand or admonish him.
The Act also states that Parliament can refer a matter to the public prosecutor when an MP has committed certain kinds of offences.
Included in the list of 18 offences in Section 31 of the Act is "wilfully make a false answer to any question material to the subject of inquiry put during examination before Parliament or a committee", which the committee had cited in its report in considering the actions available to Parliament.
The committee said that the default position is that Parliament should itself deal with matters that arise in a parliamentary context.
However, given the seriousness of Mr Singh's actions, which included lying on affirmation, "it appears to us best, in this case, that it be dealt with through a trial process, rather than by Parliament alone", added the committee.
Giving several reasons why it prefers this course of action, the committee said the public prosecutor would have the opportunity to consider all the evidence afresh, as well as any other evidence that may emerge subsequently, before deciding whether criminal charges should be brought against Mr Singh.
If he is charged, Mr Singh will also have the opportunity to defend and vindicate himself, with legal counsel, the committee added.
Lastly, the committee said a court can look at the matter afresh and consider any further evidence before deciding if Mr Singh should be found innocent or guilty.
The committee also noted that Parliament can convene another Committee of Privileges to look into the conduct of Mr Singh, as well as that of Ms Lim and Mr Faisal.
However, it added: "There may be little purpose in having the three senior WP leaders being sent to another Committee of Privileges. It is unlikely that another Committee of Privileges will make much progress, in itself, in uncovering more evidence."
The recommendation by the committee had sparked discussions online about whether Mr Singh might end up being subject to harsher punishment than Ms Khan.
According to the Constitution, a person is disqualified from standing as an MP if he has been "convicted of an offence by a court of law in Singapore or Malaysia and sentenced to imprisonment for a term of not less than one year or to a fine of not less than $2,000 and has not received a free pardon".
The disqualification ceases at the end of five years from the end of the jail term, or from the date the fine was imposed.
Under the Penal Code, the punishment for giving false evidence can be a jail term of up to three years and a fine. This means that Mr Singh could stand to lose his parliamentary seat, and will also be disqualified from running for elections for five years, if he is charged and found guilty.
On the other hand, this will not happen if Mr Singh is fined or jailed by Parliament, though Parliament can also expel him.
Some have asked why Mr Singh was being referred to the public prosecutor, while Ms Khan who lied in the first place was dealt with by Parliament.
Asked about this, Singapore Management University Associate Professor of Law Eugene Tan told The Straits Times that Mr Singh's misconduct "is far more serious" compared with Ms Khan's.
He noted that Ms Khan had breached parliamentary privilege and had also admitted to her lie, and so it was right for the matter to be dealt with by Parliament.
In contrast, Mr Singh by lying on affirmation had gone beyond breaching privilege and moved "into the realm of criminal wrongdoing", he said.
Prof Tan added: "The public prosecutor process is better for the People's Action Party-dominated Parliament and Mr Singh. It would be seen to be fairer and remove any political sting to the sad saga."
Criminal lawyer Sunil Sudheesan, president of the Association of Criminal Lawyers of Singapore, said the public prosecutor would also be able to do a more thorough investigation, as it would be able to direct the police to look at phone or e-mail records.
He added: "Eventually, the public prosecutor must decide whether it is a compelling enough case to proceed with a charge, and it could well decide not to proceed."