Commentary

Raeesah Khan saga: The public deserves to hear from Workers' Party leaders

WP chief Pritam Singh with Sengkang GRC MP He Ting Ru (left) and party chairman Sylvia Lim at a press conference on Dec 2, 2021. ST PHOTO: THAM YUEN-C

SINGAPORE - Just two days ago, The Straits Times wrote that the Workers' Party press conference on Thursday (Dec 2) raised more questions than answers.

Why did Ms Raeesah Khan wait so long after August to come clean? When she lied again on Oct 4, why did party leaders not instruct her to speak on Oct 5 at the next available Parliament sitting, instead of nearly one month later on Nov 1?

Underlying this was the biggest question of all: Exactly how much did party chief Pritam Singh, chairman Sylvia Lim and vice-chairman Faisal Manap know? And what did they do, or not do, about it?

Some of these questions appear to have been answered on Friday night in the explosive revelations of a special report of the Committee of Privileges presented to Parliament.

Also released at close to midnight were video clips of the testimonies of Ms Khan, her secretarial assistant, Ms Loh Pei Ying, and WP member Yudhishthra Nathan.

If the three individuals' testimonies are to be believed - and, of course, there could still be more to the story that is unfolding - not only did the party's leaders know she had lied, they coached her on how to lie, after the lie.

What is especially troubling are discrepancies between what the WP leaders said on Thursday, and what Raeesah claimed was said to her, which my colleagues have reported on extensively.

A few key dates bear repeating: Aug 8, when Ms Khan told them her statement five days earlier was false. She said: "The reaction was that if I were not to be pressed, then the best thing to do would be to retain the narrative that I began in August".

She said Mr Singh told her on Oct 3 that there would be no judgment from him if she were to "continue" or "retain" the false narrative.

When she repeated the lie in Parliament on Oct 4, Ms Khan said she met Mr Singh and Ms Lim afterwards to discuss the next steps, and neither asked her why she had lied again, nor did they advise her to tell the truth.

Separately, Ms Loh said Ms Khan would have relied on the party chief to provide clarity, direction and guidance. "Because he said, 'I will not judge', it might have given her the false sense that it was all right to not come clean," she added, pointing out that the WP's statements on Nov 1 and 2 omitted mention of the party leaders' knowledge of and involvement in the matter.

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The WP leadership is faced with only two choices now: Agree with what Ms Khan said and face the consequences, or fully and swiftly debunk her account.

But from the moment reporters sought their views late on Friday night, to the evening of Saturday as this article was being written, they have remained deafeningly silent.

The public deserves better than that. If they are holding off because they are unable to comment due to ongoing proceedings, there has been no holding statement of any kind.

There are three other lingering questions and observations.

First, one day before the Aug 3 debate on empowering women, Mr Singh supposedly commented on the draft speech - which Ms Khan had submitted late - by circling her anecdote and writing "substantiate?".

She did not understand what he meant, she told the committee.

Is "substantiate" such a difficult word to understand? It takes two hands to clap. Why did she ignore Mr Singh's comment instead of asking him to explain?

Should the WP have a system of tracking changes - or, similar to some parts of the civil service, an extra pair of eyes to go through the speech line by line - instead of simply assuming that the speech will be picked up by someone from a common pool?

Second, it should be quite clear by now the direction in which the line of fact finding by the committee is headed, namely, the extent to which party leaders were actively complicit.

Here, I quote more fully what Minister for Culture, Community and Youth and committee member Edwin Tong said in the Dec 3 hearing with Mr Nathan, when he raised the issue of the "relative culpability" of those involved.

He spoke of how the tenor of the statement issued by the party immediately after Nov 1, when Ms Khan made her speech, appeared to draw a line between what she did and the rest of the party.

He said: "It seems to suggest that no one else was involved in managing this process, no one else was involved in understanding and knowing that this was untrue… It appeared to suggest that 'Hey, this is the first time we become aware of it as well'.

"There was no suggestion that actually, from a very early stage, Ms Khan had informed her senior party leaders, worked with them to devise a solution, listened to them, sought their counsel and acted in accordance with the guidance they had given."

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The people who sat on WP's disciplinary panel were the same three people who knew about the falsehood from day one. Yet, inexplicably, the panel was set up only on Nov 2.

What is also notable is what Mr Tong articulated about Ms Khan's state of mind - again, pointing to the direction in which the line of fact finding is headed.

"If Ms Khan had acted of her own volition… that's one state of mind," he said.

"It would be a very different state of mind if one made a mistake, consulted with senior party leaders, owned up to it in a full and frank fashion, sought advice and counsel, got that advice and counsel, acted in a manner completely consistent with that counsel, and then be subject to an inquiry by that very same people who had given her advice."

Put very simply, the possible implication is that she did not act entirely of her own volition, and that her party leaders were being dishonest.

Third, beyond the immediate drama, one is reminded of another case more than 30 years ago involving former WP chief J. B. Jeyaretnam, also the last MP to be taken to task by the committee for breach of parliamentary privilege.

Four complaints involving Mr Jeyaretnam were referred to the committee during his term of office as MP for Anson - one in 1982 and three in 1986.

He was reprimanded in 1982 for failing to declare a direct personal pecuniary or financial interest in a matter he had raised involving a person for whom he was acting as a lawyer.

He later lost his seat in 1986 because of a fine in a criminal court case over falsification of party accounts.

The work of the committee is ongoing, and no one should pre-judge the outcome. But putting two and two together - past precedent, the current line of questioning, and testimonies given so far - it is not a stretch of the imagination to conclude that penalties meted out to Mr Jeyaretnam could, in one form or another, also be meted out to one or more of the WP leaders if found guilty.

Almost 20 years ago in an emotional rally, former opposition politician Chiam See Tong said there would be "total darkness for Singapore" if the PAP were to make a clean sweep at the general election.

Last year, those who wanted more diverse voices in Parliament saw light, when Mr Singh was appointed Leader of the Opposition after the WP secured 10 seats in three constituencies.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had expressed hope in July last year that this would lead to the opposition in Parliament playing a more constructive and more substantive role.

He added that this would allow Singaporeans to understand what the trade-offs, issues and choices are, and "we can have a better quality of debate, a better public comprehension of the national priorities and issues, and we hope a better government for Singapore".

The key word here is "better".

When she was a 20-year-old student, Ms Loh Pei Ying - the same person who gave her testimony to the committee on Thursday and Friday - wrote a guest column on the website Yawning Bread.

Here is what she said: "When the Workers' Party called for volunteers on Facebook, I hesitated. I opened and closed the link at least five to six times before actually filling it out for submission.

"I was scared like everyone else my age, yet it is so silly because I know there is nothing to be afraid of. I don't want to live in fear any more.

"This is my country and I'm merely exercising my rights as a citizen. I love Singapore and I want to make it better. A lot better."

The political landscape - and the causes that Singaporeans are willing to stick their heads over the parapet for - has evolved since.

With so much at stake, the WP leaders should be asked to give their side of what transpired, and to help the committee in its deliberations.

The public needs and deserves to hear from them.

The story has been edited to clarify how Mr J.B. Jeyaretnam lost his parliamentary seat.

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