SINGAPORE - Significant issues arose during a parliamentary committee's proceedings that looked into untruths said in the House, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, as he made the case for why its recommendations for fines and for referrals to the Public Prosecutor were the best way forward.
Speaking during the debate on the Committee of Privileges' report on the Raeesah Khan episode on Tuesday (Feb 15), he outlined two issues that emerged as the committee investigated her lies to Parliament in August and October last year.
First was whether Workers' Party (WP) chief and Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh, party vice-chairman Faisal Manap and chairman Sylvia Lim had instructed Ms Khan to continue with her lie in Parliament. "If they did, this is surely as serious or more serious a misconduct as Ms Khan speaking an untruth in Parliament," PM Lee said.
Parliament will need to deal with this, but only after a second, "even graver" matter has been cleared. This concerned whether, after having taken solemn oaths to tell the truth, the three WP leaders told untruths to the committee in order to cover up their instructions to Ms Khan to continue lying.
"Being untruthful under oath is no small matter. It means lying, despite solemnly affirming you will tell the truth. In this case, not once, not twice, but repeatedly, over many hours of extensive questioning, and on several days," he said.
He noted that the committee's assessment is that these untruths were not accidental or incidental errors, but deliberate, premeditated acts, done with a definite intent to mislead and to deceive. They are not just breaches of parliamentary privilege, but if proven in court, amount to perjury - lying under oath - which is a serious criminal offence.
"So, there are two distinct problems. One, whether the three MPs instructed Ms Khan to lie; and two, whether the three MPs themselves lied under oath. Both, if established, reflect very badly on the WP leaders, and in particular, on the Leader of the Opposition. Both issues, if not dealt with properly, will dishonour Parliament, and bring this august institution into disrepute."
In its report last Thursday, the committee had called for a fine of $35,000 for Ms Khan, who quit as an MP for Sengkang GRC after admitting to lying in Parliament. The committee also recommended that Mr Singh and Mr Faisal be referred to the Public Prosecutor for further investigations.
The committee said it was satisfied that Mr Singh was untruthful in giving evidence under oath, and that this may amount to perjury. It said Mr Faisal had refused to answer relevant questions put forth during its hearings, and to consider if criminal proceedings ought to be instituted.
The Prime Minister noted that the committee could have recommended to Parliament to administer a "token slap on the wrist".
"But that would show that we were taking a very serious matter rather lightly. Worse, by lowering our norms, we would be telling Singaporeans that it is really not so bad for elected leaders to lie."
Alternatively, the panel could have recommended that Parliament itself metes out an appropriately heavy penalty. While Parliament has the power to do this, and had the committee recommended it and Parliament decided on the penalty itself, the Opposition would "surely have cried foul, and accused the PAP of using its majority to persecute the Opposition", he said
"In fact, they are already insinuating this, as a smokescreen to obscure the real issue - that the WP had lied while under solemn oath."
What the committee recommends is the best way forward, he said. Since a criminal offence appears to have been committed, Parliament should refer the matter to the Public Prosecutor, who will consider the evidence afresh and "let the system work".
"If charges are filed, Mr Pritam Singh and also Mr Faisal Manap can defend themselves in court. The Court will have to be satisfied that their guilt has been established beyond reasonable doubt, and if they are innocent, they have nothing to fear."
He added: "If I were Mr Singh, I would vote in favour of both motions. Fine Ms Khan, because she is guilty beyond doubt.... And if Mr Singh maintains that he and his fellow WP leaders have done nothing wrong, he should also vote in favour of referring his own case, and that of Mr Faisal Manap, to the Public Prosecutor. Indeed, he should demand a court trial, in order to have the full opportunity to defend himself, vindicate his reputation, and clear his name."
Pro-WP voices on social media have taken quite a different tack, he added.
"Before the matter can be conclusively determined, if necessary in court, they are doing their best to confuse the issues and rouse sympathy. They are asking the public to clear the names of the three MPs, suggesting that referring their case to the Public Prosecutor is political persecution.
"What they are really saying is this: Don't look too carefully at what Mr Singh did, just remember who he is: He is the Opposition that you voted for; he is the Leader of the Opposition. By virtue of his position, he should not be referred to the Public Prosecutor; and any action against him must, by definition, be politically motivated; because who he is is more important than what he has done - even if he may have committed a crime."
He said some people may be taken in and sympathise with this story. These individuals could wonder why not let the matter just rest, and could feel that it would be easier for the Government to not pursue this matter against the three WP leaders further, given how Singapore has a full enough agenda.
But such is not the way of the People's Action Party (PAP) Government, PM Lee said. "As long as the PAP is the Government, we will not shy away from doing whatever is necessary to uphold the right norms in this House, and to imbue Singaporeans and their leaders with the values critical to sustain trust in the system, and critical to our success."
Parliament later voted on two motions, the first of which called on the House to agree with the committee's finding that Ms Khan was guilty of abusing parliamentary privilege by lying and its recommendation that she be fined $35,000.
The second motion called on Parliament to agree to refer Mr Singh as well as Mr Faisal to the Public Prosecutor. It also sought to defer any parliamentary sanctions on the duo and Ms Lim with regard to Ms Khan's lie, until the conclusion of any investigations and possible criminal proceedings against Mr Singh.
The two motions were passed, with Mr Singh and the WP MPs supporting part of the first motion, and voting against the second.