Commentary

Special reports on Raeesah Khan saga: Amid the emotion and noise, let's go back to first principles

Former Sengkang GRC MP Raeesah Khan at a Committee of Privileges hearing on Dec 2, 2021. PHOTO: GOV.SG

SINGAPORE - Relevance, reasonable supposition, level of culpability, state of mind. These are terms which, to most Singaporeans, are incomprehensible legalese.

But the Committee of Privileges (COP) exchanges with Workers' Party (WP) vice-chairman Faisal Manap last Thursday (Dec 9) and WP chief Pritam Singh on Friday were precisely about what logical conclusions and next steps they should have drawn from Ms Raeesah Khan's lies in Parliament; the apportionment of responsibility to each of the leaders; their state of mind when deciding how to engage her; and what relevant information to divulge to their party members and the larger public.

Early on in Part A of the video recordings released on Sunday as part of the third special report on the COP's ongoing proceedings, Mr Singh was asked about the untruth that Ms Khan spoke in Parliament on Aug 3 in relation to the police.

Shocked emojis popped up on my WhatsApp when acquaintances watched the part of the video where Mr Singh denied that the police would be adversely impacted by former MP Raeesah Khan's lie that accused them of mishandling a rape victim's case.

That got me thinking: Most of us do not understand how adverse impact is legally determined, how one's state of mind is legally assessed, or how the degree of responsibility is legally weighed. But all of us instinctively react to things in a certain way based on our values and principles.

So let's go back to first principles. Here are five things that stood out for me.

One hour of being overwhelmed

In Mr Faisal's evidence given to the COP last Thursday, he spoke of being "overwhelmed" by the revelations of Ms Khan's sexual assault, when the three leaders and Ms Khan were at Mr Singh's house on Aug 8.

I get that their main concern was Ms Khan's well-being. But instead of discussing what to do about the lie, it is said in the COP report that they tried to console and comfort her, and the discussion moved on to what she had said in Parliament about female genital cutting and polygamy.

We cannot judge what exactly went down in that meeting. But let's say you are a boss, and your employee admits to a wrongdoing. How would you apportion the time spent in the meeting with her?

Would you express sympathy for her personal situation, and then take some time to work out how to deal with it according to the proper procedures? Or would you not speak further about the issue, and jump to a discussion on tomorrow's assignment?

Relevance to the public

The report noted that after Ms Khan delivered her statement in Parliament on Nov 1, Mr Singh did not disclose, in his Facebook post, that Ms Khan had confessed the lie to Ms Sylvia Lim, Mr Faisal and himself much earlier on Aug 8.

His explanation was that it was not important for Parliament, and not relevant for the public to know this.

Here, it is worth noting that the impact of the lie went beyond one person and had persisted for nearly three months.

For the sake of argument, let's leave aside the impact on WP, Parliament, and the police. But what about other sexual assault survivors? Other women?

Is this still irrelevant to the public then?

Clarifying an important issue

Following his Oct 3 meeting with Ms Khan, Mr Singh did not inform the WP central executive committee (CEC) that she might make a clarification in Parliament the next day admitting that she had lied, nor did he seek their approval or consensus.

There was also no draft of her statement prepared, or any discussions or comments sought on a possible draft.

This is different from the approach taken to the Nov 1 statement by Ms Khan in Parliament: There were several meetings to discuss the draft personal statement, Mr Singh and Ms Lim gave comments to Ms Khan's draft statement, even Ms Khan's father gave input on the draft, and the WP CEC was told on Oct 29 and they reviewed her draft.

A host of explanations were given for this. Mr Singh was not sure whether the matter would come up during the Oct 4 sitting, and if it did not come up, then Ms Khan may not have clarified.

If the matter did not get raised, then he had no plans to voluntarily get the issue clarified, because it was Ms Khan's responsibility.

Remote video URL

The question hanging over all this was whether she had told her parents about her sexual assault. Mr Singh said, in the context of this unanswered question: "My words to her was to take ownership and responsibility of the matter, which extends to telling the truth."

Culture, Community and Youth Minister Edwin Tong argued: "Which, in fact, must fundamentally include telling the truth. That's the whole raison d'etre behind making a clarification, correct?"

If the issue of Ms Khan's disclosure to her parents was so important, why did Mr Singh not simply ask her about it - especially if it was, as the report also said, in his mind a precondition before she clarified the truth in public?

Taking responsibility

Mr Singh said a party leader does not take an oath on behalf of all of his MPs, who take their oaths on their own standing and merit.

"Every WP MP is a leader, they have to take responsibility… if you honour the oath you've taken, it is your prerogative to set the record right," he added.

Now, put this side by side with what Mr Faisal said on Dec 9.

In an exchange between Mr Tong and Mr Faisal on Ms Khan's repetition of the lie on Oct 4, and why he still did not ask Mr Singh what was going on given that the lie had remained on record for eight weeks then, Mr Tong asked: "What is to stop you from asking Mr Singh what is happening?"

Mr Faisal replied: "Trust."

Mr Tong went on to say: "So you trust his judgment. If that is the case, why don't you leave everything to him, the way you run your party, the way you run your CEC, the way you run Aljunied GRC?"

So here we have the vice-chairman of the WP, who repeatedly cites "trust" as the reason why he does not ask his leader what is being done even when something is amiss.

We also have a leader who, according to the report, said he had not directed former MP Raeesah Khan to lie, but also took no steps for more than two months to get her to correct her false statement.

Then we have Ms Khan herself, who doesn't own up until a late stage.

Even if we accept that this is the WP's modus operandi, what does it say about the party's decision-making processes and controls?

When individuals in any organisation do not own up to a material lie that has been repeated, should people further along the chain of responsibility not actively take steps to resolve the problem?

Composition of disciplinary panel

In relation to the WP putting out a media statement on the formation of a disciplinary panel (DP) on Nov 2, Mr Singh said that he did not think that it was relevant that he, as the leader of WP and a member of the DP, had been aware of Ms Khan's falsehood much earlier, according to the report.

Mr Singh was asked if the suppression of the fact that Ms Khan had told some of the WP leaders on Aug 8, and that Mr Singh had spoken with her on Oct 3, would give the impression that it was all Ms Khan's doing. He said that it was irrelevant to mention these facts in the two press statements the WP had put out.

The report also said that according to Mr Singh, the involvement of himself, Ms Lim and Mr Faisal in the events that unfolded would only become relevant if they could be shown to have directed Ms Khan to lie - and no such direction to Ms Khan had been given.

Now, I'm not a lawyer. But as someone trying to make sense of the technicalities of what is relevant or not, why is the leaders' involvement only relevant if they could be shown to have directed Ms Khan to lie, given that the larger issue is that they knew about the lie since August?

Shouldn't the full facts of the case be presented so that the CEC, party members and the public can come to an unbiased and informed view?

In addition, the DP comprised the very persons - and crucially, the only persons - whom Ms Khan says had told her to continue with the lie.

Again, I'm not a lawyer. But is there a potential issue of conflict of interest here?

Take company boards for example, which some of us may be more familiar with. Isn't it the case that board directors should not vote in respect of any arrangement where they have any personal material interest, direct or indirect?

And even if the three leaders continued to be on the DP by virtue of their seniority and position in the party, why were there not others on the panel who could also weigh in? And if they were on the panel, surely the full facts of the case should be made known to them too?

Some Singaporeans will understandably be upset by the temperature of the exchange, especially the one with Mr Singh on Dec 10. But as far as process is concerned, the facts of the matter must be uncovered, and probing questions must be asked.

It is not for us to make any judgment either way at this point. Nonetheless, the past week has been a confusing one for many.

What is the difference between telling the truth, and "extends" to telling the truth? What is logical or illogical? When is a conflict of interest not a conflict of interest?

Where does trust end, and credulity begin?

Right now, there do not seem to be unequivocally convincing answers.

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