Commentary

Why did it take so long for Raeesah Khan and the WP to tell the truth?

Ms Raeesah Khan had on Nov 1 admitted to lying in Parliament about details of a sexual assault case. PHOTO: GOV.SG

SINGAPORE - When news of Workers' Party MP Raeesah Khan's resignation pinged its way through Singaporeans' mobile phones late on Tuesday night (Nov 30), there was an air of inevitability, like a sigh at the end of a conversation that had gone on for too long.

WhatsApp messages such as "as expected" and "she self-pwned (self-destructed)" lit up my phone.

For the uninitiated, the story goes like this: A young woman said she accompanied a rape victim to the police station years ago. A police officer allegedly made inappropriate comments about the victim's dressing and asked if she had been drinking.

Except that the young woman did not accompany the victim to the police station. They were actually in a support group.

The tall tale was spun on Aug 3, ironically, during a parliamentary motion on empowering women.

Three times on parliamentary record, over three months. When the house of cards finally came tumbling down on Nov 1 - the day Ms Khan admitted she lied - Singaporeans felt pwned.

The WP's press conference on Thursday (Dec 2) answered one thing weighing on people's minds: Will there be a by-election?

The answer is no. Ms Khan's Compassvale ward will be carved up so that it comes under each of the remaining three MPs.

An earlier theory - that Mr Faisal Manap could be mobilised from the neighbouring Aljunied GRC - did not come to pass.

What was less satisfyingly answered was why the WP leaders did not act on their early knowledge of the lie.

Very early on, apparently - about a week after she delivered the speech in August - the party leadership was informed, and only after party chief Pritam Singh pressed her for details.

As her own family was not aware of her assault and subsequent trauma, Mr Singh had given her time and space to address the matter personally before presenting the facts to the House.

I get that. But surely there was ample time to issue a statement of some sort, even if Ms Khan did not attend Parliament due to shingles in September.

The reason given by Mr Singh was that any parliamentary clarification on this matter was hers to make in her capacity as an elected Member of Parliament.

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I understand that it is important to assume personal responsibility. But when questioned in Parliament on Oct 4, Ms Khan lied again.

The next earliest opportunity to clarify personally in Parliament was actually not on Nov 1 - nearly one month later, but the very next day, since the Parliament sitting lasted two days from Oct 4 to 5.

Was it not glaringly obvious by then that someone else in the party ought to have stepped in? Or did the party think it was perfectly fine for the police and other public servants to run in circles for another month - and amid an ongoing pandemic on top of that?

The WP central executive committee was ultimately right to vote overwhelmingly for Ms Khan to resign.

The incident would have been a millstone around the WP's neck - if Ms Khan were to remain in the chamber, the party would find it nearly impossible to hold its ground in any debate without having its integrity questioned.

But even then, its response on Thursday raised more questions than answers.

Background checks and work processes could also be tightened.

Before Ms Khan gave the speech in August, she was asked, in accordance with the party's pre-parliamentary processes, to be ready to substantiate her account in the event that she was questioned during the debate.

Going forward, perhaps the MPs should be instructed to footnote every claim involving another person, in every speech. Back it up with names, dates and times - although, of course, nothing involving human judgment is ever foolproof.

Given that just last year, the WP had publicly defended its own vetting process, as well as Ms Khan after her earlier brush with the police - two police reports were lodged against her for comments she made online on race and religion - now it just looks as if it has been pwned too.

The more fundamental question is this: What kind of character do Singaporeans expect their elected representatives to possess?

It is one thing to disagree on policies such as the scale of social spending, or to have misheard or miscommunicated while relaying a message. It is another to conjure up an encounter that did not exist, sully others' reputations in the process, and betray a survivor's confidence.

In his book Post-truth, author Lee McIntyre defines the term as the "contention that feelings are more accurate than facts, for the purpose of the political subordination of reality".

Post-truth has recombinant qualities. There is good old-fashioned lying. There is also dog-whistling, anger, jokes, and boasting.

But as a parliamentarian, stringing together one's desired narrative arc, irrespective of the facts, has real-life consequences: Time and resources were wasted in investigating Ms Khan's claims.

The three remaining Sengkang MPs are now left to pick up the pieces. And meanwhile, the party leaders were happy to let a lie go uncorrected for almost three months.

Ms Khan has been referred to as the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of Singapore politics, our equivalent of the activist American politician who became the youngest woman ever to serve in the United States Congress. She, too, was our youngest elected MP and known for her "woke" credentials.

There is a place for politicians with such stripes in our evolving political landscape. But whichever flag they bear, being a politician requires discernment. It demands passion and temperance; outspokenness and forbearance.

And it demands honesty and a willingness to admit to mistakes quickly.

Perhaps Ms Khan forgot to see the world as it is, rather than the world she wanted it to be. Unfortunately for her, it wasn't a fiction she told only to herself but to the entire country.

Her lie flew too high; she fell to earth.

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