SINGAPORE – Political observers on Thursday (Dec 2) described the Workers’ Party’s handling of Ms Raeesah Khan as a failure of leadership, after it emerged top party leaders had known about their MP’s deceit for three months, but did not set the record straight and let the issue fester.
The episode could set back the WP’s gains and undermine the standing of party chief Pritam Singh, some observers said.
Others, though, felt the WP had shown its sincerity to make things right by letting Ms Khan resign.
At a press conference on Thursday, Mr Singh revealed that Ms Khan had, a week after making a speech containing the falsehood on Aug 3, confessed to WP leaders that she had lied in Parliament. She had spoken about accompanying a rape victim to the police station and hearing inappropriate comments.
Mr Singh said the party did not act earlier as Ms Khan said she had been a victim of sexual assault herself, and he wanted to give her time to speak to her family about it. He added it was incumbent on her to clarify the matter in Parliament.
However, Associate Professor Eugene Tan from the Singapore Management University School of Law said Mr Singh, as Leader of the Opposition, had a higher duty to Parliament and to Singaporeans to do something.
Yet he sat by on Oct 4 when Ms Khan misled Parliament again after she was pressed by Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam for details so the police could look into the handling of the rape case.
“It is incredulous that given Ms Khan’s repeated assault against the dignity of Parliament and victims of sexual crimes that the party still held the position that any clarification was Ms Khan’s to make in her capacity as an elected MP,” said Prof Tan. “This speaks to the breakdown of party discipline and perhaps suggests that the party leadership was hoping that the Ministry of Home Affairs would not pursue the matter further.”
Ms Nydia Ngiow, managing director at strategic advisory consultancy BowerGroupAsia Singapore, said Thursday’s revelations “could potentially set back the work that (former WP chief) Low Thia Khiang and other WP leaders had done to distinguish the party from the rest of the opposition”.
She suggested there were ample opportunities for the party to step up to set the record straight.
Prof Tan said the party could have issued a statement stating Ms Khan had misled Parliament, given the gravity of the matter.
Allowing the issue to drag on had also negatively implicated a law enforcement agency, said National University of Singapore Associate Professor of Sociology Tan Ern Ser.
He said Ms Khan’s repeated lies and the party’s inaction led the police to deploy valuable time and resources to locate the case, and as more time elapsed, Ms Khan “went on to dig a deeper hole for herself”.
However, NUS political science department’s deputy head Bilveer Singh felt three months was a reasonable time frame. “The key is the party not standing by someone who did not tell the truth,” he said.
He said political parties should not be expected to pay the price for a politician’s mistake, adding the People’s Action Party has survived the indiscretions of former MPs such as Mr Michael Palmer and Mr David Ong, who had to step down over extramarital affairs.
Prof Tan Ern Ser said Ms Khan’s departure from the party shows the WP is sincere in putting its house in order. “I think Singaporeans are quite inclined to cut an opposition party of the WP’s stature some slack, and since Raeesah has come clean and the party has promised to set things right, the WP would not be adversely affected by this episode,” he added.
But with Parliament’s Committee of Privileges still looking into the matter, some analysts said WP leaders could still face censure.
Ms Ngiow said: “Having the leaders knowingly decide to wait and let these mistruths drag on makes them seemingly complicit in what was originally thought to be just a misstep made by Raeesah.”
Her view was shared by Prof Eugene Tan, who said since the party was “arguably complicit and deceitful”, Mr Singh could end up being sanctioned by Parliament.
“MPs owe a duty to their constituents and their party but, above all, to Singapore and Singaporeans. In this sad debacle, it was about protecting the party first,” he said.