SINGAPORE — There is a scene from presidential drama The West Wing that has been playing on this reporter's mind since the Workers' Party (WP) press conference of 2 December, when it was revealed that its senior party leadership first became aware of Raeesah Khan's lies in Parliament a few days after they were first uttered on 3 August.
"This is what happens when you put teenagers in the White House," declares an opposition lawmaker to two presidential aides who almost commit perjury in their attempts to defend a colleague for his alcoholism. "I'd like to hold hearings into the two of you being stupid."
While the context may be different, and it may seem harsh, those remarks could apply to just about every player in the ongoing Raeesah Khan saga, from the former Sengkang Member of Parliament to WP chief Pritam Singh to the eight-member Committee of Privileges (COP) tasked with investigating Raeesah's lies.
Simply put: no one in this barely believable affair has covered themselves in glory, bar the ingenious meme makers and perhaps the WP cadre members who testified. And with a sixth special report released by the COP on Wednesday evening (22 December), incorporating fresh testimony from Raeesah insisting that Singh and party leaders had instructed her to keep up the deception, the COP inquiry is beginning to look like it will rival that other long drawn-out saga also involving WP leaders: Aljunied-Hougang Town Council.
Memes and parodies
Netizens have had a field day with the COP hearings, in particular the epic nine-hour interrogation of Singh by Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Edwin Tong, who sits on the COP. It essentially consisted of Tong levelling the same accusation over and over again – Singh was indecisive, if not complicit – and Singh responding with a constant refrain of "I disagree".
By comparison, Raeesah, the elected MP who had lied repeatedly in the House, was only questioned for around three hours in total over her three appearances before the COP. She first made serious allegations against her former party leaders in early December and doubled down on these claims on Wednesday.
Despite his repeated declarations that the COP has no agenda beyond a fact-finding mission, Tong's constant use of the legal term "I put it to you" and demands to "answer my question" often made the proceedings adversarial. The COP, which has only one opposition MP, also saw fit to release its first interim report without having first heard from the WP's senior leaders.
With proceedings resembling a courtroom drama, netizens ate up the Leader of the Opposition's sassy, almost smug performance. By comparison, Tong, a Senior Counsel, looked almost bumbling, with long, convoluted – if reasonable – questions posed to the soundtrack of him furiously scrolling on his mouse.
It all made rich fodder for satire, from a 'movie trailer' on the Raeesah saga to a hilarious clip of Singh 'complaining' about discounted sushi at Don Don Donki. In particular, a meme playing on the old Gold 90FM ad, casting Tong in the role of the listener who wants to "only hear the good stuff", has been circulating.
As a colleague put it: you know you've lost the people when you become a meme.
The narrative has been set
Lawyers would know that "I put it to you" is typically used in a cross-examination to advance a client's case. In the same manner, I put it to you that the court of public opinion has already made its ruling.
This is best summed up by one online wag’s comment, “Verdict looking for crime lah”. The COP can claim to be neutral till it is blue in the face: this will not change the perception among many netizens that it is acting in a partisan manner.
It does not matter how many more reports are written or witnesses questioned - the narrative has been set in stone. If the WP scored an own goal, then the COP has missed an open goal so far.
There are many questions to be asked of the COP. First and foremost, why did Tong take such a belligerent approach with Singh, while treating Raeesah with kid gloves in comparison? His bizarre assertion that "I am entitled to put a hypothesis to you because we should test the evidence" was met with the perfect response from Singh, “You don’t test the evidence with a hypothesis, but go ahead.”
At the risk of stating the blindingly obvious, the COP is not a tribunal of court judges, and some of its members need to know they are not conducting a court hearing. Perhaps the public criticism of his conduct was one reason that Tong was far more cordial when he questioned WP chair Sylvia Lim after his verbal jousting with Singh.
COP hearings have now lasted more than 30 hours. The Committee has also sat for almost a month but has yet to come to any conclusions. Is this a reasonable or efficient use of taxpayers' money, especially when the questioning has been largely conducted by just three COP members, and there is still a pandemic raging?
Whatever the WP's supposed misdeeds, the perception of bullying is overshadowing it all.
On the flip side, there are equally pressing questions to be asked of the WP.
When Raeesah's allegations were first aired, some declared that this would mark the end of Singapore's largest opposition party. Instead, the LO's defiant refusal to back down has won him plaudits.
At times, he almost seemed to be playing it up for the cameras, knowing full well that the footage of his testimony would be released to the public. "Nice try, Mr Tong. You're a good lawyer, but I'm a good listener," he breezily said at one point.
One wonders if the LO would have been so combative if the questioning had been led by Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam, a man who would make the final courtroom scene in A Few Good Men look like a friendly chat with the auntie next door.
But Singh's performance helped obscure his inexplicable response to the whole affair, as well as the more pertinent findings from the COP hearings. It beggars belief that a politician as experienced and savvy as Singh left it to a rookie MP to decide when to clarify her lies in a Parliament dominated by an unforgiving PAP supermajority.
There was also the startling revelation that Singh, along with senior leaders, withheld the full facts on Raeesah's initial confession from their Central Executive Committee and party members, claiming that it was "not material" to their deliberations on Raeesah's fate.
Not to mention the LO's eyebrow-raising assertion that her claims about the alleged victim being mistreated at a police station did not adversely impact the police. As Tong might say, "Come on, Mr Singh."
Where does it all end?
At some point, the COP hearings will conclude and a report with the next course of action released. Given the way things have proceeded so far, the COP should think very carefully about what it says in its findings. Censure the WP and it will be accused of partisanship. Slap them on the wrist and people would ask what the point of the hearings was.
It is unlikely that the average PAP or WP supporter would have been swayed by the saga. Online comments suggest that many are already tired of the COP hearings, and a fair few are unconvinced that the WP leaders are guilty of any wrongdoing.
But for Singh and the WP, the real damage to the party has been internal. Much soul-searching about their candidate selection procedures and leadership culture is needed, while senior leaders will have their work cut out to regain the trust of rank and file members. The key question being: how could things have been allowed to come to this point?
For the WP's sake, for opposition politics and for Singapore, the WP leaders must come up with viable solutions to distance themselves from an ugly saga that has snowballed from a disgraced former MP's dishonesty
The views expressed are the writer's own.
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