COMMENT: The Workers' Party and its 'inexplicable' response to Raeesah Khan saga

PHOTOS: Nick Tan for Yahoo News Singapore / Suhaimi Abdullah / Getty Images
PHOTOS: Nick Tan for Yahoo News Singapore / Suhaimi Abdullah / Getty Images

SINGAPORE — It was Workers' Party chief Pritam Singh who had unwittingly summed up the twists and turns of the Raeesah Khan saga at a press conference on Thursday (2 December).

Asked if the WP regretted fielding the now former Sengkang Member of Parliament and whether its vetting process needed to be reviewed, Singh said that no candidate selection process can be foolproof. He added, "But I believe every now and then, there will be conduct by some MPs that would be...I can't think of a better word other than inexplicable, based on the knowledge one has at the time."

There is also no better word than inexplicable to describe the response of the WP to the 27-year-old's lies in Parliament about her accompanying an alleged rape victim to a police station, with the victim supposedly mistreated by several police officers, and her doubling down on the falsehood.

It took her several months from the time that she first brought up the alleged incident in August before she confessed to the House that she had lied, while claiming that she was herself a victim of sexual assault.

The end result: the WP is now down one MP in Parliament, with its reputation taking – while not quite a fatal blow – a battering. And this is far from the end of it: the issue will undoubtedly come up in the House again, with the Committee of Privileges yet to have its say and MPs likely to seek clarifications from the party.

Already, there are rumblings within the party ranks about its handling of the saga.

A party source told Yahoo News Singapore that there may be more fallout in the weeks to come, with signs that some volunteers had withdrawn from activities on the ground since Raeesah made her confession.

Former Non-Constituency MP Daniel Goh has also openly lambasted his own party on the timing of its disciplinary process and Raeesah's resignation. "All too convenient when so many inconvenient questions for the WP leadership remained unanswered," Goh said.

Untruth went unchecked for 3 months

Yahoo News Singapore file photo
Yahoo News Singapore file photo

In all fairness, the WP deserves credit for holding a physical press conference fronted by senior leaders. In these pandemic times, it would have been all too easy to hold a Zoom call and restrict questions to one per reporter, with no follow-up queries, as the multi-ministry task force on COVID-19 often does during its regular briefings.

Instead, the party leadership took all queries, willingly subjecting themselves to the full glare of the media spotlight in person, in a format where the inquisition can quickly become uncomfortable.

Nevertheless, Thursday's press conference left Singaporeans with more questions than answers. Why was a rookie MP allowed to make such serious claims about the police in a parliamentary speech, despite reminders that she would have to back up the allegation? Notwithstanding Singh's desire to give Raeesah space to address her personal issues with her loved ones, how could the WP have left a blatant untruth unchecked for three months?

The writing should have been on the wall when a clearly nervous Raeesah persisted in the lie under relentless questioning by Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam. Why did the Leader of the Opposition not immediately call for a recess to confer with his colleagues, before correcting the falsehood there and then? And why did Raeesah only make her confession at the next sitting of the House?

"If you have done something wrong, it is your responsibility to set the record right," said Singh, who also acknowledged at the conference that the "judgement call" of giving Raeesah time to correct herself may have resulted in more damage to the party's reputation.

As a man who once dominated Parliament by sheer force of will said, "This is not a game of cards." For the WP, faced with the juggernaut of the ruling People's Action Party's supermajority, there is little room for the lightest error.

Unfortunately, the WP has so far played a poor set of cards in response to being dealt a joker card: an MP who lied to Parliament several times.

The Raeesah saga is not over yet

Workers' Party Secretary-General Pritam Singh, left, and Chairman Sylvia Lim, second left, arrive at a nomination center with their team to submit their nomination papers ahead of the general election in Singapore, Tuesday, June 30, 2020. Campaigning has begun for Singapore’s general elections, with the opposition hoping to dent the ruling party’s supermajority in parliament. (AP Photo/Yong Teck Lim)
Workers' Party Secretary-General Pritam Singh, left, and Chairman Sylvia Lim, second left, at a nomination center on 30 June 2020 to submit their nomination papers ahead of the 2020 general election. (PHOTO: AP)

Raeesah is far from the first, nor will she be the last, politician to be caught in a lie, wilfully or otherwise. Neither is she the only Singaporean politician to have fallen on her own sword after a transgression.

The WP can count itself extremely fortunate that, unlike the PAP's Michael Palmer or David Ong, Raeesah was serving in a GRC. Triggering a by-election in the middle of a pandemic thanks to its MP's inability to tell the truth would have tested voters' patience and faith. Party chair Sylvia Lim was bullish in emphatically declaring that the remaining Sengkang MPs, given a mandate by the voters, would not step down.

For Raeesah, the progressive who was the darling of many millennials, it is a sad end to an MP career that lasted just 16 months. She will continue to have a voice and an impact on social causes, given the largely sympathetic tenor of the comments on her Instagram account. Hopefully, she will come to grips with her personal issues, far away from public scrutiny.

For Singh and the WP, there is much work to be done to repair the damage done to their reputation. Since succeeding Low Thia Khiang in 2018, the LO has shown his finely honed political instincts. In leading the party to capture another GRC last year, he has already made history.

The WP's supporters can only hope that this episode is only a blip, and that Singh will continue to excel in navigating the party through the unforgiving game of snakes and ladders that is the political arena.

The views expressed are the writer's own.

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