COMMENT: WP, Raeesah Khan need to be more upfront over ‘insensitive' remarks saga

·6-min read
Two police reports were lodged against Raeesah Khan, 26, the Workers’ Party (WP) Sengkang GRC candidate for the 2020 General Election, in relation to comments she allegedly made on social media. (SCREENCAP: Workers' Party/Facebook)
Two police reports were lodged against Raeesah Khan, 26, the Workers’ Party (WP) Sengkang GRC candidate for the 2020 General Election, in relation to comments she allegedly made on social media. (SCREENCAP: Workers' Party/Facebook)

by Bertha Henson

Politicians know that social media is a minefield, whether you use it yourself or not.

People’s Action Party’s (PAP) Ivan Lim said nothing on social media, but many others did, especially his former army comrades, leading to his eventual withdrawal from the hustings.

PAP’s Murali Pillai decided to weigh in on social media first, on Nomination Day, to say that his family’s problems had nothing to do with his fitness for the job. He spoke of attempts on social media to smear him by referring to his son’s travails – this is even though no one has found sight or sound of the offences his son was said to have committed and what he has been a victim of. I call this a very successful pre-emptive strike.

Then, you have Raeesah Khan, 26, of the Workers’ Party (WP). She has been accused of – and has apologised for – remarks on her social media account which can be read as attempts to sow racial enmity and to cast aspersions on the integrity of the judiciary.

Last night, she described her remarks as “insensitive’’ and was sorry if they had hurt the feelings of any group. She said she had only intended to raise awareness of minority concerns.

I don’t think that is good enough. Not for someone who is vying to get into Parliament.

I really could care less whether the PAP does or does not investigate allegations made about Lim’s character or demeanour, as PAP chief Lee Hsien Loong said, they would be done after the elections. PM Lee talked about this in the context of clearing Lim’s name and presumably, to show that the PAP’s selection process is irreproachable. After all, Lim is no longer in the running, unless the PAP is thinking of fielding him in the next general election.

But I think the WP should scrutinise Raeesah’s views on racial discrimination more rigorously. This includes making public exactly which posts are in question.

Screenshots of at least two Facebook posts are circulating on social media. One of them shows a post made in February 2018. In it, Raeesah said that Singapore “jails minorities mercilessly, harasses mosque leaders but lets corrupt church leaders who stole $50 million walk free’’. She asked, “Who did they pay?’’

This was in the aftermath of the sentencing of the City Harvest Church leaders, which had led to a lot of hand-wringing among Singaporeans. Not many understood that the Attorney-General’s Chambers wrung its hands too, as its attempts to seek a higher sentence was stymied by a gap in the law on whether the church leaders are “professional agents’’ entrusted with money. Parliament addressed this lacuna last year as part of amendments to the Penal Code.

I can understand the emotional outbursts that the sentencing evoked, outbursts that might step on contempt of court legislation forbidding charges of partiality on the part of judges. But Raeesah went beyond that, to suggest that minorities and mosque leaders have been given a different sort of treatment under the law. The word was “mercilessly’’.

Some people have suggested that she was, as she said, pointing out “minority’’ issues regarding fair treatment. If so, she should be clearer about the allegations she made, rather than describe her words as merely insensitive.

I would be less harsh if not for the fact that she allegedly repeated this view on minority discrimination in a post in May, just over two months ago. She asked if the law treated “rich Chinese and white people’’ differently. This was after news broke of a group of Caucasian expatriates who were breaking circuit breaker rules at Robertson Quay.

By then, I would have thought that Raeesah would have realised that she would be a public personality soon, and would be more mature and temperate in her remarks. After all, she was revealed as a candidate for WP on 26 June.

Instead, she was saying that the law treats minorities more harshly than the majority Chinese, and that Caucasian expatriates and Chinese nationals get better treatment than migrant workers. It is an allegation infused with “colour’’.

Now, the trouble with social media is that people seldom make an attempt to update past posts. On 24 June, those expatriates had their work passes revoked.

Some people have pointed out that the alleged whistle-blower who filed police reports against her is himself noted for his anti-Chinese views and question his motivations. That may be the case, but the facts remained that she did publish posts that are now under investigation.

Differences in damage control

Some people have also noted the different way in which the PAP and WP dealt with the controversy that erupted over their candidates. In this, the WP’s damage control and crisis management techniques are superior to the PAP’s.

PAP's Lim chose to keep mum for three days before issuing one public statement and a second one less than 12 hours later. In both, he never acknowledged that there was any truth to the allegations made about his behaviour but said he was withdrawing as a candidate to give his family some peace. PM Lee came out to say that the PAP had had no time to examine the allegations and had agreed to drop Lim because his candidacy was proving a distraction in the hustings.

On the other hand, WP leaders Pritam Singh and Sylvia Tan, and Raeesah’s Sengkang GRC teammates showed their full support for their fellow member. Raeesah didn’t hide behind a press statement. She fielded a media doorstop surrounded by her party members.

Pritam said he had not known about the posts beforehand, which makes me wonder about the WP’s screening process. Raeesah’s posts were recent; she didn’t post them while she was a teenager.

He added that Raeesah comes from a generation that has "completely grown up on social media".

“And for me, I would be actually a bit disappointed if our candidates try to sanitise their past. And I think they should be upfront and authentic to the public. This is who they are. And in the event there are certain posts or certain comments that they may have made which are untoward, then I would expect them to explain themselves.”

That’s the point, aint it? She needs to explain herself.

And my first question would be: Does Raeesah believe that the law treats minorities differently and why? If so, what will she do to correct this if she is elected into Parliament?

This is not a case in which people can say, “Let’s move on’’. It is about a potential MP’s views on something fundamental to Singapore’s body politic: Equality before the eyes of the law.

Bertha Henson is a veteran Singapore journalist who now lectures at NUS. The views expressed are her own.

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