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COP: Going at it hammer and tong(s)

If I had held my breath for Mr Pritam Singh to finish his testimony before the Committee of Privileges, I would have died way before Part A. Nine hours of watching him going hammer and tongs with Mr Edwin Tong was as uncomfortable as watching Mr Faisal Manap trying to understand what the privileges committee was going on about. 

Enough has been said on social media about how Mr Tong, a senior counsel, seemed to have gone “over the top’’, in trying to force Mr Singh into the mind of his recalcitrant fellow party member, Ms Raeesah Khan, and suggest why she would lie about parts of her testimony. For me, it made for difficult viewing. Others, however, seemed to think the questioning was perfectly reasonable in trying to reach a conclusion that is as close to the truth as possible. (In other words, you not a lawyer lah) 

I thought the committee members were far more gentle with Ms Khan, soaking in her views about how the party had told her to “maintain the narrative’’. And this was despite her being the source of saga, sharing with Parliament an anecdote she wasn’t able to substantiate which made the boys in blue look bad.

What she had that she was to her advantage, however, were contemporaneous WhatsApp messages to her two closest activists, although the committee has to decide if these were lies as well. Or just her own perception/misperception of what was being said to her. Or if she was suffering from a condition known as “disassociation’’, which Mr Singh disclosed. Or whether she was narrating the truth. 

As for Mr Faisal, the impression he left behind after the inquiry was that of someone who was – and wanted to be – as far away from the saga as possible. The party vice-chairman ascribed this to the level of trust he had in his secretary-general, Mr Singh.

Mr Singh was a formidable witness, responding strongly to every question posed and asking for questions to be more specific. Depending on which side of the political aisle you belong to, he could be seen as a nit-picking lawyer or a sharp witness. 

In my view, Mr Tong needn’t have been as aggressive or belligerant as he was. His approach might even be counter-productive for the committee, in terms of how the process of fact-finding comes across to the public. That’s because even without the ferocious probing for weak chinks in the armour , at the very least, Mr Singh came across as a weak leader who couldn’t handle Ms Khan and who put empathy for an individual above duty to party and Parliament.

He didn’t have a good start. I was surprised that he didn’t think the fake anecdote would harm the reputation of the police because, he said, it already had such a good reputation (and therefore impervious?). That was seriously too weird for me.

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But I found Mr Singh’s impressions of Ms Khan as a person interesting. 

He said she was not as strong an MP as the others. She was tardy and emotional. As for this  specific false anecdote, she balked at telling the truth, even up to the last minute, angering WP chairman Sylvia Lim. Ms Khan had previously even given the victim a nickname and named Bedok police station as the place they went to when he queried her about it earlier.

The trouble is, if Mr Singh knew Ms Khan so well, why didn’t he just “tell’’ her to correct the lie within a certain time-frame? He said he did, in the form of suggesting that she “take responsibility and ownership’’ of the lie, because she was an MP and should know what was the right thing to do.

So, it wasn’t quite an order or formal instruction, although Mr Singh said it was clear enough to understand. Rather, the action would depend on how Ms Khan interpreted what he said. If we are to believe that she can’t understand the word “substantiate’’, what did she read into the equivocal phrase that Mr Singh used? 

As for not giving her a time-frame, Mr Singh said he wanted to give her “space’’ because of the unique circumstances that led to her lie : she was herself a victim of sexual assault which her parents had yet to know about. 

All that is well and good. Mr Singh comes across as empathetic, displaying concern for Ms Khan’s well-being rather than berating her for lying. He wanted his MPs to be independent individuals, who can fulfill their oaths to Parliament.  

But it’s clear to me that getting her to clarify the lie wasn’t very much in the front of the minds of Mr Singh or the WP leadership. They sat on their hands instead of making sure that she (or they themselves) initiated the process of clarification, whether through a statement or in Parliament. WP, including Ms Khan, has never been shy about using Facebook as a medium either.

Two months – from Aug 8 to Oct 4 – is a long time for a lie to stay in the books. Instead, Mr Singh sat in Parliament and listened to her lie again when queried on Oct 4. His cellphone was probably on silent, because Ms Khan was texting him on what she should do now that Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam was on his feet giving her the third degree. He didn’t know this then, he told the committee, and he was focused on the FICA Bill that he would be speaking on later.

Mr Tong pressed him on his lack of reaction. The reason Mr Singh gave for not hauling Ms Khan over the carpet immediately or correcting her version on the spot in Parliament: He thought she kept to the lie because she still hadn’t told her parents. This even though he had alerted her to possibility of the issue being raised the day before?

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What about making sure she speaks up the next day when Parliament would be sitting again? He said he didn’t think there would be enough time for her to tell her family. 

But this is speculation on his part because he never checked on that point, even though he made it clear that having Ms Khan inform her parents was his key concern.  

A charitable view would be that the whole saga was handled wrongly by the WP. The not-so-charitable one: a cover-up is being exposed.  

The testimonies of both Mr Faisal and Mr Singh gave some insights into the way the party is being run, besides having a screening process for speeches MPs would be making.

I was surprised, for example, that Mr Singh didn’t see any need to take the rest of his central executive committee into his confidence, like sharing with them Ms Khan’s confession to him, Mr Faisal and Ms Lim. The confession was irrelevant, he said, because she had lied not once, but twice. The disciplinary committee was therefore focused on these two occasions. So the reasoning is, whether she told them or not, she still lied anyway which shows how “terrible’’ she was. Plus, there was the worry that her own experience would become public knowledge. 

Clearly, the WP leadership didn’t think they even had a duty of disclosure to their own CEC, much less consider whether they had been remiss in not getting the lie corrected promptly. 

The CEC didn’t seem to have done much due diligence either, failing to ask basic questions about the lie, like whether anyone in the party knew of it beforehand. They didn’t ask, so they weren’t told. Maybe the members’ attitude towards Mr Singh is the same as that exhibited by Mr Faisal. That is, they trust him implicitly. (By the way, Mr Singh pointed out that Ms Khan said nothing to the CEC either.) 

I am still confused about what went on during the disciplinary panel hearings, especially with Ms Khan. It seemed that more attention was paid to her issues with “discipline’’, rather than the lies themselves, although Mr Singh said otherwise. Ms Khan didn’t ask the panel about their culpability either, choosing to lament instead that Mr Singh was “harsh’’ with her. It seemed less like a disciplinary inquiry than a performance appraisal.

Now that the CEC (and the whole party) is privy to bits and pieces of the lead-up to the disciplinary panel’s formation, I wonder if they would have changed their minds about approving the resign-or-be-expelled judgment made by the disciplinary committee. A poll had also been conducted among members which had an overwhelming number approving resignation/expulsion. It became so that Mr Singh even described Ms Khan as being “without allies’’ except for her two loyal assistants. 

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All I know is that if I had given input to the inquiry without knowing that the three people listening to me knew about the lie beforehand, I would feel like a fool. But that’s for WP to sort out internally.

The one I feel sorry for these days is WP MP Dennis Tan, who is sitting on the privileges panel. He was the last to ask questions of his chief, mainly clarifications on events. A few times, he asked Mr Singh, whose voice was getting hoarser by the hour, if he had “more to add’’. He didn’t. Then again, after nine hours, who would? 

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An ex-journalist who can't get enough of the news after being in the business for 26 years

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