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COP hearing: What would YOU have done?

I suppose at the end of the day, our own personal judgment of the culpability of Ms Raeesah Khan and the Workers Party leadership regarding the falsehood told to Parliament rests on how we ourselves would have reacted if we were in their shoes. 

I don’t know how I would have reacted, for example, if someone came up to me to tell me that she had been sexually assaulted, or worse, raped. If the violence occurred recently, I would have told her to report to the police immediately and give them the details. If it had occurred 10 years ago, I would have asked if anything had been done about the case. I am no trained counsellor, like WP MP Mr Faisal Manap, but I think I would be humane enough to demonstrate some sympathy while tamping down my curiosity for details on the 5Ws and 1H. 

If the person was breaking down in front of me, my first instinct would be to comfort and commiserate. Depending on how much I knew of the person’s character, I would have to decide for myself the veracity of her account. The thing is, we’re living in an era when we’re supposed to produce the right cues on such personal matters. Even questioning the basis of an allegation is unseemly to some people. It is more appropriate and empathetic to  give victims of trauma the benefit of the doubt. 

I can understand (somewhat) that Mr Pritam Singh, Ms Sylvia Lim and Mr Faisal were “overwhelmed’’ by what Ms Khan said about her own experience 10 years ago, which she said she had yet to get over. If someone is weeping in front of you, the last thing anyone would do is to berate her for doing the wrong thing, in this case cooking up an anecdote which had her accompanying a victim to make a police report and the ill treatment the victim received at the hands of the police.

Mr Singh seemed quite ready to read her the riot act (that’s my surmise) before the foursome met at his house on Aug 8, given that he had slammed the phone down on her the night before and had been lied to repeatedly when he questioned her about the anecdote. Taking her at her word, he had even helped her draft her reply to Home Affairs junior minister Desmond Tan who had asked her for details of her anecdote in Parliament. 

The reason she gave for her lie in Parliament was a bolt from the blue. She didn’t want to give details, she said, because it was just an anecdote told in the confines of a survivors’ group, and she didn’t want people to know she was also a victim and part the group as well.

Would it be too insensitive then to ask her if what she was now saying was true, or whether she needed to have gone so far to embellish her anecdote by inserting herself in the picture? Perhaps, especially given what they had said about her emotional state at the time.

She seemed to have composed herself quite quickly, as within the space of an hour, they had also discussed a statement she should put out that day about female genital cutting and polygamy, issues she had raised in the same speech in which she had recounted the anecdote. She did so. 

But what’s troubling to me is that even when the trio were together later after she left the house, the ramifications of the falsehood was not discussed. It seemed to have receded from their minds. That Ms Lim and Mr Faisal said they had left the handling of the issue to Mr Singh because he was secretary-general and also the closest to Ms Khan doesn’t speak well for themas party leaders who should be concerned about the lie’s impact on the reputation of their party. 

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They wanted to give her space, they said. But it seems to me that their empathy for her condition ended on Aug 8. In that month and after, no one spoke to her  to ask if she was “okay’’ or whether, as Mr Singh suggested, she had told the parents about what had happened since this seemed to have been a precondition for any type of “coming clean’’ action on her part, or the part of the WP. 

I was rather distressed by the hands-off position the leaders took, with Mr Singh being so vague about the next steps that would lead to her owning up to the lie. He maintained that he was clear about his wish (or directive) that she owned up and be responsible for the falsehood, but Ms Khan’s repeat of the lie in Parliament on Oct 4 showed otherwise. None of the evidence showed that he had put the matter in a direct manner to her. He had expected that as an MP, she would read him right and know what to do. Ms Khan told a different story : the leaders had told her to stick with her “narrative’’ and, in her words, “take the information to the grave’’ – which all three WP leaders vehemently denied saying in any form.

To be generous, I think at that point in time, the issue turns on whether the WP even thought the lie was really that important to correct (they said yes but it didn’t take action till the lie was repeated) or was hoping that the matter would blow over (it didn’t).  That could account for the deafening silence in August and September with no evidence that anyone in the leadership had discussed the matter further even among themselves.

When October came around, Mr Singh put out a note to his MPs about the need to substantiate what they said in speeches, or face the Parliamentary Privileges Committee. That was Oct 1. On Oct 3, he dropped by Ms Khan’s house on another errand and alerted her to the possibility that the matter would be raised in Parliament the next day. The COP never asked how he came to have such information. Mr  Singh said it was merely a suspicion but wanted Ms Khan to prepare herself if it took place. 

It might well be that Mr Singh did not know for sure that Law and Home Affairs MInister K Shanmugam would give Ms Khan the third degree about the truthfulness of her anecdote the next day, but I would have thought that a party leader would be very concerned that a member might be “grilled’’ in Parliament and would help her prepare accordingly. 

Instead, he left her to her own devices. Maybe if he had seen the text message from her on what she should do when she had to face Mr Shanmugam, he could have told her to own up. But he didn’t see the message.

I have to say that Ms Khan is a poor example of an MP, no matter how much her millennial and woke credentials had been touted in the past. That she donned the mantle of social justice warrior had been evident before she was elected an MP. Her Facebook posts on justice and minority rights led to much controversy during the  GE2020 campaign, calling in question her fitness as a candidate. At that time, she, Mr Singh and the WP put up a masterly performance to acknowledge her wrongs, demonstrating a contrite and extremely humane face, contrasting well against the attacks from the People’s Action Party side. 

But she wasn’t as good a backbencher as Mr Singh had hoped for, going by what he told the COP about her performance since she became MP. She didn’t speak up in Parliament as much as  the rest of her peers. Nor was she as hardworking as they were. She was tardy with deadlines. Worse, she ignored her chief’s injunction to substantiate that offending fake anecdote which she had inserted into her speech at the last minute. Clearly, Mr Singh was not enamoured of her, speaking wearily of her emotional outbursts when she became stressed. Although she maintained her composure in public settings and before COP, she was painted as a woman prone to breaking out in tears. The subtext: she was hard to handle. 

I wondered how Ms Sylvia Lim, whom I have thought of as a hard-charging leader, could have been so patient with her. She said she spoke to Ms Khan after that repeated lie in Parliament on Oct 4, to ask if she was okay after the Shanmugam interrogation and to impress on her the need to respond in Parliament, among other things. If I had put myself in Ms Lim’s shoes, I would have gone ballistic that she had doubled down on the lie, especially if it was clear to me that the chief would have told her to come clean. 

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But then, I would also have to contend with Ms Khan’s emotional state at that time. She was stressed, said Ms Lim. Likewise, she was also emotional at the late-night meeting she had with Mr Singh and Ms Lim after Parliament adjourned that day. 

If we were to believe Mr Singh’s account that he wanted her to come clean, he would have hauled her over the coals then. It would be a natural reaction. But he seemed to have turned it into a teaching moment by asking about her action, to which she said that the better way/path was to be honest/honesty. Now, we’re splitting hairs over whether she meant that she was telling the duo that they had advised her wrongly, or whether she was saying that she repeated the lie of her own accord instead of listening to a “directive’’. 

Much has been said about “context’’. I agree that context is important. But what is also important is whether she had been told in a forthright manner to tell the truth, instead of assuming that she would because …“context’’.  I say this because she was hardly cogent during her interviews with WP’s disciplinary inquiry. She had medical reports on her state of mind and terms such as imposter syndrome, post-traumatic stress and disassociation surfaced. I am not sure if this was related only to the recent incidents, or whether it had to do with her own mental make-up after her own sexual assault experience. What was more befuddling was her assertion that a by-election would be called if she vacated her seat when any knowledgable politician would know that this was not the case. Did she want to quit or stay? That she asked for a second interview to discuss her performance as an MP indicates that she wanted to stay. 

I feel sorry for Ms Khan. She is definitely not up to the job and she did the right thing to resign from the party. If she didn’t, the WP would have been right to expel her. 

What did not come up during the COP meetings was how her fellow WP MPs reacted. It is extremely strange that neither empathy nor curiosity stirred any of them to ask her or the WP leaders about the Oct 4 “second lie’’ and what was to be done going forward. I suppose the WP MPs don’t talk to each other unless they have to. Or Ms Khan had been so alienated that she could only rely on her two assistants, Ms Loh Pei Ying and Mr Nathan for advice. Even her fellow Sengkang GRC MP Jamus Lim distanced himself from her by telling her later that she would not be able to surmount the disapproval the party members had displayed for her lie. 

The sitting on Oct 5, after the second lie, would have been the last chance the WP had to “rescue’’ itself. But both Mr Singh and Ms Lim insisted that the time wasn’t right. Here’s whether their reasons differ. Mr Singh assumed that Ms Khan lied again because she hadn’t got round to talking to her parents. It was inconceivable that this could be settled “overnight’’. Ms Lim said that some careful preparation would have been needed before any clarification or correction could be tendered in Parliament. This meant it can’t be done overnight too. 

Given the intensity of Mr Shanmugam’s statement – that he wouldn’t let the matter rest – it would be logical for the WP to “scramble’’ now. Frankly, I don’t buy the argument that a response to whatever was said in Parliament, should be told to Parliament. Would it be against some parliamentary rule to declare the truth in any medium, whether in a public statement or report to parliament? I don’t believe so.

Ms Lim seems to think that the “right’’ occasion would be the November sitting which meant yet another month for the lie to fester. Whatever Mr Singh might have said about the police being resilient or not a “broken back’’ organisation, the police were owed a quick response to this attack on its reputation, as did Parliament and the people of Singapore. 

I do not want to talk about the involvement or non-involvement of the WP Central Executive Committee in the days that followed as I have written about it before. It’s also an internal party matter concerning the level of trust they have for their leaders and the party’s disclosure methods. 

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The saga has left me feeling disappointed with the WP.

I can understand the need for “space’’ for Ms Khan to talk to her parents, but two months is way too much space for someone who had told a lie in Parliament. 

I can understand empathy extended to a survivor/victim but I didn’t see much evidence of this in those two months. If Ms Khan is to be believed, the silence was because she had been told to maintain the narrative. If the WP leaders are to be believed, then they are forgetful or did not think the matter urgent enough to warrant a correction. (What if she didn’t get shingles and went to Parliament in September?) 

Even if Ms Khan had cooked up the story about sticking to the lie, it doesn’t look good on the WP to have dragged its feet over such a grave matter. There was a lack of urgency and an absence of signs that a correction was in the offing. 

I do not understand why Mr Singh did not simply issue an order for Ms Khan to clarify the matter after Aug 8, or at least on Oct 5, or before the Nov 1 sitting. After sitting on their hands for so long, the WP leaders suddenly saw the need for a statement that went through multiple drafts and had to be presented to the CEC before being told to Parliament. There was so much meticulous work involved, when there had been none before. Even so, there was no disclosure to the CEC of the WP’s leadership’s prior knowledge of the falsehood. It didn’t cross their minds to tell the CEC that the same people who formed the disciplinary committee were the ones who had known the truth much earlier. All three leaders, as well as Mr Jamus Lim said it was not material to the workings of the disciplinary panel which was only concerned with the two lies. Even if I agree that it was immaterial, I cannot fathom how the CEC would have been pleased to be left in the dark and to hear the news at the same time as the public when WP held its press conference on Nov 3. 

Mr Singh said that the timing of the press conference, on the same day that Ms Khan spoke to the COP, was coincidental. But an outsider looking in, and that includes me, would think it rather too coincidental that the WP only decided to talk about the Aug 8 meeting, on the same day that Ms Khan was likely to disclose it to the COP. I wonder if Mr Singh realised that the reason he gave for this  – because the media asked – reflects rather poorly on the CEC as independent thinkers, even as he might appreciate their immense trust in him. 

The COP has said that it was now in its final stages of work. I am surprised. After the testimonies of four MPs, I would have thought Ms Khan would need to be re-examined. For example, she said that Mr Singh had told her to come clean to the COP when he first knew that she lied, but Mr Singh denied this. Frankly, I had thought it was improbable that he would recommend this line of action in the first instance.

Also, shouldn’t she be asked why she didn’t tell the CEC about her first confession to the trio (she had chances to do so) or raise the matter with the disciplinary panel later (unless it wasn’t recorded)? After all, Mr Singh was recalled because of a few lines that Ms Lim had reported him saying, which sounded like he was giving Ms Khan a choice to tell the truth or continue to lie.

By the way, I thought it was interesting to read two different headlines on the above. The first is from TODAY and second, from ST.

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Recalling her would help the COP’s image, which is important get “buy-in” from the public as to its independent nature. It is already under fire for its line of questioning which seem intent on tripping up the WP leaders and going easy on Ms Khan.

I have no idea how the committee will assign culpability. Will its investigation result only in measures it recommends being imposed on Ms Khan – and no one else? It would be good if the COP clarified this as well. 

As for the WP, I wish it well. It started the parliamentary term on a good footing, with good questions and contributions in Parliament, but it doesn’t look as sure-footed now. In fact, it’s been caught flat-footed.

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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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