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Politics

COP: I won’t judge you, Pritam. Let the public prosecutor handle it.

This is the second time we are hearing about possible criminal proceedings against the Workers’ Party. The first time was some years earlier with ministerial mutterings over how it was possible that the party’s mismanagement of its town council’s finances could attract criminal sanctions. 

Nothing came of that.

Instead, we were treated to years of court hearing after court hearing about conflicts of interest, wrong payments and lapses in documentation. The WP leadership was found liable for the financial lapses and had appealed against this. The talk then was about how the amount of damages the leaders might have to pay would bankrupt individuals and cause them to lose their seats in Parliament. The last we heard, in February last year, was that the court of appeal has reserved judgment. 

One year on, we have the Raeesah Khan saga and yet another question mark over whether criminal proceedings would be instituted against certain WP members. This time, the ball is in Parliament’s court. It has to decide whether the Public Prosecutor should get into the picture, specifically to investigate Messrs Pritam Singh and Faisal Manap.

If it says no, the ball would presumably be tossed back to the COP to recommend penalties which can range from fines and jail terms to suspension. None of them could cause any MP to lose his parliamentary seat, according to The Straits Times. Presumably, this is because they can’t be said to be criminal convictions. ST maintains that the ultimate penalty is expulsion. Now this might have been practised in the grandmother of Parliaments, Britain, but I don’t see this in the Singapore Act. 

If Parliament says yes, then the spectre of Mr Singh and Mr Faisal losing their seats would be very real. It takes just a $2,000 fine or a year’s jail to disqualify an MP or prevent him or her from contesting the elections for five years. It was a point that Mr Singh seized upon in his response to the COP report. The subtext is: This is a political exercise by a People’s Action Party-dominated Parliament. 

The COP fined Ms Khan $25,000 for the first utterance of her lie to Parliament on Aug 3, which she actually repeated later in the day in a different form in a “supposed’’ clarification. It decided to impose another $10,000 for her second utterance on Oct 4. The “discount’’ was to reflect the role that the other WP leaders played in getting her to double down on the lie, according to COP. 

So what was Mr Singh guilty of? Two things: Lying and dishonourable conduct. 

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According to COP, he lied to the panel while under oath and this could be considered perjury, which is a criminal offence. It appears that both aren’t quite the same sin/failing/crime. 

It was “satisfied’’ that Mr Singh was lying about telling Ms Khan to come clean, based on testimonies and contemporaneous evidence such as WhatsApp messages. But there was no smoking gun as such. At no point was it uncovered that he had told Ms Khan to continue lying. In fact, the whole COP hearing was about who lied to whom, assertions and denials. Did he tell Ms Khan to “take it to the grave’’ and what did he mean by “it’s your call’’? The tragedy of the COP hearing is that it boiled down to who was the bigger liar. 

But what was clear was that Mr Singh did NOT tell Ms Khan to tell the truth in the most unambiguous terms, which is most insidious. 

His convoluted discourse with her was puzzling. It was at odds with the finding that he too was lied to when he helped Ms Khan respond to Minister of State Desmond Lim’s request for details the first time. She said that she could not reach the sexual assault victim whom she had supposedly accompanied to make a police report – when the fact was that she did no such thing but had heard the anecdote told in a support group for victims. He had lost his temper when he was finally told the truth by Ms Khan over the telephone the day before Ms Khan, Mr Faisal and Ms Sylvia Lim gathered at his house on Aug 8. The COP didn’t mention this in its report. (If I am wrong, please let me know because 1,000 pages very hard to get through)

Then his attitude changed. Speaking charitably, I suppose her revelation to the trio that she too had been sexually assaulted had him on the backfoot. It was a new wrinkle – should she give the full reason for why she lied when even her own parents were in the dark? I note that her father was vehemently opposed to her making that final “come clean’’ statement in Parliament on Nov 1. 

Mr Singh used coded phrases like “I won’t judge you’’, which any layman would take to mean that he or she could decide on any course of action without fear of repercussions. This was his biggest mistake – he didn’t place telling the truth as the first priority for an MP. 

It’s clear to me that from Aug 8 onwards, the WP was hoping that the issue would simply go away. A proactive move would mean having to say that she had lied not once but twice in the same day and that Mr Singh himself had swallowed her fibs. You can expect an all-out attack from the PAP side to have her disciplined by the party or by the Committee of Privileges.

Now, with this background of sexual assault, the WP would be tempted to tell itself that keeping quiet was the best thing for everyone, especially Ms Khan and her family. After all, five days have already passed. Hence, the absence of any discourse on the subject among them or preparations for a clarification in Parliament. 

If there was a conspiracy, it was to keep silent. So, they moved on to other things even on that day, like how to respond to disquiet over Ms Khan’s speech on female genital cutting and polygamy. Bad move. On Oct 4, Ms Khan fibbed again, which COP maintains was what Mr Singh wanted her to do. But since it was clear that the G wasn’t going to let the matter rest, there was a flurry of activities for a clarification in Parliament. 

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What I found most distressing was the way the trio absolved themselves by stating it was not relevant for anyone to know that they had been told of the lie earlier. In fact, the formation of a party disciplinary panel comprising the trio was the ultimate act of bad faith. Ms Khan seemed to have presumed that she would be “protected’’ by the people who were now telling her to resign. That the WP revealed this “inside’’ knowledge of her lie to the media on the same day as COP started interviewing witnesses was too much of a coincidence, whatever Mr Singh might say. It was a desperate attempt to get ahead of the COP. 

Even if he did not explicitly tell Ms Khan to lie and had expected her to make an appropriate call as a responsible MP, Mr Singh fell down as a moral person. He condoned dishonesty and was himself complicit in allowing the lie to carry on. It is for the Workers’ Party members now to decide if they should empathise with their leader or see him as unfit for leadership. (I know we are all not saints, but some people should be set to higher standards than others).

Like COP, I too am doing a lot of surmising and guesswork.

But I am not throwing everything including the kitchen sink at him. It described his visit to the Khan house on Oct 3, before the issue was raised in Parliament, as “surreptitious’’, ignoring his claim that he and his wife were dropping off baby clothes for Ms Khan. (Did this happen or is this a lie?)

It made a big deal of how he did not see the text message that Ms Khan sent him in Parliament till later, and only spoke  to her late in the evening – when it is quite plausible that he wanted to get the FICA debate out of the way first before dealing with her. 

They look like small details compared to the bigger picture of letting the lie fester. But since the COP was intent on piecing together a puzzle, I think it should also acknowledge that some tiny pieces do not fit together snugly.

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I also thought that the COP went too far in trying to give Mr Singh a bad name with its second charge of dishonourable conduct  and contempt of Parliament. When he was pressed on why the two WP members, Ms Loh Pei Ying and Mr Nathan contradicted his testimony, he said it could be out of loyalty to Ms Khan. Given that his starting position was that he was telling the truth, I thought he was being generous with his description. 

The COP, however, said: “It is regrettable that Mr Singh attacked those two young persons, who spoke the truth. It is quite un-Parliamentary, and quite shameful conduct, on the part of Mr Singh, to accuse them of lying.’’ 

The COP also went hammer and tongs at his suggestion that Ms Khan had a mental condition which predisposes her to lying. Yet it didn’t refer to the times when Ms Khan herself brought up the point about seeing a therapist during the hearings. She referred to her therapist during the WP’s disciplinary inquiry as well.  This wasn’t plucked out of thin air and might also be construed as her own attempt to explain away her lie.

But the COP said: “He used the mental health issues as a smear against Ms Khan, to explain away his own conduct and lies to this Committee. His statements are also an affront to sexual assault victims in general.’’ 

What could the public prosecutor discover that the COP did not? 

Could the public prosecutor get hold of those meeting notes that Mr Faisal withheld which seemed to contain elements of a conspiracy as the COP suspected? That could be the “smoking gun’’. Would the WP get a good defence lawyer who would take off the gloves when he or she examined Ms Khan? To those who thought that Mr Singh had been unfairly questioned by panel member Mr Edwin Tong, would a day in court be a fairer process? (I am assuming that the Public Prosecutor would even proceed with charges in the first place) 

This is not a politically correct thing to say but did anyone think of looking into whether Ms Khan was also lying about being a sexual assault victim when she was studying in Australia 10 years ago? If the public prosecutor got involved, is this something that would be checked and verified? Or is this “irrelevant’’ and a further smear on her?

The COP recommended that Parliament consider taking action on his dishonourable conduct only after criminal proceedings, if any, have been complete. How does one case affect the other? If there were no criminal proceedings because evidence wasn’t conclusive or not beyond reasonable doubt, does this mean that he would be let off the hook for lying and be sanctioned only for his conduct? Or will it be a double whammy?

I am in two minds about the COP recommendation that Parliament ask the Public Prosecutor to intervene. COP hearings are far and few in-between and I wonder if others had also been found lying to the panel or whether this is an unprecedented case.  (I hope someone will check this out) This is not a case of fraud or outright criminal wrong-doing with money changing hands. It’s about a party out to save its skin. 

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I am more in favour of Parliament ownself-check-ownself because members should have immunity against prosecution, however egregious their offences. That’s why the Act is there in the first place. Just because the law provides for the public prosecutor to enter the picture doesn’t mean it should be taken advantage of, especially when the COP itself isn’t so clear about whether perjury was committed. There’s also the matter of legal fees for defence. 

But I also see how having a defence and a prosecution before an impartial judiciary would be fairer for all parties, without any political colouring that would jaundice the views of outsiders, namely, the people at large. Devoid of the prejudices attached to a PAP-dominated COP, the court of public opinion might well be better satisfied if the case was in somebody else’ hands. 

It looks like this saga is going to be as long-drawn as the town council one, which hasn’t even concluded.

Written By

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

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