Top image: Sean Lim for Rice Media
Dec 4, 2021 UPDATE: The Committee of Privileges has just released a special report, which has been presented to Parliament. In that report, Raeesah Khan denied that the party leadership told her to tell the truth at each juncture.
The mood is sombre and tense among the folks in blue as I enter the Workers’ Party headquarters on the fourth floor of Teambuild Centre.
I’m here with eight other local journalists, on a blue Thursday, for the press conference where WP’s leadership will address Sengkang MP Raeesah Khan’s resignation.
One month ago, she admitted to lying in Parliament. Two days ago, she resigned from her party and Parliament. This is a media event the party would rather not have.
At 11.58AM, the WP leadership—Pritam Singh, Sylvia Lim, and Faisal Manap—enter with the three remaining Sengkang MPs: Louis Chua, Jamus Lim, and He Ting Ru, together.
The dubious three months of silence
The party’s secretary-general Pritam Singh kicks things off.
No pleasantries or preambles. He goes head-on into the question on everyone’s mind: What did WP know about Raeesah’s allegations against the police, and when?
Pritam traces the sequence of events, starting with the speech Raeesah made on Aug 3 during the debate on WP’s motion empowering women, till her resignation on Nov 30.
This is where he drops a bombshell: the party leadership already knew she had lied one week after the speech. I can’t observe any facial expressions on the journalists in the room, as we are masked up, but I’m sure their mouths, like mine, are agape.
Upon questioning, Pritam says that, after learning the truth about her lie, he instructed Raeesah to come clean in Parliament but did not give her a deadline.
This means that the WP sat on this information for a full three months before Raeesah’s apologetic admission in Parliament.
It’s disappointing that a party that has repeatedly called for transparency in the government has kept quiet for months on a lie by one of its MPs.
In the time that it kept quiet, police resources were wasted in investigating the allegation.
At this point, I recall the last time when a WP MP left the party on an embarrassing note: the Yaw Shin Leong incident of 2012. Those old enough will remember how the former Hougang MP was discovered to be having an extramarital affair, didn’t bother to address the allegation, and eventually got expelled from the party.
In that case, the revelation to dismissal took one month. I point the discrepancy out to Pritam. He replies that the cases are different, but I’m unconvinced.
Many would say that both politicians have shown fundamental failures in conduct, and there is little reason for the party to act swiftly in one instance while dragging its feet in the other.
But Pritam doesn’t think Raeesah’s case should be quickly nipped in the bud.
“We did not feel we had to rush through the process… it was important to ensure that natural justice takes its course.”
Raeesah’s situation does indeed call for some delicate handling. As she explained in Parliament on Nov 1, her lie had arisen from her trauma as a victim of sexual assault and her fear of revealing this to her family.
Pritam explains: “In view of her sexual assault and my assessment of the scale of her state of mind, I was prepared to give her the space necessary to address the matter with her loved ones.”
“I had to respect some of those very private and difficult fears that an MP had, and I dealt with it the best way that would have been appropriate in the circumstances.”
Frankly, I have mixed feelings hearing this. I get it—Pritam wants to show compassion to an already-traumatised colleague and avoid any impression of throwing her under the bus.
This is a delicate issue because how he treats his party members will reflect his leadership image and, by extension, affect how the party attracts new candidates in future elections. While the presentation is empathetic, some of the calculation is political.
Pritam says he didn’t set a deadline for her to come clean to have time to inform her family. He must have known that his bombshell at the press conference would be in all the headlines.
Maybe this is why he tries to show his compassionate side. Doing so may not answer all questions, but he counts on it to be effective enough to placate some.
But I’m not sure how deep this argument holds; the journalists I chatted with after the press conference don’t seem convinced either and are adamant that the party should have been quicker in taking action.
After all, a lie is a lie.
The Missing Raeesah
Halfway through the press conference, I am distracted.
For a good reason: the politician of the hour, Raeesah Khan herself, is not present. She wasn’t there when I first stepped into the room earlier. I scan the room frequently, but I don’t see any new additions to the press conference.
“Okay, maybe she will walk in later,” I think to myself.
But she is still nowhere to be seen, even during the second segment of the conference, which features her Sengkang colleagues. This is disappointing.
I have come armed with questions for her: Can she elaborate on her plans after she quits WP? Will she rule out electoral politics in the future? What does she have to say to younger voters who have seen her as a beacon of youth empowerment?
Her conspicuous absence in the press conference baffles the journalists present—at least for Nicholas Yong, the assistant news editor for Yahoo News Singapore who sits beside me.
“Why isn’t Raeesah here now to explain her actions?” he asks.
It is a good question. If Raeesah was present, she could explain why, after being told by her party leadership to set things right, she still did not do so until November, and only after the Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam pressed her in Parliament in October.
In her absence, when asked why Raeesah took so long to come clean with the allegations, Pritam could only give an unsatisfactory “That’s not a question I can answer.”
Pritam’s reply to Nicholas is equally baffling. “She has resigned from the party, and so this is a party matter that we have to carry forward, and this is what we’re doing now.”
I look back again to 2012 when former Speaker of Parliament Michael Palmer quit the PAP over revelations of an extramarital affair.
In that press conference chaired by then-Deputy Prime Minister and then-first assistant secretary-general Teo Chee Hean, Michael himself was present to take questions from the press even though he had resigned from the party by then.
Pritam does not go further than the reply he gives to Nicholas, and I can only speculate. Does the party leadership wish to spare her further public scrutiny? Or do they now see her as more of a liability than an asset?
This press conference has been set up to issue a WP narrative. By her glaring absence, the WP is making clear that her own words are no longer an essential part of that narrative.
I listen intently to Pritam’s tone when he talks about Raeesah’s resignation.
“She (has) to take ownership and responsibility for what was done in Parliament.”
“Each WP MP is a leader in his or her own right, and if you have done something wrong, it is your responsibility to set the record right.”
It was a stark difference from the doorstop press conference during GE2020 when the WP had to present their stance on Raeesah’s social media posts that were alleged to promote inter-racial and inter-religious enmity.
At that session, Pritam, Sylvia, and the WP candidates for Sengkang stood by her as Raeesah made her statement.
Today, the scene is different with Raeesah absent, and Ting Ru, Jamus, and Louis put forward as the face of the WP in Sengkang. The night before the press conference, the cover and profile photos for Sengkang GRC’s Facebook page were replaced with pictures of only these three.
Back in GE2020, Pritam spoke supportively of Raeesah.
About her controversial posts, he said, “I would be 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,” Pritam said.
Today though, I cannot shake the feeling that the WP seems to be doing some sanitising by leaving Raeesah out of the press conference.
The circumstances are, of course, different. This is a second, more grievous strike by Raeesah. WP leadership may find that they can no longer be protective and understanding like during GE2020. There is also less urgency to protect the candidate now that the GRC has been secured.
As a young voter, I would still like to hear directly from Raeesah and have since reached out to her. It seems, however, that her party has chosen in this press conference to distance itself from her, even if they have taken pains to do so compassionately.
Will there be a by-election?
This is an obvious question on everyone’s mind, and I expected a mainstream media journalist to shoot a question on it rather quickly.
While there is no need for a by-election when one sitting MP withdraws from a GRC, it is still possible for one to be triggered if every member of the GRC resigns—which was how the Marine Parade by-election of 1992 was initiated.
However, 25 minutes into the hour-long press conference, nobody has yet to ask the question.
I fire away: Will the three sitting MPs in Sengkang resign to trigger a by-election so that residents can have a clean, full slate of representatives?
The question is directed to party chairperson Sylvia Lim. She doesn’t answer my question directly; instead, she cites the court’s ruling regarding by-elections and reassures residents that the WP is determined to carry on with three MPs.
I want an explicit, unequivocal on-the-record confirmation and repeat my question: Will they resign?
The answer is now direct: No, they will not.
He Ting Ru, the team leader for Sengkang, then briefs the media on plans for residents following Raeesah’s resignation.
She shares that the remaining three elected MPs will do the heavy-lifting in the constituency, with Aljunied MP and WP vice-chairperson Faisal Manap stepping in as an advisor. The WP will reconfigure the wards within Sengkang so that the area Raeesah focused on will be split up among Ting Ru, Jamus, and Louis.
I compare this in my head with what the PAP did in 2017 when Halimah Yacob resigned from the party to contest the presidential election. They brought in then MP for Chua Chu Kang GRC Zaqy Mohamad to take over Halimah’s grassroots adviser position in Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC.
There was no reconfiguration of divisions, and the Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC continued to have a minority-race elected MP (albeit not elected for Marsiling-Yew Tee) serve their residents.
I point out to Pritam that Sengkang will no longer have a minority MP serving them.
Pritam repeats that Faisal Manap will assist the Sengkang team in an advisory capacity. A Berita Harian journalist follows up that this will still mean one fewer minority MP to speak up on relevant issues.
Pritam gives his assurance to Sengkang residents: “The presence of MP Faisal in the Sengkang team would assure Malay-Muslim residents in Sengkang that their issues won’t be ignored, and through him, can be put at the highest level in Parliament.”
There could be a by-election if WP wanted to, but …
Technically, if the WP wants to clean the slate and demonstrate Sengkang residents’ confidence in their team, they can trigger a by-election.
The party leadership is evasive about the reasons against a by-election when I speak to them. Still, I believe there are reasons why they choose not to do so.
Sengkang is a new constituency for the WP, and their hold on it is by no means unshakeable. Sengkang is not an Hougang or Aljunied, where the party has proven its holding power repeatedly.
It became clear that this press conference was organised less to answer questions on the silence about Raeesah’s lie and more about securing the WP’s hold on Sengkang.
A chat I had with a veteran journalist after the press conference also enlightened me on the issue of responsibility, which I neglected. The country is not out of the woods yet, with regards to the pandemic.
Everyone is still worried about their lives and livelihoods, more so with the appearance of the Omicron variant of the virus last week. Having a by-election and distracting everyone from other pressing issues could be interpreted as irresponsibility on the WP after having its reputation tainted by Raeesah.
It is a fair point. But, tellingly, it was not made by the WP.
What’s next for WP?
At 1.00PM, the press conference ends, with Pritam repeating his apology to Sengkang residents and the rest of Singaporeans.
The mood is lighter now, as journalists start to exchange greetings with the MPs and ask them off-record questions.
The WP has done what they set out to—apologising, explaining the sequence of events given, and reassuring Sengkang residents. This may have been their calculation for the press conference.
As I linger in the room, I hear some muttering from journalists that some questions remain unanswered. In the 24 hours since the press conference, we have indeed seen the news and opinion pages blazing with outrage that the WP did not reveal the truth about Raeesah’s lie earlier. I have to ask myself: Is this press conference a success for the WP?
At first glance, they have attempted to be transparent by laying out the facts, regardless of how inconvenient they were. This may score some political points among Singaporeans who will see that the WP is doing the right thing.
The cynical side of me can’t help but note that this belated transparency could confer the WP some tactical space in the investigations of the Committee of Privileges if the party is implicated. Pritam has not discounted the possibility of being called up by the committee. He has said that he is prepared to give evidence if needed.
The WP has also used the opportunity to affirm Sengkang as their turf. There is no question what their plans are regarding Sengkang-minus-Raeesah. They have put forward a united, confident team for the residents in Sengkang.
Finally, and not to be neglected, the WP has shown empathy to Raeesah, albeit at a very high cost. Some will see Pritam’s apparent kindness in giving Raeesah time to first settle her issues as a mark of an empathetic leader. Others will disagree with him for prioritising empathy over transparency.
The WP has calculated that being open about what they knew and when, distancing themselves from Raeesah, and presenting their plans for the remaining three MPs to stay in Sengkang will suffice. The question of why the lie was allowed to carry on for so long was left unanswered.
Whether these calculations are correct—we will see in the coming days.
I leave the press conference struck by one line from Pritam: “Look, it’s our MP. We take responsibility, and we have to account to the public on what has happened.”