Opposition Stumble Gives Singapore’s PAP a Break to go for the Jugular
Ex-Worker’s Party MP’s lie to parliament could cost leadership their seats
On August 3, 2021, a rising young member of Singapore’s Worker Party named Raeesah Khan rose in Parliament to allege that in 2018, she had accompanied a 25-year-old rape victim to make a police report, whereupon the victim was insulted by a police officer who asked if she had been drinking and made other insensitive remarks. Khan gave recommendations on how to increase sensitivity in investigations.
It later turned out that the 30-year-old Khan (above, being interrogated) hadn’t accompanied the victim but had heard about it from a support group for women who had been victims of sexual assault, nor did she have the victim's consent to share the incident. It has provided a cudgel for the governing People’s Action Party (PAP) to beat the opposition Workers’ Party unmercifully, and, in the process, seek to gain political ground that has been slowly slipping from their grasp. The saga has presented the PAP with the possibility that the Workers’ Party’s decades-long march toward political viability will be blunted.
Khan, the daughter of Farid Khan, the president of Singapore’s Malay Chamber of Commerce and Industry, was eventually forced to resign from parliament on November 30 after an intensive investigation found no evidence of police mishandling of any cases. Farid Khan wanted to run in the Singapore Presidential election in 2017 but was deemed ineligible because the size of his business was not large enough.
Since her admission, it has become clear that the PAP, which has run into hard times after ruling the island since Lee Kuan Yew founded it in 1954, intends to use the incident to inflict as much damage on the Workers’ Party as possible, especially after party leaders acknowledged they had known for some time that Khan had lied.
The government has held a series of hearings in which opposition leaders underwent tough grilling. In one of those hearings, Workers' Party chief Pritam Singh, the opposition leader, was held on the stand to testify for a full nine hours, during which he was forced to acknowledge he knew she had lied but took no steps for three months to get her to correct the falsehood. Much was made of police time and expense looking into the original allegations, supposedly combing through 1,400 sexual assault complaints seeking to find Khan’s participation.
So far, with the hearing continuing, the government has released three reports on the matter and at least one more, expected to be devastating for the Workers Party, is expected to be released summing up the affair.
In 2020, despite the PAP receiving only 61.2 percent of the vote – its worst showing since 2011, when it won 60.1 percent – the party returned to power following a general election with 83 of the 93 seats, or 89.25 percent, a demonstration of the government’s skill in drawing the district lines to protect itself. Behind it was the Workers Party, which took the 10 other parliamentary seats, for the first time winning 50.49 percent of the wards in which it contested. It kept its Aljunied Group Representation Constituency (GRC), winning another GRC in Sengkang and taking a single seat in Hougang. The government for the first time named the Workers’ Party the official opposition.
Under the Singapore electoral system, a GRC is a group of parliamentary wards where at least one of the representatives must be an ethnic minority. Critics said Lee Kuan Yew had designed the group constituency system to handicap the Workers’ Party because for years it didn’t have enough candidates to field full slates in the GRCs.
Since the 2020 election, the PAP has stumbled, although partly for reasons not its fault. Like the rest of Asia, Singapore has been hamstrung by the Covid-19 pandemic and a flagging economy, which is projected to grow at 7 percent although off a 2020 base reduced by the virus and thereafter dropping to 3- 5 percent in 2020 over the impact of the Omicron variant and other possible mutations.
But beyond that, the party has been struggling for months to find a successor to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who has dithered about picking one, and with dissention growing among the rank and file. It hasn’t been helped by a bitter squabble among Lee family siblings over the disposition of founder Lee Kuan Yew’s colonial-era mansion that has gone on for four years. The party has appeared tired and often at sea in dealing with the country’s problems, with the voters noticing.
Thus the Workers’ Party disarray over the affair has presented the PAP with a golden opportunity to recoup, with a parade of opposition party leaders including Pritam Singh, party chair Sylvia Lim and vice-chairman Faisal Manap summoned before the parliament’s Committee of Privileges to acknowledge that, as the Straits Times put it, “Ms Khan's repetition of the lie on Oct 4 had made the situation more grave.” They have been aided by the government-aligned local news media, particularly the Straits Times, which has been having a front-page field day over the situation.
“The Committee of Privileges are interrogating (the WP leaders) and hoping to make as much mileage as possible,” said Lim Tean, the founder and leader of the opposition party Peoples Voice. “They will issue as damaging a report as they can once they are through.”
That isn’t to say the Workers’ Party officials don’t deserve being run over the washboard. They have acknowledged that they knew of the falsehoods and kept silent for three months. One report said Singh had told Khan to take her secret “to the grave,” which Singh and Manap have denied.
Nonetheless, Lim said, “I have no doubt (the final report) will be extremely damaging to the Workers Party.” It is likely to conclude that the three leaders colluded in covering up the lie, he said, and heavy sanctions will be recommended.
Singh, the leader, may well be forced to resign and could well be fined, Lim said, possibly along with the other leaders, especially since the committee is composed of seven PAP members and just one Worker’s Party MP.
In practical terms, it could also eventually cost the party its Aljunied GRC, a five-member cluster in the northeastern and eastern region of Singapore. It is the first such constituency ever won by the opposition, with both sides hotly contesting since 2006. Its members include Pritam Singh, Sylvia Lim and Faisal Manap, all of whom could be forced out over the affair. Gerald Giam and Leon Perera are the two other GRC members.
“Raeesah gave a bombshell, they all knew it straight away,” Lim said. “If they are forced to resign, only two MPs will be manning Aljunied. The Workers’ Party will be so weak, they won’t have the moral grounds to call a by-election.”
The Workers’ Party’s only hope is public antagonism over the PAP’s merciless bludgeoning of the opposition, he added, with such antics as Pritam Singh’s nine-hour ordeal in the witness stand over his role in Khan’s month-long delay in admitting her lie.