Singapore's PAP Out to Hamstring Opposition Party
Workers’ Party MP’s parliamentary falsehood provides chance to attack
It appears all but certain that later this week, Singapore’s ruling People’s Action Party will succeed in crippling the 65-year-old opposition Worker Party with a recommendation that two of its leaders be referred for criminal prosecution over allegations they covered up a lie to parliament by a now-resigned party member.
The saga has presented the PAP with the opportunity to blunt the Workers’ Party’s decades-long march toward political viability. In the 2020 elections, the governing party won only 61.24 percent of the vote but retained 83 of the 93 parliamentary seats through skillful gerrymandering. It was the second lowest vote margin since independence in 1965. With nine MPs, the Workers’ Party is the biggest opposition voice in the parliament. The formal naming of Pritam Singh as opposition leader marked the first time such a post had been created.
As the party has appeared to be flailing, the government has pushed through an increasingly severe series of restrictions on freedom of expression, most recently through a measure last October aimed at “countering foreign interference in domestic affairs,” allowing authorities to order social media sites and Internet providers to disclose user information or block content that they deem hostile. It enables the government to act against local proxies deemed to have carried out "hostile information campaigns" on behalf of foreign entities.
The government in 2019 also passed a “fake news” law empowering any government minister to declare that information posted online is “false,” and to order the content’s “correction” or removal if deemed to be in the public interest. The government has invoked the law repeatedly against people or publications that criticized the government or its policies, according to Human Rights Watch.
The vehicle to go after the Workers’ Party is a report to the Committee of Privileges which is to be debated this week and which recommends a fine of S$35,000 (U$25,977) for Raeesah Khan, who on August 3, 2021, rose in parliament to falsely claim 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. Pritam Singh, the leader of the 65-year-old opposition party, and a fellow MP, Faisal Manap, are to be charged with knowing about the falsehood and covering it up.
It later turned out that the 30-year-old Khan 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. As widely predicted after Kahn was caught last August, it has provided an opening for the PAP, which has been steadily losing influence since the heyday of the late Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, to batter its most influential opposition.
Seeking to capitalize on the situation, the government held a series of hearings in which opposition leaders underwent marathon grilling. In one, Pritam Singh 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. Three reports have been issued, providing additional grist for the government-oriented press.
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 a tepid 3-5 percent for 2022. Beyond that, the party has been struggling for months to find a successor to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who just turned 70 and has dithered about picking one, and with dissention growing among the rank and file. The party has appeared tired and often at sea in dealing with the country’s problems, with the voters noticing.
The Workers’ Party officials 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.
In a prepared release, the party said it “notes these developments with grave concern. The last time criminal charges were brought against an elected Opposition MP relating to their political work was in the 1980s.” The party leaders said they “would be expressing their views on the COP report in Parliament (which, like the COP, is dominated by MPs from the ruling People’s Action Party).” Singh and Faisal said they would also cooperate with the public prosecutor and defend themselves in court if necessary.
As the release pointed out, “since its founding in 1957, The Workers’ Party has been through many trials and tribulations. We thank all Singaporeans who have supported us through the decades. We are confident that we will persevere and continue our mission of contributing to the building of our democratic society.”
In fact, critics say, the charges against the two party leaders hearken back to the 1980s, when Lee Kuan Yew pursued a vendetta against the party’s founder Joshua B. Jeyaretnam, using charges which were widely considered to be trumped up. Jeyaretnam was repeatedly bankrupted and disqualified from serving as an MP “through the use of court proceedings that have been discredited as resulting in significant injustice by the Privy Council, the International Commission of Jurists, the Inter-Parliamentary Union, Amnesty International, Lawyers Rights Watch Canada, and others,” according to the Asian Human Rights Commission. “Court proceedings were used to remove Mr. Jeyaretnam from parliament after his re-elections in 1984 and 1997.”
In practical terms, the affair could well also eventually cost the party its Aljunied GRC, a five-member cluster in the northeastern and eastern region of Singapore that both Pritam Singh and Faisal Manap represent. It is the first such constituency ever won by the opposition, with both sides hotly contesting since 2006. If the two are forced out, it not only likely triggers a by-election, it decapitates the leadership of the party at a time when they face electoral turmoil.
The Workers’ Party’s only hope is public antagonism over the PAP’s merciless bludgeoning of the opposition, one political figure told Asia Sentinel, “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.”
“If there is a by-election, the results will be a litmus test of how Singaporeans feel about this saga, and whether there will be pushback and backfiring against the ruling party for what is perceived by some Singaporeans that there is bullying of the opposition,” said another Singaporean source.