Raeesah Khan lied in Parliament.
It should have been an open and shut case. But the Parliamentary investigation into the former Workers’ Party (WP) MP morphed into something that could affect the party’s future and that of politics in Singapore.
The investigation team smelt blood as they detected a bigger prey waiting to be pounced upon. Like the proverbial deer caught in the cross hairs, Pritam Singh was probably blinded by the intensity of the questioning.
Once the party’s secretary general was caught, the hunters refused to let go. They had a bigger and meatier target; Raeesah became a side issue and the full spotlight fell on Singh.
This aspect came to light in the Prime Minister’s speech in a Parliament sitting on Tuesday, 15 February, when it called to approve the $35,000 fine on Raeesah and, more significantly, to the utter surprise of many Singaporeans, to get the Attorney General’s Chambers to decide if Singh should be taken to court for allegedly lying under oath.
PM Lee Hsien Loong revealed: “And just like in the Watergate affair, while investigating Ms Khan’s transgressions, the COP unexpectedly stumbled upon a cover-up by WP leaders, even more serious than the original offence.”
There is no doubt that Singh waited too long – a full four months – before telling the world that the party leaders knew Raeesah had lied a week after she spoke in Parliament on 3 August. He explained later that he had wanted her to tell her parents first before confessing in Parliament.
Still, four months was too long a wait.
But what has not been fully established is whether he had told her to confess only when she was questioned. Singh says Raeesah’s claim and those of two of her assistants, communicated via WhatsApp messages, that said Singh had told her to take the lie to her grave are not strong enough evidence.
PAP leaders and the rest of Singapore saw a very different Singh when he was grilled for nine hours at the COP. He gave as good as he got when Edwin Tong questioned him relentlessly. The edited videos showed Singh not giving an inch and using his language and lawyerly skills to try and get one over Tong.
Singh was combative, confident – even confrontational – did not show any sign of hesitation when answering some tough questions.
One sample: As Tong tried to pin Singh down, the former said, “No, no, no, Mr Tong…You are trying to get me on a Gotcha moment. You are a good lawyer, I am a good listener.”
Or when Singh said, ”You are trying to tie me up with a sewing thread.”
Young Singaporeans I have spoken to were impressed with the way Singh conducted himself. Is this the kind of opposition politicians the ruling party wants in Parliament?
His predecessor Low Thia Khiang displayed a different kind of spirit in Parliament. He was combative, too. But his handicap was that Low was not as fluent in English and so his words did not have that killer punch.
Singh will want to stretch the impending court case as much as he can. Don’t be surprised if he appeals to the Supreme Court and Court of Appeal. All this will take time and he will want to make it an election issue.
In the end, what will matter is what voters, especially the younger ones, feel.
Will they say: This was a transgression. We are prepared to take note of it, but will give Singh’s party a second chance. That was what they did when the Aljunied Town Council issue bedevilled the 2015 election. They were prepared to give the benefit of doubt to the WP despite accusations of improper payments under their watch. The case is still in the courts.
In the same way, the court of public opinion will decide what kind of Opposition they want in Singapore.
P N Balji is a veteran journalist in Singapore. He is also the author of the book, Reluctant Editor: The Singapore Media as Seen Through the Eyes of a Veteran Newspaper Journalist.