The saga surrounding former opposition member of parliament Raeesah Khan has not stopped with her resignation as an MP and a member of the Workers’ Party. In fact, it has snowballed, threatening to drag down party leader Pritam Singh too.
The drama could have been ideally avoided had Ms Khan come clean about her lie at a parliamentary sitting in October. Instead, her departure from integrity ignited an event of notoriety that could go down in Singapore’s political history. It triggered the rigorous Committee of Privileges (COP) hearings, including the record nine-hour long session with Mr Singh.
At 27, Ms Raeesah Begum Farid Khan exploded onto Singapore’s political scene in June 2020 as the youngest-ever candidate fielded by the Workers’ Party (WP). She was then considered a political maverick; the first minority woman who took a rather outspoken stance against the incumbent mode of politics.
During her time as an MP, Ms Khan attempted to take a closer and more critical look at the numerous issues the country grappled with. Her speeches about income equality, elitism, racism and sexual assault positioned her as a champion for the downtrodden, and a harbinger of identity politics for Singapore.
Notably, there were social media posts made early in 2020 where she alleged that the rule of law in Singapore was unfairly biased against minorities. Singaporeans, such as Straits Times correspondent Grace Ho, drew parallels between Ms Khan and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of the United States (US). Like Ocasio-Cortez, who is more popularly known by her initials AOC, Ms Khan was seen as a representation of progressive political change for Singapore.
According to a survey conducted this year by McCann Worldgroup, racial equality, gender equality, and mental health are what most Gen Z Singaporeans are concerned with.
‘Woke Culture’ in Singapore
AOC is seen by many as the embodiment of “Woke Culture”, a term largely associated with pejorative meaning, and which has been widely used by right-wing conservatives to pan political progressives.
“Woke Culture” is more prevalent in the US where ideological divides run deep. There is a clear denigration of political camps for people to pledge allegiance to – either you are a political progressive, largely referred to as “woke”, where you are an advocate for social justice; or you are not.
Generally, the term progressive politics is “about social justice and social inclusion, giving voice to the weak, vulnerable and marginalised… and collective action to bring about social reforms to address social injustices”, says Dr Tan Ern Ser from the Department of Sociology at the National University of Singapore (NUS). According to him, progressive values denote a shift away from traditionalism and conservatism.
However, Law Professor Eugene Tan from the Singapore Management University (SMU) cautions that the term progressive politics is Western political jargon that should not be imported into local political lingo.
“Progressive is relative. We don’t have a political ideological spectrum in Singapore,” he says. However, he defines Singapore’s version of progressive politics as politics that is not wedded to ideology and which stands for “open-mindedness among the government, public institutions and the people”.
Though progressive or “woke” politics are not a facet of Singapore’s political culture, it is relevant in Singapore society today. The government itself displays elements of a progressive political lean, with its constant clarion call to build an inclusive society for all Singaporeans regardless of race, religion, socio-economic status, disabilities and age. However, as 337A has not yet been repealed, not all may deem current leadership as progressive as they would like it to be.
Dr Tan Ern Ser adds that while younger Singaporeans are more likely to be progressive, championing self-expression, pro-democratic values, environmentalism, and gender equality, the older Singaporeans, with very different generational memory and experience, may be less receptive to progressive politics.
Is Ms Khan representative of the “woke” movement in Singapore
Ms Khan may not have been as important to progressive politics in Singapore as some would like to think. Both Dr Tan Ern Ser and Dr Eugene Tan believe that her time as an MP was too short for her to leave any meaningful impact on Singapore politics.
Dr Eugene Tan says, “I don’t think Ms Khan is representative of any aspect of our politics”.
Even so, Ms Khan commanded both the admiration and ire of many young people in Singapore who consider themselves part of the “woke” generation.
Social Media Influencer Xiaxue, on an Instagram story dated 3 December, wrote: “Many Singaporeans are idiots esp(ecially) those living in Sengkang. GO WOKE GO BROKE!!”.
She was responding to the Committee of Privileges(COP) hearing on Ms Khan. Xiaxue’s post seems to suggest that not all Singaporeans are receptive towards progressive politics. On the dislike that some people have towards progressive politics, Dr Tan Ern Ser says, “‘Wokeness’ challenges their long-held beliefs, and is…disruptive of the social order in which they feel secure and comfortable…‘wokeness’ could create cognitive dissonance and tension within themselves.”
More so, Xiaxue’s Instagram rant suggests that those who share her opinion tend to associate Ms Khan with progressive politics. Dr Tan Ern Ser perceives Ms Khan as “reflective of a growing progressive movement that has been gathering momentum in Singapore for quite some time”.
NUS undergraduate Erika, who is comfortable giving only her first name, considers herself big on environmental sustainability. She says that Ms Khan’s election victory then “felt like a step in the right direction”. She adds that with Ms Khan in Parliament, policies made would not be “outdated” and could cater to the needs of young people who would go on to impact the world. To her, Ms Khan paving the way as the youngest-ever Parliamentarian “was a sign that young people could get more involved in politics” to provide a “more refreshing and relevant alternative to current policymakers”.
Ms Shania Wee, another NUS undergraduate, remembers “marvelling at how (Ms Khan) had put her gender pronouns on her Instagram profile”. It may not seem significant to many, but the younger generation knows that pronouns are vital to one’s gender identity, she adds. Through the seemingly simple act of denoting her pronouns in her Instagram and Twitter accounts, Ms Khan managed to ally herself with the LGBTQ+ community.
Ms Wee believes that Ms Khan possesses a “more accepting and open mindset” which made her an attractive political candidate. As such, she initially expressed support for Ms Khan. But now, her opinion about Ms Khan is “mixed” because she had lied on a sensitive issue that impacts women who are victims of sexual violence.
A 27-year-old political and security risk analyst who only wants to be known as Isaac says he initially saw Ms Khan as “raw”, someone who was willing to raise more progressive causes in Parliament.
“I also saw her as someone who had the potential to blend the experience of being an activist and politician and be able to reach out to civil society groups to raise awareness about their causes. As a female politician belonging to a minority race, she would have brought much-needed representation to the table and offered different viewpoints,” he says.
However, Isaac says her egregious lies in Parliament showed she lacks integrity and is not cut out for politics. “Passion for a cause can only take you so far. You need to have the political nous to succeed in politics”, he says.
These views corroborate with Dr Tan Ern Ser’s explanation that Ms Khan represented a societal “move towards greater diversity in terms of age, gender, ethnicity and social values in public…and social life”.
Clearly, Ms Khan’s appeal to the younger generation of Singaporeans cannot be disregarded. So, what exactly do young people want from Singapore politics and politicians? To Ms Erika, it is the urgency for more sustainable practices to be adopted into Singapore. Ms Wee, on the other hand, wants greater inclusivity for marginalised groups and Isaac desires a more caring and inclusive Singapore not divided by partisanship.
More young people in Singapore want a stake in the country’s future. As such, one error by Ms Khan is unlikely to dampen young people’s spirit for change, they say. Also, it is unlikely to diminish the support for opposition parties in Parliament. All three young Singaporeans TheHomeGround Asia spoke to agree that opposition parties are necessary for Singapore’s survival as a democracy, as they provide checks and balances on the ruling party, and ensure that important issues like race, cost of living and wealth taxes are dealt with. Ms Erika adds that opposition parties “prevent an overarching dominant narrative on all sectors of society”.
Although Ms Khan has been widely panned and discredited as a politician, it does not mean that progressive political values or movements in Singapore have lost steam. Ms Khan alone is not representative of the entire progressive movement in Singapore, and neither does she lead these movements, says Dr Tan Ern Ser. “Campaigns for sustainability, greater equality and social justice are likely to continue as these movements have been gaining momentum in Singapore politics for some time,” he adds.
Ms Erika believes that the failure of integrity on Ms Khan’s part will only serve to spur young progressives on to prove themselves worthy of having a deciding stake in Singapore’s future. “The older generation has no right to think we are any less capable or deserving of a voice in politics just because of one person,” she says.
Ms Khan aside: the larger themes at hand
Alleging that the Police officer who handled the case made insensitive comments about the sexual assault victim without providing factual evidence, proved a fatal flaw for Ms Khan. Her politics may have divided the populace and made her somewhat famous or infamous, but her baseless accusations of the Singapore Police Force (SPF) and her lack of integrity in Parliament sealed the deal.
Dr Eugene Tan says that as an MP, “lying ate into the basis of trust and confidence in our politics”. Singapore politics is based on integrity and substance. “Politics here cannot degenerate into a parlour game of falsehoods, tricks and ‘catch me if you can’,” he says. Agreeing, Dr Tan Ern Ser says that Singaporeans “hold their public officials accountable to a high standard, and they must not be lacking in trustworthiness”.
Resultantly, Ms Khan’s act of lying in Parliament three times explains the skepticism and hate directed at her on social media.
In his book From Third World to First, Singapore’s founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew wrote that its leaders had to “set the example of honesty and upright conduct”. Its Members of Parliament are put to high standards. Former PAP MP and Speaker of Parliament Michael Palmer had to resign over extramarital affairs in 2012, and at the 2020 General Election, Jurong GRC candidate Ivan Lim withdrew his candidacy after allegations of his elitist behaviour surfaced online.
Likewise, Ms Khan’s failure to uphold exemplary conduct warranted her dismissal. Besides, her unsubstantiated allegation against the SPF threatened to “undermine trust and confidence in a key public institution”, says Dr Tan Ern Ser.
According to the SPF, Ms Khan’s accusation caused them to invest ‘significant’ resources which could have been channelled into other public endeavours to benefit the whole of society. Clearly, the bureaucratic and political ramifications of Ms Khan’s lies were far too great to be condoned by society at large.
Isaac says Ms Khan’s lies “may prompt the public or even law enforcement to doubt more women who come forward with their accounts of sexual assault, because of the high-profile nature of this case.” As AWARE stated on its Facebook page on 1 November, only 4 per cent of sexual assault reports are found to be false. Even so, high-profile instances of untrue stories can disproportionately colour public sentiments against sexual assault victims.
While it is true that Ms Khan did a disservice to victims of sexual assault, her trauma that was made public can educate the larger populace on the long-lasting mental impacts of sexual assaults.
Dr Noorman Abdullah from the NUS Department of Sociology says while there is a kerfuffle over Ms Khan’s lie, “it is imperative to not lose sight of the important issue of addressing sexual assault, sexual violence, and the empowerment of women. The discussion of these concerns that should focus on a survivor-centred approach needs more serious attention and intervention, and should continue, regardless of political orientation or party.”.
Although Ms Khan may have earned the outrage of Singaporeans due to numerous reasons, as a civilised society, many feel we should refrain from excessively attacking her and practise empathy and kindness. Her fault, perhaps, lies in her as a politician, not as a person.
Dr Eugene Tan says that “integrity remains a crucial asset for politicians in Singapore… idealism and progressivism are meaningless without integrity”.
“(Singaporeans) want our politics to be about making a real difference to people’s lives and the future of the country. We don’t wish for our politics to be about one upmanship, primarily posturing, and more form than substance. I believe this desire for progressive politics can be found across all ages, with younger Singaporeans more desirous of politics that is more bottom-up rather than top-down”.