Thank you, Mr Speaker. It has been about 25 years since a Committee of Privileges or COP report has been tabled in this House.
When seen as a whole, the COP’s processes and the report before Parliament leave many questions, gaps and omissions, and by extension, suggest political partisanship.
A key question is: who did this House commit to the COP? Raeesah Khan or the Workers’ Party leadership? The COP did not appear to want to get to the bottom of why Ms Khan first lied in Parliament nor why she had a propensity to lie with respect to her anecdote, both in and out of this House. The fact that she had concocted a lie to bolster her anecdote in Parliament was not balanced against her evidence to the COP. What took centre-stage instead was her uncorroborated testimony that she was instructed to take her lie to the grave by the WP leadership, a fabrication which never came out from any witness at the Committee of Privileges except Ms Raeesah Khan herself. I reject this finding completely. At no time did I instruct Ms Khan to hide the truth. At the meeting on August 8, none of the three WP leaders told Ms Khan to take a lie to the grave.
I will speak on two main areas before concluding with a section on candidate selection in the Workers’ Party. First, I will reflect on my judgment with respect to Ms Khan’s reasons for lying in Parliament, arising from my meeting with her on the 8th of August. Second, I will raise some broad points about the selective nature of how the COP report dealt with the evidence before it. However, as I intend to clear my name and cooperate with the Public Prosecutor, my comments on the COP report will be limited in scope.
Raeesah Khan’s sexual assault
The most difficult aspect of this episode for me personally, and most certainly something that I have reflected on, is the approach to take when a fellow MP tells you first, she is a rape victim and second, how this episode caused an untruth to be told in Parliament.
From the moment I learned, after the August sitting, that Ms Khan had lied in Parliament, there was no doubt in my mind that she would have to confess in Parliament that she had lied, and that she would have to apologise for it in this House. I have shared publicly that the matter of the lie was something for Ms Khan to explain in Parliament. My firm belief is that a Member of Parliament (MP) must be accountable in Parliament for what they say in Parliament. In addition, I considered that whenever she confessed, Ms Khan would have to explain her reason for telling the lie. I did not want Ms Khan’s parents or loved ones to be caught by surprise before she had had a chance to speak with them.
Looking back though, I gave Ms Khan too much time to settle herself before closing this issue with her. Between the 8th of August and the 30thof September, I should have been pro-active and checked where she was in addressing the matter with her family. That omission is mine alone. I acknowledged the same to the COP in my evidence.
However, I will continue to be as sympathetic to anyone who shares such deeply personal details with me. My instinct, even today, would be to keep the information of the sexual assault to myself, or to a very small group of trusted individuals, given its highly personal and sensitive nature. I would allow such a person space to deal with the matter. I still believe that it was right that the clarification was made in Parliament rather than out of it.
That said, I will discuss with my Party colleagues how, as an organisation and political party, we can handle such matters better, while taking into account how delicate they are.
Comments on the COP Report
Sir, on to my brief comments on the COP report. For today, the principal point I will make is the disregard of evidence I submitted to the Committee. At a minimum, I would have expected a listing of all the documents my fellow Workers’ Party colleagues and I submitted to the Committee to be included in the COP report, to indicate that they were actively considered in deliberations. I can only assume they were not considered, despite my colleagues and I being served with a summons to produce.
There are objective documents that I submitted to the Committee which raise serious doubts about the eventual findings reached in the report, including the unparliamentary language used at various places which is not supported by evidence. The most egregious in my mind, is the conclusion that in seeking a psychiatric evaluation for Ms Khan, I had somehow weaponized her condition. The following points need to be considered as to why I mentioned the psychiatric evaluation.
First, the notes of the Workers’ Party Disciplinary Panel (DP), which were submitted to the COP, show that Ms Khan tendered, on her own accord, documents which revealed that she the patient of a psychotherapist who had referred her to a psychiatrist. Second, on 29 Nov, Ms Khan voluntarily shared with the DP that she suffered from dissociation – once again, the relevant DP notes were forwarded to the COP. And third, I was asked an open question by the COP as to why Ms Khan would make certain statements. I attempted to give a fair answer in line with what Ms Khan had herself revealed.
If the COP was indeed a fact-finding body, should I not have raised the matter of Ms Khan possibly labouring under a condition to the COP? In my evidence to the COP, I registered the point that the matter was raised because it covered issues of proportionality and culpability. I believed that Ms Khan should not be excessively punished for a condition she could be labouring under, and the COP ought to see it as a mitigatory point in her favour. This evidence of mine, supported by the COP’s minutes of evidence, is ignored by the Committee. So, I reject this assertion that in raising the matter of Ms Khan’s mental health to a fact-finding body with a view to considering an appropriate punishment on her, I had somehow smeared her, or worse, somehow cast aspersions on those with mental health conditions.
Another point I strongly disagree with the COP on, is how the committee chose to characterise my evidence with regard to Ms Loh and Mr Nathan’s representations, in antagonistic terms. I shared my view with the COP that in my opinion, loyalty to Ms Khan was an operative consideration in the minds of Ms Loh and Mr Nathan. Ms Khan in her own WhatsApp text to me on 22 Nov at Annex C29 states that she would respect any decision the Disciplinary Panel or DP makes, even if it is to resign. In my DP notes of 25 November covering the meeting with Ms Loh and Mr Nathan, which again was submitted to the COP, Ms Loh made it clear that Ms Khan’s resignation should not be on the cards because, in her view, what she did in Parliament was not serious as it was not as if Ms Khan had, and I quote, “laundered money”, unquote. I believe many would take a different view – that telling untruths in Parliament is serious.
Such documentary evidence placed before the COP would show that I had good reasons for concluding that loyalty to Ms Khan was a consideration for her closest allies. Ms Loh’s perspective of the gravity of what Ms Khan did is one of those good reasons. Once again, such evidence does not appear to have been considered by the COP.
I can only speculate why. Could it be to strategically drive a wedge and disunite the Workers’ Party – and to show that its leaders recklessly cast aspersions on their own members? And in making the point, the COP report carefully omits the only character references I made in evidence about Ms Loh and Mr Nathan. And what did I say? I quote: “That they are decent, good people and have done a lot for the Party.” Unquote. I still hold that view.
Finally, Mr Speaker, the COP’s case at its highest, relies on one pillar – it believes Ms Khan’s evidence that she had been told to take her lie to the grave. This belief rests on an uncorroborated piece of evidence, a WhatsApp text originating from Ms Khan herself. The COP deems the fact of its contemporaneousness to be critical in coming to its conclusion. The COP does not question Ms Khan’s credibility even though she was the one who lied in this House, by her own admission, and even though she also lied when she first communicated with me about this matter.
So if contemporaneous evidence is indeed central, one would expect the COP report to exhibit a fidelity to such evidence. But it does not.
For example, at para 93 of the report, it makes the case that Ms Loh was surprised the Disciplinary Panel was set up, and it advances Mr Nathan’s view that the DP was self-serving. However, what were Ms Loh and Mr Nathan’s contemporaneous views on the DP when it was set up? I submitted my WhatsApp texts with both of them to the COP. Once again, this evidence is left out from the COP report. For the record, Ms Loh’s contemporaneous reply upon receiving my message was and I quote “I see. Is there something you need me to do?” Unquote. Mr Nathan’s reply was clearer, and I quote: “Hi Pritam, noted on this. I know its difficult but I think party members and supporters will be comforted by it.” Unquote. These contemporaneous WhatsApp messages directly contradict the COP’s findings at para 93.
Why does Ms Khan turn?
This leaves me to consider Ms Khan’s behaviour after her resignation and her motivations for making her uncorroborated claim at the COP that she was told to take her lie to the grave. I would offer that the more natural explanation as to why she would do so is that it was in line with human behaviour, logic, and common sense, to use the words of the COP. Her post-resignation behaviour was natural in the arena of political participation.
When our first Prime Minister executed the transfer of power from the 1G to 2G leadership, according to 5-time PAP MP for Whampoa Mr Augustine Tan, there was a lot of strain, tension and resentment when older MPs and Ministers were told to step aside for the 2G PAP. In response, one outgoing Minister even spoke against the candidature of PM Lee at the 1984 elections, such was the level of disenchantment.
The comparison with Ms Khan’s behaviour and testimony at the COP is apt, because not everybody reacts with loyalty to their Party or their leaders when they realize that the curtain is coming down on them or their political careers. How did Toh Chin Chye, former DPM and Chairman of the PAP react when he was pushed to the backbench? He became a vocal critic of PAP policies and famously said, “how can I remain a dumb cow?” As to the handover of power, he said, and I quote, “for old party members who had been loyal, it was a painful process. You don’t repay their loyalty by throwing them out. We had the responsibility to help them find jobs.” Unquote.
In fact, so serious was the concern of the unhappiness amongst some members of the PAP Old Guard about political renewal that Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew as Secretary-General of the PAP suggested to his Assistant Secretary-General Goh Chok Tong to pack new cadre members into the People’s Action Party, in case the question of succession and renewal came to the fore at the next PAP party conference.
Sir, for the record, there are no “jobs for the boys or girls” for former WP MPs. When your departure is precipitated by an overwhelming loss of support from your Party members and colleagues except for your closest allies, from a human behaviour standpoint, I can understand why a person would turn against one’s Party leaders.
My final point, Mr Speaker, is on the legitimate questions raised by Singaporeans about candidate selection in the Workers’ Party.
As this House knows, and as the Government has also previously shared, for example, when the chief of the Singapore Civil Defence Force was convicted in court, no selection process is fool-proof, and people can change. Even PAP MPs have been found guilty of criminal conduct or forced by their party to vacate their seats for other reasons. Potential PAP general election candidates have also been substituted at the eleventh hour. The point is that even people who exhibit politically attractive character traits can turn out to be unsuitable. The Workers’ Party also has had its fair share of the same experience.
It can be very difficult, if not impossible, to test a person’s judgement in all circumstances prior to fielding them as political candidates. This is so even for the PAP, with its massive resources and far greater ease in finding willing candidates compared to opposition parties.
However, the Workers’ Party does not use these realities as excuses. In the main, our candidate selection processes can always be better in spite of the extraordinary circumstances and the political culture of a one-party dominant state.
I will confer with my colleagues with a view to fine-tune the processes in the Workers’ Party as best we can, taking into account the structural challenges we in the opposition face. This would include the absolutely legitimate demands of Singaporeans that the Workers’ Party fields individuals who do not lower the esteem of Parliament, or who meet the standards expected of Members of Parliament. Of course, I will endeavour to the best of my abilities to ensure that our candidates are rational, responsible and respectable. And if any candidate selection decisions are wrong, I as Secretary-General of the Party, take full responsibility.
In conclusion, with reference to the Leader of the House’s first motion at 2(c), the Workers’ Party disagrees with the reasons behind the lower quantum of fine for Ms Khan, because it is predicated on alleged guidance given to her by myself, Ms Lim, and Mr Faisal, a case which the three of us reject.
On the second motion, I am unable to accept the COP’s findings that offences have been committed under the Parliament Act by me or any other Workers’ Party MPs. Therefore I will object to the second motion as the basis for the recommendations are that offences may have been committed by us. Nevertheless, should Parliament resolve to adopt the Motion, I intend to clear my name and will cooperate fully with the Public Prosecutor. For this reason, I have kept my comments on the COP report for today’s purposes very narrow and limited.