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Lies, accountability, double standards, and power in Singapore

Reflections on everything that's going on over the lie that Raeesah Khan told in Parliament, and what its implications might be for our society.

Raeesah Khan before the Committee of Privileges. (Photo: a screenshot of the video on govsg's YouTube page.)

The lie that Raeesah Khan — Singapore’s youngest MP until she resigned on 30 November — told when speaking in the House on sexual assault, and everything that has transpired since, have been dominating Singaporean political news. The frames upon which the narrative has been hung have to do with dishonesty, cover-ups, irresponsibility, or, at the very least, ineptitude. But what’s not mentioned is that, at the heart of it, there’s also trauma, pain, sensitivity. And that’s even before we acknowledge the dark cloud of power and partisan politics hanging over the whole thing.

I’ve covered developments in weekly wraps, but they’ve felt inadequate in unpacking all the complexities of what’s going on here. I’ve been mulling over a special issue for some time, but have found it much more challenging to write than I’d expected. I feel like I have to word things very, very carefully, to make it clear that I’m not trying to dismiss serious mistakes, or play a game of whatboutism, while also highlighting the power play that’s unfolding. Everything about this is now partisan, with people eager to toss around labels of “PAP loyalists” or “WP fans”, projecting their assumptions even before engaging in any real conversation.

Regardless of what people might think, I’m not here to defend Raeesah and the Workers’ Party, or dismiss or downplay what has happened. I’m more interested in the impact and implications of what is playing out — not for any politician or party, but for us as a society.

What we know (or think we know) so far

While speaking on the gender equality motion in Parliament on 3 August, Raeesah wanted to draw attention to sexual violence and survivor care, particularly to the harm caused to survivors who encounter insensitive law enforcement officers when they try to report the abuse they’ve experienced. She wanted to relay an anecdote of a woman who’d had a bad experience with the police when she tried to report sexual assault. But she’d heard this anecdote at a support group for survivors of sexual violence; telling the complete story “as is” would have required Raeesah to identify herself as a part of this support group and basically out herself as a survivor of sexual assault — something that, at the time, she hadn’t even told her parents. So Raeesah amended the account: instead of saying that it’d been brought up in a support group, she claimed to have accompanied the survivor to the police station.

When various members of the ruling PAP pressed her for more details, Raeesah refused, citing the confidentiality of the survivor. But this couldn’t be sustained; eventually, on 1 November, she admitted in Parliament that she’d lied about accompanying the survivor to the police station. This admission directly triggered two things: Raeesah was referred to the Committee of Privileges, and the Workers’ Party convened their own disciplinary panel.

Although Raeesah has since resigned, the Committee of Privileges process is still ongoing. Details have emerged through the Committee, as well as a press conference that the WP held. From these two sources, it seems like Pritam Singh and other senior members of the party learned that Raeesah had lied about a week after her 3 August speech. Raeesah told the Committee of Privileges that Pritam’s first reaction had been for her to come clean, but that changed after he’d heard more about why she’d done what she did. By Pritam’s account, he’d wanted to give Raeesah time to talk to her parents about her own experience of sexual assault before she had to tell the entire Singapore about it.

There is some fuzziness about why Raeesah stuck to her story during the October sitting of Parliament; according to Pritam, Raeesah had been told before that sitting that any clarification was hers to make, while Raeesah’s account was that she’d been told there would be “no judgment” if she kept to her narrative, which she interpreted as meaning that there would be no consequences if she were to stick to the false story.

The Committee of Privileges will continue to hear evidence.

We are more than partisan interests

Before we go any further, it’s important to put this up top: it’s not acceptable for any public official, regardless of what party they come from, to lie or mislead the public, in or out of Parliament. Raeesah should not have lied in Parliament; she has to take responsibility for that mistake, and I think she’s facing the consequences now given her resignation from the party, the loss of her parliamentary seat, intense public criticism, and whatever might come out of the Committee of Privileges.

The Workers’ Party leadership will also have to face the music and deal with criticism and scrutiny over the decisions they made and the actions they took (or didn’t take). This, too, is ongoing, and it’s up to them to weather this storm. Singaporeans aren’t beholden to any political party and don’t have to feel too bound to their successes or failures — what we should be most concerned about is the state of our country’s democracy, and whether we have structures that allow us to exercise our rights, provide care for those who need it, and deliver accountability and redress in ways that don’t end up causing even more harm.

On harm and hurt

This issue of harm has been percolating in my head as I follow the coverage. While acknowledging that Raeesah made a big mistake — in breaching the unnamed survivor’s confidentiality, and lying in Parliament — I don’t think it was done maliciously or for personal gain.

Yet the narrative that’s now being spun ignores the fact that, for all her failures, Raeesah is traumatised and hurting too. Nothing that’s happening now, from the media circus to the Committee of Privileges and their odd decision to release a “special report” even before they’ve heard all parties and concluded their inquiry, recognises or acknowledges this. Seeking accountability is not the same as assigning blame or inflicting pain, and the way that things are being handled right now seems to come more from a desire to punish than to actually address how we can repair and heal the harms that have been caused. There seems to be a wish to publicly shame someone who is herself a survivor of sexual assault, without any thought as to whether this is creating additional layers of trauma.

Also forgotten are all the other survivors of sexual assault that Raeesah had originally set out to speak up for. Some have blamed this neglect on her, saying that her lie set things back and made it even harder for survivors. But it doesn’t have to be this way; if we were a society that truly cared about survivors of sexual assault, we wouldn’t have allowed a single MP’s lapse to eclipse this entire issue. The speed with which the issue of sexual violence and survivor care dropped off the radar is a reflection on us (especially those with the power to set the agenda, such as powerful politicians and the media), not on Raeesah.

This isn’t a level playing field or a neutral truth-seeking exercise

When I first heard about Raeesah’s admission, I was frustrated at the sight of a massive own goal. There was never any way in hell that the PAP would let go of an opportunity this good to put their political opponents through the wringer. She must have known that opposition politicians walk around with targets on their backs, I thought. When you know they’re out to get you, why hand them ammo to shoot you with?

But then I realised that while “I really wish she hadn’t done that” is a valid response, it isn’t useful to think this way. "You know the PAP is like that what” isn’t much better than telling women who’ve been harassed or abused by men that “boys will be boys”. If the PAP and its affiliates want to go above and beyond to make political hay out of this, then that should be laid at their feet, not Raeesah’s.

Ultimately, we don’t live in a country with a level political playing field. It doesn’t cancel out what Raeesah did, but it also shouldn’t go unnoticed that this treatment — the fervour of the mainstream media coverage, the widespread speculation about whether this is the end of a political party’s credibility, the Committee of Privileges inquiry (during which a predominantly PAP group votes to release a “special report” even before everyone has had a chance to testify and before the Committee has arrived at any conclusion) — doesn’t get rolled out equally. At the beginning of this year, we saw a minister, whose job it is to oversee the implementation of digital transformation as part of Singapore’s infrastructure and governance, admit that a promise he’d made to the nation half a year ago, about contact-tracing data being used only for contact-tracing, had been misleading, because he’d somehow forgotten about a major piece of legislation.

We then found out that his promise had been invalid even before he made it, because the police had already accessed TraceTogether data in May 2020, the month before he made that promise in a press conference. For some reason, other ministers and/or government agencies — particularly those who must have known that Vivian Balakrishnan had got it wrong — didn’t correct or clarify this right away. We don’t know why it took so long to set the record straight; in that case, there were no inquiries or “special reports” to tell us, and the media coverage died down quickly. There was also no inquiry that approached anywhere near the same level of intensity as what we’re seeing now, when the prime minister’s own siblings made serious and alarming accusations about misuse of power and abuse of government processes.

On a more personal note, during the same parliamentary sitting in which Raeesah stuck to her lie, misrepresentations and untruths were spewed about me in the House. These claims and allegations perpetuated false narratives, pushed by members of the PAP and/or their supporters, that have been repeated for years, smearing my reputation and resulting in me constantly fighting fires that threaten to amplify or even further build up the lie. Just recently, I had to demand a correction from a local podcast that claimed, completely falsely, that I’d taken money from the US embassy in Kuala Lumpur to hold democracy classrooms in Singapore — something that they'd extrapolated from what was said about me in Parliament. It’s never-ending and exhausting. Yet I know I’ll never see accountability from those who have spread the slime around, never see them grilled about how and when and why they do this, never see the official record set straight. And so, while we can’t excuse lying to the public no matter who’s doing it, I also can’t help feeling, when I see the intensity of what Raeesah is being put through, that something’s not quite right about the selectiveness with which truthfulness is valued.

Once again, the narrative and agenda is being set by those in power, and the institutions that serve them. Once again, there’s an imbalance in voice and platform and reach. Once again, there are double standards in the way we respond to incidents and treat people. This is something that goes far, far beyond Raeesah and her lie. It’s something that makes me heartsick, every time I see it play out in various guises and scenarios, because it’s an indication that it is power, and not a desire to help people learn and heal, that dictates how accountability is extracted in our society.