WP’s woes underline pivotal choice facing Singaporeans
There is a lot to get through in Parliament’s Committee of Privileges report on the Raeesah Khan lies and the conduct of Workers’ Party leaders. The conclusions are serious and could potentially have political and electoral implications for the WP when the polls next roll around.
Is it the end of the beginning, or the beginning of the end?
The release of the Parliament’s Committee of Privileges (COP) report on Thursday (Feb 10) marked the end of the committee’s investigations into the lies told by former Workers’ Party (WP) Member of Parliament (MP) Raeesah Khan in Parliament last August and October.
The COP has recommended that WP secretary-general and Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh and the party’s vice-chairman Faisal Manap be referred to the Public Prosecutor for further investigations for lying under oath in their testimonies.
The committee did not recommend any action against WP chairman Sylvia Lim, noting that Ms Lim was prepared to voluntarily tender evidence that was "damaging" to Mr Singh.
Some observers have said this might mark the beginning of the WP’s demise as a credible, if not the most credible, opposition party in Singapore, given that its senior leaders have been called liars, and there is a hint of division between them.
There is a lot to get through in the final COP report, which amounted to more than 1,180 pages following 35 hours of meetings and an additional 31 hours of hearings.
But the conclusions are serious and could potentially have political and electoral implications for the WP when the polls next roll around.
HOW BAD IS BAD?
A key question is how bad is this latest episode likely to hurt the party in terms of actual votes.
There is some recent precedent to consider when evaluating this potential impact.
In October 2019, the High Court ruled that three then-Aljunied Group Representation Constituency (GRC) MPs — Mr Singh, Ms Lim and Mr Low Thia Khiang — were liable for damages suffered by the Aljunied-Hougang Town Council (AHTC), which is said to have made millions in improper payments under their watch.
The WP filed an appeal, and the Court of Appeal reserved its judgement on this following a hearing last February.
In 2019, the WP leaders had been found to have breached their fiduciary duties in the case of Ms Lim and Mr Low, and for breaching duties of skill and care to the town council in the case of Mr Singh.
The ruling and the appeal bookended the 2020 General Election (GE), where the WP team led by Mr Singh secured a comfortable victory in Aljunied GRC, winning 59.93 per cent of the vote against the People’s Action Party (PAP) which scored 40.07 per cent.
The WP actually improved on its performance in 2015, when it barely held on to the constituency with 50.95 per cent of the votes after a tense recount.
It would appear then that the unresolved lawsuit and concerns over financial mismanagement or irregularities did not feature high in the minds of voters in Aljunied GRC, at least in 2020.
It also did not seem to dent the WP’s momentum overall, seeing as how it clinched another GRC in Sengkang, in a result that saw Ms Raeesah enter Parliament.
One might argue that intentionally lying in Parliament and committing perjury in front of the COP could be seen as more serious than the complex situation in the AHTC case, but history has shown that opposition supporters may be willing to overlook seemingly damaging developments come polling day.
The fact that the COP is dominated by members from the ruling PAP might even work to WP’s favour.
The uncommon move to refer the next phase of the process to the Public Prosecutor could see the investigation dragging on. With the next election due by 2025, many developments could take place before Singaporeans next cast their ballot.
If a week is a long time in politics, as the proverbial saying goes, what more the next three-odd years.
WHAT’S THE WORST THAT CAN HAPPEN?
Of course, it’s possible to consider the worst-case scenario for the WP if Parliament accepts the COP’s recommendations and the Public Prosecutor decides to file criminal charges after its investigations.
Some observers have noted that the unprecedented move of bringing the case into court could have some upside for the WP leaders — they will have the chance to defend themselves and raise points in their favour that have hitherto not surfaced.
At the same time, the Public Prosecutor’s powers of forensic investigation and the right to a public defence would ensure that all stakeholders, including the public, would have access to relevant and critical information that applies to the case.
At any rate, the potential for criminal charges to be brought against Mr Singh and Mr Faisal looms ominously over the party.
In Singapore, any person convicted of an offence and sentenced to at least a year's jail or a fine of at least S$2,000 is disqualified from elections, so this could have implications for the WP slate of candidates in the next GE.
There is the possibility that all this will play out before 2025, with the need for a leadership change in the WP even before the next election.
Mr Singh’s ascension to the top job in the party came as WP stalwart Low Thia Khiang handed over the reins in 2018. Mr Low suffered a head injury after a fall at home in 2020, but has since appeared to have recovered well.
Mr Low, 65, was recently in the news when he rebutted accusations from former Hougang MP Yaw Shin Leong that Mr Low and Ms Lim had advised Mr Yaw to "stay silent" on allegations made about him in 2012. Mr Yaw's accusations were made online in December last year when the furore over Khan’s lies was at a peak.
Should Mr Singh be ruled out of leading the WP, there is a possibility for Mr Low to return to help stabilise the party.
Asked about this, Mr Low told Shin Min Daily News on Friday that “it’s up to residents to ask me and I’ll tell them more”.
He had said in 2020 that he was stepping down both as leader of the WP and from electoral politics because he felt he had achieved two key objectives — help the party to win a GRC, and renew the ranks and hand over to a new generation of leaders.
If that new generation falters, there might be a need for old hands to steady the ship and reinstall confidence among the party faithful.
It might not be completely smooth sailing however. Mr Low himself faced a challenge to his leadership by Mr Chen Show Mao in 2016, which he successfully weathered and denied was a reflection of divisions in the party.
Mr Chen stepped down from politics in 2020 at the same time as Mr Low.
The COP report also shed light on another potential source of division within the party. It said that Ms Lim had voluntarily provided notes from the WP’s internal disciplinary panel on Ms Khan in her testimony. These notes were damaging to Mr Singh as they directly contradicted his testimony.
It’s early days yet, but it will be interesting to see how WP cadre and supporters view Ms Lim’s actions, which could be seen as an act of disloyalty or self-preservation, or as the right thing to do to ensure transparency and honesty, which was the view of many when two other WP members provided testimony to the COP.
Beyond such possible internal divisions and contests, the risk that Mr Singh could lose the leadership of the party may dent the WP’s brand and popularity among a broader audience, especially the younger voters.
Mr Singh, 45, was seen as leading the vanguard in transforming the WP into a younger and more dynamic organisation that could appeal to a broader base of Singaporeans.
His appointment as the first Leader of the Opposition was heralded as a recognition of both his capabilities and the legitimacy of the opposition and WP in local politics.
If he goes, all this could be lost, along with the goodwill of Singaporeans who were hopeful for a credible and progressive opposition presence in Parliament.
The younger generation which has entered and risen up the ranks of the WP in recent years does not seem to have thrown up any likely successors to Mr Singh for now.
It’s not possible to conclude the long-term impact of the current challenges facing the party, but it’s safe to say that it has certainly thrown a spanner into the works at a time when momentum seemed to be on its side.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR SINGAPORE POLITICS?
If the results of recent elections are anything to go by, it would appear that Singaporeans’ desire for greater diversity and more checks and balances in Parliament is unlikely to go away anytime soon.
Opposition parties have tapped this ground sentiment during their hustings, encouraging Singaporeans to vote more alternative voices into Parliament to better represent citizens and to challenge the ruling party in debates on various issues.
This is something that the WP used effectively during the 2020 GE, when it raised the spectre of an opposition “wipe-out” to motivate voters to support them in Aljunied and Sengkang GRCs.
The notion of voting to deny the PAP a blank cheque resonated on the ground, as did the argument that the Government is typically more responsive to peoples' concerns when it loses elected seats.
Attempts by the PAP Government to shift this narrative have thus far proved less compelling, if general impressions of sentiment on the ground are anything to go by. Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat said in the wake of the 2020 GE that future elections are likely only to get tougher for the PAP.
In that sense, the current woes of the WP and the risk of the party taking a hit as a result of both the completed and upcoming investigations do not bode well for the political landscape, and could result in voter dissatisfaction and disinterest if it looks like the most credible opposition party could be weakened to the point of being an ineffective political force.
Besides feelings of unhappiness, a return to a more staid political scene dominated by a single party could also lead to a sense of jadedness and apathy, especially among younger citizens who may feel that the political system in Singapore is not one they care much for nor about. This will have negative implications for the political maturity of the country in the long run.
At the same time, there is a clear imperative to maintain the integrity of Parliament and hold MPs and political officer holders to high standards, regardless of which party they are from. This should not be muddied by attempts to frame the COP report as an effort to “fix” the opposition.
The current situation highlights the two competing forces at play — the need for integrity among MPs, and the desire for a credible opposition. In an ideal world, we would have both. But if voters are eventually forced to choose, will rationality or emotion triumph?
This is not an issue to be taken lightly, as it will define the type of Parliament we want and will have for Singapore. Hopefully it will be one with integrity and honesty as its foundation. We will know in 2025.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Nicholas Fang is a former Nominated Member of Parliament. He has previously worked as a journalist for over 18 years and currently runs a strategic communications consultancy.