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Explainer: Why did the privileges committee recommend that Pritam Singh, Faisal Manap be referred to prosecutors?

SINGAPORE —  If Parliament accepts the privileges committee report on Thursday (Feb 10), the saga surrounding the lie told by former Workers’ Party (WP) Member of Parliament (MP) Raeesah Khan could drag on for a long time.

Workers' Party chief Pritam Singh (left) and vice-chair Faisal Manap (right) testifying at Parliament's Committee of Privileges' hearings.

Workers' Party chief Pritam Singh (left) and vice-chair Faisal Manap (right) testifying at Parliament's Committee of Privileges' hearings.

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  • The Committee of Privileges recommended to Parliament that WP leaders Pritam Singh and Faisal Manap be referred to prosecutors
  • The committee found that they had lied under oath, which could possibly be perjury
  • This is the first time such a committee has done so, instead of directly recommending sanctions in its report
  • Legal experts said such a move reflects the offences' serious nature and may shine a light on untested facts during the committee's probe
  • Political analysts said it could lead to existential turmoil within the party should criminal proceedings go ahead

SINGAPORE —  If Parliament accepts the privileges committee report on Thursday (Feb 10), the saga surrounding the lie told by former Workers’ Party (WP) Member of Parliament (MP) Raeesah Khan could drag on for a long time.

Within the 1,180-page report is a proposal that Workers’ Party senior leaders Pritam Singh and Faisal Manap should be referred to the Public Prosecutor, meaning the Attorney-General, for possible criminal proceedings.

This is a process that could take months or years to complete, several constitutional lawyers and political analysts said after the release of the report. It was something that Mr Singh, who is WP’s chief and Leader of the Opposition in Parliament, alluded to in his comments after the report was published.

The Committee of Privileges found Ms Khan, who had since resigned from the party and thus from her position as an MP, guilty of abusing her parliamentary privilege by telling untruths in the House over a claim that she accompanied a sexual assault victim to a police station where the victim was treated insensitively.

The report, which will be debated in Parliament next week, recommended that Ms Khan be fined a total of S$35,000 for telling the lie and then repeating it on a different day. 

As for Mr Singh and party vice-chair, Mr Faisal, the committee proposed that they be referred to the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) for it to consider whether any criminal proceedings ought to be instituted. 

The report did not recommend any action towards WP chairman Sylvia Lim, in view of her voluntary assistance to the committee.

This is the first time that a Committee of Privileges has proposed to refer people to the public prosecutor, instead of directly recommending sanctions in its report to Parliament.

Past committees that probed opposition leaders JB Jeyaretnam from WP, as well as Dr Chee Soon Juan from the Singapore Democratic Party, had directly proposed fines for abuse of privilege and perjury, among other offences. 

So why did the committee break from convention this time? To find out, TODAY spoke to legal experts and political watchers on some possible reasons, what comes next, as well as the implications for the WP should criminal proceedings go ahead. 

WHY REFER WP LEADERS TO PROSECUTOR

In its report, the committee stated that its purview is to look at Ms Khan’s untruths, but whether the three senior WP leaders had guided Ms Khan to repeat the lies is outside its remit and “is for Parliament to decide whether to consider… at an appropriate stage”.

It also determined that, based on its findings, the three leaders had been untruthful in their evidence while under oath, which could amount to perjury.

Even though Parliament is given powers to deal with such unacceptable conduct and impose sanctions, including custodial sentences and fines, the committee decided that the case involving Mr Singh ought to be dealt with “through the trial process rather than Parliament alone”.

For Mr Faisal, the committee said that his refusal to answer its questions may amount to contempt of Parliament, which it recommends that prosecutors investigate further as well.

The committee has done quite a thorough review, but there are just some things that it did not test.
Mr Yeoh Lian Chuan, partner of law firm Withers KhattarWong

Mr Sunil Sudheesan, a lawyer at Quahe Woo and Palmer law firm, told TODAY: “The purpose of the committee was to determine what kind of sanction was available for Raeesah, and it did so. 

“But during the proceedings, it came across a potential scenario whereby Mr Singh perjured himself. Because perjury is so serious, it probably felt better not to rush to a conclusion but rather, have the AGC look into it.”

Mr Benjamin Joshua Ong, a law lecturer at the Singapore Management University (SMU), agreed that the WP leaders’ conduct, if it is perjury, is far more serious than Ms Khan’s lie. 

After all, if one was an MP, there are different types of conduct that could amount to abuse of parliamentary privilege without necessarily falling foul of the general law of the land, he added.

“Wilfully lying at a parliamentary inquiry is more serious and can be referred to the public prosecutor for further investigation, according to the Parliament (Privileges, Immunities and Powers) Act,” Mr Ong said.

WHAT PROSECUTORS, COURTS CAN DO 

If Parliament accepts the committee’s report next week, then it falls on prosecutors to determine whether there is enough evidence to initiate criminal proceedings.

Prosecutors may also consider new evidence, which may not have emerged during the committee’s hearings, before deciding the next steps.

All these means looking at any consistencies and inconsistencies of past statements, objective evidence such as chat logs, and also the credibility of witnesses.

After all, with AGC and the judicial system involved, prosecutors have to prove to a high standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt”, the legal experts said.

Mr Yeoh Lian Chuan, partner of law firm Withers KhattarWong, noted that during the course of the committee’s inquiry, there were several aspects of the evidence that were not fully “tested”.

For example, the WP leaders gave evidence that they decided not to press Ms Khan about the lie on Aug 8 because she had only just revealed to them that she was a victim of sexual assault.

But in Ms Khan’s testimony, she said that Mr Singh’s first reaction had been that she should go before the committee, but he had changed his view after hearing her explanation, apparently without much input from Ms Lim or Mr Faisal.

“You have to test these things in a trial, because the committee did not test it. You would have to bring back Raeesah to the stand, and test one version against the other,” Mr Yeoh said.

“The committee has done quite a thorough review, but there are just some things that it did not test… I don't know what standard of proof the committee has, but for courts, it is to be beyond a reasonable doubt.”

What stood out to me as a criminal lawyer looking at the committee’s probe is that Pritam cannot go and cross-examine Raeesah. So, if the court proceedings do get that far, it will allow for a proper testing of evidence.
Mr Sunil Sudheesan, lawyer at Quahe Woo and Palmer law firm

Mr Sunil agreed that the prosecutors will need to prove its case to meet this high bar of proof, since there may be findings of fact that could eventually be challenged, as well as witnesses who may be cross-examined by both sides. 

“What stood out to me as a criminal lawyer looking at the committee’s probe is that Pritam cannot go and cross-examine Raeesah. So, if the court proceedings do get that far, it will allow for a proper testing of evidence,” Mr Sunil said.

He estimated that if the committee’s report is accepted by Parliament, the investigation process by prosecutors could take around six months. Following that, any criminal proceedings could take an even longer time. 

Mr Yeoh said that the privileges committee’s process can be seen as a one-sided procedure, especially with the committee members dominated by MPs from the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP).

It is therefore “logical” for the committee to propose tapping prosecutors who are not politicians, especially since their said offences are serious in nature, he added.

“With the trial process, I think it will be a painful process for the WP and for Pritam. But, logically speaking, a trial process would make more sense,” Mr Yeoh said.

WHAT ABOUT THE POLITICAL IMPACT

Besides the damage to WP’s reputation, political observers told TODAY that the committee’s recommendations would raise existential questions that the party has to grapple with should the two party leaders be charged.

Professor Eugene Tan, SMU’s law don, said that during the course of the hearings, it emerged that there was already some unhappiness within WP towards Mr Singh’s decisions.

“But now that the committee has put together a massive report, I think it raises questions on whether it's untenable for him to remain as the Leader of the Opposition as well as the secretary-general of the Workers' Party,” Prof Tan said.

Yet another relevant question, he added, is whether the entire Aljunied Group Representation Constituency team should contemplate stepping aside to trigger a by-election to get a fresh mandate of the electorate, considering the gravity of the alleged misconduct.

Mr Andrew Yeo, Asia practice lead at public policy advisory firm Global Counsel, drew attention to the political branding that Ms Raeesah had brought along when she was elected into Parliament — one that highlighted WP’s desire to debate topics “transcending the bread-and-butter issues of society”.

Although her actions may represent a setback for such a political brand, Mr Yeo stressed that issues such as environmental sustainability or gender equality, which are of particular interest to young people, will still remain.

Aside from the ramifications for WP, political analyst Felix Tan from Nanyang Technological University said that there could be some possible political “backfire” that the PAP may have to contend with should a lengthy criminal proceeding against WP leadership ensue.

This is because some members of the public may see the incident as an attempt to “find faults” with the Opposition.

At the end of the day, the saga would cause the public to more closely scrutinise all MPs.

Dr Gillian Koh, deputy director of research at the Institute of Policy Studies, said: “Supporters of WP will have been troubled by this lapse in management of its internal affairs and the prevarication on whether the truth matters in our legislative body, Parliament.

“But now, they will also probably be more intensely focused on discussing whether these standards of integrity and accountability have been equally upheld by all members of the House, current and past.”

Related topics

Parliament Committee of Privileges Workers' Party Pritam Singh Faisal Manap Raeesah Khan AGC prosecution

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