Upshot of the July 11, 2020 General Election in Singapore

Singapore election ballot box (Digital News Asia)

Singapore election ballot box (Digital News Asia)

By Ivan Lim,
Former AJA President, Contributor to AsiaN 

SINGAPORE: In 2020, politics in Singapore threw up some surprises. Despite misgivings, the government went ahead, in the midst of Covid-19 pandemic, to hold a general election in which conventional door-to-door campaigning and open-air party rallies had to be replaced by TV broadcasts and online debates in the name of public health safety.

The restrictive mode seemed to put opposition parties at a distinct disadvantage in the short nine-day stumping period. A fearful Worker’s Party (WP) warned of a “wipe-out” by the ruling People’s Action Party. But instead of a rout, the WP shocked the incumbent by capturing more seats though the PAP was returned to power, albeit, with diminished percentage of votes.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, secretary general of the PAP attributed the result to voters’ desire for diversity of voices in Parliament.

The morning after the election, he took the historical step of naming Worker’s Party secretary general Pritam Singh the Official Leader of the Opposition in the incoming 14th Parliament. This was in recognition of the WP’s enlarging its standing from six seats to 10, by capturing a new four-member group representation constituency, and retaining a five-member GRC constituency plus a single ward during the election.

It is a moot point whether the PAP could have appointed a Leader of the Opposition to facilitate the emergency of a two-party parliamentary system.  Regardless, the significance is that it presages a turning point in the adversarial politics that is in vogue.

In his post-election comment, PM Lee said: “Now that the election is over, we need to put all our differences aside, close ranks, and work together on the task at hand, which is to get us through the crisis safely”. His call for a “whole-of-nation response” to the pandemic seemed to hint at a new willingness to work hand in hand with the opposition ranks.

In a 2006 election rally, Mr Lee had raised eye brows with his fix-the-opposition dictum: “What is the opposition’s job?,” he declared.

“It’s not to help the PAP do a better job! Their job is to make life miserable for me so that I screw up and they can come in and sit where I am here and take charge.”

He could deal with a small number of opposition leaders in Parliament but added “But supposing you had a Parliament with 10, 15, 20 opposition members out of 80.

“Then, instead of spending my time thinking of what is the right policy for Singapore, I’m going to spend all my time – I have to spend all my time – thinking what is the right way to fix them.”

What then motivated the PAP supremo, son of the later founder-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, to change his tack?

A political watcher surmised that the move to accommodate the Worker’s Party was calculated to isolate the new Progress Singapore Party. Founded by dissident PAP veteran Tan Cheng Bok, and backed by Mr Lee Hsien Yang, the estranged younger brother of the Prime Minister – the PSP has cast itself as the real PAP, suggesting the PM had led his party astray and should be replaced.

(The Lee siblings had fallen out over the issue of their father’s will on disposal of the family property at 38, Oxley Road)

Regardless, the WP’s chief Mr Pritam Singh has accepted the post of LO in good faith and pledged to be loyal to Singapore and its people. In contrast to the PSP’s ambitions, the WP is content to play a constructive check-and-balance role vis-à-vis the ruling party in Parliament.

The appointment of a Leader of the Opposition appeared to be a concession by the dominant ruling PAP to assuage young voters’ clamor for a diversity of voices.

But the party’s overwhelming majority in Parliament makes it premature to suggest it is pivoting towards a Westminster model in which the governing party deemed the Opposition bench as a shadow Cabinet that is ready to take over if the former loses a vote of confidence. Going by the standpoint of the in-coming fourth generation (4G) leaders’ standpoint, the city-state is too small for a functioning two-party system. Opposition will be confined to the limited role of articulating different views but the incumbent party will continue to rule the roost. How? The 4G leaders say, by winning the people’s trust However, given the opportunity, the PAP will not rule out taking steps to weaken or discredit the Opposition.

Indeed, seizing on a fabricated statement by a Workers’ Party lawmaker in Parliament, the PAP moved swiftly to act against its leadership.

In August, during a debate on a motion on Empowering Women, Ms Raeesah Khan said in 2017 she had accompanied a victim of rape to file a police report and a 25-year-old woman had come out crying after a police officer allegedly questioned her about her dressing and whether she had been drunk.

On Oct 3, Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam asked Ms Khan for details about the allegations which has cast a shadow over the Singapore Police Force. But she declined to do so, citing confidentiality. Neither did she respond, police said on Oct 20, to its request for an interview.

Then on Nov. 1, things took an unexpected turn: Ms Khan told Parliament she had not given a truthful account about the rape victim. She retracted her earlier statement and apologised to the police.

The Leader of the House, Ms Indranee Rajah immediately called out her breach of parliamentary privilege. A Committee of Privileges (CoP), made up of six members from PAP and one from WP, soon swung into action to investigate Ms Khan, implicating her party leadership in the process.

In an apparent move at damage-control, the WP’s top three leaders convened an internal inquiry to get at the root of her false statements. Ms Khan disclosed that she herself had been a victim of sexual assault when she was a student overseas.

Party leaders while sympathetic, nevertheless, said they told her to take personal responsibility for her falsehood and come clean. Subsequently, they also prevailed upon her to resign from her party and consequently from her seat as MP, presumably to avoid the ignominy of being sacked by Parliament.

A twist in what was supposedly a straightforward case, came when under questioning by the COP, Ms Khan claimed that her party chief had told her to “take her lie to the grave”. On Nov 30, Ms Khan resigned from her party and from her seat as MP of the Sengkang Group Representation Constitution (GRC).

Following up on Ms Khan’s testimony, the CoP called in the WP’s top three leaders, Mr Singh, chairperson Sylvia Lim and vice-chairman Faisal Manap, for questioning.

The grilling of Mr Singh, at times, turned into a hammer-and-tongs fracas, with Culture, Community & Youth Minister Edwin Tong interrogating the WP leader. Mr Tong questioned Mr Singh at length on two issues: whether he had instructed Raeesah “take her lie to the grave’ and why he had not found it fit to disclose to the WP officials and the public that the party’s top three known about Raeesah’s lie but kept mum until much later.

Mr Singh repeatedly asserted that Ms Khan had told a “complete and, utter fabrication”. He had in fact, told her to take ownership of her false and do the needful on Oct 4 if the matter came up in Parliament.

The plot thickened as the COP’s line of inquiry suggests that instead of Ms Khan, the WP is put on trial. The outcome of the CoP inquiry on Feb 10 was to find Ms Khan guilty of abuse of privilege and to fine her $35,000 for her lies.

Next, more adversely, the CoP concluded that Mr Singh, Ms Lim and Mr Faisal had been untruthful in giving their evidence under oath… In particular, it described the WP chief and Leader of the Opposition as the “key orchestrator” behind the moves by Ms Khan to repeat her falsehoods in Parliament on Oct 4.

Highlighting that their actions may amount to perjury, a criminal offence, the panel recommended that Mr Singh and Mr Faisal be referred to the Public Prosecutor for further investigations.

With the PAP majority of 83 lawmakers in Parliament, the CoP’s recommendations were carried. The WP’s nine MPs and two PSP non-constituency MPs objected to the motion on Mr Singh and Mr Manap, the latter for being not forthcoming in giving evidence.

In a spirited response, Mr Singh said the WP rejected the COP findings completely and declared he would co-operate with the public prosecutor and defend himself against the charges.

PM Lee commended Parliament for pursuing the “transgressions”, saying: “To pretend nothing happened or to “lower our standards just a little, not that untruths were told, but argue that it was after all not so serious a lie, and no harm was done” would be to “become complicit in dishonouring and demeaning Parliament”, he said.

To political observers, however, the saga smacks of a return to hardball politics that carry high risks for the Leader of the Opposition and his party. If found guilty of perjury, he might be fined or jailed with prospects of losing his seat in Parliament.

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