8 political & non-politician questions we have after learning about Raeesah Khan's admission in Parliament

What are the implications?

Martino Tan | Jane Zhang | November 06, 2021, 08:38 PM

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On Nov. 1, Workers' Party (WP) Member of Parliament (MP) Raeesah Khan admitted in Parliament to lying about accompanying a rape victim to a police station, where her case was allegedly mishandled by the police.

Instead, she revealed that she was a sexual assault survivor herself, and had used the story shared by a member of a support group of which she was also a member. The story was shared without that person's consent.

The admission by Raeesah was unexpected and surprising, and its full ramifications have yet to be seen. But here are some preliminary questions we had.

1. How is WP’s credibility affected, following Raeesah's admission in parliament?

Raeesah's lying in the parliament is a blow to the WP's credibility as a major political party in Singapore.

But there appears to be a consensus among political observers that much of WP's credibility will depend on how the WP leadership addresses this issue and holds itself and Raeesah accountable.

Assistant Professor Walid Jumblatt Abdullah, from Nanyang Technological University's (NTU) School of Social Sciences, told The Straits Times that how WP "reacts to this incident, however, will determine its credibility".

As former The New Paper and TODAY editor P N Balji noted in his comment piece, Pritam Singh has a "double mission" to achieve in the whole saga.

The first is whether Singh could keep Raeesah's passion for the disadvantaged "alive", and the second is for Singh to "protect WP’s credibility".

Former Non-Constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) Daniel Goh also had a few sharp remarks for the WP leadership in terms of the handling of the Raeesah saga.

First, the former WP organising secretary and chair of the media team said that such a statement by Raeesah "was not made on impulse". In his previous experiences, "speeches were shared and reviewed among MPs".

Second and more importantly, Goh said that the leadership "must take some responsibility for allowing this transgression to happen and persist over several months".

Three months

This is because it took Raeesah three months to share the full details of the saga and admit that she lied.

Raeesah's allegation was made during her speech on the gender equality motion in Parliament on Aug. 3.

"Three years ago, I accompanied a 25-year-old survivor to make a police report against a rape committed against her. She came out crying—the police officer had allegedly made comments about her dressing and the fact that she had been drinking."

On the following day (Aug. 4), the Minister of State for Home Affairs, Desmond Tan, called on Raeesah to provide more details about a "serious" allegation regarding the police's mishandling of a rape report.

Raeesah did not provide further details and replied that as the incident was three years ago, she did not wish to "re-traumatise" the person that she accompanied.

Was enough due diligence done?:  Eugene Tan

Singapore Management University (SMU) Associate Professor of Law Eugene Tan observed that "the elephant in the room is what did the WP leadership do" when Raeesah did not substantiate her "very serious allegations against the police".

Tan also asked whether WP did enough due diligence when Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam followed up on Raeesah's allegations in the Oct. 4 sitting.

Shanmugam said that the police had checked their records and found no cases that fit Raeesah's description.

On Oct. 20, the police said in a statement that they could not identify such a case, despite an extensive search.

Raeesah did not respond to the two requests (on Oct. 7 and Oct. 15) by the police to attend an interview, but said that she would make a statement on the matter in Parliament on Nov. 1.

2. What are the potential consequences for Raeesah as an MP?

This is more straightforward.

An eight-member Committee of Privileges, chaired by the Speaker of Parliament, looks into any complaint alleging breaches of parliamentary privilege, and will determine whether Raeesah is guilty of abusing her parliamentary privilege.

As an MP, Raeesah is granted privileges to speak and debate freely in parliament without the fear of legal consequences.

This means that she cannot be prosecuted or sued for statements — even potentially defamatory ones — that she makes in Parliament.

However, an MP can still be found guilty of abusing his/her privilege

Section 20 of the Parliament (Privileges, Immunities and Powers) Act lays out what the Parliament can do to an MP who has been found to have conducted themselves dishonourably, abused their privilege or committed contempt:

  • Imprison them for a term not exceeding this current parliament session
  • Impose a fine not exceeding the sum of S$50,000
  • Suspend them from the service of Parliament
  • Direct that they be reprimanded or admonished by the Speaker of Parliament
  • A combination of the above measures

In the case of suspension, the MP will not be allowed to access Parliament.

If they're found within the premises of Parliament, they can be forcibly removed by an officer of Parliament or a police officer. Their MP allowance will also be stopped.

3. What actions can the WP disciplinary panel take against Raeesah?

This is less clear.

On Nov. 2, the WP's top decision-making body, its Central Executive Committee (CEC), approved the formation of a Disciplinary Panel to look into the admissions made by Raeesah.

The panel, which comprises of Secretary-General Pritam Singh, Chair Sylvia Lim and Vice-Chair Faisal Manap, will report its findings and recommendations to the CEC after it completes its work.

However, what powers the disciplinary panel, and whether there is a term of reference for its inquiry is not publicly known.

Raeesah is part of the WP CEC and its Deputy Treasurer. According to Section 20 (a) of WP's constitution,

"The Central Executive Committee, if satisfied that the conduct of any member is contrary to the principles or aims or objects of the Party or prejudicial to the welfare of the Party, may suspend or expel such member from any post in the Party, and demote him to the status of ordinary member if a Cadre Member, and expel him from membership of the Party."

This means that WP's top decision-making body has the power to suspend or expel someone from the membership of the party if his/her conduct is contrary to the principles or aims and objects of the party.

In other words, the WP CEC can demote Raeesah from her role as Deputy Treasurer and a CEC member to an ordinary member. The WP CEC is also able to expel Raeesah from the party.

Impact on Raeesah as an MP

Raeesah's expulsion from WP will have an impact on her as an MP.

According to Section 46 of the constitution of Singapore, the seat of an MP "shall become vacant" if "he ceases to be a member of, or is expelled or resigns from, the political party for which he stood in the election".

This means that Raeesah's MP seat in Sengkang will be vacant if she is no longer a member of WP.

But Singh's public statement on Raeesah may also have provided a hint regarding what he knew about her intent:

"The Parliament (Privileges, Immunities and Powers) Act gives an MP significant freedom of speech, to the extent that what is said in Parliament cannot be impeached or questioned outside Parliament. However, this freedom of speech does not extend to communicating untruthful accounts, even if an MP’s motives are not malicious (our emphasis)...She shared with me that she wanted to set the record straight in Parliament. This was the correct thing to do."

This information is likely to play a part in determining Raeesah's future in the party.

Yaw Shin Leong

WP's previous disciplinary issue with an MP dates back to 2012.

In 2012, WP expelled then-Hougang MP Yaw Shing Leong "for failing to uphold transparency and accountability".

This was after Yaw failed to present himself to the CEC to explain and discuss the allegations that he had an extramarital affair.

It also triggered a by-election as Hougang SMC is a single-member constituency.

4. Speaking of by-elections, does the constitution or any legislation allows for such an election to be held if Raeesah resigns?

We don't need a lawyer to interpret this.

According to section 24 (2A) of the Parliamentary Elections Act,

"In respect of any group representation constituency, no writ shall be issued under subsection (1) for an election to fill any vacancy unless all the Members for that constituency have vacated their seats in Parliament."

In other words, a by-election in Sengkang GRC is triggered only if all four WP MPs resign.

Over the years, there are examples that a by-election was not triggered if a seat was left vacant in a GRC.

In 2017, President Halimah Yacob stepped down from her position as MP for Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC to stand in the presidential election.

In 2008, Jurong GRC lost an MP when Ong Chit Chung passed away.

Currently, the other three MPs - He Ting Ru, Louis Chua and Jamus Lim - can still run the GRC even if Raeesah were to resign and leave her position as MP.

5. What are the implications for the PAP?

The impact on the PAP depends on whether a by-election will be called.

And this can only occur if the four-person Sengkang GRC team from WP decides to resign together.

How do the residents in Sengkang feel about the situation? Residents appeared split with regards to Raeesah's admission in parliament.

In a TODAY interview of 25 Sengkang residents, seven said that they were unaware of the issue. Among the remaining 18, half said that they were disappointed by Raeesah’s actions.

Granted, it is not a scientific poll.

But having half of the Sengkang residents feeling disappointed by Raeesah's action is not an insignificant number. After all, WP only managed to edge out the PAP's team with a 52 per cent vote share during last year's election.

Is the PAP ready for a by-election in Sengkang?

The Sengkang GRC PAP team has not been holding Meet-the-People Sessions since the GE, two of its candidates confirmed with The Straits Times in July this year.

However, they remain chairmen of the four PAP branches in the GRC.

In terms of national prominence, labour chief Ng Chee Meng continued to advocate for the causes of workers, seeking fairer terms and conditions for delivery riders.

Former Senior Parliamentary Secretary Amrin Amin continued to weigh in on national issues such as racism, and is now volunteering at Minister Shanmugam's constituency in Chong Pang.

Former PAP candidate Raymond Lye has been less prominent on a national level but continues to volunteer in Sengkang.

Lam Pin Min also continues to volunteer in Sengkang, although he has been less active on social media regarding his activities in the constituency.

Recent by-elections

But it will not be easy for the PAP to win back Sengkang GRC in a by-election, if we examine the recent electoral history of by-elections.

Following the watershed GE 2011, the ruling party, like most incumbent parties, has experienced mixed results with by-elections. It has won one and lost two contests.

In the 2016 Bukit Batok by-election, PAP suffered a nearly 12 per cent swing against SDP while retaining the seat.

In the 2013 Punggol East by-election, PAP lost the seat to Workers’ Party, suffering a nearly 11 per cent swing.

In the 2012 Hougang by-election, PAP did not manage to win back the seat, even though it achieved a better result (37.92 per cent compared to 35.2 per cent) than a year before.

Moreover, a by-election may be treated as a referendum on the government's handling of the Covid-19 pandemic rather than the performance of the Sengkang town council.

6. Could Raeesah's actions cause people to doubt survivors?

In a statement following Raeesah's revelation, the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) said that her behaviour "plays into the persistent myth that women frequently lie about assault".

This myth "has long been used to discredit survivors of violence while enabling perpetrators to escape accountability", AWARE wrote.

Raeesah's admission that she lied about being present could indeed cause some people to feel validated in their doubt of survivors.

As AWARE pointed out, a 2019 study by market research company Ipsos found that 41 per cent of Singaporeans believe that false accusations of sexual harassment are a bigger problem in Singaporean society than unreported acts.

However, the reality of the situation is that research has estimated that only 2 to 8 per cent of sexual assault reports or allegations are false, and that sexual assault continues to be a highly underreported crime.

In fact, Shanmugam stated in 2019 that out of 250 reported cases of serious sexual crimes (i.e. rape and sexual assault by penetration) per year for the period of 2014 to 2018, the complainants in only 10 cases were charged or warned by police for making false reports.

So although some may be inclined to see Raeesah's admission of making false statements as validation of their belief in the prevalence of false reports of sexual assaults, it should not be taken as an excuse or a rationale for disbelieving survivors.

Additionally, it is important to distinguish between the false claim made by Raeesah of being present with the rape survivor at the police station, from the claim made by the survivor herself about her experience reporting her rape to the police.

The rape survivor's account, which was shared in confidence in a support group, should not be presumed to be false just because Raeesah falsely claimed to be present with the survivor at the police station.

7. What is the impact of Raeesah's actions on survivors of sexual assault, as well as the dialogue around supporting survivors?

Some of the most central tenets of supporting survivors of sexual assault are the concepts of confidentiality, survivor-centric support, and consent.

As AWARE stated, Raeesah's decision to share the experience of the rape survivor was not survivor-centric.

UNICEF defines a survivor-centric approach as one that "aims to put the rights of each survivor at the forefront of all actions and ensure that each survivor is treated with dignity and respect".

Doing so thus centres the survivor in the process, and "promotes their recovery, reduces the risk of further harm and reinforces their agency and self-determination".

By sharing the survivor's story without her consent, despite the fact that it was shared in confidence in a support group, Raeesah did not engage in survivor-centric behaviour.

Raeesah herself admitted that sharing the confidential information was a "failure" which she "feel[s] deeply".

AWARE had previously pointed out that survivors often "experience a loss of autonomy during assault", and part of the recovery journey is regaining a sense of control.

Thus, sharing information without permission "would constitute yet another violation of their consent".

Protecting confidentially

In addition, Raeesah had said in Parliament that the reason she could not share further information about the survivor was to protect her confidentiality.

She later admitted that in actuality, she did not know any of the details of the case, beyond what she had already shared.

Confidentiality is a very important concept in survivor-centric support, because survivors need to have control over how and where their story is told.

So Raeesah's reasoning of confidentiality for not sharing more, when she in fact did not have any further information, unfortunately weaponised the very concept that is at the core of survivor-centric support. It could result in future dismissal of confidentiality as a valid reason to withhold information.

Raeesah had also said that she did not wish to "re-traumatise" the survivor more by providing more details.

From the perspective of the rape survivor, to see her story — which she had shared confidentially in a support group with other survivors of sexual assault — being broadcast on the national stage in Parliament and being scrutinised by the Minister of Law and Home Affairs and the police, would likely have been shocking and may have in fact forced her to relive her trauma.

It is important that survivors of sexual assault continue to be able to access safe and confidential groups and support networks, without fear of having their stories shared without permission.

Raeesah's actions went directly against the ethos of survivor-centric support, and reiterate the need for the concepts of consent, confidentiality, and survivor-centric approaches to be cultivated and emphasised when it comes to supporting survivors of sexual assault.

8. Do we as a society need more education and training about dealing with issues pertaining to sexual assault?

While Raeesah's fabrication about accompanying the survivor to the police station was indeed disappointing, we should also consider where there may be validity some of the suggestions that she raised.

As AWARE concluded, "[W]e hope that this incident does not undermine the original matter that Ms Khan was trying to address: the need to deal with sexual assault more sensitively and effectively."

Raeesah had suggested that the Ministry of Home Affairs provide more training to police officers in handling sexual assault and harassment cases, noting that such training and regulation had been rolled out for judges and lawyers.

She had also proposed that police could be supported by counsellors or trained mental health professionals at police stations, other than at Onesafe Centre in Police Cantonment Complex, which police had established for victims of sexual assault to undergo forensic and medical examination in one place with greater privacy.

Indeed, might additional training or additional resources for tough topics, such as dealing with cases of sexual assault, be beneficial for the professional development of Singapore's officers?

Suggestions to improve the process

For example, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) explains that the way that questions are phrased during victim interviews is important, as the way the question is asked could cause the victim to perceive it as blaming them for their actions or for their inability to recall some facts.

Thus, IACP provides a resource that lays out how trauma-informed interview techniques can be used to reframe questions "in a manner that helps victims retrieve memories from a traumatic event and assists law enforcement in gathering more information while making the victim feel more supported and increasing the likelihood that they stay involved in the criminal justice process".

Police aside, do we as a society have a robust understanding about sexual assault and trauma, and how to support survivors in a justice-oriented way?

We should examine why it can be so difficult and scary for survivors of sexual abuse, including Raeesah herself, to come forward about their experiences.

When looking at online responses to stories about sexual assaults that occur in Singapore, it is not uncommon to see victim-blaming comments (e.g. "She was asking for it") or questions on the validity of someone's claim.

Believing and supporting survivors does not mean we forgo due process, as Vox writes.

"Rather, it’s a call for the voices of survivors to be heard and taken seriously in ways that, many advocates argue, they haven’t been in the past."

This can be done through education and further dialogue about the support given to survivors of sexual assault, and examining what attitudes we may have that can prevent survivors from feeling safe coming forward to share their stories.

Top photo via CNA.