Raeesah Khan has been referred to a committee for lying in Parliament. What's next?

Mothership Explains: Parliamentary privilege protects MPs from being sued, but what happens when these privileges are abused?

Joshua Lee | November 02, 2021, 01:01 PM

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There was an explosive revelation in Parliament on Monday (November 1): Workers' Party Member of Parliament Raeesah Khan admitted that she had lied about accompanying a sexual assault survivor to a police station where a police officer allegedly made comments about the latter's dressing, and the fact that she had been drinking.

Here's a summary of what happened

That particular lie was relayed in an anecdote in Raeesah's speech on the Gender Equality Motion on August 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."

If you've been following that particular story, you would be aware that this spiralled into a back-and-forth between herself, the Singapore Police Force, and ministers from the Ministry of Home Affairs.

Nearly three months later, it turned out that the anecdote was not entirely true.

On November 1, Raeesah admitted that she did not accompany the sexual assault survivor as she initially claimed. Instead, she revealed that the anecdote was taken from a support group for women.

Raeesah also admitted that she perpetuated this lie when she was pressed by Minister of State for Home Affairs Desmond Tan and Minister for Home Affairs K Shanmugam for clarifications about the anecdote.

Sengkang MP Raeesah Khan admitted on November 1 that she had lied in Parliament, prompting the Leader of the House Indranee Rajah to file a complaint to the Committee of Privileges. Credit: @MCI/Youtube

Moreover, it turned out that whatever information Raeesah had about the alleged case was relayed in her anecdote; she knew nothing else about it. But when she was asked for more details in Parliament, she declined, citing the need for confidentiality.

Raeesah reasoned that she was trying to protect the survivor and others in the support group. She also said that she found it difficult to share that she was part of that support group.

Raeesah's admissions prompted the Leader of the House, Indranee Rajah, to file a complaint against her for allegedly breaching parliamentary privilege.

What is parliamentary privilege?

If you are able (and willing!) to wade through the legalese of Singapore's statutes, here's the link to the Parliament (Privileges, Immunities and Powers) Act which details what parliamentary privilege is.

For the rest, in a nutshell, parliamentary privilege grants Members of Parliament (MPs) legal immunity for what they say in Parliament. This means that MPs cannot be prosecuted or sued for statements — even potentially defamatory ones — that they make in Parliament.

This allows MPs to debate freely in Parliament without fear of legal consequences.

Parliamentary privilege allows MPs to debate freely without fear of legal consequences. Credit: Parliament of Singapore.

Here's what Indranee said about parliamentary privilege:

"...as Members of Parliament, we are granted privileges. One of those privileges is to be able to speak in Parliament with immunity. Unlike other people, we can do so without fear of prosecution because of the underlying public policy interests, which is to be able to raise things. And it's very, very important, when we do so, that we must be able to speak truth in this house. And when we assert or make allegations, to be able to back them up."

Parliamentary privilege is also extended to authorised reports relating to parliamentary proceedings like the Hansard.

So MPs can say anything they want in Parliament?

Of course not. There are limits to what can be covered under parliamentary privilege, as seen in Raeesah's case.

Allegations made by MPs have to be substantiated, and if they are found to be untrue, Parliament has the power to investigate. This is just one example of how an MP can breach parliamentary privilege.

Another example of a breach: When an MP does not declare their financial interest in a particular matter before engaging in a Parliamentary discussion.

As mentioned by Indranee in Parliament, complaints about breaches of parliamentary privilege will be referred to the Committee of Privileges.

Who are in this committee and what does it do?

This committee currently comprises eight members:

  1. Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin
  2. Leader of the House Indranee Rajah
  3. Minister for Sustainability and the Environment Grace Fu
  4. Minister for National Development Desmond Lee
  5. Minister for Social and Family Development Masagos Zulkifli
  6. Minister for Home Affairs K Shanmugam
  7. PAP MP Don Wee (Chua Chu Kang GRC)
  8. WP MP Dennis Tan (Hougang SMC)

Indranee mentioned in the November 1 parliamentary sitting that she and Minister for Home Affairs K Shanmugam will recuse themselves from this particular case involving Raeesah. The Committee of Privileges will investigate the complaint and submit a report to Parliament.

OK, so what happens if an MP had been found to be guilty of abusing their privilege?

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

  1. Imprison them for a term not exceeding this current parliament session (read: until the next General Election)
  2. Impose a fine not exceeding the sum of S$50,000
  3. Suspend them from the service of Parliament
  4. Direct that they be reprimanded or admonished by the Speaker of Parliament

Parliament can also mete out 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.

So, other MPs have been investigated for allegedly abusing their privileges?

Yes. You can click here to look at the reports by different committees of privileges over the years. It's a short list and the last time a Committee of Privileges submitted a report was 25 (!) years ago.

J.B. Jeyaretnam

The bulk of Committee of Privileges reports over the years was submitted during the 6th session of Parliament and they involved the late J.B.. Jeyaretnam, MP for Anson. Some of the allegations that were levelled against him include:

  • Misrepresenting the proceedings of the Committee of Privileges in letters to his constituents, and in the process, lowered the dignity and authority of the Committee
  • Making unsubstantiated allegations that the Executive arm of the government transferred district judges who gave judgements which didn't sit well with the Executive

For the latter, Jeyaretnam was fined S$1,000.

Jeyaretnam (right) with his family. Via NAS.

David Marshall vs Goh Keng Swee

In 1962, MP for Anson David Marshall filed a complaint against then-Minister for Finance Goh Keng Swee for abusing and breaching parliamentary privilege.

Marshall claimed that Goh allegedly made "violently slanderous" statements concerning him in Parliament, including calling him a "quivering, whimpering, half-demented pulp of a man" and "coward".

It was a rather heated debate (you can view the full exchange here), with Marshall interjecting at one point to shout, "YOU ARE A LIAR!" at Goh.

David Marshall filed a complaint against Goh Keng Swee for allegedly making "violently slanderous" statements about him in Parliament. Image via NAS.

The Committee of Privilege at that time found that Goh did not breach parliamentary privilege because "a Member may state whatever he thinks fit in debate, however offensive it may be to the feelings or injurious to the character, of individuals; and he is protected by his privilege from any action for libel, as well as from any other question or molestation".

However, the committee acknowledged that members of the Legislative Assembly should not conduct themselves in a manner which affected the dignity and reputation of the Assembly — which would have been an abuse of their privilege.

Having said that, the committee found that Goh was not guilty of abuse because his words were said in the heat of the debate, and hence, were neither deliberate nor malicious.

Just say "Sorry"

In more recent history, there had been instances of breaches of parliamentary privilege although all of them were settled with a simple apology without being escalated to the Committee of Privileges.

It begs the question if Raeesah too could have been let off with an apology.

In 2000, then-PAP MP for Tampines GRC Ong Kian Min recounted the story of a grassroots leader who was allegedly (and rather unfairly) cut out of a deal by a government-linked company. This story was told to him by said grassroots leader.

Unlike Raeesah's case though, a subsequent investigation found that the allegations made by the grassroots leader was false. Ong immediately apologised in Parliament.

It could be that lying in Parliament is a more serious offence and warrants a heavier course of action. In addition, it appears that this is the first instance of an MP who was caught lying in Parliament.

What's next for Raeesah?

Raeesah's admission has ignited a groundswell of public feedback demanding her resignation.

Separate from the verdict that will be doled out by the Committee of Privileges, Raeesah might also face disciplinary action from her own party.

The Workers' Party announced on November 2 that it has approved the formation of disciplinary panel consisting of Secretary-General Pritam Singh, Chair Sylvia Lim and Vice-Chair Faisal Manap to look into Raeesah's admissions. The panel will report its findings and recommendations to the Workers' Party's Central Executive Committee.

It seems that Raeesah will be facing the consequences of lying in Parliament on multiple fronts.

Mothership Explains is a series where we dig deep into the important, interesting, and confusing going-ons in our world and try to, well, explain them.

This series aims to provide in-depth, easy-to-understand explanations to keep our readers up to date on not just what is going on in the world, but also the "why's".

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