Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong delivered a speech in Parliament on Tuesday (Feb.15) in response to the report published by the Committee of Privileges (COP).
Leader of the House Indranee Rajah filed two motions last Thursday (Feb.10) to agree on the committee's findings and to refer Workers' Party (WP) secretary-general Pritam Singh, who is also the Leader of Opposition (LO), and WP vice-chairman Faisal Manap to the Public Prosecutor.
In his 40-minute speech, Lee said that the broader issue arising from Raeesah's lie in Parliament and how the WP leaders had handled the matter afterwards is how democracy should work in Singapore.
He elaborated on the importance to uphold a good democratic society and shared why he supported the two motions filed by Indranee.
What is important to uphold a good democratic society?
In his speech, Lee said that good and functioning democracies have "clear, strong norms".
These norms will be upheld by people with the right values which will translate into a virtuous cycle where good democracy begets good governance, and good governance begets good politics, Lee said.
Parliament is at the apex of this democratic system where the most important matters of state are discussed.
To fulfil its vital function, Parliament must be respected, and its members, processes and proceedings must be trusted.
When Parliament is being called into question, it will affect the democratic system.
"This is why we need to set the right norms of conduct among Parliamentarians, and guard them carefully.
Tell the truth always, and do the right thing by Singapore, even when it is hard or awkward – in fact especially when it is hard or awkward.
If something goes wrong, or something wrong has been done, own up and take responsibility – do not hide, dodge, or spin further lies, to obfuscate and cover up the original fib."
Anyone engaged in Singapore politics can also play a part in protecting the democratic system, with Lee using long-time WP cadre member Loh Pei Ying as an example.
He described Loh, who was Singh's former assistant, as someone who discerned that something was wrong and held accountable those in power when their actions fall short of these high standards.
Loh had testified against the WP's party leaders when interviewed by the COP.
Lee then cautioned that healthy democracies can "go downhill" if the texture of politics changes and the respect for politicians declines.
When right norms get debased and public trust is eroded, the country declines further, Lee said.
This is evident in many political system today which would be quite unrecognisable to their founding leaders. Lee cited India and Israel as examples in his speech.
Nothing can prevent Singapore from going down the same road as these countries and modern Singapore does not come with a fail-safe mechanism, Lee added.
Maintaining a high-trust society is important and so, it is essential to maintain our high standards and ensure our leaders embody the right values.
How do we maintain the high standards and ensure leaders embody the right values? He listed out these ways:
- Ensure leaders embody the right values
- Call out wrongs when wrongs arise
- Mete out punishment where punishment is due
- Preserve the sanctity of our institutions
- Never take public trust for granted
- Never allow lies, half-truths and falsehoods to become the accepted norm in politics
When people can trust the leaders, the system and the institution, our democracy can mature and deepen, and Singapore can flourish, Lee said.
High public trust is also a key factor why some countries did better than the others during Covid-19 pandemic.
Fortunately, Singapore is one of these high-trust societies but the opposite happened in the U.S. and UK, Lee said.
Support COP recommendations
On COP recommendations, Lee said that he hope members can agree to imposing the penalty on Raeesah as she was found guilty for lying in Parliament.
On referring Singh and Faisal to the Public Prosecutor, Lee said that what COP has recommended is "the best way forward".
Whether Singh, Faisal and WP Chairman Sylvia Lim had instructed Raeesah to lie or the three of them had lied under oath, both reflect very badly on the WP leaders, especially Singh who is the Leader of the Opposition (LO), if either established to be true, Lee said.
If the three leaders had lied and pushed the blame to Raeesah, this is indeed more serious than what Raeesah had done.
And if the three leaders had lied under oath, they "sought to frustrate the COP process" and had "betrayed the trust reposed in them as MPs", Lee said.
"We must take the transgression seriously, and act on it," he added.
Lee elaborated on why he is supportive of referring Singh and Faisal to Public Prosecutor and "let the system work".
"What alternative choices did the COP have?
It could have recommended to Parliament to administer a token slap on the wrist. But that would show that we were taking a very serious matter rather lightly.
Worse, by lowering our norms, we would be telling Singaporeans that it is really not so bad for elected leaders to lie.
Alternatively, the COP could have recommended that Parliament itself metes out an appropriately heavy penalty. This is something that Parliament has the power to do.
But had the COP recommended that, and Parliament decided on the penalty itself, the Opposition would surely have cried foul, and accused the PAP of using its majority to persecute the Opposition.
In fact, they are already insinuating this, as a smokescreen to obscure the real issue – that the WP had lied while under solemn oath."
Lee also added that Singh should demand a court trial and have the full opportunity to defend himself and clear his name if he is innocent.
Low Thia Khiang "must be saddened"
Lee also pointed out in his speech that, "regrettably", pro-WP voices have been suggesting that public prosecution is a political persecution and trying to rouse public sympathy before the matter can be conclusively determined.
What these pro-WP voices are implying is that "who [Singh] is more important than what he has done – even if he may have committed a crime", Lee said.
"But, Mr Speaker, as long as the PAP is the Government, we will not shy away from doing whatever is necessary to uphold the right norms in this House," he added.
Lee then described what had transpired from the lie Raeesah made in Parliament is "a betrayal of what WP claimed it stood for".
He believes former WP chief Low Thia Khiang "must be saddened that, instead, this is what his successor (referring to Singh) has done".
However, Lee noted that Low said he is confident that the party can ride this out.
The complete absence of admission from WP leaders "most disappointing"
In Lee's speech, he also expressed disappointment in the lack of admission from Singh, Faisal and Lim that they have done anything wrong.
"What I personally find most disappointing in the WP narrative and in their response, including in this House today, is the complete absence of any admission that the three MPs have done anything wrong. There is no contrition."
He added that "if lack of shame becomes the public norm, our political system will break down, progressively and irreversibly".
Both governing party and Opposition have to uphold the right values
Towards to the end of his speech, Lee, who is the secretary-general of the ruling party People's Action Party, said he accepts that Singaporeans want to see more political contestation and he expects this to be the trajectory for Singapore in the long run.
This is also why he offered to make Singh the LO and gave him resources to fulfil this role after WP won Sengkang GRC at the General Election in 2020, Lee added.
However, LO is expected to set the tone for opposition MPs, enforce standards of conduct on his own party and maintain his own integrity.
"The Leader of the Opposition does not have a blank cheque," Lee said. "Integrity is the linchpin of democracy."
He emphasised that the competence and honesty of the Opposition is no longer "inconsequential matter" as Singapore heads towards a more contested political landscape.
"The question of 'what are the right values and how should we uphold them?' becomes of fundamental importance for both the Opposition and the governing party," Lee said.
"With our lives and future at stake, everyone participating in the system must be held to the same standards. There can be no excuses, no double standards, and no pardoning of inexcusable behaviour, just because the offending party portrays itself as the underdog."
Lee said that it is both his job as the leader of PAP to make sure the party governs the country well to the best of its ability so that PAP maintains the mandate of the people for as many elections as possible.
Lee also said that it is the duty of the country's leader to maximise the chances that whichever party wins future elections, it will be held to the same high standards of proper conduct and honesty as the PAP, so that Singapore's democratic system can continue to operate properly.
This is because a small island city-state like Singapore "needs a strong, effective and good Government, whoever leads it", he said.
Top image via screenshot of gov.sg/YouTube and WP/YouTube