2021 was supposed to be a year of celebrating Singaporean women, as declared by the Ministry of Social and Family Development. Instead, it ended in a political drama in which a young Member of Parliament’s attempt to draw attention to support for survivors of sexual assault went horribly, horribly wrong. The entire sorry episode has also raised questions about double standards and checks and balances in Singapore.

The background

Raeesah Khan, a member of the opposition Workers’ Party, was speaking on the subject of women and gender equality when she mentioned that she’d once accompanied a survivor of sexual assault to the police station. The survivor, she said, had come out of the station in tears because the police officers had not been sensitive about what she’d been through.

Raeesah’s account turned out to be false; following questioning from People’s Action Party ministers, Raeesah admitted that she hadn’t actually accompanied the survivor. Instead, she’d heard the anecdote while attending a survivors’ support group. She’d changed this detail, she said, because she hadn’t been ready to publicly out herself as someone who had been sexually assaulted (which was why she’d attended the support group in the first place).

Parliament came down on this like a ton of bricks. By the time Raeesah resigned from both her seat and the Workers’ Party, a Committee of Privileges had already been convened to investigate the incident. The probe went far beyond what Raeesah had said in Parliament and involved hours of questioning of not just Raeesah herself, but also her aide, a WP volunteer, and senior WP leaders. In the end, the Committee — made up of seven PAP members and one WP member — recommended a S$35,000 fine for Raeesah, and for WP leader Pritam Singh and party vice-chairman Faisal Manap to be referred to the public prosecutor for further investigation, and possible criminal proceedings. The PAP-dominated Parliament voted this through.


Raeesah Khan

What gets investigated, what doesn’t?

Lying in Parliament is unacceptable behavior from any legislator, but the response to Raeesah Khan’s untruth — which, while misguided, was incidental and did not change the fact that survivors do have bad experiences when reporting their assault — seemed over-the-top. Many Singaporeans pointed to differences in the handling of other incidents, such as the revelation that TraceTogether data could be used for purposes other than contact-tracing. PAP ministers had promised, both in and out of Parliament, that the data would only be used for contract-tracing, even after the police had already requested and obtained TraceTogether data for a murder investigation. There was no similar investigation into who knew what, when, and why senior politicians were making promises that had already been broken.

In 2017, the prime minister’s own siblings accused him of abusing his position of power and, among other things, convening a secret ministerial committee to circumvent Lee Kuan Yew’s wishes about the family home on Oxley Road. It created a huge enough stink that Lee Hsien Loong apologized to the nation and made a special ministerial statement in Parliament. But when it was suggested that a select committee be put together to investigate the very serious allegations, Lee Hsien Loong himself argued that there was no basis for any such committee because no evidence of abuse of power had been produced in Parliament. What he did not point out was that Parliament was stacked with his fellow party members, and that his siblings/accusers were not present in the House to respond.

For Singaporeans, this leads to questions of impartiality and fairness. Do we really have open and clear checks and balances? Can we really, hand on heart, say that we have a system that is fairly applied to all parties? Or is the game rigged?

This isn’t about defending opposition parties, or arguing that they are forever victims who can do no wrong. But, as a political system and a society, we seem to have a somewhat elastic commitment to transparency, accountability, and consequences. Raeesah was wrong to have told a lie in Parliament, and the Workers’ Party could have handled the situation better, but the fervor shown by the PAP in digging deeper, investigating further, and demanding serious consequences in the interests of “integrity” and “democracy” did not match their reaction to situations where one of their own was in the hot seat. There was also a difference in the intensity and angle of mainstream media coverage. The latitude that we’re willing to give to screw-ups varies depending on what the ruling party might be able to get out of it.

Who watches the watchers?

Recently, the Workers’ Party MP Leon Perera proposed the idea of setting up an ombudsman’s office to provide independent oversight into things like whether senior government officials have fallen prey to foreign interference. The idea was rejected by the home affairs and law minister, K Shanmugam. One of his arguments against the ombudsman idea was to ask, “Who watches the ombudsman?” In raising this point, he alluded to the Workers’ Party’s own disciplinary committee that had looked into Raeesah Khan’s lie in Parliament and reached a different conclusion from that of the PAP-dominated Committee of Privileges.

It was a frustrating response. “Who watches the watchers” is a familiar question related to the issue of oversight, but Shanmugam’s use of it pushed it to the point of meaninglessness and absurdity. Perera was talking about installing a check on the government, since it doesn’t make sense for them to provide oversight of themselves. Shanmugam’s response was essentially “Ah, but who will check the check?” One can always go down this line forever, demanding security guards to guard security guards who guard security guards, but the reality of the situation in Singapore is that, in many cases, we don’t have meaningfully independent watchers in the first place. And when this is the case, who we watch and what we watch for can come down to political calculations that might not necessarily benefit the public interest.


Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images

K Shanmugam (2nd R) attends a People's Action Party news conference to unveil new candidates ahead of the general elections in Singapore, August 26, 2015.

This is the nature of Singapore politics, institutions and systems today. We’re told, constantly, to trust the government to make wise choices and do the right thing. The government is presented to us as the trusted arbiter of all things, from “fake news” to foreign interference. They insist that there are checks and balances, but these checks either don’t seem to apply to them, or are built into the system that they have power over. The idea that civil servants will spontaneously investigate their superiors, or even leap-frog over their bosses to report issues to a higher power, is naive in a context where people are known to actively self-censor due to fears of direct or indirect repercussions for criticism or perceived “anti-government” activity.

This might not seem a big deal for most people, most of the time. When things seem to be ticking over fine, the lack of robust checks and balances doesn’t feel like an urgent issue. People don’t tend to worry about complaints mechanisms when they have no complaints. But by the time we have complaints, it might be too late.

“Just trust us,” is not a good enough answer for any political party to give. This is especially the case if they are in power. We don’t need to turn into conspiracy theorists — in fact, please don’t — but it’s healthy for citizens to maintain some level of skepticism of those in positions of power and authority. Independent oversight helps to make systems more resilient and robust, less dependent on the whims and behavior of those in power at any given time. These mechanisms can reassure people that, regardless of their opinion of the outcome, at least the process was fair and even-handed. This doesn’t just protect opposition parties from being “fixed,” it also protects the ruling party from allegations of bullying, harassment and abuse of power. It fosters public trust in institutions, systems and processes.

When I look at the Committee of Privileges and its aftermath, I don’t worry about the future of the WP or what voters may or may not think of them at the next election. Instead, I worry about the elastic nature of our commitment to checks and accountability. Who watches the watchers? Sometimes, I worry if anyone is watching at all.

READ NEXT: Who Controls Singapore's 'Safe Spaces'?

TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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