How Khan? What now?

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Photo: Redwire Times

On the first day of November 2021, Member of Parliament (MP) Raeesah Khan admitted that she had thrice lied to Parliament. The controversy arose out of her statements during a Motion on “Empowering Women” in August, where she had claimed: “Three years ago, I accompanied a 25-year-old survivor to make a Police report against a rape that was committed against her. She came out crying. The Police officer had allegedly made comments about her dressing and the fact that she was drinking.”

Both the Minister of State Desmond Tan and Minister K. Shanmugam sought clarifications from Ms Khan about the allegations against the Police. She replied initially that her speech “should not be construed as casting aspersions on the Police” and that she was “unsuccessful in getting in touch” with the survivor. She subsequently declined to reveal any further details, such as the police station, date, and identities of the officers, citing “confidentiality”.

The Police reached out to Ms Khan for an interview, assuring her that the Police “would do everything possible to safeguard the victim’s identity from public disclosure”, but received no response. The Police said that an “extensive search” did not show up “any incident as described by Ms Khan, and we cannot confirm that such an incident actually took place.”

In her admission on 1 November 2021, Ms Khan revealed that the incident was actually an anecdote shared by a victim of sexual assault in a support group which she attended, and retracted the anecdote. She never accompanied the person to the police station, and had in fact shared the anecdote without the individual’s consent. At the same time, Ms Khan also added that she was sexually assaulted at the age of 18 while studying abroad. She apologised to the Police, Parliament, her constituents in Sengkang, her party members and volunteers and her family. 

Following Ms Khan’s revelation in Parliament, Leader of the House Indranee Rajah referred the matter – “with great reluctance” due to “sympathy for the member’s personal circumstances” – to the Committee of Privileges for breach of parliamentary privilege.

The incident has prompted strong reactions from various quarters of the Singapore public. 

The Worker’s Party

Ms Khan’s party has responded to the incident. Secretary-General of the Worker’s Party Pritam Singh (who is also Leader of the Opposition) stated that Ms Khan “should not have shared an account that contained untruths”, adding that the freedom of speech under the Parliament (Privileges, Immunities and Powers) Act does not extend to communicating untruthful accounts, even if an MP’s motives are not malicious.

The Central Executive Committee of the Worker’s Party formed a Disciplinary Panel, which is separate from any decision the Committee of Privileges of Parliament may make.

From a wider perspective, this emphasis on honesty and integrity among politicians has been a long-standing principle in Singapore politics. Three decades ago, the Shared Values White Paper affirmed the Confucian concept of “government by honourable men “君子” (junzi), who have a duty to do right for the people, and who have the trust and respect of the population”. It called for a “rigorous insistence on high standards of personal and public conduct among political leaders and public servants at all levels”.

Assistant Professor Walid Jumblatt Bin Abdullah from the Nanyang Technological University commented that the Worker’s Party “has little choice but to drop her”. Alternatively, Ms Khan “may decide to resign on her own accord” since how the Worker’s Party reacts to the incident would determine its credibility.

The incident places the Worker’s Party in a challenging position, especially in light of the lead up to the 2020 General Elections when Ms Khan’s candidature was in the spotlight because of comments she had made on social media about race and religion, for which the Police issued a stern warning. The Party rallied in support of Ms Khan during a hastily-called press conference where she apologised for her remarks. During that press conference, Mr Singh added that candidates did not need to “sanitise” their pasts, and should be “upfront and authentic to the public”. 

Sengkang Residents and Others

As a minority party in Parliament which fought hard to win the Sengkang Group Representation Constituency (GRC) by a margin of 52.12%, the confidence of the constituents is not a matter to be taken lightly by the Worker’s Party either. 

On Ms Khan’s Facebook page, there have been numerous comments calling upon her to resign. Those in support of her resignation have suggested that her actions reflect a character flaw, or a lack of fitness for the job. For example, one comment stated: “I’m a resident of sengkang GRC and I absolutely did not vote for this quality of MP to be in parliament.”

Others have emphasised the consequences of her actions on the party.

On the other hand, other well-meaning comments encouraged Ms Khan to continue her service.

Similar sentiments have been reflected in the TODAY report on Sengkang residents’ views on Ms Khan. Whereas some thought that Ms Khan should step down, others felt that this one error of judgement should not wipe out all the work that she has done for her constituency.

Agreeing with the latter view is former Worker’s Party Non-Constituency MP Daniel Goh who disagrees that Ms Khan should resign for this “grave transgression” as it would be “too easy”. Instead, he believes that “she should serve out her elected term going 100 per cent into serving communities, families and individuals quietly, no social media posting or posturing, so that the focus is on those she served and not herself.”

While opinions have been divided on the consequences that should follow from Ms Khan’s lies, it is clear that there are few (if any) who have attempted to justify what Ms Khan had done. If anything, we have seen nothing but a clear affirmation of the importance of truth and honesty in local politics.

Association of Women for Action and Research

On the other hand, since Ms Khan had shared the anecdote of a sexual assault survivor without her consent, her admissions have prompted particularly strong reactions from the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE), which seeks to promote gender equality and has been particularly concerned about the issue of sexual assault.

Back when Ms Khan declined to substantiate her account of accompanying the sexual assault survivor to the police station on grounds of “confidentiality”, AWARE supported her decision on the basis that “it would not be ethical in our view for her to share further details that may lead to the survivor being identified”. According to AWARE: “We believe that when a survivor discloses their experience of sexual violence, and associated trauma, to someone, that responder has certain ethical obligations regarding confidentiality: Namely, without permission from the survivor, that information should not be shared with another party.”

Following Ms Khan’s confession, AWARE was “disappointed”, and added that: “Such behaviour only sets back advocacy around sexual violence in Singapore and does a disservice to other survivors, for various reasons.”

AWARE harshly criticised Ms Khan’s approach as being “not survivor-centric”, and for violating the “sanctity” of support groups and their rules on privacy and confidentiality. 

It slammed Ms Khan’s behaviour for playing into “the persistent myth” that “women frequently lie about assault—a myth that has long been used to discredit survivors of violence while enabling perpetrators to escape accountability”.

The issue of sexual assault, consent and confidentiality may warrant a separate article entirely. Focusing on the specific issue regarding Ms Khan’s statements, a more balanced perspective of the issue of consent and confidentiality may justify the disclosure of certain details in the interests of justice. 

Since Ms Khan claimed to have accompanied the sexual assault survivor to the police station, it would have been possible for her to identify the police station and police officers in question without any breach of confidentiality, or that any incidental disclosure would have been justified. As Minister Shanmugam had said in Parliament, “confidentiality does not extend to not telling us which Police station”, and that “at the very least, [Ms Khan] must remember which Police station, which year this happened and which month and some details of the number and the ages and the races of the police officers whom she says and she has confirmed for us that she did see them”.

Facts Matter, People Matter

Beyond the narrow questions of the implications of this incident for the Singapore political scene or specific causes, the most important lesson from this episode is that facts matter, and people matter. We should not sacrifice facts or people for the sake of narratives.

Narratives for example, like voices regularly critical of the government suggesting that the state may weaponise this incident rather than caring for the interests of women who may have had their reports mishandled.

And not forgetting that time they also tried to frame the parliamentary inquiry as an attempt to force Khan to divulge information that should otherwise have been secret.

The regular conflict entrepreneurs then piled in to decry what they considered to be heavy-handed bullying.

They’ve since deleted this post.
A seemingly common occurrence when encountering logical resistance or an unwelcome reminder of their once-again-wrong past opinions.

How the tables have turned. Those who pursued the truth of the matter in parliament, much to the chagrin of Khan’s supporters, have now had their questions vindicated. Truth has won out this time. Yet those in most need of victory have been set back.

While Ms Khan was clearly very passionate about her belief in the need to improve institutions to better support survivors of sexual violence she has for now, done the unidentified survivor and others like her a disservice by speaking publicly about her account without her consent. As Ms Khan said in her public apology: “To survivors of sexual violence, I hope that this does not deter you from reporting your assaults.” This is a serious blow to those who advocate #BelieveWomen in good faith. It is a death knell to the unreasonables who push #BelieveAllWomen.

Reporting sexual assault to the Police is one thing (and a balanced approach towards confidentiality may justify reporting it in certain circumstances), but fabricating narratives in Parliament to sound more compelling is another thing altogether. In doing so, Ms Khan has unfortunately undermined the very institutional improvement she was advocating for in relation to sexual violence.

No matter how morally good or just a cause may be, the ends never justify dishonest means. It is unjust to make use of people in order to advance particular causes.

Unsubstantiated allegations (in this case, against the Police) are unfair, and worryingly, are an echo of the anti-police sentiment of the culture wars in the wild West. So perhaps as a rule of thumb, we should all commit to properly substantiating narratives with evidence and accurate facts.

Nevertheless, there is work to be done. Despite Ms Khan’s confession of lying, the allegations against the Police by the unidentified sexual assault survivor still remain outstanding as pointed out by Indranee Rajah. Likewise, other women have also claimed to have had less than favourable responses from the Police when reporting their sexual assaults. It is important that these claims be examined and if found to be true, rectified with the right kinds of sensitivity and victim care training.

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