Pritam Singh: Lawyer, not leader
WP leader's testimony revealed lack of decisiveness at the wheel, before the Khan affair spiralled out of control.
A few days ago I made an observation here that the critical point in the whole crisis resulting from Raeesah Khan's lie in the parliament is the meeting she had with Pritam Singh on October 3, after which she lied in the parliament again the very next day.
Now, thanks to Pritam's own testimony we can tell more about what transpired and how this affair has spiralled out of control, threatening to sink the entire party.
Unsurprisingly, WP's Secretary-General carried himself much better in front of the CoP than his colleague and Vice Chairman of WP, Faisal Manap.
As a lawyer, Pritam knows his way with words, his English is precise when it needs to be and vague when it is useful. He is smart enough to both avoid difficulties and deflect at least some of the sharp questions directed at him - skills necessary in front of a formidable interlocutor that Edwin Tong is. It's no surprise, then, that the hearing lasted close to 10 hours.
Pritam has largely achieved the objective of squeezing his testimony within the boundaries set by previous witnesses (to avoid dismissing other WP members as liars), acquiring a large degree of plausible deniability - which is essential in a case where little hard evidence exists.
He needed to accurately shoot down only one obstacle in the way of his narrative - Raeesah Khan's WhatsApp message from Aug. 8, in which she claimed she was recommended to take the truth "to the grave".
He didn't hesitate to call it a complete lie and proceeded to suggest that it may have been due to a mental condition that Raeesah reportedly admitted suffering from on Nov. 29 - dissociation, which makes some of her statements disconnected from what she thinks or what really happened.
This was one silver bullet that Pritam required to undermine the key physical, written evidence against his version of events - and even if he hasn't succeeded in smashing it to pieces, his response left a dent of doubt on it. After all, Raeesah Khan confirmed the message and the account of the meeting in August just last week - but claiming she suffers from a condition that may make her statements inaccurate might just be enough for him to win back the necessary minimum of trust from the public, saving himself and the party humiliation that could very well have ended with his resignation.
Ironically, however, the very skills that may have allowed him to avert a complete disaster are also the reason this situation has gotten so serious in the first place.
Somewhat conflicting accounts of the meetings in August and October 3, as well as inaction for two long months before Raeesah lied again, suggest poor communication and general lack of concern about solving the issue permanently or correcting the account as quickly as possible.
At no point did he instruct her directly to tell the truth, instead choosing lawyer-speak of "taking ownership of the issue" and that she "would not be judged", what - if true - could have easily been misunderstood as a green light to continue with her lies.
Throughout this crisis, Pritam has been a lawyer, not a leader.
He avoided making any straightforward statements, leaving himself room to maneuver - but, at the same time, leading Raeesah and his party astray, keeping almost everybody in the dark.
Even the party's Vice Chairman, Faisal Manap, admitted he assumed Pritam would sort the issue out. And the CEC was not informed by the Disciplinary Panel, consisting of all three leaders, that they had prior knowledge of the lies.
And yet, in the recent weeks, Pritam deflected responsibility back to Raeesah, whom, he reportedly assumed, was expected to somehow correct her story in the parliament completely unassisted by anybody (seriously?!).
It seems then that, as a lawyer, he wanted to distance himself from the issue (perhaps by professional habit), forgetting that as a leader of the party he has to assume at least some responsibility for the things other members do (particularly as he plays a part in recruiting, fielding and promoting them to the voters).
This was doubly important as he learned of the lie long in advance of it becoming a scandal - what should have given him more than enough time to come up with a plan on how to handle it.
Instead, he had not discussed it with Raeesah for two months and only touched on the issue a day before parliamentary sitting in October, leaving her completely confused about what she should do in case she is asked questions in the chamber.
By his own admission there was no plan, intent or even a conversation about telling the truth - neither during the sitting in September nor in October.
And his excuse is that he expected her to come to him, not the other way around. Really?
While it may be useful defense today it is also quite unconscionable for a party leader to effectively cede responsibility for solving a mounting crisis, expecting the young, inexperienced, emotionally shaken (by his own observation) culprit to find a way out on her own.
It also undermines his current narrative about the necessity of keeping parliamentary records truthful - not something that he was particularly diligent about doing before Raeesah had the displeasure of being questioned by minister Shanmugam in October.
Of course we know the main culprit in this whole affair is Raeesah who lied about SPF (whether or not she suffers any conditions that make it more likely).
But the responsibility for it spinning out of control rests solely on the shoulders of WP leadership. Had Pritam taken decisive action in September or even in August, it could have been nipped in the bud, barely making a blip on the media radar.
"Newbie MP apologizes for hyperbolic statements after a conversation with party leader" - this is as far as it could have gone. It had been weeks before the next parliamentary sitting was due, by which time the public would have likely lost interest in the case.
Instead it was a month of nothing, followed by another month of nothing and a last minute meeting that answered no questions and offered no guidance to Raeesah.
As Pritam was telling her to "to take responsibility and ownership of the issue" he forgot it was first and foremost his duty to do so.