Singaporeans will head to the polls on Friday following a brief but unusual campaign season marked by social distancing, unorthodox campaigning, and, perhaps most bizarrely, a spate of police reports targeting political candidates.
Over the weekend, police launched an investigation into Workers’ Party (WP) candidate Raeesah Khan for past comments on social media decrying what she characterized as a racist double-standard applied to non-white, non-Chinese residents.
According to a statement released by the police on July 5, the 26-year-old opposition party member was accused of posting a comment alleging that “rich Chinese and white people were treated differently under the law.”
Singaporean authorities “harassed mosque leaders but let corrupt church leaders… walk free,” she added, referring to a massive 2015 scandal in which the Chinese leaders of a local megachurch were let off with light sentences in a SGD50 million fraud case.
Raeesah is now being investigated under Section 298A of the Penal Code, which forbids “promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion or race.” The charge carries a three-year prison sentence.
Raeesah went on to apologize for the “improper” remarks, and stated that she would “fully cooperate in any police investigations.” Later that night, she also issued an apology on Facebook.
Soon after news of Raeesah’s investigation broke, police reports were being filed against other candidates, political parties, and related individuals.
It appears that in a time when political dissidents face prosecution for online speech deemed unacceptable by the powers that be, Singaporeans have found another, more unconventional way of voicing their displeasure.
A police statement on Tuesday revealed that similar reports were lodged against People’s Action Party (PAP) candidate Heng Swee Keat for suggesting that older Singaporeans were not ready for a non-Chinese prime minister. He had made the statement last year at a university dialogue session.
The next day, the police confirmed that reports had also been lodged against the long-ruling PAP over its statement about the Raeesah Khan episode asking why her party “still consider[s] her worthy of consideration as an MP?”
In what may well be evidence of the very double standard Raeesah described, however, police said they would not be investigating Heng, who is the current deputy prime minister and widely believed to be the top pick to succeed current PM Lee Hsieng Loong.
“Mr Heng’s remarks, in the context they were made, do not evidence any intent to wound anyone’s racial feelings or promote enmity between different races,” police said.
Nor will there be a case against the PAP, which the police also quickly deemed to have committed no offense.
However, a netizen who triumphantly claimed to have posted the screenshots of Raeesah’s social media accounts has also been reported to the police, and is now being investigated for alleged harassment, as well as offending racial or religious sensitivities.
Dr. Kenneth Paul Tan, an associate professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, told VICE News that he saw the retaliatory complaints against the PAP and its surrogates as Singaporeans trying to highlight “the unequal treatment and the grossly uneven playing field that non-PAP parties have to contend with.”
“It's an appeal to a sense of justice and fairness,” he said.
Indeed, Singapore’s electoral system has come under fire as recently as June, when the group ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights issued a report saying unless it made deep structural changes to level the playing field, this week’s election could not be deemed free or fair.
“To weaken [her] team’s electability, the race card was played against Ms Khan,” Tan said. “Her criticism of hidden privilege and structural inequalities in Singapore was depicted as racist.”
While the flap over the Facebook comments did drop a bombshell on Raeesah’s four-member WP team, which has been shaping up to be a strong contender against the incumbent PAP in its district, it didn’t come as a total shock to some Singaporeans.
"I think it’s difficult to deny that the PAP-led government often manipulates or censors the media, so I wasn’t surprised, given the timing of the issue obviously,” said one 23-year-old first-time voter, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of professional ramifications.
But if the police complaint was intended to damage Khan’s campaign, it may have backfired, with netizens flooding social media with words of support.
“I don’t think what Raeesah said was a jab intended to sow discord, but rather shed some light into her or other minority experiences in Singapore, which deserves validation instead of denial,” said 24-year-old Muhammad Hariz Bin Azmi, another first-time voter who said his opinion on the election had been swayed by the incident.
Still, some worry that beyond the youth-dominated echo chambers of the internet, the incident could have negative implications for WP’s chances in the election.
“I worry that it has influenced older people who were considering [voting for] WP to vote PAP instead because of this incident, like my father who had only heard about her Facebook post but not her philanthropy work." said the voter who requested anonymity.
Raeesah is the founder of Reyna Movement, a social enterprise that supports marginalized women and children.
Meanwhile, Tan, the academic, said that while the person who initially reported Raeesah’s tweet may have succeeded in scoring points in the short term, their approach would prove toxic over time.
“While these tactics and strategies, especially in a time of crisis, may deliver the votes needed to win big, the cost of playing this game in this way is to demoralize young and optimistic Singaporeans who want Singapore to be better,” he said.