Observers question WP leaders’ decision to take Leon Perera and Nicole Seah’s denials at face value
On Wednesday, the Workers’ Party (WP) announced at a media conference that its Aljunied MP Leon Perera and senior party leader Nicole Seah had resigned from the party, after initially lying about an extramarital affair.
This was two days after a 15-second video clip of the pair was circulated online, showing Mr Perera stroking Ms Seah’s hand at a restaurant.
Both Mr Perera and Ms Seah are both married with children.
WP secretary-general and Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh told the press that Mr Perera and Ms Seah initially denied the allegations.
It was only after the video of the two emerged on July 17 that both of them admitted to having an affair, which started after the general election of 2020. But it had stopped some time ago, said Mr Singh.
He added that the WP Constitution requires candidates to be honest and frank in their dealings with the party and the people of Singapore.
“Leon’s conduct and not being truthful when asked by the party leadership about the allegations fell short of the standards expected of WP MPs. This is unacceptable,” said Mr Singh.
“Had he not offered his resignation, I would have recommended to the Central Executive Committee that he be expelled from the party.”
Wrong to accept denials at face value
Political analyst and Nanyang Technological University (NTU) associate lecturer Felix Tan said the WP should have done a “thorough investigation” to verify if what the whistleblower - Mr Perera’s driver - said was true.
He said: “Accepting the denials from both Ms Seah and Mr Perera (without thorough investigation) reflects shoddy leadership.”
Dr Chong Ja Ian, associate professor of political science at the National University of Singapore (NUS) said digging into what and when Mr Singh and other party members knew about the affair, raises questions about how much political parties should “police” their members.
If both MPs carried out their official duties properly, there was no abuse of authority or position, as well as mutual consent, then their private matters should be left up to them and their families, said Dr Chong.
“Of course, voters can also decide whether these issues are the top issues that decide (how they cast) their ballots. That too is a personal decision.”
Dr Gillian Koh, senior research fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies, said that it was “extremely troubling” that Mr Perera seemed to victimise his driver, and possibly take legal action against him for reporting it to the party leadership.
On Wednesday, Mr Singh told the press that he asked Mr Perera whether anything was going on between him and Ms Seah.
Mr Perera had responded then that he was in an ongoing dispute with his driver, and was about to terminate his services. He said he had also sought legal advice on the allegations of his driver, said Mr Singh.
Singapore Management University associate law professor Eugene Tan asked if the right questions were asked by the party leadership.
For example, Prof Tan questioned if they could have probed further when the party was informed of their indiscretion, or if Ms Seah informed the party after she told her family.
“These, to me, are critical questions that could undercut whether the party did the right thing from the get-go, or was prepared to tolerate it given that two senior and very high profile members of the party were involved,” said Prof Tan.
However, Dr Leong Chan-Hoong, head of policy development, evaluation and data analytics at Kantar Public, said it would be hard to dig further without specific evidence that can be corroborated from other sources.
“There are probably many allegations against PAP and WP MPs every other occasion. There will be operational paralysis and a climate of distrust if every allegation, especially unsubstantiated ones, is extensively investigated,” said Dr Leong.
Losing three MPs in two years
Before Mr Perera and Ms Seah, another WP member who stepped down in November 2021 was former Sengkang GRC MP Raeesah Khan.
Ms Khan admitted to lying in Parliament, in a speech she made in August 2021 about a sexual assault case which she alleged was mishandled by the police.
Political analyst and Nanyang Technological University (NTU) associate lecturer Felix Tan called Wednesday’s resignations a “most unfortunate series of events” - not just for the WP, but for Singapore’s political landscape.
Given the earlier scandal with Ms Khan, he said the revelation of an affair between two party stalwarts will put pressure on the WP.
Besides fending off competition in Sengkang GRC, the WP will now have to ensure that support from voters in Aljunied GRC, which Mr Perera was a part of, has not waned because of his misconduct, said Dr Tan.
He added: “Given all that has happened, the WP would seriously need to relook at how their party selects its candidates, and what are the protocols in place to manage members’ indiscretions.”
IPS’ Dr Koh called it a “loss” to the WP, given that each of its ten duly-elected members after GE2020 were seats that were hard-fought and won.
Pointing to the extramarital affair between former Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin and former Tampines GRC MP Cheng Li Hui - both from the PAP - that was also made public this week, Dr Koh said that both instances of personal indiscretions and lying to party leadership were equally egregious.
“But in the case of the WP, they have to struggle even harder to establish their brand, build trust, and wrest seats from the PAP in the first place,” said Dr Koh.
“So the price paid is far more costly.”
Will the WP be hurt at the next GE?
It remains to be seen how hard, and where, this scandal will hurt the WP at the next election, which is due to be held in Singapore by 2025, say political watchers.
Dr Mustafa Izzuddin, a senior international affairs analyst at Solaris Strategies Singapore, said the WP brand will “outlast and supercede the occasional cropping up of scandals and controversies”.
Its staunch loyalists will stick with the party through thick and thin, said Dr Mustafa, but the middle ground is a “different kettle of fish and could again prove to be the kingmaker in Aljunied GRC”.
Hence the WP needs to fill the void left by Mr Perera as swiftly as possible, he said, adding: “Ms Seah’s resignation has dented WP’s hopes at this juncture to spring an upset in East Coast GRC, as it was a close elected fight in 2020.”
Ms Seah was one of the party’s candidates in the team that contested East Coast GRC in the 2020 general election.
They narrowly lost to the PAP team led by Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat.
Kantar Public’s Dr Leong said that as the PAP has faced similar scandals and disciplinary lapses, he did not think the WP’s revelation of the affair would affect it “too badly”.
“Moreover, Mr Singh has responded to calls for an investigation expeditiously,” he noted.
“That said, there are not that many prospective candidates in the opposition camp, and with two of their better performing candidates out of politics, WP may find it harder to replace their vacated seats in the next GE.”
NTU’s Dr Tan said all the controversies - both from the WP and PAP - have certainly impacted Singapore’s political scene.
This will probably lead to a more discerning electorate at the next polls - and possibly a number of hotly contested GRCs as well, he added.
Moving past the scandal
Despite the loss of the two party members, Dr Koh believes that it is unlikely that the WP will waste a crisis.
She said now is the time for volunteers and prospective candidates to shine.
“Given what has happened, I am sure these volunteers hoping to stand will be chastened by these developments - so that they are not only there to serve for the right reasons, but know that the matter of personal conduct and honesty between members and leaders is equally important,” said Dr Koh.
NUS’ Dr Chong said that there is a “fixation” in Singapore with having good people, but what Singaporeans may have to accept is that politicians are “human like everyone else, with human failings”.
He said: “Singaporeans have to ask themselves what they wish to do when people slip up to varying degrees, and how much they want a robust enough system that can outlast any individual, rather than focusing on personalities.”