Raeesah Khan shouldn’t resign. Don’t be too harsh on her.

The hullabaloo over Raeesah Khan’s dishonesty in parliament is understandably a point of outrage for many Singaporeans, especially for the constituents she represents, the same citizens who are up in arms calling for Raeesah’s resignation.

But are we overreacting?

Politicians sometimes lie for political expediency

Research led by Oliver Hahl of Carnegie Mellon University has identified the specific circumstances in which people accept politicians who lie.

It is only when people feel disenfranchised and excluded from a political system that they accept lies from a politician who claims to be a champion of the “people” against the “establishment” or “elite”. Under those specific circumstances, flagrant violations of behaviour that is championed by this elite – such as honesty or fairness — can become a signal that a politician is an authentic champion of the “people” against the “establishment”.

For populist politicians such as Raeesah who explicitly pit a mythical people against an equally mythical elite, blatant disregard for facts only underscores her authenticity in the eyes of supporters.

No amount of factchecking will reduce the appeal of Raeesah or any other populist demagogue around the world.

To defang demagogues, and to make lying unacceptable again, requires that voters regain trust in the political system.

The research by Hahl and his colleagues also showed that when people consider a political system to be legitimate and fair, they reject politicians who tell untruths and they resent being lied to. So the key to moving on involves pursuing politics that reduce the appeal of populist demagogues and that create incentives for politicians to be more honest.

Other cases of misleading claims by Singapore politicians

In 2020, People’s Action Party (PAP)’s Ng Ling Ling who was running for an Ang Mo Kio seat in GE2020 was called out by her former colleague for claiming to have “set up the Social Service Training Institute (SSTI)” during her time with the National Council of Social Service. The colleague called it a false claim. It was later clarified that Ling Ling was part of the pioneer team and not the key founder of SSTI.

In 2019, High Court Judge Kannan Ramesh had strong words for party chairman Sylvia Lim, former chief Low Thia Khiang and current chief Pritam Singh who were sued by Aljunied-Hougang Town Council (AHTC) and Pasir Ris-Punggol Town Council (PRPTC) — calling them out for dishonest and improper conduct, among other things.

In 2014, WP MP Faisal had to apologise in parliament for making an allegation without backing it up with facts. He later apologised.

In 2018, Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam accused WP chairman Sylvia Lim of dishonesty in “implying” that the Government’s announcement of the impending goods and services tax (GST) hike was “dishonest”. Sylvia disagreed and said she was entitled to her comments.

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