SINGAPORE: Even as he called this year’s Budget a forward-looking one that anchors Singapore firmly in the future, Low Thia Khiang of the Workers' Party took issue with the Government's announcement of a hike in the good and services tax (GST), saying it was an “unnecessary distraction”.
His comment evoked a response from Minister for Education (Schools) Ng Chee Meng, who called it “baffling”.
Mr Low had earlier spoken at length about how the Government has accurately identified the major shifts of the global economic weight to Asia as well as the emergence of new technologies.
He said at the heart of this shift is China, and that Singapore has to “make itself useful” in global capitalism as it did with the rise of the West 50 years ago.
He said while Singapore has to find ways of transforming its economy and human capital, and emphasised the learning of Mandarin to help connect the two countries, it is also worth bearing in mind that Singapore is first and foremost a multilingual and multiracial country.
Mr Low also touched on China’s increasing powers, pointing out that how it behaves “will have serious implications on smaller states like Singapore”.
“I appreciate the Government’s vision statements and the articulation of how Singapore should strategically position itself in the new era,” Mr Low said.
But he pointed out that the Government’s timing in announcing the GST hike as part of the Budget was premature.
“The unfortunate thing about this budget is that it is looking forward too hastily for future revenue streams by prematurely announcing the GST hike,” he said.
“This has become an unnecessary distraction from the vision articulated in this Budget, and is a real distraction, causing the Government to lose its focus in getting buy-in for the vision, because it has to explain the future GST hike instead.”
He urged the Government not to let the opportunity to lead Singapore with this vision “go to waste”.
NG CHEE MENG: "YOU CAN'T HAVE YOUR CAKE AND EAT IT"
This prompted Mr Ng to respond to Mr Low’s statement before Parliament adjourned for the day. Mr Ng said while he had not intended to speak, he “got increasingly baffled” listening to speeches by the Workers’ Party MPs.
“I hear across the different speeches that they essentially agree with the many programmes proposed in the Budget,” Mr Ng said.
“In fact, they want the Government to do more: In education, to take care of the elderly, doing more for women, more for the disadvantaged. And in one member’s speech, she focused her speech on inequalities and emphasised that inequality is a threat to our nation, that we have to ‘take concrete steps to remedy it’."
Mr Ng continued: "The Workers Party agrees with many of the Budget proposals. Mr Low Thia Khiang agrees that this is a forward-looking Budget to anchor Singapore firmly into the future, but yet the Workers’ Party says that the GST is a distraction.”
Mr Ng said the Government has put together a “concrete, forward-looking Budget so that we can resource all these programmes for Singaporeans”. He said the Budget outlined how the Government can take care of seniors, better prepare children for the future and prime businesses and workers amidst changes and technological disruptions.
“Yet after all the speeches I have listened carefully to in the chamber, the Workers’ Party thinks that finding the way to fund all these programmes is a distraction,” he said.
“They agree with the programmes but talking about how to fund these programmes is a distraction. I find it baffling. I think it is critical, I think it is honest, I think it is right that we outline to Singaporeans how we intend to chart Singapore’s future forward in a sustainable manner.”
Mr Low responded by saying that he thought that the most important part of the Budget this year was in anchoring Singapore.
“You can announce the intended two percent GST increase (between 2021 and 2025) anytime,” Mr Low said.
“We can have a full debate here, but I wonder whether is it better to announce it separately and debate it here or (debate it as part of) the budget.”
Mr Low added his Party has not suggested the Government will have to pay for everything without looking for avenues for funding.
“What we are saying and we are questioning whether or not is there any other avenue to look at instead of raising GST because it affects a lot of people, and we are looking at whether there are possibility of other revenue (streams) as some MPs have spoken on,” Mr Low said.
“My point was that this is basically an important Budget, and a Budget which is more looking forward to the future, but that the GST increase can be a distraction because then we end up debating on whether there is a need to increase GST.”
Mr Ng responded by quoting what Mr Low had said during the Committee of Supply debate last year.
“I quote ‘I hope he - meaning the Minister of Finance - can be upfront with Singaporeans now so that they are not blindsided by the Government as they were with the sudden 30 per cent increase in water prices’,” Mr Ng said.
“You can’t have your cake and eat it,” Mr Ng told Mr Low.
To this point, Mr Low clarified that he did not say the Government needed to “hide the intended increase in GST”.
“By all means announce it well before you increase. It’s good to announce it before-hand. But the question is whether or not you need to announce it with this Budget - that is another issue.”
Ending the exchange, Mr Low drew laughs from the chamber saying with the next election slated sometime in 2020 or 2021, the hike could be debated during the election rallies.