SINGAPORE: Workers’ Party (WP) chairman Sylvia Lim on Thursday (Mar 8) responded to House Leader Grace Fu’s request that she apologise to the House for alleging that the Government had floated “test balloons” before announcing an impending goods and services tax hike.
Ms Lim refused to apologise, but admitted that her "suspicion" that the Government may have backtracked on the timing of GST hike may not have been correct - a point conceded by WP secretary-general Low Thia Khiang as well.
Speaking at the start of the Parliament sitting on Thursday, Ms Lim cited media reports and comments by economists that led her to suspect that the Government had planned to raise the GST sooner, before the timeline of between 2021 and 2025 that was announced in the Budget.
"The Government contributed to this suspicion by its non-denial of reports and economists’ predictions of an immediate GST rise," she said. "Based on the sequence of events, I believed the Government could have intended to raise the GST at this Budget. Thus, during the heat of the exchanges at the Budget round-up I articulated my suspicion.
"In doing so, I believed I was doing my duty as an MP to convey ground concerns, reactions and confusion. I did not accuse the Government of being untruthful as alleged and neither had I intended to accuse the Government of dishonesty."
She added: "I do not accept the over-characterisation the PAP ministers have put on my words and intentions, based on their own interpretation, borne out of over-active imagination and oversensitivity.
"Since the Government has now refuted that it had any intention to raise GST immediately, I can accept that my suspicion then may not have been correct.”
SEQUENCE OF EVENTS THAT LED TO SYLVIA LIM’S “SUSPICION”
Explaining the sequence of events that led to her “suspicion”, Ms Lim noted that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had mentioned in 2013 the need for a tax increase. She also noted that Mr Heng made a similar statement in last year’s Budget.
“These statements were very general, and did not specify any time frame for the raising of taxes,” said Ms Lim.
She added that it was during the PAP Convention in November last year – three months before the Budget announcement - that Mr Lee had “announced definitively” that the Government would be raising taxes as spending on investments and social spending grew.
“Naturally, these announcements concerning tax increases set off public discussion and speculation,” she said.
Ms Lim went on to list what contributed to her “suspicions”.
First, the Ministry of Finance (MOF) issued a statement three days after the PAP Convention, saying that Mr Lee’s announcement was “in line” with a much earlier statement made by Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam when he was Finance Minister in 2015.
Said Ms Lim: “The MOF statement did not definitively say that there would be no tax increase in this Budget. The fact is raising taxes in the Budget and only announcing it in the Budget statement was what the Government had done in the past.
“Hence, the uncertainty over whether taxes, and in particular GST would be raised this Budget, continued even after the MOF statement.”
She argued that the uncertainty was “fuelled further” when MOF office holders kept up the discussion of raising taxes in the immediate run-up to the Budget statement, saying they were working on "when".
In addition, Ms Lim pointed to a Channel NewsAsia report which said: “The (Finance) Ministry’s statement came after Mr Lee’s comments on the impending tax hike triggered public discussion that the Government is making a U-turn.”
Finally, Ms Lim said prominent economists had also gone on record to predict that the GST rate would be raised in 2018 or 2019. “What is notable is nowhere in the discussions just before Budget 2018 did the Government publicly commit that they would not raise GST before 2021,” she said.
“As an opposition MP, it is my duty to watch every move and signal from the Government for the future of Singapore and the welfare of Singaporeans,” she added.
“Hence, I admit that I did suspect that the Government intended to raise the GST, and the Government contributed to this suspicion by its non-denial of reports and economist predictions of an immediate GST rise.”
In response, Ms Fu put to her that before MPs bring opinions, speculation and the views of people to the House, they need to check the facts, adding that unlike what economists say outside the Chamber, parliamentarians have a responsibility to Singaporeans to first pursue the facts.
Said Ms Lim in reply: “I will not apologise to this House because I believe I was doing my duty as an MP, in the Constitutional role that we have been elected to, to give the Government the forum to account to the people, and for that I make no apology.”
SYLVIA LIM’S CONDUCT REFLECTS “LOW STANDARDS” OF WORKERS’ PARTY: GRACE FU
Ms Lim’s speech sparked an exchange in Parliament involving Ms Fu, Mr Heng and Mr Low.
Ms Fu said she was “deeply disappointed” that someone of Ms Lim’s experience would accuse the Government of a lack of candour, adding that Ms Lim’s conduct reflects the “low standards” of the Workers’ Party and its members, with regard to commitment to truthful and honest debate in Parliament.
“The allegations have indeed harmed and tarnished the reputations of other members, namely the Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister of Finance,” she said, responding to Ms Lim’s speech. “Because she has put questions, she did not withdraw her allegation, she has not apologised.”
“I think the privilege that parliamentarians enjoy come with responsibility,” she added. “If you do not have the facts, you should check them, and having done so, you should consider whether the remarks have indeed hurt the integrity of the members.
“And I put to the House that indeed they have.”
Ms Fu added: “Unlike her colleague NCMP Leon Perera, who both withdrew and apologised to this House for making misleading statements in a recent case, Ms Lim has refused to apologise.
“By so refusing, her conduct falls short of the conduct expected of all members.”
She added that should Ms Lim repeat such “dishonourable conduct” and abuse Parliamentary privilege, she will refer the matter to the Committee of Privileges.
WATCH the exchange in full:
“NOT PROPER” TO TALK ABOUT DETAILS, TIMING OF RAISING TAXES “WAY IN ADVANCE” OF A BUDGET: HENG SWEE KEAT
Joining the debate, Mr Heng said he could accept that in the heat of the exchange, Ms Lim may have said things which she did not intend, but that it is “only right and honourable” for her to withdraw her “test balloons” allegation, having examined the facts.
“Parliament is a serious forum for us to discuss serious matters,” he said.
“Now that you have the opportunity to gather all the facts ... and you have had the chance over the last few days since you made the statement to check the Hansard ... I think it is only right and honourable that you withdraw the statement, unless you have a basis for that.”
On the question of why his ministry did not reveal details of the Budget earlier, Mr Heng said that the Budget is a “serious matter”, and great care is taken in preparing it.
“The details are kept as secret until the day of the Budget because it has got an impact on the market, not just in Singapore, but internationally,” he said.
He later added that the issue of increasing taxes had been raised “many times”, just without revealing the timing and details. “I don’t think it is proper for us to talk about the details and timing of it way in advance of a Budget,” he said.
Weighing in on the issue, WP chief Mr Low said while he understands that the Budget is a serious matter, if the Government did not intend to raise the GST sooner, there was “nothing wrong” with it making it clear earlier that it did not intend to raise GST at this Budget.
“That would have cleared the air, and the confusion on the ground, of speculating that you’re keeping quiet on raising tax, not mentioning what kind of tax,” he said.
“GST is a form of tax, and that contributed to the ground confusion, leading to the impression formed."
Mr Low added that "it is now clear” that the Government had no intention to raise GST at that point in time, and that Ms Lim's "suspicion wasn’t really correct at that point in time" as well.