Budget 2018: A big sorry non-debate

Sense And Nonsense by Tan Bah Bah

11429
Illustration: Sonny Liew
 

 

What exactly has been the net gain for Singapore out of the debate on Sylvia Lim’s suspicions that the Government had backtracked on the GST? Zero. I would go further and say we actually ended up with a ridiculous net loss – being sidetracked from a serious, fruitful and much needed discussion on whether there is a need to raise the Goods and Services Tax.

Ridiculous because the GST affects everyone, especially the poor. Ridiculous because such a tax hike should not even be entertained without a full and robust debate – in public and in Parliament itself. All the facts, research and implications must be laid out in the open.

The Workers Party MP claimed that the Government had backpedalled from earlier plans to raise immediately the GST after adverse public reactions to alleged trial balloon statements.

Five ministers went after her for her comments. Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat, Law Minister K. Shanmugam, Senior Minister of State for Law Indranee Rajah, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu, in her capacity as Leader of the House, and Senior Minister of State (Health and Communications and Information) Chee Hong Tat. Basically, they clarified that the Government had been consistent and clear in saying there would be a GST hike. Ms Fu asked Ms Lim to apologise, slamming her for falling short of “the standards of integrity and honourable conduct expected of all members”.

And on Saturday (March 10) Chee went further than the dishonourable conduct accusation. He wrote in the PAP website: “Had the Government not pursued the matter in Parliament, most people would have overlooked Ms Lim’s ‘test balloon’ comment.  The WP could later use it to great effect for political attacks, including during the next general election.”

Ms Lim has admitted her “suspicions may have been wrong “ but she refused to apologise because “I believe I was doing my duty as an MP to convey ground concerns, reactions and confusion”.  Rightly.

From here on, the Leader of the House could possibly go the whole nine yards, depending on the circumstances. The “case” will have to be referred to the Committee of Privileges which will then decide what to do with Ms Lim.

Ms Fu: “I must put the member on notice that if she repeats such dishonourable conduct and abuse parliamentary privilege, I will refer the matter to the Committee of Privileges.”

Censure, fine, suspend, jail? Whoa. I hope not.

Are we still in the knuckle duster days of cornering an adversary in a cul de sac to teach him or her a lesson? By no stretch of imagination can I visualise the usually measured Sylvia Lim as a rabble-rousing Red Book-quoting disorderly MP out to bring the House down – who should be taught a lesson. She was just doing her job.

As the two longest-serving Opposition MPs, Low  and Ms Lim can more than hold their own against Government leaders in Parliamentary debate. Younger Opposition MPs led by Pritam Singh must step up their act and show they can also take on punches and give back just as vigorously.

They are in Parliament to serve Singaporeans – to seek answers and offer views and solutions – and not get sidetracked into another agenda not of their making or of immediate relevance. Nor have they been elected into Parliament to make the Government unchallenged and happy.

Why are we getting mired in a primary school game of you-cross-the-line-and-I-will-whack-you? The real substantive issue is the proposed GST hike. Is it necessary?

Budget 2018 has come and gone. We are none the wiser whether the hike is justified, never mind the Government throwing it at us as a fait accompli and as inevitable as death. Never mind also that the 2 percentage points hike will come between 2021 and 2025. Chee was stating the obvious. Yes, the WP has hinted through Low that it will make it an election issue.

And we should. That is not only the right but also the honourable thing to do. Don’t sneak it past poor Singaporeans.

Danny Quah, Acting Dean, LKY School of Public Policy

I just noticed that someone has been filling the shoes of Kishore Mahbubani, the founding Dean of the LKY School of Public Policy. Danny Quah is now Acting Dean and Li Ka Shing Professor in Economics at the School. Kishore has joined the NUS as Senior Advisor (University & Global Relations) and Professor in the Practice of Public Policy.

Quah, born in Penang, has a PhD in Economics from Harvard and an AB from Princeton University. I quote from the school’s own website:

“His research interests include income inequality, economic growth and international economic relations.

“His blog is regularly named one of the top 100 Economics blogs in the world. Quah’s research has been supported by the Khazanah Research Institute, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the British Academy, the UK’s Economic and Research Council, and the Andrew Mellon Foundation.”

Sense And Nonsense is a weekly series. Tan Bah Bah is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.