Government-backed labour movement confirms it did gather feedback on GST hike ahead of Budget 2018

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Confirming widespread speculation, the government-backed labour movement confirmed yesterday that it did conduct a survey between November and December 2017 that gathered feedback from union leaders on a possible Goods and Services Tax (GST) hike. The survey came ahead of Budget 2018, in which Finance Minister confirmed that the GST will go up by 2 per cent from 2021 onwards.

The poll included questions like: Where to tax more to increase revenue?; When should the increase be made?; Should GST be increased?; and how much GST should be increased.

NTUC confirmed 440 people responded to the survey. Almost three-fourths of the respondents did not think that GST should be raised, while the majority of participants – 38 per cent – said that taxes should be raised “Between 2021 to 2025” when asked when taxes should go up, if it is to rise.

NTUC’s Ong Teng Cheong Labour Leadership Institute’s director Steve Tan told reporters yesterday: “As the voice for working people, the labour movement needs to be on top of their concerns. As such, we regularly gather feedback, both formally and informally… Naturally, this would include the national Budget.”

The National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), however, denied that the results of the poll were compiled and presented to the Government but admitted that the feedback was used to inform the workplan for the year and its labour MPs’ positions.

Who are these Labour MPs?

Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, Chan Chun Sing, heads the labour movement. Chan was seen laughing uproariously when another WP politician, Low Thia Khiang, questioned the timing of the GST hike announcement:

Chan is tipped to be one of the frontrunners to succeed Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to be Singapore’s next head of government.

NTUC’s deputy secretary-general is another ruling party politician, Senior Minister of State Heng Chee How.

NTUC’s Ong Teng Cheong Labour Leadership Institute is chaired by Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, while Chan Chun Sing, Heng Chee How and former Cabinet Minister Lim Boon Heng serve as board members at the Institute.

That’s not all. In November last year, PAP Ministers and MPs vowed to be more involved in the labour movement. The Straits Times reported at the time that all 82 PAP MPs will “also be advisers in the 58 unions, two affiliated associations and 62 professional associations and guilds under NTUC” where possible.

Quoting the Prime Minister that the nation’s fourth-generation leaders will work more closely with NTUC, the Straits Times reported: “People’s Action Party (PAP) ministers and backbenchers will take on more roles in NTUC’s unions and associations, as the two organisations move to collaborate more deeply.”

It added: “Labour representatives said they hope the greater involvement of PAP leaders would help better reflect workers’ needs in Parliament.”

In essence, NTUC is claiming that results of the poll were not delivered to the government while prominent members of the government very likely would have been privy to the results of the poll since they head the movement.

NTUC poll = trial balloon?

The NTUC poll rubbed several Singaporeans the wrong way, given the intense debate in Parliament over the timing of the the GST hike announcement during which several prominent ruling party politicians pressured Workers’ Party chairman Sylvia Lim to apologise after she said that the Government had floated “trial balloons” on a possible tax hike but possibly backed down after the public noted the official stance in 2015 that the Government has enough revenue for the next decade.

While the Aljunied GRC MP defended her statement as “honest suspicion,” her remarks drew intense flak from Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam who refuted the allegation and asserted that her statement was both “dishonest” and “hypocritical”.

Shanmugam and Heng Swee Keat pressed Lim to withdraw her statement. Heng later wrote a letter and pressured Lim to behave as “an honourable MP should” and retract her statement.

This was followed by Leader of the House, Grace Fu, giving Lim a 3-day deadline to apologise for the “false allegation” or risk further action on Tuesday, 6 Mar. When Lim refused to, a “disappointed” Fu put Lim on notice and added that Lim’s behaviour is indicative of the low standards of “the member and her party,” and that her actions are “deplorable”.

In declining to apologise, Lim had cited media reports and comments by economists that led her to suspect that the authorities had planned to hike the GST sooner, before the 2021-2025 timeline:

“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.
“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.”

Even after this, PAP politicians continued to criticise Lim for her refusal to apologise. Senior Minister of State for Law Indranee Rajah and Senior Minister of State for Health and Communications and Information Chee Hong Tat drew flak from netizens for “harping on” how Lim should have retracted her statement.