As Workers’ Party (WP) secretary general Low Thia Khiang clashed with Education Minister Ng Chee Meng over the timing of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) hike announcement, his party’s chairman faced off with a Minister with a higher profile over the same issue during the budget debate, this week.
Lim engaged in yet another heated debate with Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam. The pair have previously sparred in Parliament on the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act and the counting of the presidential terms, as recently as in the past year.
This time, the Minister criticised Lim for implying that the Government’s announcement of the tax increase was “dishonest”.
Lim had said earlier that the Government had floated “trial balloons” on a possible tax hike but possibly backed down after the public noted Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam’s comments in 2015 that the Government has enough revenue for the next decade.
She added: “So the public pointed out that: Hey, you know, is this a contradiction? And I rather suspect myself that the Government is stuck with that announcement otherwise… perhaps we would be debating a GST hike today.”
Taking the opposition party chief to task, the Minister asked Lim to retract her statement: “Can I invite her to agree that this is a thoroughly hypocritical and dishonest statement and typical of the statements she makes in this House?”
The Minister pointed out that the Prime Minister first discussed a potential tax increase during the National Day Rally in 2013, and that the Finance Minister also brought up a tax hike during Budget 2017. He added that announcing the GST earlier than the time it is implemented has precedence, since the GST was first mentioned in 1986 and only went into effect a decade later.
He challenged Lim: “Given those sets of facts, would Ms Lim be prepared to withdraw the very serious allegations she makes … basically making an accusation that the Government is behaving willy-nilly, dishonestly.”
Lim responded: “I can understand why he wants to accuse me of various things because he probably was not happy about past debates where I had disagreed with some of his legislative changes and in typical fashion, he always accuses me of dishonesty when as far as I am concerned I’ve acted honestly.”
When pressed to withdraw her statement, Lim jumped up and asserted: “I clearly said that it was my suspicion…it’s my honest suspicion, am I not entitled to have a view?” Lim’s rebuttal prompted Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin to remind members of the House that they should wait for him to call on them before speaking.
She added: “This is what we as MPs have to do, to get better clarity on matters of public interest. Of course, the Government can rebut our speeches robustly – that’s fine. But I don’t think I’m disentitled to come to Parliament to advance honestly held beliefs or suspicions.”
The Minister commented that voicing a suspicion without evidence is contrary to how a “First World Parliament” should function. “First World Parliament” was the Workers’ Party’s campaign slogan during the 2011 general election in which they made history by winning Aljunied GRC – the first time any opposition party in Singapore has won a GRC.
Lim, one of the MPs of Aljunied GRC, sharply responded: “If I recall earlier debates, even PAP MPs were encouraged to come to the House to convey even rumours so that the Government has the opportunity to refute them. This is the value of this chamber.”
Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat also called on Lim to withdraw her statement. He challenged: “I believe Ms Lim is a lawyer and also a police officer before. I too have been a police officer before. So we know that the first thing when we have a suspicion is to go out and interview witnesses as part of our investigation. I want to present myself as your witness because I have been working on this ever since I became Finance Minister.”
Adding that he has been observing Singapore’s revenue and expenditure projections and that he has discussed them with the head of government and the deputy prime ministers, Heng said: “It is an honest assessment of our position which remains accurate until today and that is why I did not have to do a GST increase now, in this Budge. So it was not a case of floating any trial balloon.”
Lim noted Heng’s response but declined to withdraw her statement: “I’ve listened to the Finance Minister’s response. I still feel that there is nothing wrong with what I’ve said. But I’ve noted his answer.”
Netizens responding to Lim and Shanmugam’s exchange online expressed their support for the opposition leader: