While all eyes were on Workers’ Party chairman Sylvia Lim and Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu during their clash in Parliament over Lim’s refusal to apologise for her statement on the timing of the GST hike announcement, some Singaporeans have noticed a curious exchange between Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat.
The exchange occurred during the “trial balloons” saga that gripped headlines last week, that began when Lim had said in Parliament 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.
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”.
During the last parliamentary exchange between Fu and Lim, PM Lee appeared to be carrying on a private conversation with Heng where it appears that the head of government is coaching the minister who is tipped to be one of the frontrunners to succeed the PM.
A video capturing this exchange in detail has been uploaded on social media. The video begins right after Lim completes her speech, announcing her refusal to apologise:
After Lim completes her speech, Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan Jin asks House Leader Grace Fu if she has a response or clarification. As Fu proceeds to walk towards the podium, PM Lee can be seen turning his head to look at Heng who is seated two seats away from his right.
Heng, who seemed occupied with what appears to be notes, looks up as if he heard something and turns towards the PM, before gesturing to Fu who has reached the podium.
Shortly after this, Heng has been given a seat right beside the Prime Minister and it appears that Shanmugam and Yaacob Ibrahim moved over one seat each, to make way for Heng.
While Fu and Lim spar over Lim’s refusal to apologise, PM Lee can be seen speaking with Heng, with Shanmugam and Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam joining in intermittently.
PM Lee can also be seen holding his iPad and gesticulating towards it while speaking to Heng. Shortly thereafter, he passes his iPad to Heng. As soon as Fu finished speaking, Heng raises his hand signalling that he wants to speak and takes the podium.
Not the first incident
This is not the first time PM Lee has been caught on camera appearing to coach a fourth generation minister during a parliamentary clash with a Workers’ Party parliamentarian over the very same issue.
This previous incident occurred during Workers’ Party Secretary-General Low Thia Khiang clash with Minister for Education (Schools) and Second Minister for Transport Ng Chee Meng.
At one point in the video of the incident, Ng brings up remarks Low had made 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’.”
He then quips, “You can’t have your cake and eat it,” drawing laughs from the chamber – most notably, from Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who are seated together.
A video of the exchange shows that Ng is reading Low’s quote from an iPad or an electronic tablet of some sort. Interestingly, after he reads Low’s quote, Ng hands the iPad over to PM Lee, without being prompted to do so. This raises the question if the iPad Ng was reading from was, in fact, the Prime Minister’s as Ng seems to be returning the iPad to him.
As Low responds, WP chairman Sylvia Lim can be seen behind him smiling, with what appears to be disbelief, before she can be seen shaking her head (see 1:35 onwards):