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GST: Have a True Picture, not just Big Picture, debate

Sense And Nonsense by Tan Bah Bah




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Yes, the proposed GST hike will be an election issue, whether the government likes it or not. And it will be hot.

The first early indication that it will not be so easy to ram it down the public’s throat came from the Workers Party’s adamant refusal to vote for Budget 2018 as the party considered the hike a distraction. Eight WP MPs voted against the budget. Party secretary-general Low Thia Khiang had more or less said the GST issue should be debated, not as part of the Budget, but more correctly or deservingly either by itself at a separate Parliament session or at election rallies.

Predictably, K. Shanmugam and Heng Swee Keat went after the WP, hammer and tong. The Law Minister disagreed with WP chairman Sylvia Lim’s claim that the government had been floating trial balloons about the need to raise revenue (despite having enough money) and had backed down from implementing the GST hike straightaway– preferring to give notice of the hike during the current Budget – because of negative public reaction. According to Shanmugam, this was not the first time the government had talked about a GST hike long before it was put to a vote.

Heng Swee Keat said the government’s stand of raising future taxes was consistent: enough money for current term but we have to provide for future increases in expenditure.  It was just being upfront, as Low Thia Khiang himself had asked it to be in the Budget debate last year.

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Both the government and the opposition have drawn their battle lines, in interestingly different ways.

By trying to restrict discussion of the impending GST hike to the context of the Budget, the government wants to control the agenda. Whole of government, whole of nation, long-term planning, think of the next generation, where are we headed as a society?, courage to do the right thing, not an accounting exercise it’s about our priorities, and so on.

The strategy seems to be: Please, don’t just focus on the GST which is merely a part of the Budget. We are not planning to raise it yet, not now anyway but anytime from 2021 to 2025. We are not even saying it will be 2 per cent at one go, maybe even 1 per cent at different intervals.

Meanwhile, enjoy our $9.6 billion surplus (which may make you wonder why we have to raise the GST). If things go well and better, there may be even more goodies to share beyond the $100 to $300 bonus from the current surplus. There may be more goodies for different programmes targeted at millennials and the Silver Generation.

In this Big Picture Government story, the GST is merely an hyphen – linking cash to cows. It is the lowest hanging fruit to pluck. It is also the most convenient source of revenue, with almost instantaneous collection at the POS (point of sale).

But it is a tax that affects everyone. It has the biggest impact, because you cannot avoid it. Everyone consumes. It throws a spanner into people’s budget, a very big spanner for those with tight pockets.

If you are well-to-do, you can absorb the hike to your basic cost of living easily. But if you are living from hand to mouth and are in the bracket where you may not be paying income tax, the GST becomes your income tax when you can ill afford to pay any in the first place. Less take home for the poor is cruel. No society that claims to be First World can blithely throw the GST net around to catch fish in waters teeming with struggling plankton. PAP leaders have to be reminded of this.

Rightly, Singaporeans should not allow a GST hike without a thorough and  undistracted debate. Simply giving notice is not quite the same as debating it, with all the necessary figures, information and research. The best way to convince the public, especially the lower-income, is to offer them the True Picture and not just the so-called Big Picture.

Low Thia Khiang and Sylvia Lim were right. We need a real debate.

Another PAP MP from Nee Soon gets a scolding

For the second time in weeks, a People’s Action Party MP has been taken to task for saying public servants were generally thin-skinned, that they disliked criticism and feared to criticise.

Recently, DPM Teo Chee Hean chided Nee Soon GRC MP Lee Bee Wah for saying some public servants “will get back at her” for giving feedback against them.

This week, it was Education Minister and PM-contender Ong Ye Kung’s turn to chastise another Nee Soon GRC MP Louis Ng for saying public officers dared not speak up for fear of getting into trouble.

What’s with Nee Soon GRC? Very garang leh. Maybe they are following the example of their gun-toting leader, Law Minister K. Shanmugam.

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

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