Budget 2018 debate

Dishonesty or honest suspicion?

Mr K. Shanmugam accused WP chairman Sylvia Lim of dishonesty.
Mr K. Shanmugam accused WP chairman Sylvia Lim of dishonesty.

Things got hot and testy in the House when Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam and Workers' Party (WP) chairman Sylvia Lim crossed swords.

Mr Shanmugam accused Ms Lim of dishonesty in implying that the Government's announcement of the impending goods and services tax (GST) hike was "dishonest".

"Can I invite her to agree that that is a thoroughly hypocritical and dishonest statement and typical of the statements she makes in this House?" he said, calling on her to withdraw the comment.

In her rejoinder, the Aljunied GRC MP denied saying the Government had behaved dishonestly.

The comment in question was when she said earlier the Government had floated "test balloons" on a possible tax hike. But the public noted a contradiction with Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam's statement that the Government has enough money for the decade.

She said: "I rather suspect myself that the Government is stuck with that announcement. Otherwise, perhaps we would be debating a GST hike today."

Mr Shanmugam said she was suggesting that the Government backtracked on its intention for an immediate GST increase as a result of the severe public reaction. "Isn't that what you say? And if that is not what you are saying, please say so clearly."

Ms Lim defended her views as her "honest suspicion". She said in response to Mr Shanmugam's accusation: "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 he always accuses me of dishonesty, when as far as I am concerned I acted honestly." The duo had previously sparred on numerous occasions, most recently during a debate on a criminal detention law.

Mr Shanmugam said he is not the only one to accuse Ms Lim of dishonesty, quoting a Latin phrase used by High Court Judge Quentin Loh to describe Ms Lim's statement during the Aljunied-Hougang Town Council case - suppressio veri, suggestio falsi (suppression of the truth is equivalent to the suggestion of what is false).

He said past government announcements on tax had been consistent. The possibility of tax hikes to fund social schemes was first flagged in the 2013 National Day Rally and repeated at last year's Budget and in November.

"Does Ms Lim agree it doesn't accord with the standards of a First World Parliament and honest debate for someone to come here and start talking about (how) 'this is my suspicion. I cannot back it back'?"

To this, Ms Lim said the value of Parliament is for all MPs to convey information, even rumours, for the Government to have an opportunity to refute them. "I do not agree with the minister that I am somehow not up to the standard. This is what we as MPs have to do to get better clarity on matters of public interest. The Government can rebut our speeches robustly; that is fine, but I don't think I am disentitled to come to Parliament to advance honestly held beliefs or suspicions," she fired back.

The argument got so heated, with both members leaping out of their seats to respond, that Speaker Tan Chuan-Jin interjected: "If members can wait till I call them?"

Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat later also rose, asking Ms Lim to withdraw her statement. "I believe Ms Lim is a lawyer and a police officer before. So I, too, have been a police officer before.

"The first thing when we have a suspicion is to go out and interview witnesses as part of our investigation. Now, I want to present myself as your witness because I have been working on this ever since I became Finance Minister."

He said DPM Tharman's statement was "an honest assessment of our position which remains accurate till today, and that is why I did not have to do a GST increase now in this Budget. So, it was not a case of floating any trial balloon."

To this, Ms Lim said: "I have listened to the Finance Minister's response. I still feel that there is nothing wrong with what I said, but I have noted his answer."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 02, 2018, with the headline 'Dishonesty or honest suspicion?'. Print Edition | Subscribe