SINGAPORE - It is crucial for the Government to call out the statement by Workers' Party chairman Sylvia Lim on 'test balloons', and remove any doubt about the timing of the goods and services tax (GST) hike, as the issue could later be used for political attacks, including at the next general election, said Mr Chee Hong Tat.
The Senior Minister of State for Communications and Information and Health said this on Saturday (March 10) in a letter he shared on Facebook to address the question of why the Government had decided to pursue the matter during the Budget debate.
Ms Lim had said in Parliament last week that she suspected the Government had intended to raise GST immediately, but backtracked after it floated 'test balloons' and it was called out that a hike would contradict previous statements by government leaders.
On Thursday - the final day of post-Budget debates - she said she accepts that her suspicion "may have been wrong", but refused to withdraw her statement or apologise despite repeated calls from Leader of the House Grace Fu and several People's Action Party ministers for her to do so.
In his letter, Mr Chee said: "Why was it important for the Government to pursue the matter? Because it needed to remove any doubt that the Government had intended to raise GST immediately, but then backtracked when it was called out that this would contradict previous Government statements. The underlying sting of that allegation was that the Government was being dishonest with the people. This is both false and vicious, and goes to the heart of Government's integrity."
He added: "Had the Government not pursued the matter in Parliament, most people would have overlooked Ms Lim's 'test balloon' comment. However, the WP could later use it to great effect for political attacks, including during the next General Election."
Ms Lim's statement had drawn rebuttals from several ministers and office-holders, who set out the timeline of comments by government leaders from as far back as 2013 to show that the Government had been consistent in saying that it would only need to raise revenue beyond the current term.
Mr Chee said it was necessary for the Government to set out these facts, otherwise, the WP could allege that "the Government had secretly intended to raise GST immediately, but backed down because of public reaction."
He added that had the Government left matters alone, the opposition party could use the lack of rebuttal in Parliament to claim that its allegations must be true and "this Government cannot be trusted, either on taxes or any other policies; and vote against the PAP to teach them a lesson, and stop them from raising the GST after the elections".
WP chief Low Thia Khiang had said during the Budget debate the the GST hike was a distraction in what is otherwise a forward-looking Budget, adding that he was happy to debate the issue when the general election comes around.
Referring to this, Mr Chee said: "Indeed, Mr Low had himself made it clear that he preferred to debate the GST increase at election rallies, rather than in Parliament itself."
Citing the importance of Thursday's exchanges in Parliament over the matter, Mr Chee added: "We got her to admit, and Mr Low to confirm, that her suspicions were wrong; and she had no basis to accuse the Government of intending to raise GST immediately and then backtracking."
"The WP can now no longer rely on this falsehood to attack the Government's credibility and trustworthiness. This will make for a more honest debate, in Parliament and outside."