SINGAPORE - In a testy exchange, Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam and Workers' Party chairman Sylvia Lim crossed swords in Parliament on Thursday (March 1).
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's a thoroughly hypocritical and dishonest statement and typical of the statements she makes in this House?" Mr Shanmugam said, calling on her to withdraw the statement.
In her rejoinder, the Aljunied GRC MP denied saying that the Government had behaved dishonestly.
During an earlier response to Mr Heng, Ms Lim said that in the run-up to the Budget, the Government had floated "test balloons" on a possible tax hike but the public noted a contradiction with Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam's earlier statement that the Government already had enough money for the decade.
She said: "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."
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 in typical fashion he always accuses me of dishonesty, when as far as I'm concerned I acted honestly."
Both were speaking after Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat's round-up of the Budget debate, addressing questions by the MPs the past two days.
During a 40-minute exchange, Mr Heng and WP MPs were debating on various points including the use of proceeds from land sales and whether the GST hike was necessary.
It was at its midway point that Mr Shanmugam, who had until then remained silent, called on Ms Lim to withdraw her earlier statement.
He said that past announcements on the tax issue had been consistent, with the possibility of raising taxes to fund social programmes first mentioned at the 2013 National Day Rally by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. This was repeated at last year's Budget and at the People's Action Party convention last November.
To this, Ms Lim said it is her belief that when the government leaders said they have enough revenues for the term, they "tied their hands as to when the GST increase can kick in".
The implication of what she had said, retorted Mr Shanmugam, is that she was accusing the government of having backtracked on its intention to announce a GST increase as a result of the severe public reaction. "Isn't that what you say? And if that's not what you're saying please say so clearly."
To this, Ms Lim said: "It is my honest suspicion."
Mr Shanmugam responded: "Does Ms Lim agree that it doesn't accord with the standards of a First World Parliament and honest debate for someone to come here and start talking about 'this is my suspicion. I cannot back it back'? It's contrary to all the facts."
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. MPs are also protected by parliamentary privilege.
"I do not agree with the minister that I'm somehow not up to the standard and, of course, 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's fine, but I don't think I'm disentitled to come to Parliament to advance honestly held beliefs or suspicions," she fired back.
The sparring got so heated at one point, with both members leaping out of their seats to respond, that it prompted Speaker Tan Chuan-Jin to interject with a reminder: "If members can wait till I call them?"
Mr Heng later also rose, asking Ms Lim to withdraw her statement, but she said she did not say anything wrong.
To this, Mr Heng said, to some laughter in the House: " I believe Ms Lim is a lawyer and a police officer before. So I too have been a police officer before.
"We know that 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've been working on this ever since I became Finance Minister."
He confirmed that DPM Tharman's statement was an "accurate and truthful" one.
"It is 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," he said.
To this, Ms Lim said: "I've listened to the Finance Minister's response. I still feel that there's nothing wrong with what I said but I've noted his answer."