SINGAPORE - Workers' Party chairman Sylvia Lim has said that her suspicions that the Government had backtracked on the timing of the goods and services tax (GST) "may have been wrong" after she has reviewed the records.
But despite repeated calls from People's Action Party ministers for her to withdraw and apologise for her statements last week, she refused to do so, saying she was "doing my duty as an MP to convey ground concerns, reactions and confusion".
She said: "I did not accuse the Government of being untruthful as alleged, and neither had I intended to accuse the Government of dishonesty. I do not accept the over-characterisation the PAP MPs have put on my words and intentions based on their own interpretation borne out of overactive imaginations and oversensitivity."
In response, Leader of the House Grace Fu said she was disappointed with Ms Lim's decision.
Said Ms Fu: "I must say that we're deeply disappointed that someone of her experience should accuse the Government of the lack of candour even though the facts have been explained to her clearly."
The minister, who is in charge of government business and procedure and order in Parliament, said she is putting Ms Lim on notice for her conduct in Parliament, which has fallen short of the "honour and integrity expected of all members".
Her allegations suggested that the Government had "said one thing in public but planning secretly to do another", tarnishing the reputations of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam and Minister for Finance Heng Swee Keat, who have all along made it clear that tax revenues need to be raised in the long run, said Ms Fu.
If Ms Lim repeats such "dishonourable conduct and abuse parliamentary privilege", the matter will be referred to the Committee of Privileges, said the minister.
Said Ms Fu: "It reflects the low standards which the member and her party have set for themselves with regard to commitment to truthful and honest debate in Parliament."
The 22-minute exchange also saw Mr Heng taking the stand to ask for a withdrawal of Ms Lim's statements last week. He also explained that the Government could not have made any earlier announcements on the timing of the upcoming GST hike as Budget details are market sensitive.
At the beginning of the Parliament sitting at 10am, Ms Lim gave a statement explaining how she arrived at her comments last week, when she said that she suspected that the Government had floated "test balloons" on the GST hike. She said she believed it had intended to raise the GST immediately but decided to push the GST hike, from 7 per cent to 9 per cent, to some time from 2021 to 2025, after negative public reaction.
She cited news reports and prominent economists who had predicted that the GST rate would be raised this year or the next. The Finance Ministry, she added, had fuelled her suspicion by its "non-denial" of such reports.
In response, Mr Heng said: "We take great care in preparing the Budget and that the details are kept secret until the day of the Budget, because it has got impact on the market, and not just in Singapore but internationally."
To this, Ms Lim said that this was part of the issue as only the Cabinet ministers know the truth of the GST hike. "I do not know the truth, so I can accept that I may have been wrong but I do not accept that my suspicion had no basis and I do not apologise."
Taking the stand, WP chief Low Thia Khiang said that the Government could have cleared the air earlier. This contributed to the "confusion" on the ground, leading to Ms Lim's suspicion which she articulated during "the heat of exchange" last week.
"Now, it's clear that the Government has no intention to raise GST at that point in time and her suspicion wasn't really correct at that point in time."
Mr Heng said he could accept that Ms Lim could have said things that she did not intend in the heat of exchange.
"But now having had so many days to examine the facts, I would like to know whether Ms Lim, do you have a basis for your belief and do you accept the explanations that have been given that this has been the intention of the Government, there was no backtracking, that these were the facts as we have put out?" he asked.
In response, Ms Lim said: "I can accept that my suspicion may have been wrong but I do not accept that my suspicion had no basis and I do not accept that I have failed or been derelict in my duty as an MP to this House."
At this point, Speaker of the House Tan Chuan-Jin said that both sides of the House have stated their respective positions. "I propose that we move on."