'Test balloons' claim: Why Govt had to call out Sylvia Lim

Workers' Party chairman Sylvia Lim had said in Parliament last week that she suspected the Government had intended to introduce a GST hike in Budget 2018, but backed down after "test balloons" it floated got a negative response.
Workers' Party chairman Sylvia Lim had said in Parliament last week that she suspected the Government had intended to introduce a GST hike in Budget 2018, but backed down after "test balloons" it floated got a negative response.PHOTO: YOUTUBE SCREENGRAB

Timing of GST hike could be used against Govt at next GE if it had kept silent: Chee Hong Tat

It is crucial for the Government to call out Workers' Party (WP) chairman Sylvia Lim on her "test balloons" claim, and remove any doubt about the intended 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 in a letter he shared on Facebook yesterday to explain why the Government had decided to pursue the matter during the Budget debate.

Ms Lim had voiced her suspicion in Parliament on March 1 that the Government had intended to raise GST immediately and had floated "test balloons", but backtracked after it was called out that a hike would contradict previous statements by government leaders.

Last Thursday, the Aljunied GRC MP said she accepted her suspicion "may have been wrong", but she refused to withdraw it or apologise, despite repeated calls by several ministers for her to do so.

Leader of the House Grace Fu said she was "deeply disappointed", adding that this fell short of the standards of integrity and honourable conduct expected of MPs.

Yesterday, Mr Chee said it was important for the Government to take on the issue in Parliament and protect its integrity. "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 said. "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."

The planned GST hike will happen some time between 2021 and 2025. The next general election has to be called by 2021.

NEED TO REMOVE ANY DOUBT

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.

MR CHEE HONG TAT, Senior Minister of State for Communications and Information and Health, in a letter he shared on Facebook to address the question of why the Government had decided to pursue during the Budget debate Workers' Party chairman Sylvia Lim's statement on "test balloons" regarding the intended timing of the goods and services tax hike.

Ms Lim's statement had drawn rebuttals in and out of the House from Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat, Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam, Ms Fu, and Senior Minister of State for Law and Finance Indranee Rajah.

In taking her to task, they had 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 need to raise revenue only beyond the current term.

Yesterday, Mr Chee gave the scenario of how the episode could be used against the Government at the polls, saying the WP may allege that "the Government had secretly intended to raise GST immediately, but backed down because of public reaction". Had the Government left matters alone, he suggested, the WP could use the lack of rebuttal in Parliament to claim that its allegations must be true.

"They could allege that this Government cannot be trusted, either on taxes or any other policies", and encourage people to "vote against the PAP to teach them a lesson, and stop them from raising the GST after the elections", he added.

Referring to a comment in Parliament by WP chief Low Thia Khiang that he would be happy to debate the GST hike at the next general election, 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."

But Mr Chee said through Thursday's debate, the Government got Ms Lim "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".

MAKING FOR MORE HONEST DEBATE

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.

MR CHEE, referring to Ms Lim's response in Parliament that "since the Government has now refuted it had any intention to raise GST immediately, I can accept that my suspicion then may not have been correct". WP chief Low Thia Khiang later also stepped into the exchange, saying: "Now, it is 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."

Last Thursday, Ms Lim had said that "since the Government has now refuted it had any intention to raise GST immediately, I can accept that my suspicion then may not have been correct".

She added that she did not see a need to withdraw or apologise as she was doing her duty as an MP to reflect people's concerns, and had a basis for her suspicion.

Mr Low had also said during the exchange: "Now, it is 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."

Citing this, Mr Chee said: "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."

SEE INSIGHT 

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 11, 2018, with the headline ''Test balloons' claim: Why Govt had to call out Sylvia Lim'. Print Edition | Subscribe