An exchange between Education Minister (Schools) Ng Chee Meng and Workers' Party chief Low Thia Khiang on the the goods and services tax hike had MPs on the edge of their seats yesterday.
Here is an edited transcript:
Ng Chee Meng: I had not intended to speak, but as I listened to the Workers' Party speeches, I got increasingly baffled. I hear across the different speeches that they essentially agree with the many programmes proposed in the Budget. In fact, they want the Government to do more in education, to take care of the elderly, do more for women, more for the disadvantaged... and on inequalities... and that we have to "take concrete steps to remedy it".
Mr Low Thia Khiang agrees that this is a forward-looking Budget to anchor Singapore firmly in the future, but yet the Workers' Party says that the GST is a distraction.
Our Government has put together a concrete forward-looking Budget so that we can resource all these programmes for Singaporeans. We have outlined how we can take care of our seniors, better prepare our children for the future, prime our businesses to help our workers (amid) dramatic economic changes and technological disruptions (taking place). We want to help the disadvantaged in society more. And yet after all the speeches that I have listened to carefully in this chamber, the Workers' Party thinks that finding the ways to fund all these programmes is a distraction. I find it baffling.
I think it is critical, I think it is honest, I think it is right that we outline to Singaporeans how we intend to chart Singapore's future forward in a sustainable manner.
Low Thia Khiang: I thought the most important point of this Budget is anchoring Singapore.
I am not saying that revenue is not important. But GST is not part of the Budget measures at this Budget, right? You can announce the 2 percentage point increase in GST (due between 2021 and 2025) any time. But I wonder whether is it better to announce (it) separately or debate (it) at the Budget.
We have never said that the Government would have to fund everything without any (additional revenue). But we are questioning whether there is any other avenue to look at instead of raising GST because it affects a lot of people.
My point was that this is basically an important Budget, and a Budget which is looking to the future. But the GST increase can be a distraction because we end up debating whether there is a need to increase GST.
Ng Chee Meng: I have in hand what Mr Low Thia Khiang said in the 2017 Budget debate. I quote: "I hope he", meaning the Minister for Finance, "can be upfront with Singaporeans now so that they are not blindsided by the Government, as they were with the sudden 30 per cent increase in water prices".
You can't have the cake and eat it.
Low Thia Khiang: I stand with what I said. I am not asking you to hide the intended increase in GST. You can by all means announce it well before you want to increase (GST). But the question is whether you need to announce it together with this Budget.
I asked at the last election, and Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam promised that we have enough money to spend and will not increase taxes (for the current term of government).
The next election is 2020 or 2021. So you are going to increase it after the next election, (it is) good to announce it now. Then we can debate it at the public rallies.