On suspicions, honour and MP's duty

This is an edited transcript of the exchange between Workers' Party chairman Sylvia Lim, Leader of the House Grace Fu, Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat and WP secretary-general Low Thia Khiang.

Ms Sylvia Lim: Since 2013, the Prime Minister had said increases in spending would require more tax revenue. Finance Minister Heng said something similar in last year's Budget. These statements were very general and did not specify a timeframe for the raising of taxes.

In November 2017, PM Lee Hsien Loong announced the Government would be raising taxes as government spending grew. Naturally, these announcements set off public discussion. Three days later, the Ministry of Finance issued a statement that PM Lee's announcement was in line with a 2015 one by Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, who said revenue measures already undertaken would be sufficient for spending planned until the end of the decade.

It did not say there would be no tax increase this Budget. Hence, the uncertainty over whether the GST would go up this Budget continued. This was fuelled when office-holders said they were working on the "when". Economists predicted it would be raised in 2018 or 2019.

As an opposition MP, it is my duty to watch every move and signal from the Government for the future of Singapore and the welfare of Singaporeans. Hence, I admit I did suspect the Government intended to raise the GST this Budget; however, the Government contributed to this suspicion by its non-denial of reports and economists' predictions of an immediate GST rise.

Thus, during the heat of the exchanges at the Budget round-up, I articulated my suspicion. In doing so, I believe I was doing my duty as an MP to convey ground concerns, reactions and confusion. 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. 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.

Ms Grace Fu: Ms Lim is saying the Government is saying one thing in public but planning secretly to do another. So I am disappointed she has failed to apologise to this House for making these false allegations.

The allegations have harmed and tarnished the reputations of other members, namely, the Prime Minister, DPM and the Finance Minister.

The privilege that parliamentarians enjoy comes with the responsibility that whatever we say here, if you do not have the facts, you should check them and should consider whether the remarks have hurt the integrity of the members. And I put to the House that indeed they have.

Ms Lim has refused to apologise. By so refusing, her conduct falls short of the standard of integrity and honour expected of all members. I must put the member on notice that if she repeats such dishonourable conduct and abuse parliamentary privilege, I will refer the matter to the Committee of Privileges.

Ms Lim: If the Government had been so clear of its intentions not to raise GST before 2021, why was the public so worried this would happen? Are they all dishonest and hypocritical?

And perhaps we can get some clarification from the Leader on the standards expected in this House. I would like to quote this statement: "If MPs believe something is wrong, it is MPs' job to pursue the facts and make these allegations in their own name, decide whether something seems to be wrong. And if you think something is wrong, even if you are not fully sure, then come to this House, confront the Government, ask for explanations and answers."

This is from PM Lee during the debate on Oxley Road. I would like the Leader to clarify, is there a difference in standards here - when the PM's name needs to be cleared and when we are talking about raising taxes on the people?

Ms Fu: In this Chamber, we often make representation and bring forth views from our constituents. This is expected of us. But before we bring the opinions, speculations, views, unhappiness to this Chamber, we need to check the facts. Ms Lim has admitted she didn't do so. After she has brought the matter here, we have laid down the facts to her. Yet, she continued to insist on the allegation.

Ms Lim: I do not see any reason for me to retract these statements. There was a sequence of events which led me to have that suspicion, contributed to by the Government. I will not apologise because I believe I was doing my duty as an MP, that we have been elected to give the Government the forum to account to the people, and for that I make no apology.

Ms Fu: We are deeply disappointed someone of her experience should accuse the Government of lack of candour, even though the facts have been explained to her. Regrettably, 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. If the facts were wrong (but) she continued with this accusation, it is deeply disappointing and deplorable.

Mr Heng Swee Keat: The Budget is a serious matter. We take great care in preparing the Budget and the details are kept as secret until the day of the Budget because it has impact on the market and on not just in Singapore, but internationally. So, I do think these are serious matters.

Ms Lim: The Minister for Finance mentioned that Budget preparation is a secret and I think that is part of the issue. Only the Cabinet knows the truth. 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.

Mr Low Thia Khiang: I think there is nothing wrong for the Government to come up earlier to say, look, we don't have intention to raise GST at this Budget, and that would have cleared the air and the confusion on the ground. And now, it is clear the Government has no intention to raise GST at that point in time and Ms Lim's suspicion wasn't really correct at that point in time.

Mr Heng: I can accept that in the heat of exchange you may be saying things which you did not intend, but now I would like to know whether Ms Lim accepts the explanations that have been given, that there was no backtracking?

Ms Lim: 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.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 09, 2018, with the headline 'On suspicions, honour and MP's duty'. Print Edition | Subscribe