Monday, 12 March 2018

Test balloons on GST tax hike claim; Parliamentary Privilege: When is it abuse?


Robust debates in the House: How far is too far?
Parliamentary privilege allows MPs to speak without fear of being sued. But when does this cross into abuse of power?
By Ng Jun Sen, Political Correspondent, The Sunday Times, 11 Mar 2018

The Budget 2018 debate may be over, but one aspect still sticks in people's minds: the exchanges between Workers' Party (WP) leaders and several People's Action Party (PAP) ministers.

During the Budget round-up debate on March 1, WP chairman Sylvia Lim voiced her suspicion that the Government had intended to raise the goods and services tax (GST) immediately but that it backtracked after negative public reaction. While later acknowledging that her suspicion "may have been wrong", Ms Lim refused to withdraw her comment and apologise for it.

Her rationale: Her "honest suspicion" was based on a sequence of events - including the Government's non-denial of public chatter that a GST hike was imminent. In articulating it, she was doing her "duty as an MP to convey ground concerns, reactions and confusion". No one knew the truth of the GST hike except for the Cabinet, she added.

In response, Leader of the House Grace Fu said that in refusing to retract the comment and apologise, Ms Lim's conduct fell short of the standard of integrity and honour expected of members.

The Aljunied GRC MP had suggested that the Government was dishonest, and had tarnished the reputations of leaders who had earlier made it clear that tax revenues needed to be raised in the long run, said Ms Fu.

"I must put the honourable member on notice, and the rest of the House too, that if she repeats such dishonourable conduct and abuse parliamentary privilege, I'll refer the matter to the Committee of Privileges," said the minister in charge of order and procedure in Parliament.

A spokesman for Ms Fu said yesterday that the Government had sought the advice of the Attorney-General's Chambers (AGC) on the matter.

She said Ms Fu had made her statement in Parliament last Tuesday - asking Ms Lim to withdraw her comments and apologise - "after taking AGC's advice". She did not say what advice the AGC gave.

The Committee of Privileges looks into alleged breaches of parliamentary privilege. Being referred to it is no small deal - punishment ranges from, at the very least, a reprimand or admonishment by the Speaker, to being fined up to $50,000, to being suspended and even jailed during the duration of a parliamentary session.

Insight looks at what parliamentary privilege is, and where the line is drawn between allowing MPs to raise suspicions in a relatively unfettered way and abuse of that privilege.

WHAT IT INVOLVES

When MPs debate, parliamentary privilege guarantees their ability to speak freely on any issue - without fearing they will be sued.

After all, they must be able to talk about any topic, person or organisation for the sake of unimpeded debate, say law academics.

Beyond the freedom of speech, this privilege comes with the purpose of ensuring that Parliament can guard its own proceedings and internal affairs from court interference. This is derived from the Westminster parliamentary system, which Singapore inherited from British colonial rule.

Says constitutional law expert Kevin Tan Yew Lee of the National University of Singapore law faculty: "It is the privilege accorded to parliamentarians to enable them to best do their job. This includes the right to speak without fear or favour in Parliament, since nothing they say can be the subject of any libel action outside the court."

However, parliamentary privilege, as its name suggests, is a privilege and not an absolute right. It can be withdrawn and the Speaker of the House has some discretion over where the limits are, says comparative politics researcher Felix Tan from SIM Global Education. Parliament holds the final power to rule, acting upon the recommendations of the Committee of Privileges.

Where a comment crosses the line into abuse is a "grey area", he adds.

The late British constitutional theorist Erskine May has noted that there are no clear lines on breaches of privilege. To list every act of contempt for Parliament would be in vain as the power to punish for contempt is, by nature, discretionary, he wrote.



Last Thursday, Ms Fu made the Singapore Parliament's position more explicit, saying MPs are "not entitled to make unsubstantiated allegations without taking steps to check the facts or knowingly maintain the allegations that have been shown to have no factual basis".

This, she said, does not contradict what Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had said last year on the function of parliamentary privilege.

During the debate on the Oxley Road dispute, PM Lee noted that one reason why parliamentary privilege exists "(is) so that MPs who have heard troubling allegations or news, can make these allegations and raise the matters in the House even if they are not completely proven and may be defamatory, without fear of being sued for defamation".

He added: "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 was what she did, argued Ms Lim, in citing PM Lee's quote last Thursday. She said on March 1: "(In) earlier debates, even PAP MPs were encouraged to come to the House to convey even rumours, so that the Government has the opportunity to refute them. This is the value of this Chamber."

But Ms Fu said last week: "Before we bring the opinions, the speculations, the views, the unhappiness to this Chamber, we need to check the facts. Ms Lim has admitted that she didn't do so in the first instance."



TO RETRACT OR NOT TO RETRACT

So what should one make of Ms Lim's case, when the timing of introducing a GST hike is known only by Cabinet ministers?

Those interviewed are in general agreement with Ms Lim's argument that MPs should be allowed to surface points they are uncertain about in the House, so that the Government has an opportunity to refute them.

Deputy Speaker and PAP MP Seah Kian Peng tells Insight that MPs should have the chance to raise and clarify points with "good intent".

Adjunct professor Kevin Tan agrees that deliberately "casting unjustified aspersions" on any MP can be taken as malice - a possible breach of parliamentary privilege.

But in Ms Lim's case, parliamentary privilege should allow her suspicions to be raised for the sake of robust debate, he says.

He adds: "It is no abuse to use one's parliamentary time to ask genuine questions or to clear reasonable doubts and suspicions.

"The Government is being overly sensitive. Opposition parliamentarians are supposed to ask difficult and uncomfortable questions - that's what the privilege is for."

One issue raised, though, is whether Ms Lim could have phrased her suspicions better as a question rather than a statement.

Says Dr Felix Tan: "It is a duty and right for an MP to ask questions, but it does not legitimise spreading perceptions about other MPs. It is all about phrasing it as a matter of inquiry, rather than making a statement that can insinuate fault."



Last Thursday, Ms Lim and WP chief Low Thia Khiang noted that Ms Lim had articulated her suspicion "in the heat of exchange". But Ms Lim also insisted that she did not accuse the Government of being untruthful as alleged, calling it a characterisation "borne out of overactive imaginations and oversensitivity".

A second issue is what Ms Lim should have done after the Government had proven her initial suspicion wrong.

In her statement last Thursday, she acknowledged it "may have been wrong". Mr Low also said that with the Government now having laid out all the facts, "it's clear that 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".

This was important, said Senior Minister of State for Communications and Information and Health Chee Hong Tat yesterday, in explaining why the Government pursued the matter. It was thinking ahead to potential future political attacks by the WP using the matter - including during the next general election.


A third issue then is whether, having acknowledged that her suspicions may have been incorrect, Ms Lim needed to retract her comment or apologise. She said no, as she felt there was basis for her suspicion to be aired in the first place.

But Mr Seah, who is a member of the Committee of Privileges, which is chaired by the Speaker and made up of MPs, said: "Subsequently, if proven to be untrue, it is only right to withdraw the statement."

Asked about Ms Lim's case, law academic and former attorney-general Walter Woon concurred with Mr Seah. He said the rationale for parliamentary privilege is to allow MPs to speak freely.

"But if shown that they are mistaken, then they should do the honourable thing and apologise. Parliamentary privilege is not an excuse for character assassination or spreading fake news."

Apologising in Parliament for a misstep is not unfamiliar to Dr Woon, a Nominated MP (NMP) from 1992 to 1996. In 1993, he told The Straits Times that he did not speak in the debates into each ministry's budget as the time given was too short.

Then Speaker Tan Soo Khoon said his words were "inaccurate" and "served to undermine the dignity of the House". The following week, Dr Woon apologised to the House for trivialising the proceedings of Budget debates.

Dr Woon added last week: "Merely withdrawing the statement does not mean that the MP accepts that he was wrong. An apology, if sincere, is a token of remorse."

Speaking generally about retractions and apologies in Parliament, law academic Eugene Tan says MPs should withdraw their statements if proven to be inaccurate, so that the facts and the proper account are placed on public record through Hansard - the official transcripts of debates in the House. "The apology follows as a matter of course for the breach of parliamentary norms."

Going back to MPs' role in surfacing rumours and suspicions in the House, the former NMP noted that there is merit to this.

But "the key question is to what extent".

"MPs cannot be purveyors of all sorts of rumours and suspicions in Parliament, and Parliament cannot be the clearing house of rumours and suspicions."










When politicians cross the line
By Ng Jun Sen, Political Correspondent, The Sunday Times, 11 Mar 2018

While rarely used, the Parliament (Privileges, Immunities and Powers) Act introduced in 1962 has had one revision - in 1986 following several breaches of privilege by the late Workers' Party (WP) chief J.B. Jeyaretnam that same year.

The Anson MP was referred to the Committee of Privileges four times - once in 1982 and three times in 1986 - having accused the Government of tampering with the judiciary on multiple occasions, and the police of abusing their powers of detention.

Mr Jeyaretnam was fined $1,000 for two counts of breach of parliamentary privilege - the maximum fine. He remains the only MP to be fined for contempt of Parliament, and his 1986 examples are still considered the most serious transgressions in the House. Later, he was also fined $25,000 for publishing a distorted report of the committee's proceedings and $1,000 for not declaring a pecuniary interest in a question he raised.

Singapore Management University law don Eugene Tan says the incidents demonstrate that MPs are "expected to exercise parliamentary privilege responsibly and scrupulously". The lesson learnt from 1986, he says, is that parliamentary privilege "is not a guise for scurrilous attacks on individuals and institutions".

"(It showed) Parliament does not tolerate what it regards as the abuse of parliamentary privilege as it lowers the House's standing and brings disrepute to the legislative branch of the government."

Also in 1986, House Leader S. Dhanabalan introduced amendments to the relevant Act. Once passed, these provided for transgressors to be jailed or expelled, and fines were raised to the current maximum - $50,000 per count.

The new law was used in 1996 when the Singapore Democratic Party's Dr Chee Soon Juan, Mr Wong Hong Toy, Mr S. Kunalen and Mr Kwan Yue Keng were found to have submitted false documents in a written submission to a select committee on healthcare subsidies for polyclinics and hospitals.

They were not MPs at the time, and were fined $25,000, $13,000, $8,000 and $5,000 respectively.

Cases where MPs apologised for their statements include:

2018

WP Non-Constituency MP Leon Perera said a truncated online video of his parliamentary speech was put up in full only after he e-mailed broadcaster Mediacorp. His account was refuted by Senior Minister of State for Communications and Information Chee Hong Tat and later by House Leader Grace Fu, who asked Mr Perera to apologise and withdraw his statements. He apologised for the "incorrect recollections", saying he did not deliberately misrepresent the facts.




2009

People's Action Party MP Sin Boon Ann (Tampines GRC) cited an e-mail he got from a person unknown to him when criticising The Straits Times for its reporting of the Aware saga. He had not verified its contents, he said in Parliament, but "would not be surprised if it were true and would be very concerned if it is". Mr Sin apologised the next day for a "lack of due diligence", and House Leader Mah Bow Tan later issued a stern reminder to all MPs to not rely on unsubstantiated allegations.


2002

Former Speaker Tan Soo Khoon (East Coast GRC) suggested that Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and the Public Transport Council (PTC) deliberately misled Parliament and Singaporeans on public transport fare increases.

This was untrue as DPM Lee had earlier informed the House that the PTC was reviewing fare revisions, clarified Transport Minister Yeo Cheow Tong. Mr Tan apologised, saying: "There is no basis for that suggestion and I withdraw it."











'Test balloons' claim: Workers' Party could have used GST allegation ‘to great effect for political attacks’ had Government not challenged it, says Chee Hong Tat
Timing of GST hike could be used against Government at next General Election if it had kept silent
By Joanna Seow, Manpower Correspondent, The Sunday Times, 11 Mar 2018

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.



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".



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."
















WP's Sylvia Lim says GST timing suspicions 'may have been wrong' but does not apologise; Grace Fu expresses disappointment
By Ng Jun Sen, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 9 Mar 2018

Workers' Party (WP) chairman Sylvia Lim has said she accepts that her suspicions that the Government had backtracked on the timing of the goods and services tax (GST) hike "may have been wrong" after she has reviewed the records.

But she refused to withdraw and apologise for her comment last week, saying she was doing her "duty as an MP to convey ground concerns, reactions and confusion".

This was despite repeated calls from People's Action Party ministers - who said Ms Lim's comments had damaged the reputations of government leaders - for her to do so.



Ms Lim said yesterday: "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."

She noted that she had raised her suspicion in the heat of the exchanges at the Budget round-up, adding: "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."

On Thursday last week, Ms Lim said she suspected the Government had intended to raise the GST immediately but backtracked after adverse public reaction. Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat announced last month that the GST will go up from 7 per cent to 9 per cent some time between 2021 and 2025.

In response, Leader of the House Grace Fu said yesterday that Ms Lim's comment suggested that the Government had "said one thing in public but (was) planning secretly to do another".

This, she added, tarnished the reputations of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam and Mr Heng, who have said over the years that tax revenues need to be raised in the long run.

Noting that the parliamentary privileges that MPs enjoyed came with a responsibility to check the facts and basis of their statements, she said of Ms Lim's comments: "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."

"We are deeply disappointed that someone of her experience should accuse the Government of lack of candour, even though the facts have been explained to her clearly."

The minister, who is in charge of procedure and order in Parliament, added that if Ms Lim repeats such "dishonourable conduct and abuse of parliamentary privilege", the matter will be referred to Parliament's Committee of Privileges. It can mete out penalties to MPs, including fines and jail terms.

Earlier, Ms Lim explained how she arrived at her suspicion. She cited news reports and economists who had predicted that the GST rate would be raised this year or the next. The public was also worried about an imminent hike, she said.

She also said that the Government "contributed to this suspicion by its non-denial of reports and economists' predictions of an immediate GST rise".

Ms Lim also cited PM Lee's statement in last year's debate over Oxley Road, during which he told MPs: "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."

She queried: "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 said that there is nothing wrong in MPs representing their constituents by surfacing their views. But they must check the facts before they "bring the opinions, the speculations, the views, the unhappiness to this Chamber", she said, noting that Ms Lim had admitted to not taking this step.



The exchange, which lasted 22 minutes, also saw Mr Heng weighing in. He said that the Government could not have made any earlier announcements on the GST hike, explaining: "We take great care in preparing the Budget and the details are kept secret until the day of the Budget, because it has an impact on the market, and not just in Singapore, but internationally."

To this, Ms Lim said that she could not say for sure what the position was as "only the Cabinet knows the truth of the GST hike".

Stepping into the exchange, WP chief Low Thia Khiang said that the Government could have said earlier that it had no intention to raise the GST at this Budget, "and that would have cleared the air and the confusion on the ground".

"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."



Mr Heng said he could accept that Ms Lim could have said things that she did not intend in the heat of the exchange. But now, would she accept that there was no backtracking by the Government?

To this, Ms Lim repeated her position that while she accepted she might have been wrong in her suspicion, she saw no reason to apologise.
 















Government sought AGC's advice on whether Sylvia Lim had breached parliamentary privilege
By Joanna Seow, Manpower Correspondent, The Sunday Times, 11 Mar 2018

The Government had sought legal advice on whether Workers' Party chairman Sylvia Lim had breached parliamentary privilege, before Leader of the House Grace Fu officially asked her to withdraw her statement and apologise last Tuesday.

In response to queries from The Sunday Times, Ms Fu's spokesman said the Government had consulted the Attorney-General's Chambers (AGC).

She did not say what advice the AGC gave, but added: "Ms Lim was in breach because she should have known that her allegations were untrue, and because of her refusal to withdraw the allegations even after the facts were clarified."

Ms Lim had said on March 1 that she suspected the Government had intended to introduce a goods and services tax hike immediately, but backed down after "test balloons" it floated got a negative response. Several ministers and office-holders then clarified the facts both in and out of the House, but Ms Lim refused to withdraw her statements.

The spokesman said: "The Government seeks the advice of AGC as and when it requires the advice. This is not the first time it has sought advice of AGC on such matters."

Still, Singapore Management University law don Eugene Tan said it is a rare move for the Government to consult the AGC on the matter of how Parliament regulates its affairs and on the conduct of MPs. It suggests that the Government wanted to have the force of the law on its side, so its actions will not be seen as "a political hack job but something grounded in the law", he said.

He added that though "having the AGC's advice gives the Government a stronger footing in the matter", it is ultimately something for Parliament to decide as parliamentary debates also involve a political dimension and breach of parliamentary privilege may not be purely a legal question.



MPs enjoy parliamentary privilege, which means they cannot be sued for what they say in the House. But Ms Fu said in Parliament that it was an abuse of privilege for MPs to knowingly maintain allegations that have been shown to have no factual basis.

The spokesman said the Government had decided that if Ms Lim refused to withdraw her allegations and apologise to the House, Ms Fu would put her - and the rest of the House - on notice.

Last Thursday, Ms Lim said she accepted her suspicion may not be correct, but did not withdraw her statement or apologise.

In response, Ms Fu warned that if Ms Lim repeats such "dishonourable conduct", she would refer the matter to the Committee of Privileges, which can mete out punishments from scoldings to jail time.










Leader of the House Grace Fu calls on WP's Sylvia Lim to apologise and withdraw comment on timing of GST hike
WP chairman says she is seeking to make statement in Parliament over comment on GST hike
By Tham Yuen-C, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 7 Mar 2018

The Leader of the House has given Workers' Party (WP) chairman Sylvia Lim a deadline to withdraw her comment on the goods and services tax (GST) hike, and to apologise to Parliament.

Ms Grace Fu, who is in charge of government business and procedure and order in Parliament, yesterday requested that Ms Lim does so by tomorrow, before the end of the ongoing Parliament sitting.

Ms Lim told The Straits Times she has asked to make a statement in Parliament to "clarify the matter", and is working with Speaker Tan Chuan-Jin to schedule a time.



Ms Fu's statement is the latest development in a week-long saga that has seen three Cabinet ministers and a senior minister of state coming out to respond to Ms Lim's comment.

During the Budget debate last Thursday, the Aljunied GRC MP voiced her suspicion that the Government had intended to introduce a GST hike immediately, but that it backed down after test balloons it floated got a negative response. People noted that leaders, including Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, had said the Government had enough money till the end of the decade, she said.

"I rather suspect myself that the Government is stuck with that announcement. Otherwise, if their announcement had not been made, perhaps we would be debating a GST hike today," she added.

Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam and Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat took issue with Ms Lim's comment, saying she was in effect accusing the Government of being untruthful. Senior Minister of State for Law and Finance Indranee Rajah also wrote a Facebook post on the matter.

Yesterday, Ms Fu, who is Minister for Culture, Community and Youth, asked to put the facts on record.

She said the Government had been consistent on its position - that it had enough to fund expenditure for the current term until 2020, but would need to raise revenue beyond that.

The first mention of the need for a tax increase for future spending was in Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's National Day Rally speech in 2013, she said. Subsequent comments by DPM Tharman in 2014 and 2015 and Mr Heng last year had been in line with this.

"The Government never floated 'test balloons' on this matter," said Ms Fu. "It has been deliberate and consistent in all its statements since August 2013."

Noting that Ms Lim had said her comment was based on suspicion, Ms Fu asked if she would withdraw it now. "With the clarifications that have been given to her by ministers, both in this House and elsewhere, Ms Lim cannot contend that her 'suspicion' remains reasonable and honestly held," said the minister. "Her allegations have been refuted, the facts she cited have been shown to be inaccurate, and she has not raised any further facts to substantiate her 'suspicion'."

Parliamentary privilege, she said, does not entitle MPs to "knowingly maintain allegations that have been shown to have no factual basis".

"Now that Ms Lim has been apprised of the facts, I request that she withdraws her allegation that the Government had floated test balloons on the need to raise revenues within this term and had intended to raise the GST immediately, and apologise to this House, before the end of this sitting of Parliament on Thursday, March 8, 2018," said Ms Fu.



The Leader's statement in the House underscores the seriousness with which Parliament is taking the issue, said political analysts.

Singapore Management University law academic Eugene Tan said: "With Ms Fu taking the lead, it underlines the seriousness with which the House views the alleged breach by Ms Lim."

MPs enjoy parliamentary privilege, which means they cannot be sued for what they say in the House. But comparative politics researcher Felix Tan of SIM Global Education said they can be referred to Parliament's Committee of Privileges if deemed to have abused it.

The committee can mete out punishments from scoldings to jail terms not extending beyond the current Parliament session. But it cannot remove anyone as an MP, as the committee does not have the power to undo the choice of the people, said Associate Professor Tan.

Additional reporting by Ng Jun Sen











No contradiction, no backtracking in Government's decision to raise GST in future: Indranee Rajah
By Tham Yuen-C, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 6 Mar 2018

There was "no contradiction" and "no backtracking" in the Government's decision to raise the goods and services tax (GST) in future, said Ms Indranee Rajah, Senior Minister of State for Law and Finance, yesterday.

She also said the Government made it a point of principle to be open and upfront with Singaporeans, and "that's why we take strong objection when allegations are made in a cavalier fashion that the Government has not been upfront or truthful with the public".



Her Facebook post is the latest statement by a senior office-holder on comments made by Workers' Party (WP) chairman Sylvia Lim on the timing of the GST increase.

Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam and Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat had similarly taken issue last week with the comments of the Aljunied GRC MP.

Ms Lim said in the debate on the Budget statement last Thursday that it was her suspicion that the Government had intended to introduce a GST hike immediately, but backed down after the "test balloons" it floated got a negative response.

She added that the Government was "stuck" when people noted Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam and other leaders had previously said it had enough money till the end of the decade.



Ms Indranee pointed out that the Government had consistently said it had enough to fund expenditure until 2020, but would need to raise revenue after that to fund growing spending, especially in healthcare and infrastructure.

She cited speeches spanning five years from 2013, by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, DPM Tharman and Finance Minister Heng, to show the Government had flagged the need to raise taxes in future, even though there was no need for more revenue in the current term of government.

"The record shows there were never any plans by the Government for an immediate GST hike."

She added: "All government statements have been in the context of doing so in the future, which is pretty much what we have now done - informing people ahead of time that GST will have to be increased some time between 2021 and 2025."

Ms Indranee also said figures in the Budget Book show the Government has enough revenue to meet current spending needs up to 2020. By announcing the GST increase now, she said, the Government was doing what it had always done - and that is to plan for the long term.

"If you think about it, the allegation makes no sense. Raising taxes is never a popular measure. No government likes to do it," she added.



Last Friday, Mr Heng had asked Ms Lim if she would withdraw her allegation and apologise to the House after being told of the facts.

At a WP grassroots event on Sunday, she told Chinese-language daily Lianhe Zaobao she would not comment on the issue, saying what happened in Parliament should be dealt with in Parliament.

Ms Indranee said the issue had become a point of contention because Ms Lim was, in effect, accusing the Government of being untruthful.

She added that she had to speak up as the relationship of trust between the Government and the people had been "painstakingly built up over the years", and "the Government takes this trust seriously".

She said Ms Lim's allegation was based on untruths, and "parliamentary privilege is not a blanket permission to simply make allegations which are untrue or without basis".

"So when such allegations are made in Parliament, it is necessary to point them out. Keeping quiet and letting them be made freely would be the wrong thing to do."

The Straits Times could not reach Ms Lim for comments.






CONSISTENT POSITION

The Government had consistently said it has enough money for its current term of office, but beyond that, it needed to provide for increased expenditure, especially on healthcare, with increased taxes.

The Prime Minister first mentioned the need for the tax increase in his 2013 National Day Rally speech. The Minister for Finance had reiterated this in his 2017 Budget Statement, and did so again at a constituency function a few months later. The Prime Minister spoke again of the likelihood of a tax increase last November.



Taking all these statements together, two things are clear: One, that there is no need to raise taxes for the current term. But two, there is a need to raise taxes for the future. There were no test balloons.

Significantly, Mr Low Thia Khiang himself had demanded of Mr Heng during the 2017 Committee of Supply debate: 'If the minister is indeed considering an increase in GST before the end of the decade, I hope he 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 price.' This is precisely what the Government has now done by announcing the forthcoming GST increase early.

FINANCE MINISTER HENG SWEE KEAT









Heng Swee Keat asks WP's Sylvia Lim if she will apologise, withdraw allegation on timing of GST hike
He cites record to show Govt's stand on need to raise taxes in future has been consistent
By Tham Yuen-C, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 3 Mar 2018

Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat has asked Workers' Party chairman Sylvia Lim if she would apologise and withdraw her allegation that the Government deferred the goods and services tax (GST) hike because it was trapped by earlier statements it made about having enough funds.

He said the Government had consistently said it has enough money for its current term of office, but would need to raise revenue beyond that to pay for increased spending, especially on healthcare.

In a statement issued yesterday, he said: "Now that Ms Lim has had an opportunity to check the record, will she withdraw her allegation, as an honourable MP should, and apologise to the House? Or does she still hold she has carte blanche to raise any and every suspicion, rumour or falsehood in Parliament, and continue to insist on them regardless of the facts?"



Ms Lim's claims during the Budget debate on Thursday sparked a heated exchange between her and Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam.

This was after she said it was her suspicion that in the run-up to the Budget debate, "there were some test balloons being floated out about the fact that the Government needs to raise revenue".

She added: "The public seized on the fact that DPM Tharman and perhaps other leaders had earlier said that the Government has enough money for the decade. So, the public pointed out that, 'Hey, you know, is this a contradiction?'

"I rather suspect myself that the Government is stuck with that announcement. Otherwise, you know, if their announcement had not been made, perhaps we would be debating a GST hike today," she said in Parliament.

She was referring to a statement by Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, who said in 2015 when he was finance minister that the revenue measures the Government had already undertaken would provide sufficiently for increased spending planned until the end of the decade.

Rebutting Ms Lim on Thursday, Mr Shanmugam set out the timeline of comments from government leaders on the need to increase taxes, to show they had been consistent on the matter. As early as 2013, they flagged the need to raise taxes in the future, even though there was no need for more revenue in the current term of government.



Mr Heng took up this point in his statement. He said that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong mentioned the need for a tax increase during the National Day Rally in 2013.

After this, Mr Heng himself spoke of the likelihood of a tax increase at the 2017 Budget debate and a constituency event a few months later.

Then last November, PM Lee reiterated the need for taxes to rise.

Mr Heng said: "Taking all these statements together, two things are clear: One, that there is no need to raise taxes for the current term. But two, there is a need to raise taxes for the future. There were no test balloons."

He added that Ms Lim was "in effect accusing the Government of being untruthful when it says that it had planned ahead, and that its proposal to raise the GST between 2021 and 2025 was the result of such planning".

Noting that Ms Lim had said in Parliament that her statement was based on "suspicion", Mr Heng said the facts on the issue were public.

The Ministry of Finance had set out the facts in a letter to The Straits Times' Forum Page on Wednesday, he said, adding that he and Mr Shanmugam had also now done so.

Mr Heng said: "The Government had consistently said it has enough money for its current term of office, but beyond that, it needed to provide for increased expenditure, especially on healthcare, with increased taxes."

He said MPs were "entitled to raise suspicions in Parliament, if they honestly believed them, but honest belief requires factual basis".

"And when clear factual replies have been given, an honourable MP should either refute them with further facts, or acknowledge them and withdraw their allegations, especially if the allegations had insinuated lack of candour or wrongdoing on the part of the Government."

He also pointed out that WP chief Low Thia Khiang asked the Government to be upfront with Singaporeans if it was planning a GST hike.

During the 2017 debate on the spending plans of ministries, Mr Low had said: "If the minister is indeed considering an increase in GST before the end of the decade, I hope he 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 price."

Referring to Mr Low's remarks, Mr Heng said: "This is precisely what the Government has now done by announcing the forthcoming GST increase early."

Mr Heng said in his Feb 19 Budget Statement that GST would go up by 2 percentage points to 9 per cent some time between 2021 and 2025. WP MPs voted against the Budget on Thursday, saying they did so solely because they could not support the GST increase.

















Shanmugam calls Sylvia Lim dishonest, Lim says she is entitled to make GST trial balloon comment
Dishonesty or honest suspicion?
By Ng Jun Sen, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 2 Mar 2018

Things got hot and testy in the House when Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam and Workers' Party (WP) chairman Sylvia Lim crossed swords.

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 is a thoroughly hypocritical and dishonest statement and typical of the statements she makes in this House?" he said, calling on her to withdraw the comment.



In her rejoinder, the Aljunied GRC MP denied saying the Government had behaved dishonestly.

The comment in question was when she said earlier the Government had floated "test balloons" on a possible tax hike. But the public noted a contradiction with Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam's statement that the Government has enough money for the decade.

She said: "I rather suspect myself that the Government is stuck with that announcement. Otherwise, perhaps we would be debating a GST hike today."

Mr Shanmugam said she was suggesting that the Government backtracked on its intention for an immediate GST increase as a result of the severe public reaction. "Isn't that what you say? And if that is not what you are saying, please say so clearly."

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 he always accuses me of dishonesty, when as far as I am concerned I acted honestly." The duo had previously sparred on numerous occasions, most recently during a debate on a criminal detention law.



Mr Shanmugam said he is not the only one to accuse Ms Lim of dishonesty, quoting a Latin phrase used by High Court Judge Quentin Loh to describe Ms Lim's statement during the Aljunied-Hougang Town Council case - suppressio veri, suggestio falsi (suppression of the truth is equivalent to the suggestion of what is false).

He said past government announcements on tax had been consistent. The possibility of tax hikes to fund social schemes was first flagged in the 2013 National Day Rally and repeated at last year's Budget and in November.

"Does Ms Lim agree it doesn't accord with the standards of a First World Parliament and honest debate for someone to come here and start talking about (how) 'this is my suspicion. I cannot back it back'?"

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. "I do not agree with the minister that I am somehow not up to the standard. 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 is fine, but I don't think I am disentitled to come to Parliament to advance honestly held beliefs or suspicions," she fired back.

The argument got so heated, with both members leaping out of their seats to respond, that Speaker Tan Chuan-Jin interjected: "If members can wait till I call them?"

Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat later also rose, asking Ms Lim to withdraw her statement. "I believe Ms Lim is a lawyer and a police officer before. So I, too, have been a police officer before.

"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 have been working on this ever since I became Finance Minister."

He said DPM Tharman's statement was "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."

To this, Ms Lim said: "I have listened to the Finance Minister's response. I still feel that there is nothing wrong with what I said, but I have noted his answer."











Budget 2018: Heated debate over GST hike between Government and Workers' Party
Intense exchanges reflect increasingly robust debate between PAP and opposition
By Elgin Toh, Deputy Political Editor, The Straits Times, 2 Mar 2018

For the first time in over 30 years, the opposition yesterday formally voted against the Budget statement - after the Government called for a vote to be recorded, on a day of high drama in the House.

The Workers' Party (WP) said at the start of the Budget debate on Tuesday that it was "unable to support", at this point, a planned goods and services tax (GST) hike from 7 per cent to 9 per cent, which Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat announced in his Budget statement last week.

WP chairman Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC) clarified yesterday that her party intended to vote "yes" on the Budget, but added that this "should not be mistaken" for support of the tax hike, which, she argued, is a future measure and not part of the current Budget.

Questioning this position, Mr Heng noted that the issue before the House was whether to approve the Government's financial policy - which includes the GST hike.

He called for a "division", where the vote of each MP is recorded via electronic voting. Of the 97 MPs present during the division, 89 voted "yes" - including all People's Action Party MPs as well as eight Nominated MPs. The eight WP MPs in the chamber voted "no".

WP secretary-general Low Thia Khiang, who Ms Lim said was rushing to Parliament after attending to family matters, did not get there in time to vote.

The vote capped a tense exchange of words by the parties, the fiercest in recent memory, with accusations and counter-accusations flying across the aisle.



Rounding up three days of debate on the Budget statement, Mr Heng severely rebuked the WP. The party's position - laid out by WP MP Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC) - of taking a "wait-and-see" approach to supporting the GST hike was "dishonest and irresponsible", he said, and was not "a principled stand".

"I think the WP should come clean to the people. Do they want the Government to increase healthcare or social spending?... If yes, how does the WP propose to pay for the increase?" he asked.

Responding forcefully, Ms Lim argued that the Government itself did not have enough information - hence the lack of a precise date for the GST hike, which would happen some time between 2021 and 2025, depending on prevailing conditions at the time. "So, it is ridiculous for the Government to expect us, as a responsible party, to support something where all the information is still not available and we don't have a crystal ball."

Mr Heng disagreed with Ms Lim's stand, which he described as being: "I must know everything, before I can decide on anything."

Even though not all is known, the information available now justifies the hike, he said, noting that the revenue from the two-point GST rise would not even pay for impending increases in healthcare spending alone, expected at about 0.8 per cent of gross domestic product by the next decade.



A second, intense exchange was between Ms Lim and Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam.

This was after she said that she "suspected" the Government intended to raise GST this year and floated a trial balloon - but delayed the hike only after it became clear the public was against it.

Mr Shanmugam said Ms Lim implied the Government behaved "willy-nilly" and "dishonestly", and demanded she withdraw her allegations. "Can I invite her to agree that that is a thoroughly hypocritical and dishonest statement and typical of the statements she makes in this House?" he said.

Refusing to take back her words, Ms Lim cited parliamentary privilege, and said she was merely voicing a suspicion and did not intend to accuse the Government of dishonesty. She also suggested that Mr Shanmugam bore a grudge from an earlier debate over changes to the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act (CLTPA) , where the two had vigorous exchanges.

"In typical fashion, he always accuses me of dishonesty when, as far as I am concerned, I acted honestly," she said.

Mr Shanmugam insisted it was improper of her to voice her suspicion without checking the facts - behaviour unbecoming of a "First World Parliament", he said, referring to an election slogan the WP had used previously.



The sitting was remarkable for two reasons. One, it was the first time the opposition has voted against the Budget statement since 1986, when then WP leader J.B. Jeyaretnam called for a division and voted nay. The question now is whether the WP will vote against the Supply Bill at the end of the debate on ministries' budgets next week.

The second reason: The sitting reflected how debate between the WP and the PAP has grown increasingly robust in recent times.

The Government has, on a few occasions, moved to force the WP to state its stand explicitly on issues and legislation, and has resorted to calling for divisions to do so.

At the debate on the motion to set up a parliamentary committee on the issue of fake news, for instance, Mr Shanmugam sought a vote after the WP opted not to speak - although the party ultimately voted "yes" to setting up the committee.

The WP, on its part, also resorts to seeking a division when it wants to make its opposition clear, such as on recent changes to the CLTPA.

If yesterday's proceedings are anything to go by, the political fight over the GST increase is far from over. On Wednesday, Mr Low warned that the GST issue will be raised at election rallies. With a general election due between now and the actual implementation of the hike, more heated debates can be expected as both sides try to persuade Singaporeans to buy into their points of view.





Battle lines for next General Election have been drawn
Parties on both sides seem to have decided on way to win over voters amid planned GST hike
By Warren Fernandez, Editor-in-Chief, The Sunday Times, 11 Mar 2018

The first salvos in Singapore's next general election have been fired.

You might have heard them amid the sounding of the division bells in Parliament over this year's Budget. MPs fell in, largely along partisan lines, 89 for, eight against.

Fireworks also flared up after Workers' Party (WP) chairman Sylvia Lim aired her "suspicion" that the Government had been forced to beat a hasty retreat from a plan to raise the goods and services tax this year, after floating a "test balloon", only to have it shot down by public revulsion to the idea.

Adding fuel to fire, WP chief Low Thia Khiang made plain his party's intentions, remarking that he was glad the tax plans had been unveiled early, so that "we can debate it at the public rallies".

The response from the ruling People's Action Party's (PAP) leaders was as swift as it was robust. Several ministers rose to insist that there had been no secret plan to raise the GST this year, nor were any trial balloons floated that might have led to a change of mind.

Rather, they added, the need to raise taxes had been flagged as early as 2013, and repeated since. These were driven by the need to spend more on an ageing population, heightened security, and upgraded infrastructure, which even WP MPs appeared to back during the debate on the Budget, they noted.

The heavy fire that Ms Lim came under left many wondering if the barrage was an overkill, sparking a debate in and out of the House on the scope of parliamentary privilege that MPs enjoy in raising issues.

More significantly, it also made plain just how seriously PAP leaders view the need to not only make a sound fiscal case for the tax hike, but also ensure that they get the politics right.

After all, there have been many instances around the world when a failure to win the political debate on a proposed tax change has thwarted governments, and even undone them.

Hong Kong debated introducing a value-added tax in 2006 but abandoned the idea as the authorities never managed to get a public consensus behind it. In Japan, plans to raise the sales tax from 8 per cent to 10 per cent have also been postponed repeatedly because of public aversion to it, although Prime Minister Shinzo Abe says he will push it through next year.



In Singapore, talk of an impending GST hike surfaced in the run-up to both the 2011 and 2015 polls, prompting government leaders to come out to quash such rumours. The Finance Ministry issued a statement in response to online reports in August 2015, ahead of the elections that year, which alleged that the Government planned to raise the GST after the polls. It quoted then Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam saying that the Government believed that it had sufficient revenues to cover its spending plans "for the rest of this decade".

So, inevitably, with the next general election due to be held by Jan 15, 2021, the question would surely come up again: Does the Government plan to raise taxes this time?

PAP leaders, looking ahead, would have asked themselves what position they might take if the issue was raked up during an election campaign. Presumably, having studied the trends and figures, they could not, in all honesty, make the same "no new taxes" pledge as before.

That would leave them in the invidious position of having to justify a tax hike in the heat of the hustings, when emotions often run high. Few politicians anywhere in the world would relish such a prospect.

So, having weighed its options, the PAP seems to have taken the decision to come out with its plan early, take the time to argue its case, and try to win voters round to its view that revenues have to be raised to pay for the higher spending that will be needed.

This will not be popular. But the strategy seems to be premised on treating voters like adults and telling them the fiscal facts as they are, in the hope that they will accept that there is no avoiding the bitter pill of a GST increase.

It is not a sure-fire plan, but probably better than keeping mum for now, and trying to fend off an opposition onslaught launched just as voters are getting ready to cast their ballots.

Besides, this is a tried-and-tested approach from the PAP's electoral playbook. It was deployed in the late 1980s, when the GST was first mooted, many years before it was implemented in 1994.

The approach then: Face up to a thorny issue squarely, set out the arguments plainly for voters, and work assiduously to address their concerns.

In doing so, much of the heat from the issue would, hopefully, have been dissipated by the time elections were called.

The PAP relied on a similar approach in 1996, when facing much unhappiness on the ground over mounting healthcare costs, which the opposition seemed set to make an election issue. It convened a Select Committee on healthcare subsidies, and took pains to counter allegations made by the Singapore Democratic Party, seeking to defuse them well ahead of the 1997 polls. This time around though, there is an added complication that is likely to also have weighed heavily on PAP leaders' minds: political succession.

With Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, now 65, having said that he intends to retire before he turns 70 in 2022 - and revealing that he plans to hand over power after the next general election, "sooner after it, rather than later" - the clock on succession is ticking.

Yet, it would hardly be advisable for any incoming prime minister to raise taxes soon after assuming the top job. So, just as former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew sought to clear the decks of various tricky issues in the late 1980s - such as disputes with Malaysia over water and railway land, so as to ease the way for his successor - PM Lee seems to want to do the same for whoever it is that will be chosen to succeed him.

In a sense, PM Lee is "dipping into the reserves" - of his own political capital - to help set his party, its new leader, and no doubt, Singapore, for further success in the future.

This, to my mind, is probably the most critical reason for moving on the GST now, and making it public so far ahead of the plan to implement it some time between 2021 and 2025.

Even so, while PAP leaders might have weighed all this up and concluded that their best strategy was to unveil the tax plans now, no one should imagine that a GST hike will not be a tough sell. Not least in the face of the larger-than-expected $10 billion Budget surplus this year, even if this might be explained as a one-off windfall.

For its part, the opposition, too, seems to have landed on its strategy for the next polls. By suggesting that the PAP had backed down from imposing a tax hike this year, supposedly in the face of public resistance to a trial balloon, its likely campaign mantra seems clear: more opposition, fewer tax or price hikes.

Indeed, one veteran oppositionist told me gleefully last week that voters attending election rallies might be given a 4D number to try their luck on - 6999 - to remind them of how the GST was going up to 9 per cent after they gave the ruling party a rousing 69.9 per cent mandate in the previous round.

So, clearly, the battle lines for Singapore's 13th General Election since independence have been drawn. Barring some unexpected event, such as a major economic or security challenge, we are likely to see the age-old bread and butter issues of taxes, costs and jobs taking centre stage once again in the coming polls.

The PAP will play its usual trump card of being reliable and honest stewards of the economy, leaders who will tell it like it is when it comes to the economic and social challenges ahead, and deliver on the promises they make.

The opposition will seek to cast the incumbents as out-of-touch, money-minded folk, who can scarcely be relied on not to milk more from unwitting taxpayers than is really needed. The only way to deter them, they will assert, is a strong show of voters' ire at the ballot box.

It all sounds very familiar, like the plot lines of a blockbuster battleground movie we have seen before, except that this time, both sides will have new leading actors coming to the fore, raising the stakes considerably.

The first salvos in the battle have been fired this past week. Expect more skirmishes in the coming months, with myriad variations of the underlying themes, as GE13 draws nearer by the day.




Related
Singapore Budget 2018
Budget 2018: Together, A Better Future
Budget 2018 Speech
Budget 2018 Debate Round-Up Speech
Budget 2018 debate in Parliament
Committee of Supply 2018 Debate Highlights: MOM, MOE, MHA, MINDEF, MFA, MTI, MinLaw, PMO
Committee of Supply 2018 Debate Highlights: MCCY, MOH, MOT, MSF, MND, MEWR, MCI, MOF

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