I suspect that the People’s Action Party ministers aren’t too happy about what happened in Parliament this morning. I suspect they thought Ms Sylvia Lim would roll over and apologise, just like her fellow Workers’ Party MP Leon Perera did in January.
In fact, I suspect that they thought that merely repeating themselves loudly over the issue of the timing of a GST hike would be enough to extract a retraction and an apology from Ms Lim.
Note, please, that these are merely suspicions on my part.
What are they based on? On the apoplectic look on Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat’s face as he got up to help Leader of the House Grace Fu in her admonition of Ms Lim’s “deplorable’’ conduct. (I couldn’t see the rest of the frontbenchers because I was assigned a seat in the public gallery that faced the backbenchers.)
I base it on Ms Fu’s inability to counter Ms Lim’s response nor even to comprehend it. She asked whether Ms Lim was withdrawing her statement which the G had been mighty unhappy with, when she had clearly said no. She asked for the “basis’’ of Ms Lim’s suspicion, when the MP’s whole speech was a chronology of events that led her to her “suspicion’’.
I also base it on how the PAP usually sticks to the moral high ground with plenty of sound and fury, brooking no opposition to what it would consider an upright stance. But in this case, the ground was cut from under its feet. They couldn’t break down Ms Lim’s defence.
Maybe my suspicions are baseless and they are quite happy with how it all turned out, but that would be too unbelieveable.
The issue boiled down to whether MPs are entitled to raise their suspicions or make allegations in the House without evidence.
To recap, Ms Lim had said that she suspected that the G had intended to raise GST this year but was forced to delay it because of public backlash. People were reminding the G about earlier pronouncements on having enough money to last till the end of the decade. The G was, therefore, “stuck’’ because it had to, well, stick to its words.
The G contended that this meant that the G was being dishonest with the people – that it was saying one thing but intending to do something else. Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam was the first off the blocks that Friday, insisting that Ms Lim was dishonest and hypocritical. He wanted her to withdraw her statement.
Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat weighed in too, and added a statement the next day asking for a retraction and apology. Then his senior minister of state Indranee Rajah weighed in on Facebook. It became “official’’ and “formal’’ on Tuesday, when Ms Fu read her statement calling formally for an apology.
Now, going by what Ms Lim said today, she had discussed a response with Speaker Tan Chuan Jin on Monday. While she was told to expect Ms Fu to say something, she was not told when. So when Ms Fu made the statement on Tuesday, she was on the way to Parliament on Tuesday. (Question: Why isn’t it in the Order Paper?)
Ms Lim recounted the various statements made by ministers in recent times, and made the point that while economists and members of the public were speculating about the impending GST rise, there was no response from officials quelling it. Nor was there any definitive statement that the tax would not go up this year.
“The Government contributed to this suspicion by its non-denial of reports and economist predictions of an immediate GST rise,” she said. “Based on the sequence of events, I believed the Government could have intended to raise the GST at this Budget. Thus, during the heat of the exchanges at the Budget round-up I articulated my suspicion.
“In doing so, I believed 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.”
She added: “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 over-active imaginations and oversensitivity.
“Since the Government has now refuted that it had any intention to raise GST immediately, I can accept that my suspicion then may not have been correct.’’
In other words, she was entitled to her suspicions based on how she had interpreted the sequence of events, which was also something that economists and the media shared.
Her coup de grace came later, when she quoted Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong as telling Parliament at the close of the Oxley Road debate:
“If MPs believe that something is wrong, it’s 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’re not fully sure, then come to this House, confront the Government, ask for explanations and answers.”
She asked if there was one standard “when the PM’s name needs to be cleared and another standard when we are talking about raising taxes on the people’’.
Watching the proceedings, I couldn’t help but pity Ms Fu. She repeatedly spoke of how MPs should not abuse their parliamentary privilege and described Ms Lim as falling short of parliamentary standards of conduct. “It is expected of us to bring our views forth here but if the facts were wrong and we have said that the facts were wrong – we have not had this plan of floating balloons and then only to retract after public pressure, that’s just plainly non-existent, it’s a figment of imagination – but she continued with this accusation, it’s deeply disappointing and deplorable.’’ She put Ms Lim on notice that she would be sent before the parliamentary select committee on privileges if she did the same the second time.
I suppose Ms Fu’s point was that Ms Lim should never have said anything about her suspicions, because the G has already said it need not raise revenue at least four times. Full stop.
She didn’t counter Ms Lim’s sequence of events nor try to explain why there was no word from officialdom countering the speculation of an immediate GST hike.
Mr Heng tried to help by talking about how the Budget is a secret. Ms Lim agreed and had a deft response: “I think that’s actually part of the whole issue. Only the Cabinet knows the truth. And as I’ve said in my speech earlier, the Government has said it’s refuted that it had any intention to raise the GST this year. 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.’’
She has something there. Nobody knows what the G intends or doesn’t intend to do given the opacity of G business. We simply have to trust its public utterances, which it defines as the “facts’’. If we do not, do we deserve to be called dishonest for believing that the G could be dishonest?
Okay, MPs should have higher standards of discussion in Parliament, which Ms Fu said is different from “economists and analysts outside the House’’. If so, do we really expect Opposition MPs to not raise suspicions (oops! Bad word) or question the G’s intentions? That’s a line the PAP can hold with its own MPs, but not others.
The most that the PAP got out from her is this: “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.’’
The difference between Ms Lim’s utterances and Mr Perera’s on Mediacorp’s editing of parliamentary speeches is that there were facts to show that Mr Perera did not tell the truth about the episode. He misled Parliament to score political points.
In Ms Lim’s case, the issue is far greyer – and complicated by how her suspicion might actually be shared by some people.
It had looked like a stalemate at one time until Mr Low came in to give everyone a face-saving way out.
“I think there’s nothing wrong for the Government to come up earlier to say that, 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’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.’’
Will this be the end of the matter? I certainly hope so. If this is an example of the 4G leaders displaying their “toughness’’ or “mettle’’, then they would have done better to pick something more winnable.