A lot of people need to say sorry

Bertha Henson
PHOTO: Getty Images

So there’s another apology in the offing in Parliament, making it the second time the Workers Party will be ticked off for remarks made in the House this year. In January, Mr Leon Perera ate humble pie when he had to concede that his remarks about MediaCorp’s editing of parliamentary speeches were misleading. Now it is the party chairman’s turn to face the PAP chorus of condemnation.

It’s getting a little over the top.

So the G is unhappy that Ms Sylvia Lim 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. She said that people noted that leaders, including Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, had said the Government had enough money till the end of the decade.

“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.

Frontbenchers Mr K Shanmugam and Mr Heng Swee Keat got into a flap, with Mr Shanmugam getting absolutely testy with adjectives like “dishonest’’ and “hypocritical.’’ That was Friday’s fireworks. The mild mannered Mr Heng unleashed a fierce press statement the next day calling for an apology, which he reiterated on Sunday. On Monday, Senior Minister of State Indranee Rajah weighed in on her Facebook.

Then, yesterday, Leader of House Grace Fu asked for permission to make a statement in Parliament. And there you have it: an official demand for a withdrawal and apology by the end of Thursday. It seems that Ms Lim, who was not in Parliament then, is asking for time to make a statement in the House, possibly at the end of the Committee of Supply debate which should end this week.

MPs, even from the People’s Action Party, have had to apologise for their unparliamentary remarks in the past. Two had to do with bringing “hearsay’’ into the House. Like Mr Sin Boon Ann in 2009 who read out a letter from someone he did not know criticising The Straits Times for its reporting of the Aware saga. Although he did not verify its contents, he said he “would not be surprised if it were true and would be very concerned if it is’’.

Or like Mr Ong Kian Min in 2000 who related how a grassroots leader had told him about being unfairly cut out of a business deal by a government-linked company. He, too, did not do his checks.

I think PAP’s Mr Louis Ng came close to the line when he told the House last week about civil servants being too afraid to speak up for fear of damaging their career prospects. He did not name them or give specific instances. He wasn’t told to apologise but did get ticked off by Minister Ong Ye Kung for making “generalisations that tar the entire service with the same brush”. It was a gentle rebuttal compared to what was dished out to Ms Lim.

Parliament is an ownself-check-ownself entity. That’s because MPs have privileges in the House that no one else has. You can’t sue an MP for defaming you or accuse an MP for prejudicing a court case. Unless Parliament itself thinks that you’re out of line. Which means that you are in for the high jump.

There is a committee of MPs which decide whether there has been abuse of such privileges and which can mete out penalties. It was convened in 1986, after the late WP MP J B Jeyaretnam refused to apologise for comments he made about executive interference in the judiciary and police abuse. (If he had uttered them outside the House, he could be accused of contempt of court). He was fined $2,000 for abusing parliamentary privilege, and another $25,000 for publishing a distorted report of the committee’s proceedings in five newsletters and $1,000 for not declaring a pecuniary interest in a question he raised.

Were Ms Lim’s alleged transgressions as bad as any of the above?

There is plenty of public confusion over why the PAP chose to be so tough on this. If you do not focus on the words Ms Lim used but the message she conveyed, it was this: A lot of people thought the GST would go up now, and were unhappy. But in the end, it was delayed. This is probably because the G had to stick by its promises not to raise it till the next decade which some people had noted. If the G hadn’t said anything before about this, Parliament would be discussing the hike now.

The G leapt to the conclusion that this showed some nefarious thinking on its part. Ms Fu said there were no “test balloons’’ on this, as if test/trial balloons are such a bad thing. (It is a silly government which does not float test balloons, fly a kite, test waters before making a major policy announcement if only to re-calibrate what it wants to do.)

Instead, the PAP is taking the moral high ground, citing times when the big wigs have assured the people that there was enough revenue to last till the end of the decade. Ms Fu cited these as “facts’’. These are facts insofar as this was what the ministers said in public. If we trust the G, we must take it as face value.

The trouble is that in the run-up to the Budget, there has been so much noise about the GST that one can’t help but think it’s on the way.

Even economists thought so. There is, for example, a well-publicised report from DBS Bank on Nov 28 which said it expected GST to go up by two percentage points this 2018 Budget.

TODAY reported its economist Irving Seah as saying: “Hiking the GST is politically challenging given its regressive nature. In this regard, timing is crucial. With the next General Election (GE) due (by January 2021), policymakers will have to act fast… the GST is perhaps the most direct and effective tool in terms of raising tax revenue.”

The TODAY article actually made clear what the G has said:

While political leaders including Mr Lee and Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam have said the Government has enough revenue for its current term, the economists believe that any GST hike will be introduced before the next GE.

It quoted another analyst, CIMB economist Song Seng Wun as saying: “Nobody likes an increase in taxes, it is a huge political task to explain to the public why such an increase is needed. The hikes will likely be carried out under the current term, so as to allow the next generation of leaders to focus on other issues.”

Now, look at what ChannelNewsAsia said in commentary on Feb 13:

Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat’s comments in Budget 2017 to “raise revenues through new taxes or raise tax rates” and a comment from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong during his speech at the PAP convention in November 2017 “that raising taxes is not a matter of whether but when”, has led to wide speculation that an increase in the GST rate could be announced on Feb 19 when the Budget 2018 statement is delivered.

The speculation has been further fueled by a subsequent comment from Senior Minister of State for Finance Indranee Rajah that “we’re still working on the when”.

Here’s what 12 economists canvassed by Bloomberg said as reported on Feb 14:

Almost all the economists surveyed expect an adjustment to the goods-and-services tax, but only six said it will probably be imposed as soon as this year. Five are betting on 2019 or later.

All through-out these discussions and debates, there hasn’t been a single peep from the G that the economists might be better off looking at other financial matters than coming out with numbers on how much, and when. There might have been “no contradiction’’ between what the G said and did, as Ms Rajah put it, but there was also “no clarification” done either.

Hence, the near-universal surprise when the GST hike was delayed.

So why did so many intelligent people ignore the “facts’’ – the past assurances of the G? They didn’t think they would hold because politics/practicality would take precedence over promises? That the G was a fundamentally dishonest one? And what about the less intelligent layman? Did they or didn’t they grumble about the thought of an immediate GST hike? Is it so bad if they thought the G had listened to them and therefore, delayed the hike? It would have been double kudos: The G not just listens to feedback but is also good at keeping its promise.

I can agree with past cases when MPs retracted and apologized for the remarks because they were clearly beyond the pale. But in this instance, accusation appears aimed at everyone else outside the House who might have thought the same way Ms Lim did. Is it because she used the word “suspect’’? That she was aping coffeeshop talk instead of giving evidence for her suspicion (which will be terribly hard given the opacity of Cabinet work. That she didn’t phrase her “suspicion’’ in a more acceptable way?

What if she had said: “People had expected the GST rise to kick in immediately and some had wondered if public backlash was the reason for the delay.’’

I think Ms Lim should say sorry so that we can move on.

Perhaps, she should say: “I apologise for the remarks I made implying that the government has been dishonest. I was swept up by the tide of comments from economists and people who thought that the GST would kick in soon. I also would have expected that any government would refrain from raising GST given public feedback. I was wrong to think so. The Government was merely being upfront and honest and was sticking to a promise made. My suspicions, though shared by many, were baseless. I thank the Government for its clear, unequivocal clarification of facts concerning the GST rise.’’

I suppose the “trust’’ word comes into play here. If the G said so, it will be so. And by the way it is arguing the case with Ms Lim, quite a lot of people owe it an apology.

Don’t you agree?


Related stories:

Grace Fu asks Sylvia Lim to withdraw statement on GST hike, apologise to Parliament

K Shanmugam and Sylvia Lim clash in Parliament over planned GST hike

Budget 2018 debate: Workers’ Party offering ‘dishonest and irresponsible’ options, says Heng Swee Keat

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