Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat accused the Workers’ Party of being “dishonest and irresponsible” by offering “politically expedient options” for government expenditure that will not resolve long-term challenges.
Speaking in Parliament on Thursday (1 March), the third day of the Committee of Supply (COS) debate on Budget 2018, Heng alluded to Aljunied GRC Member of Parliament Pritam Singh’s suggestions for alternatives to the planned increase in the Goods and Services Tax (GST).
Among other ideas, Singh raised the possibility of using revenue from land sales, relying on GST imposed on imported services and increasing tax collection from self-employed hawkers and taxi drivers via Smart Nation efforts.
“Now, Mr Pritam Singh cannot be serious. Any serious-minded person will appreciate that not one of these is a viable alternative to a GST increase… instead of taking a principled stand, Mr Pritam Singh would rather withhold his support for the GST increase by adopting a wait-and-see posture,” said Heng.
He noted that the WP MPs, including Non-Constituency MPs Daniel Goh and Dennis Tan, had asked the government to do more in areas such as eldercare without giving suggestions on how this would be funded.
Heng added, “I think the Workers’ Party should come clean to the people. Do they want the government to increase healthcare or social spending, as all your various MPs have spoken, item by item. If yes, how does the Workers’ Party propose to pay for the increase?”
The 56-year-old also took issue with WP chief Low Thia Khiang’s characterisation of the GST debate as being a “distraction” and an issue which should be taken up at election rallies.
“Parliament is exactly the place to debate serious issues affecting our nation’s future,” said Heng, adding that he hoped that the WP motto of ‘Towards a First World Parliament’ was not just “an attractive election slogan”.
Timing of the GST hike
Heng acknowledged that there had been questions on the timing of the GST hike.
In his Budget speech last month, he announced that Singapore’s GST would be raised to 9 per cent from 7 per cent sometime from 2021 to 2025, while the exact timing of the increase would depend on Singapore’s economy, expenditure growth and existing taxes.
The Minister said on Thursday that this was being done to give business owners “ample notice” and emphasised that the government will exercise care in the implementation of the GST increase.
He also cautioned against the “temptation” to draw on the reserves, which is a “strategic national asset”, as an alternative to a GST hike. “We are stewards of the reserves for our future generations…to amend the rules on spending our reserves as a first resort is ill-disciplined and unwise,” said Heng.
National broadsheet The Straits Times recently estimated the country’s reserves to be in excess of a trillion dollars.