UPDATE: Comments from Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat and Workers’ Party chief Low Thia Khiang
Member of Parliament (MP) and Workers’ Party chairman Sylvia Lim refused to apologise and retract her statement in relation to allegations that the government had floated “test balloons” on the Goods and Services Tax (GST) hike in a heated exchange with Leader of the House Grace Fu and Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat on Thursday (8 March) in Parliament.
“I do not see any reason for me to retract the statements which I made during the exchanges with the minster…I will not apologise to this House because I believe I was doing my duty as an MP in the constitutional role,” Lim said.
Speaking in Parliament ahead of the resumption of the Committee of Supply debate for the Ministry of Social and Family Development, Lim set out the sequence of events that led to her suspicions of the possibility of an imminent GST hike, adding that her suspicions may have been incorrect.
However, Lim stopped short of giving an apology, stating instead that she was simply doing her job to raise her suspicions in Parliament.
“I believe I was doing my duty as an MP to convey ground concerns, reactions and confusions. 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 (People’s Action Party) MPs have put on my words and intentions based on their own interpretation borne out of overactive imaginations and over sensitivity.”
Referring to comments made by government leaders including Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Heng since 2013 that a tax increase was expected given rising expenditure, Lim noted that prior to the Budget, the government had not denied reports and predictions by economists of an “immediate GST rise”.
“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,” Lim said.
Referring to what PM Lee said in Parliament regarding the Oxley Road saga last year, she said, “If MPs believe that something is wrong, it’s (an) MP’s job to pursue the facts, and make these allegations in their own name, decide whether something seems to be wrong… then come to this House confront the government, ask for explanations and answers.”
In response, House Leader Fu said she was “deeply disappointed” that someone as experienced as Lim would “accuse the government of lack of candour”.
“I would like to say that her conduct falls well short of the standards of integrity and honorable conduct we expect of all members. Regrettably to say that 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.”
Fu added that that the privilege that MPs have to speak in Parliament comes with responsibilities.
“I would like to remind members of the house, that they may not abuse this privilege to misrepresent facts or mislead parliament, they 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.”
Fu noted that unlike Workers’ Party member Leon Perera who withdrew and apologised to the House for “making misleading statements in a recent case”, Lim has refused to do the same.
“By so refusing, her conduct falls short of the standard of integrity and honor expected of all Members. I must therefore put the honorable Member on notice, and the rest of the House too, that if she repeats such dishonorable conduct and abuse parliamentary privilege, I will refer the matter to the Committee of Privileges.”
Responding to Lim, Heng said that the opposition MP was accusing the government of being untruthful. He added that the Budget is “a serious matter” and that details had to be kept secret given its potential impact on the market.
“Now that you have the opportunity to gather all the facts… I think it is only right and honourable that you withdraw the statement unless you have a basis for that. You cannot come here and say ‘I heard this, I’m repeating this,” Heng said.
In response, WP chief Low Thia Khiang said that while details on the Budget should remain secret, the government should have taken efforts to clear the confusion on the GST hike.
“There is nothing wrong for the government to come out earlier to say that ‘Look, we don’t have the intention to raise the GST this budget’. That would clear the air or the confusion on the ground,” Low added.
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