Low Thia Khiang calls GST hike announcement a distraction', Ng Chee Meng responds

You rarely hear MPs on both sides of the aisle laughing together.

Sulaiman Daud | March 01, 2018, 04:39 PM

As the de facto leader of the opposition, the speech made by Workers' Party Secretary General Low Thia Khiang during the Budget Debate came under close scrutiny.

Low supported the Budget, saying:

"This is a forward-looking budget designed to anchor Singapore firmly in the future, and for the future."

Unnecessary distraction

However, he sounded a note of dissent over the government's proposal to raise the Goods and Services Tax by two per cent in the near future, saying:

"Sir, the unfortunate thing about this Budget is that it is looking forward too hastily for future revenue streams by prematurely announcing the GST hike. It has become an unnecessary distraction from the vision articulated in this budget.

And as a real distraction, causing the government to lose its focus in getting buy-in for the vision, because it has to explain the future GST hike instead. Do not let this opportunity to lead Singapore with this vision go to waste."

You can watch Low's speech below:


But this prompted Minister for Education (Schools) and Second Minister for Transport Ng Chee Meng to speak up:

"Mr Deputy Speaker, thank you. I had not intended to speak. But as I listened to the Workers’ Party speeches, I get increasingly baffled. I hear across the different speeches that they essentially agree with the many programmes proposed (in) the budget.

In fact, they want the government to do more. In education, to take care of the elderly, doing more for the women, more for the disadvantaged, and in one member’s speech, she focused her speech on inequalities, and emphasised that inequality is a threat to our nation, that we have to, I quote, “Take concrete steps to remedy it.”"

"The Worker Party agrees with many of the budget proposals. Mr Low Thia Khiang agrees that this is a forward-looking budget to anchor Singapore firmly in the future. But yet, the Worker Party says that the GST is a distraction. Mr Deputy Speaker, our government has put together a concrete, forward-looking budget, so that we can resource all these programmes for Singaporeans.

In this budget, we have outlined to Singaporeans how we can take care of our seniors, to better prepare our children for the future, to prime our businesses, to help our workers in the dramatic economic changes taking place and the technological disruptions."

"We want to help the disadvantaged in society more. And yet, after all the speeches that I’ve listened carefully in this chamber, the Worker Party thinks that finding the ways to fund all these programmes is a distraction. They agree with the programmes, but talking about how to fund these programmes is a distraction. I find it baffling.

I think it is critical, I think it is honest, I think it is right that we outline to Singaporeans how we intend to chart Singapore’s future forward in a sustainable manner. Thank you Mr Speaker."


Clarification please

But Low wasn't going to let that pass without comment.

In fact, he sprung up almost right away to deliver a response, even though Leader of the House Grace Fu got up to speak too.

Deputy Speaker: Leader of the House.

(Both Grace Fu and Low Thia Khiang get up)

Low (Muffled): …what the Minister said.

Deputy Speaker: Mr Low, you want a clarification?

Low: Yes, yes, because he’s referring to my speech, said it is a ‘distraction’.

Low continued:

"I thought the Budget, the most important part of this Budget is anchoring Singapore. I’m not saying that revenue is not important but GST is not part of the budget measure at this budget, right? So I thought it would be better…you can announce the GST of 2 per cent intended to increase in 2021, or anytime. We can have a full debate here, but I wonder whether is it better to announce separately and debate here or debate at the budget.

We have never said that, we have never said that the government will have to fund everything and without any funding. What we’re saying, and we’re questioning whether or not is there any other avenue to look at instead of raising GST because it affects a lot of people, and we are looking at whether there are possibilities of other revenue.

I think some MPs have spoken about it, and I think we can explore it, and we can have a full debate on this. But my point was that this is basically an important budget, and a budget which is more looking forward to the future, but GST increase can be a distraction because then we ended up debating ‘Is there a need to increase GST?’"

MPs listening to Low Thia Khiang speak. Screen shot from Gov.sg.

Warn in advance

Ng had something else to add, however. He pointed out that during the 2017 Committee of Supply debates, Low had wanted the government to be "upfront" about price hikes.

Reading from an iPad, he said:

"Mr Deputy Speaker, I have in hand what Mr Low Thia Khiang said in COS 2017 in the card to MOF. I quote, “I hope he”, meaning the Minister for Finance, “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 prices.” You can’t have the cake and eat it."

Election issue

Unfazed, Low pointed out that his party would likely debate the GST hike in the run-up to the next election, whenever that might be:

Mr Speaker, I stand (by) what I said. I am not asking you to hide the intended increase in GST. I’m not asking the government to do that. What I’m saying is that by all means, you can announce it well before you want to increase. It’s good to increase before…announce it beforehand, but the question is whether or not you need to announce it together with this Budget. That’s another issue.

(Laughter. Low sits down, then gets up again.)

Mr Speaker, anyway, I have asked in the last election, and I think DPM Tharman promised there would be, we have enough, you know, money to spend, there would be no increase, that’s true. So next election is 2020, or 2021. So you’re going to increase after the next election. Good to announce it now, then we can debate it at the rally, public rally.


You can watch some exciting parts of the exchange here:

Top image adapted from Gov.sg.