A serious Government and a serious Opposition for Singapore

25/04/2023

By Senior Minister of State for Finance and Transport Chee Hong Tat

Last week, in the debate the President’s Speech at the Opening of the second session of the current Parliament, a recurrent theme was the need for responsible and constructive politics.  

The Leader of the Opposition Mr Pritam Singh did not disagree with Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong’s call for a “serious government and a serious opposition”, and to reject populism and political opportunism.  But I wonder if the Opposition interprets “responsible and constructive politics” to mean the same thing as the People’s Action Party. 

In particular, I was struck by the exchange in Parliament between the Workers Party’s Mr Leon Perera and Minister Ong Ye Kung and Mr Murali Pillai on the Goods & Services Tax (GST). 

The WP had not only opposed raising GST from the current 7% to 9%. They opposed GST when it was first introduced at 3% in 1994; they opposed it again when it was increased to 4% in 2003 and to 5% in 2004; and they opposed it yet again when it was increased to 7% in 2007.

Before last Thursday, the WP had never said they accepted the GST. They had consistently criticised the GST as a regressive tax, and ignored Singapore’s unique GST system, which couples the tax itself with permanent offsets for the lower income.

I was therefore surprised to hear Mr Perera say, in reply to Minister Ong’s question, that the WP has “accept[ed] the reality of GST at 7%” since 2018; and they now only oppose the 2% increase.

Then on Friday morning, the WP issued a statement claiming what Mr Perera had really meant to say was that “since the GST hike was mooted in 2018, we did not call for GST to be lowered to 0%.”

 I thank the WP for now supporting the 7% GST.  This is a major and welcome shift in its longstanding position, opposing the GST for almost 30 years since the tax was first introduced in 1994.  Who knows, perhaps a few years from now, we may hear from a future WP leader that a 9% GST is acceptable too?

But it also makes me wonder: if the WP had indeed changed its position on the GST since 2018, as Mr Perera now claims, why did it not announce this all this time, and tell everyone this important news?  Why keep silent and vague on a major issue like this during the many rounds of exchanges we have had on the GST since then, including through a general election campaign?

A responsible opposition has to be honest and forthright about its views and positions.

Here is a second instance from the debate. PAP Member of Parliament Mr Saktiandi Supaat highlighted that the WP’s Mr Louis Chua had co-authored a report with his Credit Suisse colleagues in January 2023 which stated that public housing in Singapore is “affordable”.  Yet just one month later, Mr Chua joined his fellow WP MPs in Parliament to criticise the government for not providing affordable public housing, and to call for HDB flat prices to be further reduced. 

Mr Chua is certainly entitled to change his views on the matter. But he does not appear to have done so. Instead, he claims that there is no contradiction between the Credit Suisse report and his statements in Parliament. This is not credible. The responsible and honest thing to do would have been for him to either stick to his original professional views or declare upfront that he had shifted his position and explain why. 

As DPM Wong said during the debate: “Populism is politics that suppresses the truth, distorts the facts for political advantage. Populism is politics that pretends there are simple answers to complex issues – because there aren’t…In the short term, parties that push such populist policies may gain some advantage, but in the longer term, it will cause great damage to Singapore and Singaporeans.”

We must always keep Singapore politics upfront, responsible, and honest. We must never succumb to mistruths, half-truths, or untruths. There is no point for politicians to wring their hands about our becoming a “post-truth” society, and then go on to say whatever they want to make a convenient political argument, or surreptitiously shift their positions without telling the public. That will only land us with the kind of populist and irresponsible politics that has weakened so many established democracies. 

Postscript:
In response to SMS Chee’s commentary reported in p.6 of Lianhe Zaobao on 26 April 2023 “徐芳达:确保我国政治保持正直和负责任 政党绝不能传播误导性或虚假言论”, the Workers’ Party’s media team asserted that our raising the issue of the WP’s stance on the GST was meant to distract the attention of Singaporeans.

As political parties, we need to be accountable to Singaporeans and explain our positions on important issues.

The facts remain that WP is presenting contrasting accounts to Singaporeans on where they stand on housing and GST.

It has taken some time but we are glad to clear the air for Singaporeans and move forward. We appreciate that WP now acknowledges that public housing is affordable in Singapore, and that they now support the need for the GST.