Speaking at the start of the Parliament sitting on 8 March (Thursday), Workers' Party Ms Sylvia Lim declined to apologise for her earlier "Test Balloon" remarks in Parliament about the impending GST hike and cited media reports and comments by economists that led her to suspect that the government had planned to raise the GST sooner, before the timeline of between 2021 and 2025 that was announced in the Budget.
"The Government contributed to this suspicion by its non-denial of reports and economists’ predictions of an immediate GST rise," she said. "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."
"In doing so, I believed I was doing my duty as an MP to convey ground concerns, reactions and confusion. I did not accuse the Government of being untruthful as alleged and neither had I intended to accuse the Government of dishonesty," she added.
"I do not accept the over-characterisation the PAP ministers have put on my words and intentions, based on their own interpretation, borne out of over-active imagination and oversensitivity. Since the Government has now refuted that it had any intention to raise GST immediately, I can accept that my suspicion then may not have been correct."
And with that, Ms Lim ended her speech and clarification and proceeded to sit down
Heng misses first opportunity to rebut Sylvia - PM Lee not happy
At this point, Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan Jin asked House Leader Grace Fu, "Leader, do you have any response or clarification?"
Grace Fu then stood up and proceeded to walk towards the podium.
While Grace Fu stood up, PM Lee was turning his head to look at Minister Heng Swee Keat, who was sitting on PM Lee's right. Heng was sitting 2 seats away on PM Lee's right, with Minister Shanmugam and Minister Yaacob sitting in between them.
As PM Lee turned his head right towards Heng's direction, he said something, probably calling out Minister Heng, "Heng".
Heng was looking at his notes and when he heard something, he turned his head left (6:07) but saw Grace Fu walking towards the podium. He then also noticed PM Lee looking at him, probably wanting him to respond back to Ms Lim.
But Grace Fu had already reached the podium and Heng signaled back to PM Lee by pointing towards Grace Fu to show that she was already at the podium.
PM Lee turned his head slightly left and also noticed that Grace Fu was already there, but he turned his head back right to look in Heng's direction, looking unhappy. PM Lee was seen looking at Heng's direction for the next few seconds looking grumpily.
Heng switches seat to sit next to PM Lee
Grace Fu finally finished her talking but notice that Heng had already switched seats to sit next to PM Lee.
Heng was now sitting on PM Lee's immediate right followed by Minister Shanmugam and Yaacob. In other words, Shanmugam and Yaacob had both moved one seat to their right so as to make way for Heng to sit next to PM Lee.
Heng probably needed to sit next to him so that Heng could receive instructions from him more easily, in case he wanted Heng to do something.
PM Lee refers Heng to the info on his iPad that he wants Heng to say
While Grace Fu and Ms Lim were exchanging blows in the Chamber, PM Lee could be seen coaching Heng on what to say.
Initially, PM Lee was seen holding his own iPad. Later he was seen showing Heng some information on his iPad, pointing and gesticulating.
He then passed the iPad to Heng for Heng to use in his rebuttal against Ms Lim. That is to say, it appeared that PM Lee was referring Heng some information on the iPad that he wanted Heng to say.
Shanmugam was also seen giving some pointers to Heng.
All the while, Heng was seen nodding and agreeing.
After Grace Fu finished her rebuttal against Ms Lim, Heng finally raised his hand to the Speaker of Parliament (15:22) signalling that he wanted to talk.
so, what was the information PM Lee wanted Heng to say?
Followings were the transcript:
Heng Swee Keat: Ms Lim asked earlier that why is it that the Ministry of Finance did not come out to reveal details of the budget. Now the Budget is a serious mater. We take great care in preparing the Budget and the details are kept as secret until the day of the Budget because it has got impact on the market and on not just in Singapore but internationally. So I do think that these are serious matters.
Now Ms Lim claimed to reflect these views of the public. Now that you have opportunity to gather all the facts, now that I and my colleagues have made all the clarifications, I think it is only right and honourable that you withdraw the statement.
Sylvia Lim: Minister for Finance mentioned that Budget preparation is a secret and I think that's actually part of the whole issue. Only the Cabinet knows the truth. And as I've said in my speech earlier, the Government has said it's refuted that it had any intention to raise the GST this year, I do not know the truth, so I can accept that I may have been wrong but I do not accept that my suspicion had no basis and I do not apologise.
Low Thia Khiang: I do take it that Budget is a serious matter and it's always secret because it might affect market movements and all that. But I think there's nothing wrong for the Government to come up earlier to say that, look, we don't have intention to raise GST at this budget, and that would have cleared the air and the confusion on the ground. And now, it's clear that the Government has no intention to raise GST at that point in time and Ms Lim's suspicion wasn't really correct at that point in time.
Heng Swee Keat: I think I can accept that in the heat of exchange you may be saying things which you did not intend but now having had so many days to examine the facts, I would like to know that whether Ms Lim accept the explanations that have been given that this has been the intention of the Government, there was no backtracking, that this was the facts as we have put out?
In fact, the issue of raising taxes had been raised many times before that, it's just that the timing and the details are not revealed, and I don't think it is proper for us to talk about the details and timing of it way in advance of a Budget.
Sylvia Lim: I said in my speech earlier that I can accept that my suspicion may have been wrong but I do not accept that my suspicion had no basis and I do not accept that I have failed or been derelict in my duty as an MP to this House.