On 22 March, Minister for Home Affairs and Law, K Shanmugam summoned Non-Constituency Member of Parliament Leong Mun Wai – who was still mourning the loss of the passing of his mother – to Parliament to deliver a ministerial statement following the latter’s Facebook post.
The post on 20 March by the Progress Singapore Party NCMP criticized the disclosure of a police investigation against Lee Hsien Yang and Lee Suet Fern by Mr Teo Chee Hean via a response to what seems to be a planted parliamentary question and Mr Shanmugam’s remarks in Parliament that the couple had “absconded.”
In his ministerial statement, Mr Shanmugam questioned Mr Leong’s decision to make the post outside of Parliament, saying it breached parliamentary procedures.
Mr Shanmugam said: “Parliament is a place for debates. Parliament is a place where we exchange viewpoints. And on the basis that we are all trying to do our best for Singapore, we, through the exchange of ideas and debates, try and get to a point.”
In the heated exchange, Mr Shanmugam and the Speaker of Parliament, Tan Chuan Jin, emphasized the importance of debating and clarifying issues within Parliament.
Mr Tan Chuan Jin said, “There are reasons why we have debates in Parliament – so that we can debate the issues here, clarify and so on. But when we carry on the debate in a one-dimensional way outside, I think the idea here is to continue that.”
Mr Shanmugam accused Mr Leong of abusing parliamentary privilege and breaching parliamentary rules by making improper and untrue statements on Facebook.
He even called Mr Leong a coward for not raising the matter in Parliament, stating, “Disagree, explain, debate and so that the public can have a better understanding, if you think it is not relevant. But do not be a coward. Keep quiet here, go out and say, “Oh, it’s an attempt to muddy the waters”, that is casting aspersions on me, that I am doing this to confuse. That is not acceptable.”
Criticising Workers’ Party on parliamentary exchanges outside of parliament
However, the situation took an interesting turn when Mr Shanmugam shared a commentary published on Tuesday (25 Apr) by Senior Minister of State for Finance and Transport, Chee Hong Tat, questioning the Workers’ Party’s stance on the Goods & Services Tax (GST) outside of Parliament.
When Mr Shanmugam shared Mr Chee’s commentary, he wrote, “SMS Chee Hong Tat has written an important article about how Singapore needs, not just a serious Government, but also a serious Opposition.”
In a statement on Mr Chee’s commentary, the Workers’ Party expressed surprise that Mr Chee did not raise his concerns in Parliament if he was unsatisfied with the replies from its Members of Parliament, Mr Leon Perera and Mr Louis Chua.
Mr Chee’s commentary, which is titled “A serious Government and a serious Opposition for Singapore,” wrote:
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?
The Workers’ Party said, “If the government wishes to resurrect WP positions from 15-20 years ago, by the same token, the WP could bring up PAP policies from the past for debate today.”
In relation to Mr Chee’s concerns about WP MP Louis Chua’s commercial research paper, the party stated that neither Mr Chee nor any other PAP MP had sought clarification from Mr Chua in Parliament. Mr Chua’s paper advised investors on profitable opportunities in the housing market, emphasizing the affordability of HDB housing from an investor’s standpoint.
The Workers’ Party called on Mr Chee to debate their positions in Parliament, stating that it is not an unreasonable expectation for any serious government around the world.
This recent development raises questions about the consistency of Mr Shanmugam’s position on making statements outside of Parliament.
While he criticized Mr Leong for doing so, he later shared Mr Chee’s commentary, which was also made outside of Parliament without raising the matter with the party involved.
This apparent contradiction has led to speculation about whether the Minister has different standards for different individuals.