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Fake news panel: History is whose story?

In News Reports on March 30, 2018 at 9:40 am

Straight off the bat, it was clear that we were about to witness some demolition work at yesterday’s Select Committee hearing. It was the way Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam questioned Dr Thum Ping Tjin about his academic credentials – that he was not a research fellow in History as he had maintained, but that he was now a research fellow in Anthropology. And that while he was attached to Oxford University, he was not a tenured staff member.

It was also clear that the minister would launch into Dr Thum’s key point in his submission – that the People’s Action Party politicians were responsible for the biggest pieces of fake news in Singapore, by not telling the truth behind Operation Coldstore (1963) and Operation Spectrum (1987) which had resulted in the incarceration of many people.  He said so at the beginning of what would be a six-hour interrogation of the historian who is known for putting a different spin on the Singapore’s early history.

I say “spin’’ because I can’t tell who has the definitive version of history of Singapore’s pre-independence days – whether the early politicians (Lim Chin Siong et al) were communists planning armed struggle for political supremacy, or whether they were socialists whom first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew labelled as communists to destroy them politically, or to force them into jail or exile.

I say “spin’’ because I was thoroughly confused by all the references to books, quotes, telegrams, speeches and even footnotes that were originally in Mandarin and then translated into (bad English). Believe you me, I tried. Because any Singaporean would want to know how Dr Thum came to this conclusion that was in his written submission:

“Beginning with Operation Coldstore in 1963, politicians have told Singaporeans that people were being detained without trial on national security grounds due to involvement with radical communist conspiracies to subvert the state. Declassified documents have proven this to be a lie. Operation Coldstore was conducted for political purposes, and there was no evidence that the detainees of Operation Coldstore were involved in any conspiracy to subvert the government.” 

Not that Dr Thum is unknown in intellectual circles. His Phd thesis and subsequent public lectures, videos and interviews have repeated the point, which has been contested by the Government and at least one academic. In recent years, there have been several alternative narratives to Singapore history that has seen publication, including the ex-detainees’ views of Operation Spectrum and exiled ex-Barisan Sosialis members’ recollections of Operation Coldstore.

In 2014, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had weighed in to defend the State’s narrative. In 2015, his office issued a strong statement decrying what it described as “historical revisionism’’which downplayed the communist role in pre-independence:

“Historical discourse and debate requires academic rigour, intellectual honesty and respect for evidence. These qualities have been sadly lacking among those championing a revisionist account of a key fight on our road to independence.”

It shouldn’t surprise anyone therefore that the G members of the panel to take a scalpel to Dr Thum’s views, just as they did with the Human Rights Watch report that was a key point in freelance journalist Kirsten Han’s written submission.

So, was the demolition exercise successful?

As a layperson sitting in on the first half of the hearing, I found some of Dr Thum’s responses to Mr Shanmugam’s questions disconcerting, especially when he professed ignorance of some published work that seemed to have a bearing on those early days. Mr Shanmugam made quite a lot of hay from Dr Thum’s utterances, to show that the historian was not quite an expert in the field. I thought the same too, but I will also concede that it is also true that no one can read everything, not even an expert, and that even an expert would be hard put to remember certain paragraphs or quotes in the materials that he had come across.

Mr Shanmugam cited chapter and verse to get Dr Thum to agree on what constituted communism and united front tactics before proceeding to ask questions about whether there was a communist conspiracy in Singapore by  Barisan Sosialis members. He cited published sources, including those by Communist Party of Malaya’s secretary-general Chin Peng, which referred to the extent of communist infiltration in Singapore which had caused labour disruptions and student riots. There were references to how communists had to flee to Riau islands and had to ready themselves for a crackdown by government forces.

Dr Thum, on the other hand, said his analysis was based on recently de-classifiedc contemporaneous British Special Branch documents that did not show any evidence of a communist conspiracy. As for other materials, he dismissed them either as inaccurate or irrelevant as they were written decades later for a self-serving purpose. His own research, he claimed, showed Chin Peng was too far away from Singapore to know enough of its circumstances.

So much of the first three hours was about whether Dr Thum had read this or that, or had investigated this or that point, and debates on definitions such as “communist-controlled’’ and “communist-inspired’’, and whether supporters of communism were really supporters of anti-colonialism.

It was extremely testy with side comments made by Dr Thum, which Mr Shanmugam didn’t care to countenance. Dr Thum was kept to a narrow line of yes or no answers which he chafed at, arguing that a historian also looked at the big picture and other sources to come to conclusions.

Mr Shanmugam was having nothing of it, and accused Dr Thum of dealing in sophistry rather than history, and ignoring other sources on the pre-independence period which were inconvenient to his line of argument. He practically called Dr Thum an academic fraud, who broke the rules of academic research (he cited a definition).

Was any light shed on Operation Coldstore?

Dr Thum’s point seems to be that there might be people who supported communism and who were actually communists, but this is not to say that there was a concerted communist conspiracy to de-stabilise Singapore with riots and armed insurrection. And those who were rounded up in Operation Coldstore were not communists, because the declassified documents had no evidence of this. Neither was Barisan leader Lim Chin Siong a communist, he maintained, as Mr Shanmugam cited evidence that seemed to point otherwise. Mr Shanmugam also suggested that Dr Thum had misread at least one telegram from a British colonialist about the nature of Barisan Sosialis future moves.

Dr Thum seemed to be relying on de-classified documents from the British archives. which Mr Shanmugam didn’t take issue with and did not cite as a source. In fact, it seemed a pretty strange debate because no one in the room had a clue what the British documents really said.  Mr Shanmugam asked Dr Thum to send the relevant documents to him, which led Dr Thum to remark that the Internal Security Department probably had them too.

It was a pity that the discussion on Operation Coldstore took so little of that six hours of grilling which was terminated rather abruptly. For me, it appeared to be a continuation of a discussion which was really started a few years ago when historians started querying the State’s version of history, drawing responses from the G, at a time when Mr Lee Kuan Yew was still alive.

Would the release of classified documents by the G shed more light on this period of Singapore history? Asked about this in Parliament in 2014, then Minister of Culture, community and Youth Lawrence Wong rejected this. “Our approach is not transparency for transparency sake. Our approach is transparency that leads to good governance.”

Anyone would ask what the six hours had to do with fake news. It seemed to be about which version of history Singaporeans should rely on. After the hearing, Dr Thum professed himself flummoxed at the line of questioning which had been a two-man show despite the presence of other panel members including Dr Janil Puthucheary, whose father, Dominic Puthucheary, and uncle, James Puthucheary, had been Operation Coldstore detainees.

Perhaps, what the six hours showed was the difficulty of ascertaining what is true and what is false. Who should we believe and how credible are our sources? How can we ascertain the intentions of people who say things or do things?

In other words, who do we trust?

AFTERNOTE: I was wrong about this part. Mr Shanmugam did refer to these documents as well. I apologise for the error

 

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Fake news panel vs civil society: Not a very merry-go-round

In News Reports on March 28, 2018 at 8:58 am

When you go before a Select Committee hearing, remember that it is for the committee to ask questions of you, which members can frame in any way they want. You will have to answer, unless you say you refuse to answer. And you will have to answer the question as framed, and not segue into nuances and clarifications.

It was probably with this in mind that the civil society activists went before the Parliamentary Select Committee on deliberate online falsehoods. They paused before answering most of the questions, probably wary of being led down a line of questioning that would solicit answers they were not prepared to give.

Reading the written submissions, the four people had a common thread which they were determined should surface at the hearing.

At the risk of over-simplifying the positions of Messrs Terry Xu of The Online Citizen, Ngiam Shih Tung of Maruah and Phd student Howard Lee and freelance journalist Kirsten Han, I would say the following were their common grounds.

  1. Legislation, if considered, should be last resort because there are already plenty of laws which can deal with harmful speech.
  2. There are many types of fake news – ranging from those that are shared by concerned citizens without malice, to those that incite violence.
  3. The G should “deal with’’ deliberate online fake news by engaging the perpetrators or putting up its own take on the matter so that readers can make an informed judgment .
  4. Most times, netizens themselves point out the falsity of statements, negating the need for the G to intervene in a sphere which cherishes freedom of expression.
  5. Unless the term “deliberate online falsehoods’’ (DOFs) was clearly defined, legal means would mean crimping freedom of expression in Singapore and could be abused by the government of the day.

They look plain enough, except that the committee has a lot of resources to call on,  such as evidence given by earlier witnesses who said that the current laws lack “speed, scope and adaptability’’, how deliberate disinformation campaigns can undermine national security and how the tech and social media companies themselves were dragging their feet over banning fake material despite demands to do so. Hence, shouldn’t the G have a tool which it can use that would be speedy, broad and adaptable, safeguard national security and compel the platforms to take down such DOFs?

Much of the three hours of questioning, mainly by MP Edwin Tong, who happens to be a Senior Counsel, were aimed at getting them to concede this point. There was plenty of arguing about definitions of fake news and the type of fake news that deserved sanction. Prof Thio Li-Ann’s testimony – that it was possible to define false in a legal sense – was frequently cited by the panel. So was Prof Goh Yi Han’s paper on the inadequacy of   current laws to deal with different types of fake speech.

Besides quoting these eminent law academics, the panel also referred to a Reach survey published yesterday, which said that 92 per cent of those surveyed wanted more effective laws on fake news. The civil society activists, parrying every blow that was levelled at them, probably felt that they were under siege.

Both Mr Tong and Dr Janil Puthucheary wanted to know why the acivists’ views were at odds with the experts and the majority of the survey participants. To her credit, Ms Han questioned the methodology of the Reach survey, and its questions, which would lead respondents to answer in a certain way.

I agree. The participants were asked about fake news – a term that so many people find hard to define and understand, except that it sounds bad. What image popped into their heads when they were popped the question and do they even know if there are laws in place that could deal with some of them?

But beyond questioning the survey results, the activists were caught very much in a bind when they were posed examples of fake news and asked if they should be banned. Most were pretty egregious, like assertions that past US President Barack Obama criticized Christians  and that Indonesia’s Jokowi was a Christian. Then there were examples of online posts and sites filled with falsehoods about certain religious groups, which could lead to violence. The genious of the panel: These examples were raised by the British panel investigating the fake news phenomena, which Mr Tong recited to show that even the British MPs could not condone some types of expression and wanted them taken down. He also told of  how the  social media and tech companies responded to the British panel’s accusation of tardiness, by arguing that the offending item did not violate its community standards and how it was technically difficult to remove them.

Again, all this was to point to the question: Shouldn’t a government be given a tool to compel these companies to ban fake news?

It was a not a very merry-go-round. So I will try and shorten the discourse. The following is fake, but I hope it gives a fair representation of what happened.

Bear with me and follow this:

Q: If something is faked, should it be taken down?

A: No, because how do you know it’s fake?

Q: But it has been shown to be faked, so shouldn’t it be taken down?

A: No, it depends on who says it is faked and whether it incites violence.

Q: But it is faked and incites violence, so what do you do?

A: You use existing laws or challenge them and give your side of the story.

Q: But what if it has already gone viral?

A: Going viral doesn’t mean that it has an impact on the people who read them.

Q: So on the chance that fake news would not give rise to violence, we do nothing?

A: No, we engage them, but who defines fake news and what are we talking about anyway?

And so everything revolves on what is true and false, who decides and whether there are variations of the truth. At one point, Mr Tong said that there was only “one truth’’, which led to the civil society activists speaking all at once until Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam intervened to give examples of facts and falsehoods.

The appearance of the civil society activists yesterday had been anticipated as a kind of showdown between the proponents and opponents of legislation. The panel members stressed several times that legislation was being considered as one of a suite of measures, but the other side was equally adamant that there was no need for new laws. For example, racially charged speech could be dealt with under the Sedition Act. Also, public opinion had, on occasion, led to fake news being pushed back. They piggybacked on the earlier testimony of Professor Cherian George, who warned that action against fake news could backfire on the G, and give the perpertrators ammunition to declare that they were denied freedom of speech.

And so on and so forth…

I have some sympathy for the activists who had to go through the insistent and tightly scoped questioning by Mr Tong. They were stymied or cut off whenever they started to raise examples in their favour. Still, they tried to hold up their ideological line: that even falsehoods with spurious allegations should be allowed unless they are clearly illegal under current laws. The counter-measure was engagement, they said, and having social media companies uphold their own code of practice or community standards.

It was in the last hour or so that Mr Tong got into the specifics – and where things started looking  bad for the activists. In the case of Mr Xu, it was not his submission that Mr Tong grilled him on but his past action as editor of The Online Citizen. Mr Xu, who had earlier said that he was “not a journalist’’, was pinned down on TOC’s 2016 campaign on the suicide of student Benjamin Lim.

Mr Tong’s beef was that despite several police and parliamentary statements about an error in its reporting, TOC declined to revise its headlines. This, even though the mother who was the source of claims that police officers had descended on Benjamin’s school in tee-shirts with police emblazoned had said that she was wrong. Mr Xu’s reply was that TOC was “not in the habit of changing articles’’. Also, he himself had not received word from the police demanding a correction. Nor was he given CCTV footage to verify the claims of police.

I must say that it was pretty audacious of Mr Xu to give such a reply, which questioned the veracity of police and parliamentary statements. The only kind thing I can say in his favour is that he must have been frustrated by police’ consistent refusal to answer questions that he had posed to them in the past.

Ms Han, on the other hand, was put in a tight spot over her role in the Human Rights Watch report which the People’s Action Party Policy Forum had denounced before the Select Committee as deliberate falsehoods. The report, which interviewed 34 individuals on the state of civil rights in Singapore, was one of the planks in her written submission. She declined at first to say if she had been one of the 34 interviewed, arguing that it was irrelevant.

After the committee chairman Seah Kian Peng intervened, she decided to acknowledge that she was one of the interviewees. Mr Tong then drew her into specifics of the article which said that the incarceration of Alan Shadrake and Amos Yee were examples of curtailment of freedom of expression. I would be hard put to compress the details of the ding-dong over the two instances, except to say they both disagreed on everything.

There were two instances when Ms Han almost turned the tables on Mr Tong. She said she was surprised that the Human Rights Watch group had been asked to appear before the committee to defend its report, but not those who had described Operation Spectrum and Operation Coldstore as faked. She also said that while she would not welcome legislation on fake speech, she would welcome a Freedom of Information Act to promote more transparency and free flow of information.

But it was Mr Jolovan Wham, a social worker with Community Action Network, who got the short end of the stick, that is, a short five minutes before the committee. He was the last representor after a very long day which started at 10am. The five minutes was to get him to confirm that his view that there was no empirical evidence of online falsehoods in Singapore having a significant impact on the people.

Needless to say, he was quite cheesed off.

So what did we learn at the end of the day? I would venture this conclusion which I believe is shared by many: Legislation is afoot. Expect another bout of controversy when its draft is made public.

 

 

 

 

Public order and the need for speed: To do – as well as undo?

In News Reports on March 22, 2018 at 12:29 am

Everybody has concerns over the Public Order and Safety (Special Powers) Bill, but it wasn’t enough to get them to say no, not the Opposition nor the Nominated MPs. Or they may well have been appeased or re-assured by Mrs Josephine Teo.

It was a Bill with “tension’’, as MP Christopher De Souza put it. We want the police to have the powers to protect us but not so much that it would make them too powerful for even us, the people, to control. Then there were concerns of unintended consequences, like being unable to gather evidence of police abuse (if it happens) or even evidence that could add to an understanding of what had taken place.

Which is why, I suppose, the Second Minister for Home Affairs went into some detail on the safeguards in place to assure people that these special powers won’t be imposed willy-nilly. It needed a two-key mechanism – by both minister and police commissioner – before it is activated. Even so, the police commissioner has to justify the need for every specific power, say,  a “communications stop order’’. Plus, the activation has a one-month lifespan and must be renewed by the minister if they are still deemed necessary.

Much of yesterday’s debate centred on civil society’s concern about peaceful demonstrations being curtailed.

Several MPs and NMPs had asked about  what would constitute a “serious incident’’ that would necessitate such special powers. They pointed out two examples laid out in the legislation that seemed to place peaceful demonstrations on the same level as a terrorist attack or a hijacking.

This is one of them:  “A sit down demonstration for a cause attracts a large group of sympathisers who voluntarily join the sit-in. For over a week, the group grows and the demonstrators start to occupy the publicly accessible paths and other open spaces in the central business district. Their presence starts to impede the flow of vehicular and pedestrian traffic and interfere with normal trade or business activities in the area.”

Mrs Teo characterized views that allude to a clampdown on free expression as a “misrepresentation’’ of the legislation. It would only be invoked if the demonstration was a protracted one which had caused serious disruption, as articulated in the last line. She said repeatedly that peaceful assemblies were not the target, and that the police had given out over 900 licences last year for such gatherings.

She thinks that she will have Singaporeans on her side:“In fact, in such a situation, it is more likely that the Police will be asked:  “Why are you allowing this chaos to unfold?”

She has a point. It is my belief that the Singaporean would prize law and order and business-as-usual above any sort of confrontation, even if peaceful.

In fact, I wondered why she had so little faith in the ability of Singaporeans to know how to behave in the event of a threat. So many examples were trotted out of people who did not obey police instructions and ended up making a security situation worse. All foreign.

Is it really in the Singapore DNA to go against police wishes? Look at this example: In 2003 during the Sars crisis, nobody quibbled about the G’s ability to impose quarantine orders for those suspected of being infected or meting out jail time for those disobeyed the rules. As for the media, do we really think that our traditional media would go about airing footage if the G says “Don’t. It’s a security risk.’’?

Of course, there is now social media. It is true that there are plenty of snap-happy people who like to share pictures and videos. The easy accessibility of the internet is a temptation. But you must also reckon with the people’s natural need for information during a time of crisis. If not from media, whether traditional or social, then the only input will be official. The question is whether the official channels are up to speed when it comes to giving timely and relevant info. Take Tuesday’s Pulau Busing fire. Pictures of smoke billowing from the island were circulating online at least half an hour before the SCDF gave its first statement on the fire.

In my earlier column, I said I do not like this legislation. I consider it draconian and open to abuse. You need only look at the questions asked by MPs that have to do with definitions: What is “a serious incident’’, “large scale’’, “reasonable force’’, “reasonable steps’’? It shows the wide scope of the legislation.

When she took the Bill through its second reading, Mrs Teo tried to pre-empt some questions, like why a provision in the old Public Order (Preservation) Act allowing Parliament to annul the Minister’s directive by a resolution wasn’t retained in the new legislation

She said:  “There is no sinister reason for this. Even without this provision, members can question the Minister if they believe an Activation Order should not have been issued or should have been annulled.  Parliament has not been and is not prevented from holding Ministers to account for decisions or policies, just because there are no specific provisions in the law.  In any case, judicial review of the Minister’s decision to make an Activation Order remains an avenue to curb improper use by the Minister of his powers.’’

I would have thought the power to annul is rather more powerful than the power to question.

When the original legislation was drafted, lawmakers must have contemplated a scenario when the executive was up to no good when it invoked the powers. Given that the measures are draconian, they probably thought there should be just as speedy a way to prevent unnecessary over-reach, rather than the usual prolonged methods of debate and review.

I don’t think any MP picked up on this point. It is a pity because, written into the law, it is probably the best assurance that there is a quick method to reverse the situation should Parliament decide that the executive had got out of hand. This is far better than assertions in Parliament that the powers won’t be exercised lightly.

In the final analysis, it boils down to whether we trust the government of the day to do the right thing by the people, even as they ban communications, close cordons, remove vehicles, requisition equipment and question bystanders.

It was NMP Kok Heng Leun who came closest to articulating the unspeakable – whether  the minister and police commissioner should justify their need for action and if there was an over-riding mechanism. Maybe the President’s consent should be sought as well, he suggested, like the case for Internal Security Act detentions. (By the way, he stressed that it was not a matter of “mistrust” but “accountability”.)

To Mrs Teo’s credit, she took the bull by its horns: “I have reflected on Mr Kok’s points and I think his main discomfort has to do with the discretion given to the Minister and CP, whether we should trust them to act honourably at all times, or whether we should curtail their discretion and not leave it to chance.

“Therefore, he asks whether we can impose conditions under which the powers are used, and whether these conditions can be written into the Act. In my view, it is not unreasonable to consider such risks.’’

She threw the ball back to the MPs. “There is a risk of too much discretion, but there is also a risk of too much delay.’’ Which is the bigger risk in a serious incident and which has graver consequences, she said.

It was for MPs to make that judgment.

And so they did.

Let’s hope the law will never be activated.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About Millegram (this not a spelling error)

In News Reports on March 19, 2018 at 1:40 pm

Sometime last year, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam was in Tembusu College at the National University of Singapore to talk to undergraduates about current affairs. Midway (or was it all through?) he bemoaned the lack of understanding young people have of the big challenges facing Singapore. Millennials don’t read very much, or they read only what was of interest to them, he lamented.

I was in the audience (I taught in the college last semester), and so were my class of students and some ex-students. The young people came out of the talk rather miffed at what the minister said. Yet, there was no denying that big, important news is usually pretty boring. Young people have so many calls on their time, which are either urgent, like assignments with deadlines, or more interesting, which is usually anything else but dull reading.

But they didn’t like being dismissed as bo chap people. A few would consider themselves pretty up-to-date on current affairs. How to get their peers as interested as they were? I told them to go prove the minister wrong.

So they started Millegram.

It’s a play on millennials and Telegram, which is their social network of choice. It began as a class exercise for the 16 students from faculties as diverse as physics and political science, who were taking my enrichment module on critical reading and good journalism.

The key question for them to answer: How to deliver boring but big news in such a way that it would get young people reading?

There were the usual replies on how the articles must be written short, get to the point and be accompanied by visuals. But there were many mediums which purport to do that. What was so unique about their model?

Other questions include how the issues should be selected, what the mix should be and the sort of language or tone they should be written in. Here, I suggested that they had an advantage over other media because millennials know their own language and how to make that connection with their peers. I showed them an American example, The Skimm. It was also started by students but written in a way that hooked big news to the lifestyle of their peers.  

Young people being young people, they wanted to do plenty, including doing news reports and writing commentaries. But I didn’t think they would have time to do extensive reporting and also believed it was best that they chalk up some experience in thinking about issues before offering opinions. 

I suppose I had the experience of setting up Breakfast Network in the college to draw upon. Some of their alumni had been worked mercilessly with weekend reporting and fact-checking, so much so that they were on the laptops working on the website rather than listening to their lecturers in the theatre. 

So, to put it bluntly, I was hoping that they would clear the basic hurdle: make the news accessible. The model should be sustainable, handed down to generations of students, just like any college activity. Millegram should spread by word of mouth with subscribers who don’t have to pay a cent.

Because the students live in a residential college, they could call on other students’ expertise. Those from the coding society helped in more technical aspects like the software and hardware backend. I suggested that even business students could get involved to handle the subscription model and get sponsorships for events for millennials. I was very involved in the beginning, especially in helping them iron out the editorial concepts and, ahem, tearing apart their draft articles.  But when life – that is, exams and holidays began – I thought that the initial enthusiasm had died out. 

So I was surprised earlier this year when they told me that they’ve got it all up and running. Website, subscription model, email newsletter, Telegram channel etc. It was entirely student-generated. They only took funding from their residential college to register their website domain.

I ask that you take the time to read them.

Screen Shot 2018-03-19 at 5.34.34 PM

They are pretty rough pieces but you’ll get the idea behind it. It costs you nothing to subscribe (I think the email newsletter is well-designed) and if you’re a parent, I hope you’ll give your kids a nudge.

Go here  https://millegram.com/subscribe/ to subscribe to their weekly newsletter.

The newsletter is released every Tuesday evening, with all eight articles sent in one go. If you prefer short snippets everyday, their Telegram channel sends out an article or two a day and can be joined here: https://t.me/MillegramTele .

My hope is that Millegram will go from strength to strength. This is an effort by young people for young people. Let’s support them.  

 

We don’t look like a police state, do we?

In News Reports on March 14, 2018 at 12:55 am

I think we should slow down. I don’t mean being satisfied if the economy grows by 0.1 per cent. I mean the pace at which legislation is being introduced and passed under the all-encompassing phrases of national security and maintenance of law and order.

The Law ministry has been extremely busy in recent time, what with amendments to the Penal Code in the offing, new bail terms, tightening the Criminal Law Temporary Provisions Act, allowing IMDA officers to search premises of filmmakers whom they think are up to no good and ensuring that the next City Harvest-type of scandal doesn’t let the perpetrators off with a slap on the wrist.

A bit further back in time, there was the codification of rules regarding speech about the judiciary under the Administration of Justice Act and the Protection against Harassment Act against stalking and hurtful online remarks, plus changes to the Public Order Act on mass events and to get building owners to tighten security on their premises.

Truth to tell, I am feeling constipated. Before digesting one law, we are faced with another and yet another. I wonder how the Members of Parliament cope, with their full-time jobs, town council duties, advisory roles in grassroots, sports and trade union groups. Not to mention writing letters (not to the courts anymore) for constituents and making their presence felt in the constituencies. Oops! I believe they have families too. Do they really have time to read draft Bills critically? Or is it enough for them to agree with the “principles’’ in the legislation and leave the fine point to legal experts in the G?

Because you can’t quite argue against principles, especially if they’re phrased in a black-or-white way, such as “Would you rather have this (insert legislation)? Or would you rather have the country destroyed by terrorists, chaos on the streets, communal riots?’’

The G is a dab hand at such “do-or-die’’ scenarios and those who disagree with the “do’’ look like they are advocating “death’’.

Now Parliament has before it the Public Order and Safety (Special Powers) Bill, which is due to be debated in the House next week. I am sure the G will say that this is urgent, given that terror attacks can happen “any time’’.  Among other things, the Bill includes a communications stop order. This means pesky busybodies have to refrain taking photographs and video during a security operation. I blame the idea of such a stop order on idiotic media outlets elsewhere which air “breaking news’’ of operations.

But it seems that while governments elsewhere can rant and rave about how operations are compromised in the name of free speech, they aren’t able to do much about it. (One analyst said he knew of no other jurisdiction which has such powers).

It is different here. Because of the ruling party’s majority in Parliament and because people here place a premium on security above all other values.

I ask you this: Are Singaporeans always okay with measures that curb their freedom of expression or movement when it is done in the name of national security? Frankly, besides those who are constantly derided as the “vocal minority’’, most don’t give a damn. But we should care, lest this new terror era is used to justify measures that give the G too much control over what we say or do whether in crisis or non-crisis situations. Or if the “vulnerability’’ narrative that we are a fragile multi-racial and multi-religious nation gains so much traction that we dare not say or do anything, even if what we say or do is done in the interest of the country.

One lawyer suggested that the expanded  powers be “”confined within very strict perimeters vis-a-vis its usage’’ and for more information on the types of situation where the order could apply, to “avoid the impression that (Singapore) is becoming like a ‘police state’.’’

Six civil society groups have also banded together to urge the Government to narrow the definition of “serious incident” in the Bill that gives the police special powers. I agree because the Bill will cover situations that “seriously threaten public safety” – even if there is no disorderliness. The executive will have the final say-so on the seriousness of the threat.

The groups contend that the Bill “treats peaceful protests in the same way as terrorist violence, but they are fundamentally different, as they are non-violent and do not threaten public safety.”

They argue that with existing strict laws against assembly, the police are already “empowered to respond to them as they would any prohibited activity, and have done so”.

“Special powers are not needed,” they added.

More conservative types will say that they can always use Hong Lim Park for such activities. This is Singapore: tidy and organized. And some will brush off the misgivings of the groups because they have already been tagged as “liberal types’’ who will make such “human rights” noises.

I think the groups need more support, with more citizens expressing their sentiments on the Bill. Because once the law is passed, it is there for any G to take advantage of it for whatever end it has in mind.

For example, I saw this assurance that the “special powers” in the Bill cannot be invoked for “routine operations’’ – which makes me wonder what constitutes routine operations.

Would, for example, a deranged man holding someone hostage in his flat be constituted a routine operation? Or trying to get someone who is attempting to commit suicide off the roof? Or a narcotics sting operation?

In the first case, the authorities can argue that security operations shouldn’t be compromised because there is a threat to life and limb. So please don’t go posting pictures of police mounting the stairs. For the second, the authorities can argue that such scenes shouldn’t be circulated because it would only give ideas to wannabe suicide victims. For the third, there’s the argument that drug syndicates shouldn’t be tipped off about the way officers conduct drug busts.

One thing’s for sure, we have a very clever government and there will be responses for every doubt/suspicion/question that we may have for the exercise of its powers.

I am sure some people would also say: What’s wrong with that? We should leave such matters to professionals.

We have such implicit (or is it explicit?) faith in the authorities even though the balance of power between the government and governed will shift in a very big way.

What would be next then? That police can barge into homes on the mere suspicion of wrong-doing? Or that IMDA officers can seize laptops because legislation to pre-empt the proliferation of fake news says they can? (Oh. That legislation might be in the offing too).

I don’t like it. Because it means we must  hope that the authorities and their agents do not abuse their power in the process of carrying out their (very broad scope of) duties. Because if they do,  we, the people, can effect a reversal of policies only once every four or five years.

I read an ST Forum Page letter writer who said we should not mindlessly question the G, especially during times of crisis. I agree. The questioning should come before or after the crisis has passed. This is the “before’’ period.

I hope the MPs give the Bill a thorough going-over. I don’t want to live in a police state, even if it only looks like one.

I don’t know, but I can only suspect…

In News Reports on March 8, 2018 at 7:36 am

I suspect that the People’s Action Party ministers aren’t too happy about what happened in Parliament this morning. I suspect they thought Ms Sylvia Lim would roll over and apologise, just like her fellow Workers’ Party MP Leon Perera did in January.

In fact, I suspect that they thought that merely repeating themselves loudly over the issue of the timing of a GST hike would be enough to extract a retraction and an apology from Ms Lim.

Note, please, that these are merely suspicions on my part.

What are they based on? On the apoplectic look on Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat’s face as he got up to help Leader of the House Grace Fu in her admonition of Ms Lim’s “deplorable’’ conduct. (I couldn’t see the rest of the frontbenchers because I was assigned a seat in the public gallery that faced the backbenchers.)

I base it on Ms Fu’s inability to counter Ms Lim’s response nor even to comprehend it. She asked whether Ms Lim was withdrawing her statement which the G had been mighty unhappy with, when she had clearly said no. She asked for the “basis’’ of Ms Lim’s suspicion, when the MP’s whole speech was a chronology of events that led her to her “suspicion’’.

I also base it on how the PAP usually sticks to the moral high ground with plenty of sound and fury, brooking no opposition to what it would consider an upright stance. But in this case, the ground was cut from under its feet. They couldn’t break down Ms Lim’s defence.

Maybe my suspicions are baseless and they are quite happy with how it all turned out, but that would be too unbelieveable.

The issue boiled down to whether MPs are entitled to raise their suspicions or make allegations in the House without evidence.

To re-cap, Ms Lim had said that she suspected that the G had intended to raise GST this year but was forced to delay it because of public backlash. People were reminding the G about earlier pronouncements on having enough money to last till the end of the decade.  The G was, therefore, “stuck’’ because it had to, well, stick to its words.

The G contended that this meant that the G was being dishonest with the people – that it was saying one thing but intending to do something else. Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam was the first of the blocks that Friday, insisting that Ms Lim was dishonest and hypocritical. He wanted her to withdraw her statement.

Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat weighed in too, and added a statement the next day asking for a retraction and apology. Then his senior minister of state Indranee Rajah weighed in on Facebook. It became “official’’ and “formal’’ on Tuesday, when Ms Fu read her statement calling formally for an apology.

Now, going by what Ms Lim said today, she had discussed a response with Speaker Tan Chuan Jin on Monday. While she was told to expect Ms Fu to say something, she was not told when. So when Ms Fu made the statement on Tuesday, she was on the way to Parliament on Tuesday. (Question: why isn’t it in the Order Paper?)

Ms Lim recounted the various statements made by ministers in recent time and made the point that while economists and members of the public were speculating about the impending GST rise, there was no response from officials quelling it. Nor was there any definitive statement that the tax would not go up this year.

“The Government contributed to this suspicion by its non-denial of reports and economist 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 MPs have put on my words and intentions, based on their own interpretation, borne out of over-active imaginations 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.’’

In other words, she was entitled to her suspicions based on how she had interpreted the sequence of events, which was also something that economists and the media shared.

Her coup de grace came later, when she quoted Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong as telling Parliament at the close of the Oxley Road debate:

“If MPs believe that something is wrong, it’s MPs’ job to pursue the facts and make these allegations in their own name, decide whether something seems to be wrong. And if you think something is wrong, even if you’re not fully sure, then come to this House, confront the Government, ask for explanations and answers.”

She asked if there was one standard “when the PM’s name needs to be cleared and another standard when we are talking about raising taxes on the people’’.

Watching the proceedings, I couldn’t help but pity Ms Fu.  She repeatedly spoke of how MPs should not abuse their parliamentary privilege and described Ms Lim as falling short of parliamentary standards of conduct.  “It is expected of us to bring our views forth here but if the facts were wrong and we have said that the facts were wrong – we have not had this plan of floating balloons and then only to retract after public pressure, that’s just plainly non-existent, it’s a figment of imagination- but she continued with this accusation, it’s deeply disappointing and deplorable.’’ She put Ms Lim on notice that she would be sent before the parliamentary select committee on privileges if she did the same the second time.

I suppose Ms Fu’s point was that Ms Lim should never have said anything about her suspicions, because the G has already said it need not raise revenue at least four times. Full stop.

She didn’t counter Ms Lim’s sequence of events nor try to explain why there was no word from officialdom countering the speculation of an immediate GST hike.

Mr Heng tried to help by talking about how the Budget is a secret. Ms Lim agreed and had a deft response: “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.’’

She has something there. Nobody knows what the G intends or doesn’t intend to do given the opacity of G business. We simply have to trust its public utterances, which it defines as the “facts’’. If we do not, do we deserve to be called dishonest for believing that the G could be dishonest?

Okay, MPs should have higher standards of discussion in Parliament, which Ms Fu said is different from “economists and analysts outside the House’’. If so, do we really expect Opposition MPs to not raise suspicions (oops! Bad word) or question the G’s intentions? That’s a line the PAP can hold with its own MPs, but not others.

 

The most that the PAP got out from her is this:  “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.’’

The difference between Ms Lim’s utterances and Mr Perera’s on MediaCorp’s editing of parliamentary speeches is that there were facts to show that Mr Perera did not tell the truth about the episode. He misled Parliament to score political points.

In Ms Lim’s case, the issue is far greyer – and complicated by how her suspicion might actually be shared by some people.

It had looked like a stale-mate at one time until Mr Low came in to give everyone a face-saving way out.

“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.’’

Will this be the end of the matter? I certainly hope so. If this is an example of the 4G leaders displaying their “toughness’’ or “mettle’’, then they would have done better to pick something more winnable.

 

A lot of people need to say sorry

In News Reports on March 7, 2018 at 1:24 am

So there’s another apology in the offing in Parliament, making it the second time the Workers Party will be ticked off for remarks made in the House this year. In January, Mr Leon Perera ate humble pie when he had to concede that his remarks about MediaCorp’s editing of parliamentary speeches were misleading. Now it is the party chairman’s turn to face the PAP chorus of condemnation.

It’s getting a little over the top.

So the G is unhappy that Ms Sylvia Lim voiced her suspicion that the Government had intended to introduce a GST hike immediately, but that it backed down after test balloons it floated got a negative response. She said that people noted that leaders, including Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, had said the Government had enough money till the end of the decade.

“I rather suspect myself that the Government is stuck with that announcement. Otherwise, if their announcement had not been made, perhaps we would be debating a GST hike today,” she added.

Frontbenchers Mr K Shanmugam and Mr Heng Swee Keat got into a flap, with Mr Shanmugam getting absolutely testy with adjectives like “dishonest’’ and “hypocritical.’’ That was Friday’s fireworks. The mild mannered Mr Heng unleashed a fierce press statement the next day calling for an apology,  which he reiterated on Sunday. On Monday, Senior Minister of State Indranee Rajah weighed in on her Facebook.

Then, yesterday, Leader of House Grace Fu asked for permission to make a statement in Parliament. And there you have it: an official demand for a withdrawal and apology by the end of Thursday. It seems that Ms Lim, who was not in Parliament then, is asking for time to make a statement in the House, possibly at the end of the Committee of Supply debate which should end this week.

MPs, even from the People’s Action Party, have had to apologise for their unparliamentary remarks in the past. Two had to do with bringing “hearsay’’ into the House. Like Mr Sin Boon Ann in 2009 who read out a letter from someone he did not know criticising The Straits Times for its reporting of the Aware saga. Although he did not verify its contents, he said he “would not be surprised if it were true and would be very concerned if it is’’.

Or like Mr Ong Kian Min in 2000 who related how a grassroots leader had told him about being unfairly cut out of a business deal by a government-linked company. He, too, did not do his checks.

I think PAP’s Mr Louis Ng came close to the line when he told the House last week about civil servants being too afraid to speak up for fear of damaging their career prospects. He did not name them or give specific instances. He wasn’t told to apologise but did get ticked off by Minister Ong Ye Kung for making “generalisations that tar the entire service with the same brush”. It was a gentle rebuttal compared to what was dished out to Ms Lim.

Parliament is an ownself-check-ownself entity. That’s because MPs have privileges in the House that no one else has. You can’t sue an MP for defaming you or accuse an MP for prejudicing a court case. Unless Parliament itself thinks that you’re out of line. Which means that  you are in for the high jump.

There is a committee of MPs which decide whether there has been abuse of such privileges and which can mete out penalties. It was convened  in 1986, after the late WP MP J B Jeyaretnam refused to apologise for comments he made about executive interference in the judiciary and police abuse.  (If he had uttered them outside the House, he could be accused of contempt of court). He was fined $2,000 for abusing parliamentary privilege, and another $25,000 for publishing a distorted report of the committee’s proceedings in five newsletters and $1,000 for not declaring a pecuniary interest in a question he raised.

Were Ms Lim’s alleged transgressions as bad as any of the above?

There is plenty of public confusion over why the PAP chose to be so tough on this. If you do not focus on the words Ms Lim used but the message she conveyed, it was this: A lot of people thought the GST would go up now, and were unhappy. But in the end, it was delayed. This is probably because the G had to stick by its promises not to raise it till the next decade which some people had noted. If the G hadn’t said anything before about this, Parliament would be discussing the hike now.

The G leapt to the conclusion that this showed some nefarious thinking on its part. Ms Fu said there were no “test balloons’’ on this, as if test/trial balloons are such a bad thing. (It is a silly government which does not float test balloons, fly a kite, test waters before making a major policy announcement if only to re-calibrate what it wants to do.)

Instead, the PAP is taking the moral high ground, citing times when the big wigs have assured the people that there was enough revenue to last till the end of the decade. Ms Fu cited these as “facts’’. These are facts insofar as this was what the ministers said in public. If we trust the G, we must take it as face value.

The trouble is that in the run-up to the Budget, there has been so much noise about the GST that one can’t help but think it’s on the way.

Even economists thought so. There is, for example, a well-publicised report from DBS Bank on Nov 28 which said it expected GST to go up by two percentage points this 2018 Budget.

TODAY reported its  economist Irving Seah as saying: Hiking the GST is politically challenging given its regressive nature. In this regard, timing is crucial. With the next General Election (GE) due (by January 2021), policymakers will have to act fast… the GST is perhaps the most direct and effective tool in terms of raising tax revenue.’’

The TODAY article actually made clear what the G has said:

While political leaders including Mr Lee and Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam have said the Government has enough revenue for its current term, the economists believe that any GST hike will be introduced before the next GE.

It quoted another analyst, CIMB economist Song Seng Wun as saying: “Nobody likes an increase in taxes, it is a huge political task to explain to the public why such an increase is needed. The hikes will likely be carried out under the current term, so as to allow the next generation of leaders to focus on other issues.’’

Now, look at what ChannelNewsAsia said in commentary on Feb 13:

Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat’s comments in Budget 2017 to “raise revenues through new taxes or raise tax rates” and a comment from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong during his speech at the PAP convention in November 2017 “that raising taxes is not a matter of whether but when”, has led to wide speculation that an increase in the GST rate could be announced on Feb 19 when the Budget 2018 statement is delivered.

The speculation has been further fueled by a subsequent comment from Senior Minister of State for Finance Indranee Rajah that “we’re still working on the when”.

Here’s what 12 economists canvassed by Bloomberg said as reported on Feb 14:

Almost all the economists surveyed expect an adjustment to the goods-and-services tax, but only six said it will probably be imposed as soon as this year. Five are betting on 2019 or later.

 

All through-out these discussions and debates, there hasn’t been a single peep from the G that the economists might be better off looking at other financial matters than coming out with numbers on how much, and when. There might have been “no contradiction’’ between what the G said and did, as Ms Rajah put it, but there was also “no clarification’ done either.

Hence, the near-universal surprise when the GST hike was delayed.

So why did so many intelligent people ignore the “facts’’ – the past assurances of the G? They didn’t think they would hold because politics/practicality would take precedence over promises? That the G was a fundamentally dishonest one? And what about the less intelligent layman? Did they or didn’t they grumble about the thought of an immediate GST hike? Is it so bad if they thought the G had listened to them and therefore, delayed the hike? It would have been double kudos: The G not just listens to feedback but is also good at keeping its promise.

I can agree with past cases when MPs retracted and apologized for the remarks because they were clearly beyond the pale. But in this instance, accusation appears aimed at everyone else outside the House who might have thought the same way Ms Lim did. Is it because she used the word “suspect’’?  That she was aping coffeeshop talk instead of giving evidence for her suspicion (which will be terribly hard given the opacity of Cabinet work.  That she didn’t phrase her “suspicion’’ in a more acceptable way?

What if she had said: “People had expected the GST rise to kick in immediately and some had wondered if public backlash was the reason for the delay.’’

I think Ms Lim should say sorry so that we can move on.

Perhaps, she should say: “I apologise for the remarks I made implying that the government has been dishonest. I was swept up by the tide of comments from economists and people who thought that the GST would kick in soon. I also would have expected that any government would refrain from raising GST given public feedback. I was wrong to think so. The Government was merely being upfront and honest and was sticking to a promise made. My suspicions, though shared by many, were baseless. I thank the Government for its clear, unequivocal clarification of facts concerning the GST rise.’’

I suppose the “trust’’ word comes into play here. If the G said so, it will be so. And by the way it is arguing the case with Ms Lim, quite a lot of people owe it an apology.

Don’t you agree?

Not a nice nor clear debate on the Budget statement

In News Reports on March 2, 2018 at 6:24 am

The trouble with sparks flying in Parliament is that we tend to focus on the sparks and not how they were ignited. Sometimes, we don’t even care to see if sparks should fly in the first place.

So we’re all agog now at how the Workers Party MPs locked horns with the People’s Action Party bigwigs when the opposition politicians declared they cannot vote for the Budget Statement because they disagreed with the 2 percentage point hike that is supposed to take place between 2021 and 2025. MPs Low Thia Khiang, Pritam Singh and Sylvia Lim were roundly castigated by Ministers K Shanmugam and Heng Swee Keat for their “dishonest” views which were also described as ”unwise” and ”hypocritical”.

Did any side gain political points from their sparring? I think the PAP lost quite a bit because their ripostes came across as hectoring and bullying. This is especially the case when the WP might well be articulating what segments of the population think – and which deserve more considered responses from the  G.

For the G, it was a chance to educate the people on the ins and outs of the Budget, including the mathematics that many now find hard to grasp what with the calculation of Net Investment Returns Contribution and the different revenue sources. I’m not sure they took it.

So I have been trying to come to grips with some issues, like…

That 50 per cent cap on long-term returns on the reserves.

It’s more or less the same reiteration that we should not dip into the reserves because, as MP Lee Bee Wah said, it’s like selling your house to pay your current bills. (I can’t help but think that if the people agreed to downgrade, why not?) Or the reiteration that the current Budget surplus is “one-off” and we shouldn’t think that we’d always strike 4D.

The answers revolve on fiscal prudence. I think the G should just say – or can only say – that it took a political decision to only use half because it’s a good number: Half into reserves so that it will keep on accumulating, and half for use. Very fair right? If we want to shift this position, we don’t know whether future returns will still be as good and do we really want to save less in our piggy bank?

But aren’t we also talking in a vacuum since we don’t know…

The size of the reserves?

OCBC economist Selena Ling told a forum that in the absence of public information about parameters such as the size of the reserves and the rate of return on investing them, “any speculation…is quite meaningless”.

It seems like she’s saying that unless the G decides to tell all (and it says it won’t to protect the reserves from currency speculators) we can only talk in general, philosophical terms. That philosophy, as Mr Heng put it, is: “If as soon as we need more money, the first thing we do is relax the rules, that is the surest way to change Singapore’s basic orientation – from saving and building for the future, to living for today and letting tomorrow look after itself.” .

Therefore, 50 per cent.

Mr Heng makes the point that this cap is constitutionally enshrined, which means its more or less sacred. But there’s the other argument that the NIRC was introduced in 2008 and changed in 2016 to include Temasek Holdings. The G also has to contend with the other cynical view: The constitution has been changed before and there’s no problem with the PAP getting a majority to get this done.

I think the best thing that can be said about the G is that it could have succumbed and taken  this route because it would popular. (No one likes being taxed) But there is also the other argument that by stubbornly sticking to the cap, it is unnecessarily hoarding reserves. Academic Donald Low has asked whether we need huge reserves (or whatever is the amount) to fend off currency speculators if our economic fundamentals are sound. We might need to dip into our reserves to buy Singapore dollars to prop it up against attacks but he’s convinced that this would be a short-lived and very bad experience for speculators once they realise that it’s too hard to keep it up.

I don’t think this point was addressed.

There was another point raised by Nominated MP Kuik Shiao-Yin about  the International Monetary Fund describing the size of Singapore’s reserves as excessively prudent . “IMF’s opinion is that a good enough amount of reserves would be 27 per cent of our GDP or $113 billion. I read that MAS’ foreign exchange reserves alone as of January 2018 are around $369 billion or 88 per cent of GDP… ” She asked for a “thoughtful, easy-to-understand response.

Mr Heng’s response as reported in ST:  The IMF’s guidance is meant specifically to address capital flight risk, which is the risk that Singapore dollar deposit holders will switch out into foreign currency because of loss of confidence in Singapore’s currency.

I leave you to decide if the above is easy to understand

The NMP also asked about a suggestion from OCBC economist  Ms Ling to split the reserves into two parts: One, to generate the NIRC, whose amount could be publicly disclosed, and another to be kept secret, to deter currency speculators.

Mr Heng said he had considered it, but did not think it a sound move as there would still be speculations over the secret portion. Furthermore, MAS’ official foreign reserves are already public data and it would not be wise to reveal more, as it could attract currency speculators whose profit motive, as seen during the Asian financial crisis, “can destroy countries”, he said.

I’ve always thought that the use of adjectives is, to use another adjective, “bad” unless it is elaborated in a way people can understand. So if official foreign reserves are public, this means there are some numbers to work on – unless economist types think this is a gross under-estimation which make any calculation meaningless?

In any case, the WP seemed to have made some calculations…

Regarding land sales

WP’s Mr Singh suggested that not more than 20 per cent of the value of average land sales over 20 years, or 20 per cent of land sales for that year, whichever is lower, be used to fund spending. Land sale proceeds are  now ploughed into past reserves and is part of NIRC.

The answer is no because, among other things, it could lead to hasty selling of land simply to fund expenditures. Also, it would take a long time for the G to take back the land, like 99 years, after the lease expires. Or i “So, if you are rigorous about it, you really ought to be spending no more than 1 per cent of that land sale proceeds (each year), even if you want to use land sale proceeds, because that is what the land is worth for a year.”

Which makes you wonder how much is 1 per cent and what really would be 20 per cent as Mr Singh suggested. I was kaypoh enough to check up land sale proceeds. For 2017, it’s estimated at $8,237,185,000 which is a 30 per cent decrease from the year before.

I leave you to calculate whether this can offset…

That 2 percentage point increase in GST

Which is projected to raise revenues by 0.7 per cent of GDP a year or $3.2 billion, before accounting for the amount needed to fund GST vouchers. I think there is some confusion over what exactly the tax is supposed to fund : long-term spending, which would give those who believe the reserves can be used since its the next generation which will benefit, or something more near-term, that is, from 2021.

Mr Heng said the 2 percentage point GST increase “will not fully cover our expenditure needs, but only make the fiscal gap more manageable, in conjunction with other measures to manage expenditure”.

Earlier in his Budget statement, he said average annual healthcare spending will rise from 2.2 per cent of GDP today to almost 3 per cent of GDP over the next decade. This is an increase of nearly 0.8 percentage point of GDP, or about $3.6 billion in today’s dollars. More healthcare spending alone will use up the increased GST revenue.

So somehow or other, we have to find the money for this, going by the G’s calculations on future spending.

If the G keeps flogging this point, I think most people won’t have trouble understanding the rationale for added revenue. Of course, the question is which way.

In conclusion, I think the ministers were unnecessarily harsh on the WP MPs. The fact is that many people can’t make sense of why the G sees a need to float a GST trial balloon so far ahead of time, and then surprise the people with an akan datang tax. I don’t think it’s “dishonest” for WP’s Ms Lim to suggest that the G might have taken public backlash into account when it decided to delay the tax. It is speculation, sure, and unless Parliament thinks it is not the place to bring up issues that the public are, even irrationally, talking about, then how is the G going to dispel speculation?  Post on FB? Give a statement? Just so as not to concede any points to WP?

It is the same for WP Mr Low’s assertion that bringing up the GST now is a “distraction”. People do wonder why Parliament is now talking about a tax rise that will take place a few years later, after this current Parliament is dissolved for the next election. It seems to me more like something that should be in a political party’s manifesto, rather than a pre-emptive move from a government to tell the next government what to do.

Actually, much depends on how the motion to support the Budget statement is framed for the MPs. Does passing the Budget mean that MPs agree that the GST should be raised by a certain percentage within a certain time-frame? This, even though we don’t have enough detail of the checks and balances or size of the offset package?

Mr Heng argued  that the WP’s stance amounted to one in which it “must know ev-erything” before deciding on anything. “I think if I had taken that approach, if previous finance ministers had taken that approach, that I must know every item of expenditure before I can support you, before I know how much to raise, we would have been in serious deficit long, long ago.”

I don’t think past finance ministers or finance ministers anywhere in the world have done what Mr Heng did: announce a tax raise in advance. So his statement is pretty moot. In any case, I think it is common sense to want to know the full facts of the case before saying aye or nay.

The motivation behind this announcement, as Mr Heng put it, is to be upfront and honest about future needs. That’s laudable but it also leads to an expectation that the issue is something that can be discussed further, whether among the financially-savvy types or the layman.

If the ministers’ words to the WP are representative of how the G will respond to questions about the reserves, the Budget and the tax, then we mere mortals might as well shut up and sit down.