Test balloons finally spotted

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Singaporeans were unfortunate witnesses to what was a shameful baying of blood in Parliament recently – namely, PAP members hounding opposition MP Sylvia Lim for an apology.

Ms Lim, as everyone now knows thanks to the PAP’s antics in the House, had said she had suspicion that the Government would have raised the GST sooner rather than later if not for their (PAP’s) earlier public statements (in August 2015, especially) that the GST would not be raised after the next general election (in September 2015).

Ms Lim said she based her suspicion on the public outcry after “test balloons” (or trial balloons) were floated through the public statements of the Prime Minister and others that taxes would have to be raised. Following the public unhappiness over these statements, Ms Lim said, the Government decided to stick to what it had said in 2015, that the GST would not be raised.

In other words, the Government backtracked after the public unhappiness.

Ms Lim also pointed to analysts and economists who had believed that the Government would in fact raise the GST “within the next two years”, that is 2018 and 2019.

Government ministers immediately cried foul at Ms Lim’s suggestion that they would have raised the GST despite what they had publicly said. And thus, started what would turn out to be a sad sequence of events which lasted 3 days or so, with the Leader of the House, Grace Fu, leading the charge and demand for Ms Lim to issue an apology.

Ms Lim, claimed Ms Fu, had “harmed and tarnished” the reputation of the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister (Tharman) and the Minister for Finance (Heng Swee Keat).

As some said later, Ms Lim is quite a wonder woman to have such power to do such damage to three of the most powerful men in Singapore and in government, just by saying she has suspicions.

Ms Fu issued an ultimatum for Ms Lim to apologise for her remarks by 8 March.

On the day, which happened to be the International Women’s Day, Ms Lim rose in Parliament, as Singaporeans anticipated with bated breath what she was going to do – to kow tow to the hounds and accept their attacks, or to stand her ground in a room full of hyenas.

Ms Lim chose to do the latter.

Unable to let it go and satiate their hunger for blood, two PAP ministers then took to social media to continue to lambast Ms Lim, calling her “dishonourable” and what not.

Ms Lim, to her credit, has apparently chosen not to acquiesce, and has kept a dignified silence since.

Now, potential new evidence has emerged to perhaps vindicate Ms Lim’s suspicion, if any evidence is needed at all.

On 11 March, website The Online Citizen (TOC) published a whistleblower’s account that the Labour union, the NTUC, had conducted a survey last November among some 300 of its union leaders. The survey has received a reported 440 responses.

The survey asked several questions, including one which asked when the government should increase taxes. Responders were given several choices.

According to TOC, the top 3 results were:

  • 38.4% chose “between 2021 and 2025”
  • 15.9% chose “between 2018 and 2020”
  • 12.4% chose “between 2046 and 2050”

In his Budget speech in March, Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat announced that the GST would indeed be introduced “sometime between 2021 and 2025”.

Straits Times, 19 Feb 2018

Coincidence?

The survey also asked how much a GST hike should be.

Most responders chose the 1% and 2% options.

The Government announced in Mar that the GST would be increased by 2% sometime between 2021 and 2025.

Straits Times, 14 Mar 2018

What is most interesting to note is this: there was also an option of “between 2018 and 2020” for responders to choose.

It shows that even the NTUC did not completely dismiss the possibility of a tax hike in the next two to three years, which the analysts and economists had also believed possible. (Apparently, so did the NTUC.)

The survey, some observed, looks exactly like the “test balloons” which Ms Lim had referred to – balloons floated to test wind direction, or the weather.

What else is a survey if not to gauge (public) opinion over an issue?

A test balloon.

Straits Times, 14 Mar 2018

The Straits Times report (mentioned above), reported the response from the NTUC’s Ong Teng Cheong Labour Leadership Institute (OTCLLI), which had conducted the poll, when approached by the media.

“Along with input gathered through focus group discussions and dialogue sessions, the feedback was used to inform the National Trades Union Congress workplan for this year and its labour MPs’ positions. But the results of the poll were not presented to the Government.

And:

“The institute did not say what it did with the feedback on taxes, but said that the results of its polls were not compiled and presented to the Government.”

[Emphasis added by me.]

That is quite a curious thing to say, for the following reasons, if the report is accurate in reporting the institute’s response.

One, the labour union itself – the NTUC – is headed by a Cabinet Minister, Chan Chun Sing, who is also one of the frontrunners identified to be the next PM of Singapore. (See NTUC page here.)

The NTUC’s deputy secretary-general is Senior Minister of State, Heng Chee How.

And among those in the OTCLLI Board of Governors are:

  • Chairman, Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Deputy Prime Minister
  • Board Member, Chan Chun Sing, Minister in PMO
  • Board Member, Lim Boon Heng, former Cabinet Minister
  • Board Member, Heng Chee How, Senior Minister of State, PMO

So, the OTCLLI – headed by PAP ministers – conducted the survey on the as-yet-unannounced GST hike in November, but the results of the poll were not presented to the Government.

That is all possible, of course, technically speaking, at least.

The survey was conducted by someone in OTCLLI, without the knowledge of the higher-ups, and the results were kept within the OTCLLI itself.

But you still have this problematic line in the Straits Times’ report:

“… the feedback was used to inform the National Trades Union Congress workplan for this year and its labour MPs’ positions.”

So, how do you use the results of the survey to “inform” the “labour MPs’ positions” on the issues raised in the poll, without letting these labour MPs – who include PAP Cabinet ministers – know about the results of the survey?

And this is especially puzzling if you consider what the NTUC itself said in November 2017.

Straits Times, 21 Nov 2017

According to the Straits Times [emphasis mine]:

All 82 PAP MPs, “where possible”, will also be advisers in the 58 unions, two affiliated associations and 62 professional associations and guilds under NTUC, it said.”

And:

“People’s Action Party (PAP) ministers and backbenchers will take on more roles in NTUC’s unions and associations, as the two organisations move to collaborate more deeply.”

And:

“Mr Lee had said that Singapore’s fourth-generation ministers will be working more closely with the NTUC, with each of them taking on a specific partnership with NTUC.”

And:

“Labour representatives said they hope the greater involvement of PAP leaders would help better reflect workers’ needs in Parliament.”

Taking all these things together, is it not reasonable to say that government ministers were likely to be aware of the survey and its eventual results?

That there were test balloons, by way of a NTUC survey, floated about the prospects of a GST hike?

To any reasonable and rational person, given the evidence, the answer would be an obvious yes.

The NTUC is headed by PAP Cabinet ministers.

The OTCLLI is headed by PAP Cabinet ministers.

The NTUC has pledged “to collaborate more deeply” with the Government, and “all 82 PAP MPs”, including ministers, will be advisers in NTUC-related or affiliate organisations.

To say that the survey results were not “compiled and presented to the Government” is perhaps technically true, but is nonetheless misleading, given that these organisations are headed by PAP ministers, and that the NTUC itself has pledged to “collaborate more deeply” with the Government.

It would be most puzzling if the Cabinet ministers were not aware at all of the results of the survey back in November, whether the results were “compiled or presented” to them or not.

The fact is this: a government-affiliated organisation, the labour union itself, had conducted a survey of when the Government should raise the GST.

The survey is clearly to gauge public opinion on a possible GST hike.

It was a test balloon.

Period.

Finally, it is also noteworthy that none of the ministers who attacked Ms Lim in Parliament made any mention of the survey and its results. It would have been most enlightening if they had. Unfortunately, they didn’t.

We can only guess why.

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