WHEN Public Accounts Committee (PAC) chairman Datuk Seri Dr Noraini Ahmad announced last Monday that “no money was missing” from the Goods and Services Tax (GST) refunds, this was seen as a slap in the face for the powerful Finance Minister, Lim Guan Eng.
In August last year, Lim told the Dewan Rakyat that RM19.4bil was “missing” from the GST tax refunds account and he accused the former Barisan Nasional government of “stealing” the people’s money.
This “revelation” by Lim shocked the nation and rattled the financial markets.
Due to the seriousness of the allegation, the PAC was called in to investigate.
In her press statement on Monday, Dr Noraini said the previous Barisan government had kept the GST collections in the Consolidated Revenue Account and then transferred it stage by stage to the GST refunds account whenever a refund was needed.
While Lim looked dispirited on Monday, leaders of the Barisan coalition were exuberant.
They must have felt redeemed after being suspected for months of “stealing” or “robbing” the GST refunds.
Former Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak told reporters in Parliament: “I feel vindicated by the PAC report that there was no ‘robbing’ or ‘swindling’ of GST refunds. What was done by the previous government was based on advice by government officers, including those from the Accountant-General’s Department and Finance Ministry.”
The long-awaited PAC report has in a way confirmed that the former government, ousted in the May 2018 general election due mainly to the 1Malaysia Development Berhad scandal, did not “steal” the GST refunds.
The PAC also noted another factual error in Lim’s past statement to Parliament.
It found that only RM1.5bil in GST refunds was due for payment to taxpayers as of May 31, 2018, and not RM19.4bil as claimed by Lim.
Expectedly, the release of the PAC report led to an explosion of fierce debates in Parliament.
Barisan lawmakers promptly pressed for action against Lim.
Opposition Leader Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob from Umno-BN demanded that Lim be referred to the parliamentary Rights and Privileges Committee for “misleading” the House and alleging that RM19.4bil was “stolen” by the previous government.
Ismail Sabri said this was a serious matter as Lim had tarnished the image of the previous Barisan government.
Joining in the chorus for action against Lim were MPs Khairy Jamaluddin (BN-Rembau) and Datuk Seri Dr Wee Ka Siong (BN-Ayer Hitam).
The Rights and Privileges Committee deals with cases on breach of privileges. MPs enjoy the freedom to speak their mind as well as immunity from legal suits when they address the House inside the chamber.
On Tuesday, Lim reacted defiantly by saying he would “fight” the Opposition and would not apologise or retract his statements.
In a statement, he selectively quoted parts of the PAC report that were in his favour:
“The PAC confirms that the GST law was broken and GST refunds that were not paid out to taxpayers were used for other purposes (government expenditure and development).
“The GST collections were not deposited directly into the Fund for GST Refunds. Instead, the GST collections that were deposited directly in the Consolidated Revenue Account were used for other purposes by the previous government.”
Lim noted that Attorney-General Tommy Thomas, in a letter to the PAC, had stated that the move by the previous government to direct all GST revenue into the Consolidated Fund account was a violation of Section 7 of the Financial Procedure Act 1957 and Section 54 of the GST Act 2014.
“This was a breach of fundamental trust law principles and trust accounting requirements,” Thomas was quoted as saying in his letter.
However, the Opposition would not let Lim off the hook easily this time. The secretary-general of DAP had been bashing the Barisan ruthlessly even before he was in government.
Dr Wee, who is MCA president, told Sunday Star: “Guan Eng did not address the real contentious issue and retract his wrong allegations. He was overzealous in vilifying the previous government after he became Finance Minister.
“The crux of the matter is whether the RM19.4bil had been stolen. The current government should feel embarrassed that its Finance Minister did not understand his ministry and simply talked.”
He noted that lawyer Mohamed Haniff Khatri Abdulla, who has acted as counsel for Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, shared the view that Lim should apologise.
Haniff told Malaysiakini: “There must be nobility to apologise for mistakes.”
Lim had some luck on Wednesday when he escaped unscathed from a motion to refer him to the Rights and Previleges Committee.
Dewan Rakyat Speaker Datuk Seri Muhamad Ariff Md Yusoff rejected the motion.
But the Speaker’s ruling that there were no grounds for action against Lim triggered a protest walkout by Opposition MPs.
A shouting match also ensued after the Speaker rejected a proposal by Tan Sri Annuar Musa (BN-Ketereh) that Lim retract the word “stolen” and to expunge the word from the Hansard.
But just as the Opposition thought they had no more bullets, there was light at the end of tunnel: they were alerted to the fact that the Speaker’s son Muhamad Lutfi Muhamad Ariff is the press secretary to the Finance Minister.
If legal principles are to follow, the Speaker should not have chaired the parliamentary session on the motion on Lim, as a conflict of interest might arise and fairness in ruling may be doubted.
Established legal principle and precedents dictate that not only justice has to be done, but also must be seen to be done.
Naturally on Thursday, the Opposition pounced on the Speaker, questioning whether he was bias in his ruling on Wednesday after he admitted that his son is Lim’s press secretary.
But he maintained that there was no conflict of interest involved, saying: “My son is 32, he is free to work for anyone and anywhere. More importantly, I act freely and uninfluenced in this House.”
But Opposition Leader Ismail Sabri argued that Muhamad Ariff was duty-bound to declare all of his interests, including those of his spouse and children.
He said Muhamad Ariff should recuse himself from making any ruling related to Lim, as well as the motion for a debate on the PAC report on GST refunds.
The Opposition chief also asked Muhamad Ariff, a former judge, whether his son’s job had resulted in his lack of action on Lim.
The exchanges came to an end after Muhamad Ariff said he would recuse himself when a fresh motion application was heard in the next parliament meeting.
Although the current parliament session has ended, it looks like this Opposition-versus-Lim tussle and verbal war will drag on into the October sitting, in which a fresh motion against Lim is expected to be submitted by the Opposition.
It will be interesting to see if other Cabinet Ministers or key politicians jump into the fray – to defend Lim or otherwise. So far, only some junior DAP politicians have voiced their support for Lim.
From the developments seen thus far, the PAC finding will continue to generate public interest and debate on Lim’s conduct. It will continue to haunt him for the next few months.