Monday, 17 February 2014

Please be fair, raise our taxes

How is the Government to find money for increased social spending? It is time the rich stepped up
By Willie Cheng, Published The Straits Times, 15 Feb 2014

ONE wintry night some five years ago, I found myself having dinner in Oslo with Mr Robert Steen, a senior executive of Schibsted, Norway's largest media group. The two of us talked about many things that night, but at one stage, the conversation drifted to personal income tax.

''What is Norway's top income tax rate?'' I asked him, reckoning that he would easily be in that tax bracket.

''44.8 per cent.''

''Isn't that rather high?''

''Well, it was 60 per cent before.''

I pressed on with my Singaporean logic: ''Even then, doesn't that level of taxes destroy the incentive for people like you to work?''

''No,'' he replied quite emphatically. ''Otherwise, who is going to pay for all this?'' he asked, referring to Norway's extensive infrastructure and social services.

That evening was an epiphany for me. For the first time, I had met a person who wholeheartedly embraced the high taxes he was paying.

In Singapore, I had been brought up to believe that every person needs to provide for himself, to work hard and to earn his keep. High taxes destroy the work ethic, and a generous welfare system can cripple the country.

Singaporeans pride ourselves on having a tax system which is among the lowest and most competitive in the world. Our top marginal personal income tax rate is 20 per cent, and about two thirds of Singaporeans do not need to pay income tax at all.

Our corporate tax rate is a low 17 per cent. Some corporate income tax exemptions put us right at the margin of being classified as a tax haven.

However, the reduction in income tax rates and burden over the years has been balanced with new and higher consumption taxes such as the goods and services tax, motor vehicle taxes and stamp duty. And this was done even though many economists consider consumption tax to be regressive, meaning it hits low income earners harder.

Indeed, Singapore has an economy and tax system that tends to favour the well-off. Apart from low personal income taxes, there is no capital gains tax or estate duty (the latter was abolished in 2008). Even the state's generous 21/2 times tax deductions for charitable donations ultimately favour those earning more, with those in the top tax bracket effectively getting a rebate of 50 per cent on their donations.

I have since learnt that Mr Steen is not an exception. There are many wealthy people who believe they should pay high levels of taxes. One of the most prominent advocates is multi-billionaire investor Warren Buffett.

In 2001, he and 120 other wealthy Americans lobbied Congress not to repeal taxes on estates and gifts as proposed by the Bush government. They feared the billions of dollars lost in government revenue would inevitably result in either tax increases for those less able to pay, or cutting social security and other government programmes ''so important to our nation's continued well-being''.

Mr Buffett further argued that repealing estate duty would be the equivalent of ''choosing the 2020 Olympic team by picking the eldest sons of the gold-medal winners in the 2000 Olympics''.

In a 2011 New York Times article (''Stop coddling the super-rich''), he griped that his personal income tax bill came to only 17.4 per cent of his taxable income, while the staff in his office paid 33 per cent to 41 per cent.

He asked the ''billionaire- friendly Congress'' to raise federal tax rates on taxable income (including dividends and capital gains) in excess of US$1 million (S$1.3 million).

Mr Buffett's position reflects a wider movement for a just economy through taxes.

Responsible Wealth, for example, is a network of 700 business leaders and wealthy individuals in the top 5 per cent of wealth or income in the US who actively advocate fairer taxes and corporate accountability.

They campaign to limit excessive compensation for chief executives, remove tax loopholes and close the wage gap. Ironically, these are some of the very policies that made their members rich in the first place.

In Britain, a global campaign for a ''Robin Hood tax'' was launched in 2010 by a coalition of 50 charities. The idea is to tax financial transactions such as the sale and purchase of stocks, bonds, commodities and financial derivatives. Part of the motivation is to make financial institutions and players pay for their role in the global financial crisis, and to channel the billions of dollars raised into fighting poverty and improving society.

The Robin Hood campaign has legs. A proposal from the European Commission for a European Union- wide set of financial transaction taxes was approved by the Council of the European Union last year, and is expected to be implemented later this year.

That icy evening as I was educated on the successful Norwegian economy, I responded by giving examples of countries with generous welfare systems that were not doing well.

Mr Steen concluded that it was about trust. ''If taxpayers do not trust the government to deliver the goods and spend their money wisely, then the system of high taxes breaks down. In Norway, we trust our government.''

That should not be a problem for Singapore either. According to public relations firm Edelman, trust is a measurable asset which it tracks globally with its Edelman Trust Barometer. Its survey last year showed that Singaporeans' trust in the Government ranked third-highest in the world.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has said that as the Government steps up social spending, taxes here must rise. Just recently, he reminded Singaporeans that ''all good things must be paid for''.

There is speculation as to whether the money to fund the bundle of health-care, housing and infrastructure initiatives that the Prime Minister announced in the last National Day Rally will come from higher income taxes or consumption taxes when Budget 2014 is unveiled.

Given our low income tax structure, the big gap between rich and poor and our greater responsibility to the less well-off in our society, perhaps it is time the many well-off people in Singapore should be saying to the Government: ''Go ahead and tax our income more. It is only fair.''

The writer is a former managing partner of Accenture and chairman of the Singapore Institute of Directors. He currently sits on the boards of several commercial and non-profit organisations.

Rich already have higher tax burden

LAST Saturday's article ("Please be fair, raise our taxes") must have left many nodding in agreement.

However, while the general principles of robbing the rich to feed the poor may have struck a communally reinforced chord with them, the core message of the article has little grounding in the Singaporean context.

The Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore's most recent annual report - for financial year 2012/13 - shows that relative to the middle and lower classes, the rich have in fact already stepped up.

Compared with the 57th percentile of resident taxpayers who submit 1.7 per cent of their chargeable income as tax, the 97th percentile resident taxpayer supplies the taxman with 8.1 per cent - 71/2 times more.

All told, of the income tax collected from tax residents, 90 per cent is being collected from the top 22 per cent - or those who can be safely called "the rich".

I cannot think of a Scandinavian wonderland where such a large income tax disparity between its middle and upper classes exists, so perhaps it is time the middle class stepped up instead.

The writer should consider that those with greater financial ability will always be more flight-prone, no matter how good-intentioned the increase in their tax burden will be.

The result may actually be a net decrease in tax collected, with various other knock-on effects that a flight of the wealthy may have on employment, investment and consumer spending.

Justin Wang Qi Wei
ST Forum, 17 Feb 2014

Other assets that can be taxed

SINGAPORE was not among the top 30 in Charities Aid Foundation's World Giving Index 2013, while Indonesia and the Philippines ranked 17 and 16 respectively.

So it is right for Mr Willie Cheng to argue for the wealthy to pay higher taxes ("Please be fair, raise our taxes"; last Saturday).

While we accept that a greater income disparity between the successful and the not-so-successful is inevitable, the wealthy should try to pay their dues to society, in return for the help and the opportunities that they received to succeed.

Those with assets will continue to make money from money, so the rich become richer while the poor become poorer as they struggle to cope with inflation and the higher cost of living.

Besides imposing taxes on high-end properties and cars, consider other options.

Revive estate duty as the inheritance can be considered a "windfall" for heirs, because if the original owner were alive, he would have been taxed for the money he earned.

Introduce capital gains tax for wealth derived from the trading of commodities and equity, and tax directors and senior management when they exercise their stock options.

Interest on POSB savings and bonds should not be exempted from tax as well. If dividends are taxable, interest earned should be no different.

To discourage gambling, impose a "windfall" tax on the winnings from casinos and Singapore Pools. Bonuses from whole life insurance policies are another source of taxes.

Cease the Supplementary Retirement Scheme as it allows high-income earners to park their money in this "escrow" account to avoid paying higher income tax.

Francis Cheng
ST Forum, 17 Feb 2014

Low tax rates should spur giving culture

LAST Saturday's commentary ("Please be fair, raise our taxes") gives a refreshing perspective on the tax system as a contributing factor in social development. It also surfaced a plausible motivation for people and companies to want to be socially responsible.

In developed countries in the West, where tax rates are high, governments spend tax revenues on social services and national infrastructure.

In Singapore, where corporate tax rates are relatively low, corporate social responsibility (CSR) involvement is a choice for companies to make.

For most businesses, CSR is about how profits are spent to help others. For some companies like social enterprises, it is about how profits or surpluses are made while helping others.

The same situation may be true for individuals. Many people who donate to charities or volunteer for charity work do so only after they have reached a comfortable income level or have accumulated sufficient wealth.

Perhaps more companies here could consider the relatively low corporate tax as a compelling reason to support the CSR cause, by integrating it in their businesses or contributing more to the community and the environment.

Similarly, individuals who have more means at their disposable could choose to contribute more to society.

I have had the privilege of interviewing various Singapore companies and writing their CSR stories for a book. I was deeply impressed and inspired by their leaders' passion for their business, their compassion for people and their care for the environment.

The company founders or chief executives had either chosen businesses based on CSR and sustainability principles, or decided later to adopt CSR practices as a way to give back to society or the environment. Some of them also practise personal social responsibility outside of work.

If more companies and individuals emulate them, we can expect to become a more compassionate and more caring society.

It has been said that we make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give. For the socially responsible, happiness is not about having more, it is about giving more.

Joachim Sim
ST Forum, 18 Feb 2014

Benefits of raising taxes for the rich

I DISAGREE with Mr Justin Wang Qi Wei ("Rich already have higher tax burden"; Monday); the rich in Singapore have a relatively low tax burden and increasing it would bring much social benefit.

Taxes for wealthy folk here are among the lowest in the world. The rate for top earners is only 20 per cent, compared with about 50 per cent in some Western countries.

As long as we keep our tax rates lower than those of our competitors, most wealthy residents will not flee, given that there are other incentives such as our good education system and business opportunities to keep them here.

With higher tax revenues from the rich, the Government will be able to increase social spending on areas such as education.

More money can also be redistributed to the poor. Singapore has a worryingly high Gini coefficient of 0.478, indicating a rather uneven distribution of income.

Redistributing income to the poor will make Singapore a more equitable society.

It will be beneficial to the economy as well because economic studies have shown that people in the lower-income brackets have a higher marginal propensity to spend than those in the higher-income brackets, allowing for a multiplier effect that would spur economic growth.

I hope the Government will consider the costs and benefits of reforming the tax regime carefully such that a socially and economically viable policy can be rolled out.

Ng Qi Siang
ST Forum, 19 Feb 2014

'Make them pay' not the way

HOW does imposing more taxes on the wealthy translate to increased wealth for the poor?

Recent articles about wealth inequality have prompted suggestions on ways to tax the wealthy. "Make them pay" sounds like an appropriate slogan.

The idea of taking from the haves and giving to the have-nots is noble, but it appears to unfairly penalise the wealthy.

To be fair, the wealthy in Singapore have supported many philanthropic causes, without which many who stood to benefit would have been poorer.

So why is the focus almost always on the wealthy? What about the poor? Should the focus not be on them and how to empower them to rise above poverty?

Looking at the wealth gap alone is not constructive. Even if the wealthy were taxed in every way imaginable, as suggested by Mr Francis Cheng ("Other assets that can be taxed"; Monday), will needy households escape the poverty trap? By how much will the wealth gap shrink?

It would be more meaningful to study why these households are poor. Could it be due to illness, lack of educational qualifications, or poor choices in life such as gambling, over-borrowing and pregnancy out of wedlock?

How can help be rendered to them in a way that can give them the means or know-how to turn their fortunes around? This would be more sustainable than leaving them or their children to be lifelong dependants.

The article ("Income + wealth inequality = More trouble for society"; Feb 11) would like us to believe that "the chances of someone from a non-wealthy family staying non-wealthy are high". However, the Me & My Money section in The Sunday Times often features financially successful people from humble backgrounds. Their stories are proof that people from non-wealthy families can gain wealth.

Taxing the wealthy is but one solution to shrink the wealth gap, but it does not empower the poor with the means to rise above their poverty. Giving the poor the means to achieve financial independence and success is a more worthwhile solution.

Grace Chua Siew Hwee (Madam)
ST Forum, 19 Feb 2014

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