Tax and the single man

PHOTO: The Straits Times

I have covered almost every Budget Statement by the Finance Minister for the past 16 years. So you would think that by now, nothing would really excite me when the annual exercise rolls around.

Sometimes the economy is in trouble and needs rescuing with schemes and incentives. Then, once in a while, there is a new man in charge, duly photographed leaving for Parliament House with a briefcase of a new style and colour.

So it was this year, with Mr Heng Swee Keat taking the helm as Singapore's new Finance Minister. And as the speech started, it became clear that it was going to be a cautious Budget.

This was the first year of the new term of government, so Mr Heng had to watch the expenditure and avoid going into deficit. The economy is slowing but is not in dire straits yet. So either way, there was no need to bring out the big guns in terms of financial help.

Somewhere at the end of his speech, however, the soft-spoken new Finance Minister suddenly made me sit up.

This will take some explaining.

You see, every year the Government looks at your taxable income to assess how much tax you pay.

To ease your tax burden, the Government offers various tax reliefs, for example, $3,000 for active NSmen. That means that if you had done any reservist duty in the past year, you get to deduct $3,000 from your taxable income. A tax rate is then applied on the smaller figure, which essentially means you pay less tax.

Up to now, there had been absolutely no limit on the total amount of tax reliefs that a taxpayer can claim. That means in theory, you can claim so many tax reliefs that your assessable income drops to zero, and you don't pay any tax at all. The question is: Can anyone really do that?

Apparently the answer is yes. There are many tax reliefs that you can apply for in Singapore, and one of the most powerful is something called the Working Mother's Child Relief (WMCF).

Working mothers get to claim reliefs of 15 per cent off their taxable income on their first child, another 20 per cent off for the second child and 25 per cent off for every subsequent child.

The limit is $50,000 per child, but that still means that a working mother with five children who earns $250,000 a year (making her obviously quite well-off) can theoretically claim 100 per cent in reliefs and pay zero tax.

That sort of mother maybe doesn't exist. Yet analysts have worked out that working mothers who roughly earn $150,000 a year or more do have their tax bills significantly reduced or even eliminated by the combination of the WMCF plus other reliefs such as CPF Relief and Foreign Maid Levy Relief.

So in his first-ever Budget, Mr Heng made a very bold move: to limit the amount of total tax reliefs a person can claim to $80,000 a year.

Now, I have nothing against working mothers. I have two dogs and it is expensive enough to raise them, so I can't imagine what it would be like to raise two children. I know it is also not nice to gloat at someone's misfortune.

There is also much to be said for having tax reliefs that encourage Singaporeans to form families. Our society is ageing and we need more babies, but we are up against the stresses of modern working life. Already, many have criticised Mr Heng for limiting tax reliefs, saying that it is counter-intuitive given all the work Singapore has done to promote childbirth.

But somehow the announcement made the irrational part of me want to stand up and very quietly pump my fist.

I guess I just have tax relief envy.

Ever since I started work and made enough money to pay income tax, I have been made to feel at nearly every Budget that I have clearly led the wrong sort of lifestyle in Singapore.

I am not married, I don't have kids, I don't have a maid and for now, at least, I don't live with my aged parents. In other words, I am as far removed as can be from that Singaporean ideal of having a multi-generational family living under one roof - the stuff of every shiny and smiley government campaign.

But does that mean I have to be taxed that much more?

The question brings me back to the debates we used to have in my first year of working life.

Having studied at a British university on a government scholarship, I returned to Singapore to serve my bond and found myself as a young assistant director in the Ministry of Finance (MOF).

Back in those days, there were "two MOFs" - the Revenue Division that collected money, and the Budget Division that spent it.

I was in the Revenue Division, not in one of the many tax departments but certainly privy to all the big decisions that my bosses had to make on tax policy.

It was here that I learnt that at the heart of a good tax system is a sense of equity and fairness.

Some of these high-income working mothers live in big landed houses. Together with their husbands, many lead a comfortable life with maids to take care of the family.

I even know some of them, having been their classmates in school. We've taken very different paths in life, but haven't necessarily landed too far off from each other in our careers.

Should they be getting such a big discount off their tax bill? Should they be paying the same in taxes as someone who earns far less and is more in need of government support?

I was taught in MOF that you can never really compare two individual taxpayers and ask who should rightfully pay more. Each life is led differently and imposes unique financial stresses.

But as tax policymakers, we should still strive to set the rules such that those who earn more and can afford to contribute more should pay more tax; and those who earn less should pay less.

That was not the only thing I learnt during my days at MOF as a young officer.

From my permanent secretary Ngiam Tong Dow, I learnt that you can buy a tin of Milo from two different shops and pay a very different price. In everything there is value-for-money to be sought, but you must want to seek it.

I learnt the value of saving up for a rainy day. I remember asking my director what was the point of the Government accumulating so much in surpluses and reserves, if the Ministry was (it seemed to be anyway) never going to use it.

Twenty years later, as I read that returns of almost $15 billion from investing those reserves were the only way Mr Heng could balance the Government's budget, the liberal in me finally understood the wisdom of fiscal conservatism.

It was just one small change in a long list of Budget initiatives that was rolled out.

But the Finance Minister's bold and principled move is one that goes back to basics, for me in more ways than one.

This article was first published on April 3, 2016.
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