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Sunday October 14, 2012

Is GST the way to go?

No burden: The people can be assured of zero tax on basic essential items like rice,
cooking oil, meat, chicken, vegetables, sugar, salt and water. No burden: The people can be assured of zero tax on basic essential items like rice, cooking oil, meat, chicken, vegetables, sugar, salt and water.

The Goods and Services Tax has been successfully implemented in 146 countries but many Malaysians are still unaware of its benefits.

JAYCEE Sim (not her real name) is a self-professed shopaholic who loves nothing more than spending her weekends at shopping malls. She is thus pleased with the one per cent cut in income tax rate announced in the Budget 2013 (for chargeable income up to RM50,000) because some extra money in the pocket is always welcome, especially when prices have been on the rise.

But she dreads the much-talked about Goods and Services Tax (GST) which has yet to be implemented in the country.

“I think it will cause a further hike in prices,” says Sim who teaches at a private college. But her friend, Debbie Lim, who owns her own business supplying component parts, is all for the GST.

“I think it is only fair. You pay for what you consume. You consume more, you pay more tax. If you don’t spend, then you don’t pay lah,” says Lim, who has family members in Singapore and has seen how the GST works there.

Lim too loves to shop and enjoys trying out new food places with friends.

She believes that post-GST, she can continue to do this without feeling the pinch, because there will be zero tax on essential food products like meat, chicken, fish, seafood – be it locally produced or imported.

“Hey, without tax, maybe food prices can even come down. I can live with that!” she laughs.

So far, 146 countries have imposed the GST which is seen as a more efficient form of tax.

In Malaysia, which has a population of 28 million, there are approximately 12 million people in the workforce but only 1.7 million pay taxes.

PricewaterhouseCoopers Taxation Services Sdn Bhd senior executive director Wan Heng Choon refers to the GST as a fairer tax.

“I fall under the ‘unfair’ category of paying taxes. Out of our population of 28 million, I am one of the 1.7mil paying taxes. The rest of the population do not contribute but consume the same goods and services (like roads, schools, hospitals, public transport etc.) that the government provides for every single one of us. How can that be fair?” People here generally fear the GST, he says, because they do not understand how it works.

“Tell me which country will introduce a tax that drives prices up? It doesn’t make sense. The GST has been successfully implemented in 146 countries. The difficulty here is that the simple mechanism is not understood,” he adds.

The people, he says, can be assured of zero tax on basic essential items like rice, cooking oil, beef, mutton, pork, chicken, fish, prawns, squid, vegetables, sugar, salt and water (see chart on page 23).

They will also be exempted from paying GST on critical services such as public transport, toll, taxis, hospital and healthcare, schools, residential property, land for agriculture use, and financial services. Thus, the lower income group will not be burdened by the GST.

“If you conduct a poll, two out of 10 people will not know that essentials will be tax-exempted or zero-rated. That is a worrying statistic to me,” says Wan.

As for other consumer items like clothes, shoes, non-essential food items and furniture, Malaysians have in fact already been paying tax without realising it, because sales tax (sometimes as high as 10%) has been embedded in the price of the goods.

The GST system, on the other hand, will make the taxing system more transparent. The consumer will know what he is paying a tax on and how much.

Under the GST regime, the sales tax and services tax that people have been paying all this while, will be removed and replaced with a one-time consumption tax – the GST.

So, it is not a case of consumers paying tax twice for what they buy.

Malaysia is looking at a GST rate of about 4% which actually works out to be cheaper than the present 5% to 10% sales tax and 6% service tax.

Refunds

A significant difference too under the GST regime is that the manufacturer, supplier and wholesaler get a refund from the Government on the GST (which in their case is an “input tax”) they have paid to buy raw materials, parts and utilities used, to produce their goods. So, it is the end user or customer who pays the 4% GST.

When manufacturers, wholesalers, suppliers get a refund on their input tax, it is good for business because it brings their production costs down. And when their costs are reduced, they can sell their products at a cheaper price to their customers.

At the customer level, since one has already been paying an embedded tax (of 5% to 10%) on many items prior to the GST, prices should not vary much.

As the GST covers a wider range of products (including those previously without a sales and service tax), some prices will go up but others will come down. But the important thing to bear in mind is that essential food items and key services will not be affected.

Wan says the Finance Ministry and Customs department have done years of extensive work on the GST.

They have come up with a Shopper’s Guide, a list of 350 items in the CPI basket showing the estimated prices after the GST is implemented and the percentage of increase and decrease for each of these items, and shared this list with a number of trade associations including the Federation of Malaysian Manufacturers and the Chartered Tax Institute of Malaysia (CTMB).

“It astounds me that the list is not made available to the public. People want to know if their cup of coffee or roti canai will go up,” he says, adding that people need time to become aware of, accept and prepare for the GST.

Australia, he notes, took a year to prepare the public, explaining how the GST works and addressing concerns.

“If you release the list and information to the public only about three months before the implementation date, that’s madness.”

Because the price of some non-essential goods might be higher, Wan suggests that the Government consider identifying the lower income group and offering them a one-off BRIM-like direct financial assistance to help them cope with the GST.

“Thus, the Government gives them support to deal with the GST but leaves it to them to decide how to spend that money.”

Dr Veerinderjeet Singh, chairman of Tax and Malaysia Sdn Bhd and former president of CTMB, believes that because Malaysia already has a sales tax embedded in the price of goods, it should be easier for people here to accept the GST than a country that never had similar taxes.

“People never really understood the objective and as a result, some sections are not for it. The GST is good for a country and this has been proven worldwide. We already have a sales and service tax; what we are doing is to merge and tweak it into the GST which is a more effective tax system,” he says, adding that the Government has done five years of solid work on the GST and spoken to every association. Now, they only need to go down to the ground to speak to the man-in-the-street.

Should manufacturers, suppliers or traders try to profiteer from the GST by not passing on their cost savings to the customers, action can be taken under the Price Control and Anti-profiteering Act that has been in place since April last year. Enforcement comes under the Domestic Trade and Consumer Ministry which is looking into establishing a price monitoring council to combat profiteering.

Dr Veerinderjeet points out that with the GST regime, there are more checks and balances in place as manufacturers, suppliers and wholesalers have to get their documents in order to claim their refunds on their GST (input tax).

He says it would also help uncover the underground economy because these businesses would now have to be registered to recover their input tax. And when they register their businesses, they will have to pay income tax, thus the government gains by collecting more taxes.

Wan notes that in the past, when the country’s economy was growing at 7% to 9% annually and Foreign Direct Investment (FDIs) were coming in at a healthy rate, the Government did not worry too much about revenue because “the growth in the economy generated income that took care of things.”

“But remember 1997 and 1998 when corporate profits plummeted and PNLs (profits and losses) turned red? Where does the Government get its money from then?

“That’s why the GST as a tax is a much better source for the Government. Regardless of whether there is an economic boom or recession, the GST can ensure a steady revenue to the Government .”

Wan suggests that people take a macro view of the economy, given the fact that the country has had a budget deficit for 16 consecutive years.

“People should not underestimate the impact of a budget deficit. If the government is spending more than it earns in revenue, a direct impact is that the value of the Malaysian ringgit will fall. What happens if that happens? We import inflation. A falling ringgit has greater far reaching implications on the overall economy and recession than the GST will ever have.

“The GST, on its own, is not going to be the silver bullet that cures deficit but it is definitely one of the strategies to help balance the books,” he says, adding that Malaysia should also tighten its subsidies and do something about its bloated civil service because a country as wealthy as it is should not slide down the slippery slope of the likes of Greece and Spain.

Dr Veerinderjeet admits that the one per cent cut in personal income tax rate took him by surprise and he feels it has been “overly-generous”.

“It benefits everybody in the taxable threshold, including the higher income group. People will save RM25 to RM475 in taxes. It is a good measure because it reduces liability and puts more money in your pocket. But I would have preferred for it to be held back for a rainy day,” he adds.

Currently, the maximum corporate tax in Malaysia is 25% but for personal income tax, the maximum is 26% – which is something odd, given that individuals now pay a higher tax rate than companies.

Dr Veerinderjeet says it wasn’t like that years ago.

“Personal taxes have always lagged behind corporate taxes. But countries have been lowering corporate tax rates over the years (to stay competitive) and we too have lowered ours.

“Many of us, including professional bodies, have been lobbying for the top margin tax rate for personal income tax to be aligned with corporate tax rate of 25%,” he shares, adding that the income tax bands too should be widened so that someone who works hard and earns an additional RM10,000 to RM15,000 a year will not find himself pushed up into a higher tax rate bracket.

Tax system

Dr Veerinderjeet favours a revamp of the entire tax system, including personal income tax, corporate tax, petroleum tax, real property gains tax, customs duties, sales tax, service tax, the GST and fixing the anomalies and income tax laws that may be burdening business and introducing incentives that encourage innovation and business while reviewing those that have not achieved their objectives.

“It is not as simple as introducing the GST, then think of lowering personal and corporate tax rates. Is this system sustainable for the future? We are looking at 2020 – who are we benchmarking ourselves against in terms of our tax system? Are we benchmarking against a developed nation?”

On views that the GST should be deferred to give back to the rakyat, Dr Veerinderjeet says Malaysia needs far more development and it needs to fund this development.

“We are giving back to the rakyat in different forms like better roads, better schools and better hospitals,” he says.

With 146 countries already implementing the GST, it is perhaps only a matter of time before the Government here follows suit. But for this, they must really go down to the ground to allay the fears, address the concerns and explain to the people why GST is the way to go.

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