by Wan Saiful Wan Jan. First published as “Tax system should not discriminate ” in The Star 28 October 2014

In my column two weeks ago, I wrote about how taxes are a form of coercion by the government against the people. Since then, I received many comments saying that it is not fair to blame Barisan Nasional for everything.

I want to start this column by clarifying again that when I use the word ‘government’ I do not refer to any political party. A government is the entity that is tasked with governing. It can be at federal, state or local levels. And it can be made up of people from any party. I am not talking about Barisan Nasional government or Pakatan Rakyat government but simply the entity of the ‘government’ generally.

In this column I want to take my arguments about taxation a step further. Here I will try to explain that the coercive nature of taxes means that if we have to tax, then we must do it in the most moral way possible.

But before that, we need to ask if we need to tax at all. By nature taxation means the government coercively taking your money whether you like it or not, and punishing you if you refuse to pay. How is this coercion justifiable at all?

Perhaps in an idealised world we should outlaw any forceful confiscation from anyone. But that idealised world simply does not exist. The reality is, as long as we have a government, we need to tax because we must have money to pay for the operations of the government. So, unfortunately, in the real world, tax is unavoidable.

The unavoidability of taxation does not mean those in power should proudly proclaim that they will tax us. There is a good analogy in the Muslim tradition for this. Muslims are generally not allowed to eat pork but if you have no other option then you are exceptionally allowed to.

But that does not mean you should proudly proclaim that you have eaten pork and that you aspire to find new ways to eat more pork. After all, you are only doing it out of absolute necessity.

This is why I find it distasteful to see politicians to competing to announce how they want to tax us in the run up to the recent Budget 2015 announcement. Those in government were proudly promoting the Goods and Services Tax (GST) while those in opposition were hyping up the Capital Gains Tax (CGT).

It is as if they are proud to find new ways to make us part with our hard earned money and savings. Don’t they realise that they should be ashamed of making us pay for their political priorities?

Nevertheless, if we accept that some level of taxation are unavoidable, what is the most moral way to tax? This is where the GST vs. CGT tax actually becomes interesting.

I believe that if the government had to coerce us into parting with our hard earned money, then at the very least they should make us pay only when we spend, and not when we work or save.

Working and saving are positive attributes that should be encouraged. When incomes and savings are highly taxed, we are sending the wrong signal to the population because we are telling them that they will ‘punished’ for doing the right things. And this is what income tax, corporation tax and CGT do – they take away the money from us, the common people, after we worked so hard to earn and save.

Taxing spending through consumption taxes such as GST, while still objectionable, is the lesser of the two evils. Yes it is still coercion but at least it does not discourage you from working or saving.

And since both types of taxes – income tax and consumption tax – are still in essence coercively taking money away from the people, we should ensure that the rates are low. As I said earlier, if you have to do something out of necessity, don’t overdo it.

So if taxes are imposed because of its unavoidability, then policymakers must not set a punitively high tax rate. Otherwise people might start thinking that they actually enjoy taking our hard earned money.

There is another bogeyman that many people like to bring up, in that they argue the rich should be taxed more than the poor. This is simply a wrong and immoral conception. Since when do we say that it is acceptable to forcefully take away someone’s money if the victim is rich?

If it is wrong to do something to the poor, it is wrong to do it to the rich too. Discrimination based on income is still discrimination and it is still immoral. The glorification of Robin Hood is, in reality, despicable. A thief is still a thief regardless of who he steals from.

In short, when it comes to taxation, the ideal system is one that does not punish work, encourages saving, comes with a low rate, and does not discriminate. If we care about morality and integrity, then this is the more moral system of taxation.

1 Comment

  • Yoong kwee soon 2014 Oct 29 / 07:46

    Wan saiful, you really hit the nail on the head. How could we ever think of taxing the high income group more than the low income group as fair? Honestly, I belong to the middle income group but aspire to fall into high income group by working harder. But if our government or society has such mentality of taxing the high income group higher as fair, how could I be motivated to work harder? How could the nation aspire to have a highly productive working class and in turn become an advanced country? Are we encouraging our society to rob Peter and pay Paul? Eventually, we are not only unable to achieve a high income nation, the whole nation may even turn chaotic.

    It is time, the mentality of robbing the rich to subsidies the poor should be corrected. Of course the poor should be given all the necessary assistance and opportunities for them to be able to achieve the same status of the rich. Obviously a responsible and committed government can always work out an equitable way of increasing its revenue. This is where we can distinguish a good government from a bad government. People should always make good use of their ballot paper in choosing a good government.

Leave a comment