Monday, 10 September 2012

Time to reform Malaysia's tax system?

Comprehensive review timely as Malaysia is driving its transformation programme

RECENT developments in parts of Europe have sparked a debate in the eurozone on austerity and growth. Those who argue for austerity or “fiscal prudence” claim that debt management is key to restoring investor confidence and, therefore, long-term prosperity.

Borrowing more is not an acceptable response to a crisis caused by over-borrowing and over-spending. In contrast, those who prefer greater stimulus claim that, without further investment, growth will simply not return, and without some Government stimulus, no economy can pull itself out of recession to achieve long-term stability and growth.

Whilst there is no clear “right” answer, there is one aspect of Government policy that is absolutely central to this taxation. Governments must ensure a balanced system of taxation that provides the right incentives to business and citizens, while enabling the Government to meet its debt and spending obligations. Getting this balance right can drive increased confidence among the investor community and stimulate economic activity, international competitiveness and long-term growth.

A new approach

In the past, many countries have relied on the support of international bodies and other inter-governmental assistance to begin the process of tax reform in respect of designing the tax system itself and in improving the ability to collect taxes. In the post “credit-crunch” world, it has become apparent that the operational ability to increase tax revenues is somewhat limited. A new hands-on approach is required to assist the public sector, generating increased tax revenues and driving corporate activity without raising taxes or damaging international competitiveness.

Malaysia has never had a comprehensive review of its tax system
 
Like any business, a Government has costs and it has revenues. A framework is required to help Governments optimise their tax revenue and balancing this need with the creation of the right incentives for citizens and businesses to stimulate the economy. To achieve this, our experience in working with Governments is typically structured around three core work streams:

Tax reform design - Modeling the economy and designing a new system of taxation appropriate for the jurisdiction, with the emphasis on simplicity, fairness, participation and economic stimulus;

Tax compliance - Building the taxpayer base to ensure all taxpayers have paid the correct amount of tax under the law and will continue to do so and;

● Tax operational improvements - underpinning both streams, identifying and delivering detailed operational improvements, ensuring transparency of data and processes within the tax administration, across Government departments and with taxpayers.

Malaysia has never had a comprehensive review of its tax system. The setting up of a Tax Review Panel a few years ago basically focussed on the proposed Goods & Services Tax and has done some good work in this area but the focus on income taxes was limited and too restrictive. A comprehensive review is now timely given that Malaysia is aggressively driving its transformation programme towards achieving developed nation status by 2020.

Tax reform design

A tax system is at its best when it is at its simplest, levying the minimal number of taxes, thus making compliance easy for taxpayers and the tax authorities. Headline rates should be minimised, often in exchange for the removal of reliefs or deductions. In addition, it is essential to improve the quality of the taxpayer base. Finally, international trends are to shift the burden of taxation towards indirect taxes to ensure participation in the tax system, improve the reliability of collections and increase fairness.

An effective communications strategy is critical to the success of any tax reform project. To succeed, these projects require a proactive approach to ensure that stakeholders are aware of their progress.

Tax reform projects should have four key phases:

Understand - Work closely with the Government and external bodies to gather and verify data. Quickly establish a detailed understanding of the current tax system and understand the issues from a number of different perspectives. At the same time, model the economy and current tax collections, benchmarking them against other jurisdictions.

Model - Develop an outline model for the proposed tax system, meeting regularly with stakeholders to develop and test ideas and model alternative taxation methods. Produce a detailed proposal for the new tax system, including clear legislative and operational proposals, for political approval.

Implement - Bring the approved model to life. This can include taking a lead drafting new legislation and guidance. A highly operational approach, working to ensure systems, processes and controls are best-in-class and fit-for-purpose is essential at this stage.

Roll-out - Roll out the new system to the various groups of taxpayers and stakeholders and train the Tax Administration teams, including training on tax technical and operational / systems issues.

Tax compliance

In many developing economies, the incidence of tax evasion is certainly not small. Broadening the taxpayer base and ensuring current taxpayers are paying the correct amount of tax under the law helps keep taxes low. Economic and forensic analysis must be applied to identify areas of the economy requiring particular attention. A range of techniques is typically required to provide a complete picture of the tax-paying community.

To deliver real change for the tax administration, forming a single team to identify taxpayers, initiating assessments, managing taxpayer responses and building IT databases is key. Enhancements to processes and systems also drive improved service levels to taxpayers (whether this be speed or quality), which is vital to gain support for the tax system and for improving participation.

Tax operational improvements

Real operational improvements are essential to the successful delivery of any tax reform project. This may include improvements to existing IT systems to automate processes and controls and improve the way data is managed. This applies both to the tax administration's systems and the way it interacts with other Government departments. For example, the tax administration should automatically be informed whenever a new business registers with the Companies Commission.

On a practical basis, it is essential to ensure new tax documents and forms are produced where required, both in paper and electronic form. It makes sense to consider these as part of a wider programme of improving taxpayer interaction, for example, with the implementation of a new website or the ability to file tax returns online. Key to the success of any new document is simplicity both for the tax administration to review and process and for the taxpayer to understand.

Conclusion

The post credit-crunch world has generated a renewed focus on how a Government raises its revenue the right balance of fiscal prudence and stimulus is difficult to achieve. However, with a clear view on what taxes are levied, who pays them and how they are administrated, jurisdictions can drive real improvements in tax collections, real efficiency gains and, in doing so, drive the participation of the taxpaying community. This, in turn, can provide assurance for the investor community, enable the Government to meet its obligations and drive long-term growth for the wider economy, its businesses and citizens.

It is timely that Malaysia announces a comprehensive fiscal reform which is wide-based and wide-ranging and puts into place a long-term plan to mould a world class tax system that will be comparable to the leading developed nations in the world. It is time to let go of the ad-hoc approach of tinkering with the tax system let us get on with it!

By Dr Veerinderjeet Singh and Andrew Burman

Dr Veerinderjeet is chairman of Taxand Malaysia and Andrew Burman is senior director at Alvarez and Marsal Taxand in the United Kingdom. Both entities are part of the Taxand Global Organisation. They can be contacted at vs@taxand.com.my and aburman@alvarezandmarsal.com respectively.

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