Speech by Henry Kwek in Parliament on the Property Tax Bill
1. Mr Speaker, I stand in support of the amendment.
2. This amendment bill:
a. Refines the appeals process,
b. Protects our tax base by strengthening enforcement and information gathering powers, and
c. Digitizes the communication between IRAS and our taxpayers.
3. While I support the bill, I would like to flag out some concerns regarding the third objective of the bill– specifically the serving of notices via electronic means.
4. As MPs, we all know about the presence of the aged, frail and vulnerable among our communities.
a. They frequently do not speak English, let alone read English or access the Internet.
b. Some of them are in a poor state of mental health.
c. And some of them live alone without close family support.
d. They do not form a large part of Singapore, but they do exist.
5. As MPs, from time to time, we sometimes write appeals for residents who face legal issues:
a. Because they do not pay their bills or fines to the government in time
b. Due to their misunderstanding of government communications, or their inability to use digital channels effectively.
6. Once they get themselves into such difficulties, they face additional fines, and even legal worries.
7. Now going into the details of execution, I could imagine some of my frail and vulnerable residents from Kebun Baru running into difficulties.
a. In theory, they can continue to receive hardcopies of notices if they opt out.
b. But that is only if the opt-out process is properly designed.
c. My concern is:
i. If they are asked to opt out electronically, or
ii. If the opt-out instruction is buried in the small prints in the property tax notices.
d. This process is not noticed by them or their cargivers.
8. So I would ask IRAS to clarify on their proposed framework for implementing this.
a. Will it be implemented immediately for all property tax payers?
b. Will there be an educational effort to help property taxpayers understand that?
9. In short, is IRAS considering ways to strike a balance between efficiency and inclusiveness, not just for the property tax amendment today, but also for other tax bills put for today?
10. I would also want to make a broader point about our move towards a Smart Nation and cashless society.
11. While I share the goals of our government in doing so, it is important that we do so in an inclusive way.
12. By inclusive, I mean our government actively creates alternatives that are cheap, efficient, and simple to use.
13. Let me give an example – if a retiree or a low income individual is expected to use his or her smart phone to do electronic transactions, then:
a. One. He or she must be able to afford a smart phone, even if these are second-hand smart phones. Unfortunately, this cost is not necessary always factored in our social assistance framework.
b. Two. He or she must be able to afford the data-plan, because free wifi signal is not present in all public places and the sign on process is cumbersome.
14. As such, I would like our government to consider the issues of digital inclusiveness very closely, because we must leave no Singaporean behind as we move towards the digital future.
15. One way to do so is for our Smart Nation to closely consult MSF and various VWOs during the design phase while embarking on the digitization process.
16. Notwithstanding these concerns, I support the bill as a necessary step to improve our tax systems.