By Low De Wei
(Bloomberg) —Singapore may impose more taxes on the wealthy as it seeks more inclusive growth, its next prime minister Lawrence Wong signalled in an interview with Bloomberg News Editor-in-Chief John Micklethwait on Monday.
The Southeast Asian financial hub, which has been a magnet for the well-to-do thanks to its low tax rates and modern infrastructure, is already planning to raise income taxes for its richest residents, as well as duties on high-end property and luxury cars.
Wong, who is also the city-state’s finance minister and deputy premier, has indicated the government needs to do more to tackle wealth inequality as core inflation surges to a 14-year high.
Yet it’s a fine balancing act. Overtaxing the wealthy could make the city less competitive with other nations looking to lure top talent and assets from abroad and could be especially damaging to Singapore’s booming wealth management industry.
Here are five options the government could consider.
Bring back estate or inheritance taxes
Singapore abolished its so-called estate duty — taxes collected on wealth left behind after a person’s death — in 2008. Then-finance minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said the move would encourage wealthy individuals in Asia to move their assets to the country.
Since then, the city-state has seen a boom in private banking, family offices and asset management, making the reintroduction of the tax more fraught.
It’s also a difficult tax to assess, often requiring valuations of hard-to-price assets such as art. And for the super-rich it’s usually possible to avoid the bulk of death duties, making it more of a tax on moderately wealthy families.
Capital gains tax
An approach that’s grown in popularity in some countries, Singapore could look to take a slice of profits from windfalls such as share sales and property speculation. The US recently passed a bill to impose a 1% excise tax on stock buybacks, and the UK imposed a windfall tax on the profits of oil and gas companies.
Capital gains taxes are also generally easier to assess since they usually involve the sale of an asset at a set price.
But Singapore has long avoided taxing most dividends, as well as investment income and capital gains, aware that such duties are among the least loved by investors and could make the city-state less competitive with rival hub Hong Kong.
A Wealth Tax
Wealth taxes — annual or one-off duties on the super rich based on a percentage of the total value of their assets — have risen and fallen in popularity around the world, often driven by ideology, glaring inequality or financially impoverished governments.
But wealth taxes suffer from all of the drawbacks above in terms of assessment and collection and while occasionally a Singapore lawmaker may suggest imposing such a duty, it would risk encouraging rich residents to simply move their wealth elsewhere.
The city-state currently offers some of Asia’s most generous tax incentives for philanthropy, although at least 80% of a charity’s funds must be spent within the country.
Reducing such benefits may result in more taxes being paid to government. But it could also cut the amount funnelled into local charities. Already, philanthropy advocates and institutions have been lobbying the government to relax the rules to allow more freedom to donate overseas.
More of the Same: Income, Property and Cars
A more likely path for the government is simply to double down on the taxes it already has, with the possibility of making many of them more progressive — taxing higher earners or higher-priced assets at higher rates.
Singapore has already announced more taxes on real estate and vehicles in its annual budget earlier this year, and imposed further increases in stamp duties last year to cool the housing market.
It already imposes higher duties on those who own more than one property. Possible new targets could include super luxury items like yachts and private jets, but the simplest way to tax the rich is just to raise the rate for the most expensive purchases.
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