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Singapore Awaits the Taxman as Aging Population Strains Economy

Commuters cross a road at night in the central business district of Singapore, on Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2015. Singapore's third quarter unemployment rates are scheduled to be released on Oct. 29 by the Ministry of Manpower.

(bloomberg)

(Bloomberg) -- It looks increasingly a done deal that Singaporeans should brace for big tax changes in this year’s budget.

All 12 economists in a Bloomberg survey conducted Jan. 22-31 said they expect tax hikes of some kind to be announced when Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat gives his budget speech on Feb. 19. The government has already prepared Singaporeans for the change, arguing it needs higher revenue to pay for healthcare and social services as the population ages rapidly, as well as infrastructure plans.

Almost all the economists surveyed expect an adjustment to the goods-and-services tax, but only six said it will probably be imposed as soon as this year. Five are betting on 2019 or later.

Read More: Singapore Has More Tax Options Than a GST Hike in 2018 Budget

At first glance, Singapore’s balance sheet seems to be in great shape. As of 2016, the Lion City was the global winner by far for its current account surplus -- at 19 percent of gross domestic product, it’s almost double that of Switzerland.

Singapore has run a deficit on its primary fiscal balance, which excludes special transfers and interest on reserves, since 2015, requiring authorities to draw more on its hefty savings to pay for expenditure. The government has estimated a primary shortfall of 1.3 percent of GDP in the year through March 31.

Although recovering, low productivity is one reason there’s pressure to raise revenue. Singapore is making a big push to retrain workers and getting businesses to automate operations in order to boost productivity. So look for commentary in the budget around existing government job-training efforts such as Skills Future or Professional Conversion Programmes, as well as fresh initiatives, to tackle this problem.

GST was last raised to 7 percent in 2007. None of the economists surveyed by Bloomberg projected any increase in the rate would be above 2 percentage points. It helps Singapore’s prospects for competitiveness that even with a rise of that magnitude, the GST would still stack up favorably against other Asian economies.

Aside from the GST, a rash of other tax options are on the menu. Perhaps the next-most likely target is e-commerce, with two-thirds of economists in the Bloomberg survey predicting such a tax. Indranee Rajah, senior minister of state for law and finance, has flagged it as an area that authorities are studying.

Read More: Singapore Seen Leading Race to Tax $38 Billion Shopping Boom

Taxes on personal income, estates, vehicles and property each got one or two votes among the 12 economists polled.

The budget won’t be all about taxes, though, with analysts also watching for policy initiatives:

  • Mohamed Faiz Nagutha, an economist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, outlined three possibilities: a replacement for the expiring productivity and innovation credit, a cap on foreign worker levy increases, and loosening of the government’s hard stance on immigration.
  • A wishlist for businesses includes an increase in the corporate income tax rebate cap, deferring foreign worker levy increases in some industries and boosting investment in public infrastructure projects, according to Francis Tan, an economist at United Overseas Bank Ltd. in Singapore.

“Even though Singapore’s economic growth outlook has turned more positive for now, it should be noted that the increased economic activities are unevenly distributed and do not benefit everyone equally,” Tan wrote in a research note. “There are pockets of our economy that still require more help than others.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Michelle Jamrisko in Singapore at mjamrisko@bloomberg.net, Cynthia Li in Hong Kong at cli205@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Nasreen Seria at nseria@bloomberg.net, Chris Bourke

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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