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COVID-19 patient No 53: Suggestions to alleviate taxpayers' burden

KUALA LUMPUR (March 24): On March 23, 2020, the Prime Minister announced some immediate measures to relieve the burden of the rakyat in light of the ongoing movement control order (MCO). For instance, the availability of RM500 a month for the next 12 months from the EPF’s i-Lestari account will not only supplement the income of many lower income and working class families, it will also boost the economy, especially small businesses, as 12 million people are expected to spend about RM40 billion worth of withdrawals during this period.

The government’s empathy for taxpayers is evident from the quick measures announced by the Inland Revenue Board (IRB) and the Royal Malaysian Customs (RMC) last week. Some of these measures are:

● Filing of income tax returns due between March 2020 and June 2020 is extended by two months
● Filing of notice of appeal to the Special Commissioners, which falls between March 18, 2020 and March 31, 2020, is automatically extended to April 30, 2020
● Import duty and sales tax exemption for face masks
● Filing of any returns due to the Customs on March 31, 2020 is extended to April 15, 2020 and penalty in respect of such returns are remitted
● Response time to income tax audit and investigation queries is extended to April 30, 2020
● Country-by-country reporting (CbCr), which is due on March 31, 2020, is extended to April 30, 2020
● Extension of time until April 30, 2020 to make payments in respect of tax estimate for companies and self-employed individual taxpayers, which is due on March 31, 2020

These initiatives by the IRB and RMC are indeed timely. The tax authorities in the United Kingdom, United States and Australia have implemented similar initiatives.

Having said this, I wish to propose some suggestions for the government to consider to ease the burden on our taxpayers. The aim is to allow businesses some breathing space to manage their cash flow and rebuild their businesses after two weeks or more of business restriction or closure, especially during the restricted movement period:

● Postponing all scheduled tax and customs audits to Sept 30, 2020. Tax and customs investigations may continue as usual.
● Granting a one-off special tax relief of RM5,000 or a tax rebate of RM500 to individual taxpayers in the lower and middle tax brackets.
● Tax deduction on financing costs including interest expenses and legal expenses incurred on financing arrangements obtained by businesses between March 19, 2020 and Dec 31, 2020, provided the financing is used as working capital. Double deduction on interest expenses can be given to the small and medium enterprises (SMEs).
● Stamp duty exemption on the financing instruments executed by businesses between March 19, 2020 and Dec 31, 2020.
● Extending the filing of returns and payments due to the IRB and RMC between March 31, 2020 and June 30, 2020, say by three months. Payment of tax instalments be deferred up to six months for SMEs.
● Suspending any civil proceedings against taxpayers with regard to non-payment of taxes until Sept 30, 2020. Criminal prosecutions may continue as usual.
● Service tax exemptions until Dec 31, 2020 for the hospitality industry, including hotels, theme parks and restaurants.
● Exempting sales tax on hand sanitizers manufactured in Malaysia.

I believe that these suggestions will be received well by taxpayers and sits well with the timely announcement by the Finance Minister on the late evening of March 23, 2020 to grant tax deductions to those who donate to the Covid-19 fund. Using the words of the Finance Minister, tax reliefs during this challenging period will help to ensure “the effective delivery of financial resources to combat the Covid-19 outbreak”.

The above suggestions coupled with the present economic condition including the drop in oil price would likely mean that the tax collection target of RM155 billion for 2020 may not be achievable. In the first place, with respect, this is an over optimistic target set previously. The global economy, which was largely marred with the US-China trade war, was already sluggish even before the COVID-19 outbreak. Inevitably, the slowing global economy certainly has an impact on our country, which is one of the leading trading nations in this region.

Whilst some quarters of our society are critical of the efforts of the government in fighting the spread of the Covid-19, I wish to record my sincere appreciation to the doctors, nurses and other medical staff at Hospital Kuala Lumpur for their excellent care of me during my hospitalisation. In early March, I was informed that I tested positive for Covid-19. I was nursed back to good health and eventually discharged, many thanks to our dedicated government healthcare personnel, whom many of us take for granted. Kudos to the Ministry of Health and the government under our able Prime Minister for focusing on combatting Covid-19 and managing our economy rather than entertaining the armchair critics.

Editor's comment:
S. Saravana Kumar, patient no. 53, is a well-known tax lawyer and a Partner of law firm Rosli Dahlan Saravana Partnership with another prominent lawyer Rosli Dahlan, who is also Covid-19 patient no. 33. On March 7, 2020, both of them announced the dissolution of their previous firm, Lee Hishammuddin Allen Gledhill, where the contested dissolution will be determined at the appropriate forum.

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