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'Sin' taxes: Why so high, so fast?

"I like a bottle or two of beer every night. We come down after dinner, sit at the kopitiam and chit-chat over drinks... now you tell me we may have to pay more. Like that 'jialat' (terrible in Hokkien) lah."- Mr Tan Lai Chuen, 60, who is unemployed

A day after the Budget speech, retiree Choong Kah Yong is sitting at a coffee shop in Pasir Ris with a cup of kopi-o.

A copy of The Straits Times is on the table in front of him and he is scanning the news, eyebrows furrowed, when this columnist approaches him.

Mr Choong, 70, nods in approval of this year's Budget, which was announced by Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance Tharman Shanmugaratnam in Parliament on Friday.

And he is particularly pleased with the Pioneer Generation Package (PGP), the highlight of the Budget.

Targeted at Singapore citizens who were 16 years or older in 1965 and who were citizens by Dec 31, 1986, the PGP comprises health-care subsidies, Medisave top-ups and other benefits.

The package will benefit around 450,000 Singaporeans and cover them for life, without any differentiation of income levels and regardless of future economic circumstances.

Mr Choong and his wife live in a four-room HDB flat with their second son's family of three.

He says: "I have not really done the sums and I am still trying to make sense of the numbers, but from what I have managed to understand, there is something for everyone."

He is especially pleased with the increase in tax relief for those supporting their parents.

Parent relief for those staying with their elderly dependant increases from $7,000 to $9,000.

The new measures will benefit about 170,000 individuals supporting 208,000 dependants.

All is good, notes Mr Choong, except for one thing.

At this point, the friendly old man turns grouchy. He gives a little snort, shakes his head and pulls out a pack of cigarettes from the front pocket of his checkered shirt.

Mr Choong holds the pack up and asks: "Do you mean to say that I am going to be paying more for this?"

He doesn't wait for a response and goes on to grumble: "And I have to pay more for my weekly drink (beer)?"

Excise duties for cigarettes and manufactured tobacco products have been raised by 10 per cent, while duties on all liquor types have been increased by 25 per cent.

Mr Choong is more miffed that the increase was immediate.

"No window period?" he asks.

A man at the next table calls out in agreement.

He is having breakfast with two friends and they are more interested in the increased duties than the PGP.

Mr Gary Loh, 68, a part-time cabby, says in a mix of Hokkien and English: "You today talk, today (the duties) go up. How can like that?"

He concedes that the "sin" taxes have not been raised for nearly a decade, but adds that he dislikes the suddenness.

"Give some time lah, like the betting duty," says Mr Loh.

The betting duty rate on lotteries will increase from 25 per cent to 30 per cent from July.

And that seems to be the rub for people who were surprised by the duty increases.

Why so high and why so fast, is the constant refrain.

Some tell this columnist their cigarette sellers increased the prices the very day the Budget was announced.

I suppose those sin taxes make sense. I neither smoke nor drink, so I don't feel the same angst that the grumblers do.

Reduce the incidence of smoking and drinking and maybe, as a nation, we will have to pay less for health care in the future too.

A suggestion that Mr Loh should consider cutting down on smoking is met with a derisive laugh.

"How to? It's a losing war for most of us at our age. I have smoked almost all of my life and now, you ask me to stop?" argues the man who finishes one pack of cigarettes in two days.

"It is easier said than done."

His friend, Mr Tan Lai Chuen, 60, who is unemployed, is concerned about how the duties on liquor will affect his pocket.

"I like a bottle or two of beer every night. We come down after dinner, sit at the kopitiam and chit-chat over drinks. We relax and enjoy the breeze, and now you tell me we may have to pay more," he says with a heavy sigh. "Like that 'jialat' (terrible in Hokkien) lah."

Complaints about the sin duties aside, a random check with 30 Singaporeans had 28 of them giving the thumbs up to this year's Budget.

Madam Emma Khong, 42, a seamstress, is pleased that there will be more subsidies for lower and middle-income families like hers.

She has three children, aged three, four and five, and will now have to pay only $3 a month for her two older children under the Kindergarten Financial Assistance Scheme.

She currently pays $75 for each child and will get to save $144.

Says Madam Khong: "It is a relief because what we save from the fees will mean extra cash for a rainy day."