Below is my letter published in the ST on 25 Feb, in response to its editorial on Saturday:
The editorial "NS Tax would cheapen a solemn duty" (ST 23 February) says all the right things, but avoids the difficult issues.
The editorial agrees with me that distinctions between Singaporeans and foreigners "can be sharpened", but warns against the danger "of going too far". But what is "too far"? The editorial also acknowledges the problem I highlighted of PRs skipping their NS obligations, and states that "measures ... can be tightened". Again, the crucial question is how?
Motherhood statements are fine, but the devil, as always, is in the details.
It is also wrong to label proposals to sharpen the distinction "xenophobic", because that assumes that current policies are already fair and incapable of rational change. We should not resist reviewing and changing existing policies, provided such changes are logical and principled, and in the interests of Singapore.
My proposal of a defence tax is a specific proposal. It does not put a price on NS obligations. NS obligations are important and must be enforced by law and punishment if necessary. But what about those who escape their NS obligations or who have no such obligations? They benefit from others doing NS. They should contribute too.
Taxation is not a unique solution. A Swiss citizen who is liable to perform military service, but is unable or fails to complete his obligation must pay an exemption tax. It is a practical response to a practical problem. It is not seen as cheapening national service. My proposal does not go so far as the Swiss. I do not agree that anyone should be able to avoid NS obligations by making payment.
It is easy to use a loaded word such as "cheapen" when talking about taxes. But it is unfair. If we offer tax breaks for families to have kids, are we "cheapening" children? And did the ST label the $9000 grant to NSmen announced by the Prime Minister as cheapening NS? The fact is that taxation is a legitimate means of distributing benefits and burdens. All I am suggesting is to have foreigners and PRs share the burden that our NSmen already shoulder."
PS: The Budget just delivered by DPM Tharman evidences a significant shift in our taxation policy. Those who are wealthy will pay more in taxes to help those who are less well off. Taxation has long been used as a tool to effect social change, and we are likely to see more of such changes in the future.