MP Hri Kumar’s proposal for a “National Defence Tax” on foreigners and PRs (and a clarification) has come under close scrutiny after he went public about it yesterday. While it is both derided and cheered, Hri Kumar’s suggestion is at least an attempt at addressing a major source of unhappiness: that foreigners and PRs enjoy many benefits paid for by the 2+ years of national service that Singaporean Sons do.
Adding to the furore is the revelation last year that an astounding one-third of NS-liable PRs gave up their PR status to avoid NS (not counting defaulters) and suffered negligible penalties compared to Citizens who would do the same. In addition, an IPS study showed that foreign-born citizens ranked NS as far less important than local-born citizens did, when asked if it was a factor in defining a Singaporean.
Mr Hri Kumar’s suggestion seeks (I interpret) several effects:
1) Increase the cost of being a foreigner or PR in Singapore (differentiate citizenship), unless one (or one’s children) has NS liability as a PR
2) Further deter PRs from giving up their PR status to avoid NS by acting as a further financial penalty
3) Incentivise PRs not to give up their PR status even after completing NS, and see it as a serious step towards citizenship
4) Set up a trust for the benefit of NSFs, funded by PRs and foreigners
These are, in general, worthy objectives. However, his original idea was really hard to capture (perhaps because he made such lengthy comparisons to NS, and has named it the “National Defence Tax”. I myself misunderstood it until the 4th reading. I hope I am not still misunderstanding his intentions, but I believe this is an inelegant and incomplete way of trying to achieve these effects. Moreover, it does little to heal the festering distrust between the rakyat and non-citizens, between born citizens and naturalised citizens, and between every Singaporean Son who has done his NS duty and every male PR or new citizen who has not (parliamentarians not excepted).
For point 1, a separate tax structure for PRs and foreigners is feasible, but best worked into the existing system. But what Singaporeans really want to see is a better distinction between benefits for Singaporeans and benefits for foreigners. The PR situation, I think, is a blurred line which I want to address in a separate post.
For points 2 and 3, I think Mr Hri Kumar’s suggestions are okay, but I would like to counter-propose that, a) an additional financial and legal penalty for PRs who avoid NS over and above the bond money, including making it illegal to relinquish permanent residency without serving NS, as it is with Singaporeans, b) lock in PR CPF monies – they can only be withdrawn as per relevant retirement schemes or upon death. Relinquishing one’s PR status results in these monies being forfeited.
For point 4, the idea for a fund is good, but it should be paid for by government funds, not directly by foreigners. Why?
Ultimately, Mr Hri Kumar misunderstands the general root cause of the divide – it has nothing so much to do with money nor with opportunity cost, even though we sometimes gripe about it in that way. National Service is a question of the Singaporean Identity; a symbol of the “Singaporean Core”. It is, to many, so symbolic a sacrifice and so powerful a gesture that it will forever set Singaporean Sons apart from those who have not served. It is a fraternity. It is a home.
That is why point 4 rankles so many who, like me, instantly misunderstood it as trying to “buy off” my NS service (although that is not Mr Hri Kumar’s intention). I simply will not have any aspect of my service to my nation directly funded by foreigners. It is unconscionable. They may benefit from my sacrifice, but I did not do it for them – I did it for God, family and country. I did it for my fellow solders, my platoon-mates sweating it out on the dusty trails of Pasir Laba, in the eerily perfect plantations of Tekong, in the muddy jungles of Mandai.
The Sons of Singapore take care of our own – we will not, can not, share this sacred burden with foreigners.
“God’s peace! I would not lose so great an honour
As one man more methinks would share from me
For the best hope I have…
…He which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made,
And crowns for convoy put into his purse;
We would not die in that man’s company
That fears his fellowship to die with us. “
– from Henry V, Act 4 Sc 3, Shakespeare
CPT(NS) Daniel Yap