Indonesia’s unprecedented tax amnesty has so far sucked less than US$1.2 billion out of Hong Kong and China and persuaded Indonesians to declare a similar amount in previously undisclosed assets, but after the first three-month phase it is already clear the country’s elite is intent on keeping much of their wealth abroad.
That means paying a four per cent tax on what they hold in overseas bank accounts, compared with the lighter two per cent penalty if they bring the money back and stash it in local banks, where it must remain for three years. Indeed, while more than half of those declared assets are in cash and the rest split between property and marketable securities, only a small percentage of the targeted Rp1,000 trillion (US$77.5 billion) has been repatriated so far.
For all the media scepticism, however, it is already the most successful amnesty of its kind in history, exceeding Italy’s 2009 programme which unearthed €80 billion (US$90 billion) in assets and €4 billion in extra tax revenue.
Hong Kong is third on the list of repatriated funds behind Singapore (US$3.05 billion) and the Cayman Islands (US$1.26 billion), but fifth behind Singapore (US$26 billion), the Caymans (US$3.7 billion), the Virgin Islands (US$2 billion) and Australia (US$1.3 billion) in declared assets.
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Banking sources say there is evidence to show that some of the very wealthy are repatriating funds through money changers, in two cases involving sums of US$150 million each, so they can be classified as onshore and subject to only two per cent tax.
There is also another loophole that revenue tax officials might not have thought of when they were designing the scheme: money declared offshore can now be brought in without being subject to the three-year lock-up rule.
With tax havens no longer the closed refuges they once were, one of the incentives provided for in the amnesty is a pledge that the tax office will not investigate the source of undeclared funds, no matter if it is the suspected fruit of corruption.
But to the surprise of many analysts, the amount of newly-disclosed holdings at home topped Rp2,548 trillian by October 1, far exceeding the Rp953 trillion kept abroad by those who have been persuaded to participate in the amnesty since it began last July.
One of the reasons for that is that taxpayers have only focused in the past on their income and not on their other assets. Many were alarmed to discover that while the amnesty tax rate was low, it was still far too much to pay on property inherited decades ago and now worth millions.
The tax office was forced to change the rules on land valuation from the end of 2015 to the actual time of acquisition – or at a level which makes the tax affordable for salaried workers and retirees on modest incomes.
The government has reached a little over half of its target of Rp165 trillion in redemption payments. But even with tax rates rising to 3-6 per cent and 5-10 per cent during the final two phases between now and next March, there is a greater sense of optimism.
Tax revenues have been increasing and financial analysts and bankers alike say with tycoons trooping to the tax office in the full blaze of publicity they believe it will be enough to prevent the budget deficit breaching the legal limit of three per cent.
“People have come to understand that their ability to evade tax on undeclared assets is far less than what it used to be,” says one senior banker, who believes the next step will be the introduction of a capital gains tax. “It is going to be a lot more difficult to pass on assets to your heirs if it is not declared.”
The new Minister of Finance Sri Mulyani Indrawati has made it clear that the real benefit is the comprehensive data the amnesty has obtained, which will allow for wider tax collection in the future.
Rather than worry about targets, the former World Bank managing director said the whole idea had been to create confidence, restore trust and, in doing so, expand the tax base.
Such a reality check was badly needed. In the past two years, the government has set tax objectives that were laughable for a vast country of 250 million people with only 1.5 million individual taxpayers and a tax-to-GDP ratio of 11 per cent – one of the lowest in the region.
Indrawati spent her first week in office last August cutting Rp137 trillion in budget spending and widening the tax revenue shortfall for the rest of the year to Rp219 trillion – all in the unspoken conviction that the amnesty target was unreachable.
Collecting information on about Rp3,640 trillion worth of assets both at home and abroad provides an illuminating insight into what Indonesians have secreted away off shore or, more interestingly, under the bedclothes at home.
Greater tax compliance may well have an interesting side effect. Up to now, corruption has failed to stir public outrage. But when a much larger number of disgruntled taxpayers realises it is their money that is being stolen, that could quickly change.
There have already been street protests in Jakarta and other Indonesian cities by taxpaying union workers complaining about the wealthy and the corrupt being allowed off the hook.
Few Indonesians trust tax officials, who have long had a reputation for what is called “hunting in the zoo” – squeezing and often blackmailing people who already pay tax – instead of trying to track down tax evaders.
Bank customer service officers in Singapore say many of their clients, mostly from the upper middle class, tell them they fear taxmen will focus even more on them now they are aware of the extent of the assets they hold abroad.
A finance minister in the previous government of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Indrawati knows this better than most after her efforts to reform the tax office were forestalled when she was hounded out of office in 2010 over the Bank Century bailout scandal, for which she had only a policy role.
She spent six years in her US$500,000-a-year-job at the World Bank before being lured back by President Joko Widodo, who has placed huge stock in the tax amnesty as a way of getting the country’s economy back on a fast-growth track.
What he offered the country’s cleanest and most capable public servant is not known, but her appointment has gone a long way towards achieving the sort of trust that she now wants her fellow citizens to place in the one person they have always feared – the taxman.