Updating Definitions for Inclusion, Improving BIPs and supporting Social Enterprises for Greater Social Impact
Parliamentary Speech for the Income Tax (Amendment) Bill, 7 Oct 2019
Anthea Ong on Income Tax (Amendment) Bill
In Parliament on Monday (Oct 7), NMP Anthea Ong spoke in support of the Income Tax (Amendment) Bill as it is generally…
Urgent Updates to Reflect Current Realities & Narratives
Mr Speaker, I stand in support of the Bill as it is generally procedural in nature. In particular, I welcome the amendment in Clause 29 that amends Section 39 of the current Act to broaden the Grandparent Care Relief to working mothers with ‘handicapped’ and unmarried children. link
However, I would like to outline some significant and urgent housekeeping changes that we must make in definitional interpretations with the current Income Tax Act, and the amendments of this Bill.
The Explanatory Note of the Bill used the term ‘handicapped’ and the amendment in Clause 29(b) subparagraph used ‘incapacitated by reason of physical or mental infirmity’ .
Sir, I was shocked to find that under Section 2(1) of the Act, an “incapacitated” person means infant, lunatic, idiot or insane person — a definition that, in my research through the legislative history, has not been changed for 72 years since the Income Tax Ordinance 1947 when income tax was first imposed. The reference is derogatory and as you would know well, is not reflective of the current narrative and ground realities of the disability community and our social policies. In case the House thinks that I am just concerned with semantics, let me share why this is more than just a euphemistic concern.
First, definitions and terminologies we use in our legislature reflect how far we have come as a society and have an impact on how the rest of the society carves out their responses and examines their attitudes. So we must not leave definitional updates as an afterthought as we update our laws. As the Executive Director of the Disabled Persons Association or DPA shared with me when I checked in with her, and I quote, “for any law to define disability by incapacitation or to locate the inability to interact in the world within the disabled person goes against the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities or CRPD which locates the barriers in the environment and not the person.”, unquote. Singapore became a signatory of CPRD in August 2013.
Specifically, the term ‘incapacitated by reason of mental infirmity’ goes against the spirit of the Mental Capacity Act introduced in 2008. In section 4(3), the Act says that a lack of capacity cannot be established merely by reference to (a) a person’s age or appearance; or (b) condition of theirs which might lead others to make unjustified assumptions about their capability.
Second, this discovery also unveiled the inconsistency and misalignment of the definition of “disability” across the legislature. As an example, the Women’s Charter defines an “incapacitated person” as a person who is wholly or partially incapacitated or infirm, by reason of physical or mental disability or ill-health or old age.
In general, the English-speaking disability rights movement has moved away from the term ‘handicapped’ and reclaiming and attributing positive associations with the term ‘disabled’ or ‘disabilities’. It is seen as ‘outdated’ by the community in Singapore. ‘Handicap’ is still used across a multitude of legislation including the Health Sciences Authority Act, Health Products Act, the Copyright Act….
I am thankful for the numerous tax relief schemes that we have to support our disability and vulnerable communities, but I urge the Ministry to update the awful definition of ‘incapacitated’ from 1947 and all references to ‘handicap’ to reflect the current social norms. We should take the lead from the Singapore’s Enabling Masterplan which also implements the CRPD. The masterplan’s definition and terminology of ‘disability’ reflects the current and aspirational needs of the community. “Disability’ is defined as “those whose prospects of securing, retaining places and advancing in education and training institutions, employment and recreation as equal members of the community are substantially reduced as a result of physical, sensory, intellectual and developmental impairments.”
I also urge other ministries to review and update all current provisions for our disability community, and in making new laws, to take the lead from the Ministry of Social and Family Development who leads and updates the Enabling Masterplan with the community.
Engaging the Private Sector for Greater Social Impact
Mr. Speaker, I would now like to take this opportunity with the Bill to discuss how we can better engage our private sector towards achieving greater social impact with the Business and IPC Scheme, or BIPs and supporting the growth of social enterprises.
BIPS which was approved during Budget 2016 for two and a half years from July 2016 to December 2018, and then extended for three more years till December 2021. The intent of the scheme is to encourage businesses to send their employees to volunteer and provide services in various areas such as legal, human resources and accounting, or even general voluntary services for IPCs, or institutions for public character.
Yet both businesses and IPCs face an administratively onerous process in applying for BIPs thereby resulting in low usage of the scheme. In response to my parliamentary question in Nov 2018, we know then that between Jul 2016 and Dec 2017, or 1.5 years, only 48 businesses contributed about 17,000 volunteering hours through BIPS projects. To put this number in context, there are more than 500,000 business entities in Singapore.
I urge the Government to consider the three suggestions below gathered from conversations with community-based organisations and companies that are keen to realise the policy and impact intent of BIPS.
First, this scheme is only available for the 610 approved IPCs which are held to a higher governance standard out of 2277 registered charities in 2018. Given that, the scheme could be made fully flexible through disbursing the $50,000 tax deduction limit to each IPC and allowing them to use the funds as they deem fit. A random audit could be conducted to deter abuses. This will also allow charities to distribute this $50,000 across corporate partners in more meaningful ways that would better meet their beneficiary needs. With the current application process, there is a tendency to rush into partnerships on first-come-first-serve basis.
Second, the current BIPS offers tax deductions based on the actual salary rates of the employees of the businesses which could be problematic given (1) the need to disclosure such sensitive information and (2) the IPCs do not have the industry knowledge and/or bandwidth to audit salary figures given by corporate partners to determine if they are true and fairly reported. I understand from the reply to my parliamentary question in August that the Government is currently considering using fixed man-hour rates for BIPS to increase the administrative ease of claiming tax deduction under the scheme. This is very much a step in the right direction.
But I would further suggest that the value of volunteering method be tied to the actual value of the volunteering service rendered, independent of the corporate volunteer’s salary. This value could be preset by the Government in the form.
Lastly, BIPS should also consider including food donations, particularly nutritional food donations which I shared in my speech for the Resource Sustainability Bill last month as part of our climate change strategy. Countries like the US and France have already legislated tax deductions for food donations. In the US, companies can claim 15% tax deduction of their taxable income based on the value of the donated food. In France, if a company makes a food donation to a registered charity, they can claim up to 60% of the value of the food as a tax rebate, depending on how near it is to the food’s expiry date.
Mr. Speaker, between private businesses and social service agencies are social enterprises. Social enterprises are businesses that have a social and/or environmental agenda woven into its primary business. They help to reduce inequality and create livelihood opportunities for vulnerable communities by generating income through innovative products and services in the marketplace.
At this juncture, I would like to declare my interest as the founder of Hush TeaBar, a social enterprise that employs Deaf persons and persons who live with mental health conditions to provide a curated silent tea experience to promote mental wellness and social inclusion at workplaces. I am also a small-time impact investor.
The growth of social enterprises in Singapore has generally been organic because we do not yet have a clear national strategy on this, including recognition of these enterprises as separate legal entities in their own right. As such, we do not know the total number of social enterprises in Singapore but we do know from a response to my parliamentary question in February that 336 chose to be members of the Singapore Centre for Social Enterprises, or raiSE as at March 2018. Out of these, 92 or 27% had an annual revenue of at least or more than $200,000, including Hush.
I remember having a conversation with an impact investor a few years back who shared that she would not think to invest in Singapore social enterprises since there are already grants given by the Government, through the Tote Board and administered by raiSE. As much as grants are welcome, they encourage innovation differently from investments.
Investments into social enterprises could be encouraged with tax rebates for impact investors. This may also help to shift mindset from conventional donations to investing in social enterprises and eventually build a larger ecosystem. The UK Government introduced the Social Investment Tax Relief (SITR) in 2014 to help social enterprises attract capital in order to drive and grow their business.
I urge the Government to consider such legislative innovations to incentivise market-driven investments into local social enterprises. We must do more to create the right environment for more of these impact businesses to grow from micro-businesses to SMEs, and eventually bringing our Singapore brand of social innovations overseas as part of our global citizenry.
To conclude, I’d like to quote DPM Heng Swee Keat at the Building our Future Singapore Together Dialogue in June 2019. I quote, “……beyond partnering you in specific areas, we will work with you to create a shared future, one where every Singaporean will have a part to play.”
Mr. Speaker, this commitment must surely include every differently-abled and vulnerable Singaporean by recognising them in a respectful, dignified and consistent manner across our laws and policies, as well as creating enabling environments to invite and support every business and social enterprise to contribute to a nation that cares. Because a Singaporean society that we want to be is not about bringing people into what already exists but about making a new and better space for everyone to thrive.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~Anthea Ong is a Nominated Member of Parliament. (A Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) is a Member of the Parliament of Singapore who is appointed by the President. They are not affiliated to any political party and do not represent any constituency. There are currently nine NMPs in Parliament.)
The multi-sector perspective that comes from her ground immersion of 12 years in different capacities helps her translate single-sector issues and ideas across boundaries without alienating any particular community/group. As an entrepreneur and with many years in business leadership, it is innate in her to discuss social issues with the intent of finding solutions, or at least of exploring possibilities. She champions mental health, diversity and inclusion — and volunteerism in Parliament.
She is also an impact entrepreneur/investor and a passionate mental health advocate, especially in workplace wellbeing. She started WorkWell Leaders Workgroup in May 2018 to bring together top leaders (CXOs, Heads of HR/CSR/D&I) of top employers in Singapore (both public and private) to share, discuss and co-create inclusive practices to promote workplace wellbeing. Anthea is also the founder of Hush TeaBar, Singapore’s 1st silent teabar and a social movement that aims to bring silence, self care and social inclusion into every workplace, every community — with a cup of tea. The Hush Experience is completely led by lovingly-trained Deaf facilitators, supported by a team of Persons with Mental Health Issues (PMHIs).
Follow Anthea Ong on her public page at www.facebook.com/antheaonglaytheng