Taxing times

After 4140[!] calls and 7 months later I’m finally done. I didn’t choose to stay so long but due to certain needs I had to drag myself awake at 6.30am everyday. Bar the usual bittersweet feelings that so many have felt, it was interesting engaging the taxpayers.

I have settled cases from paupers to princes and also a spectrum of professions-general workers to CEOs of renowned companies. Without revealing too much, incomes can range from zero to the millions. Taxpayers also come from all over the world–I have come across Senegalese, Venezuelans, Slovakians and Mongolians. One person even had no country attached to him! There are a plethora of scenarios as well-workers who have absconded, gotten into trouble and even passed away. I would say most calls are usually easy as they just want to check how much taxes are outstanding or whether we could expedite processing of cases. Yet like many of my colleagues we have our fair share of troublesome callers. There was an instance where a man demanded to speak to someone with a law degree for no apparent reason after we told him we couldn’t amend assessments for previous years. Most of the time these people tend to demand immediate attention. I have been left frustrated by some callers’ lack of comprehension even after explaining to them. Are they really so dense?! Usually, the employers or the finance department people will call in and more often that not they are middle-aged aunties. Sometimes, they are anxious/agitated because the worker has run away but all I could ask them to do was to file tax clearance.

At times, I have wondered how these people look like in real life. By hearing their voices, you could form a mental picture of the caller’s actions and feelings. Also, I have received calls from tax agents in the Big 4 companies. I had no ides that the Big 4 had tax consultancy services on top of accounting. Having manned the lines long enough, I have recognised certain numbers as belonging to tax agents eg. numbers starting with 6800 are from Deloitte, 6213 for KPMG, 6236 from PwC and 6718/6309 from EY. I have also seen EY tax agents calling from India, usually without any letter of authorization [bleh].

I’m not complaining about the knowledge I have gleaned from my stint. Filing taxes is actually quite simple and I learnt more about the reliefs available. I’m still unsure of the purpose of tax-on-tax calculations and filing of stock options gains and how it is done–they just go over my head. I hope there will not be a chance where I have to be nasty to the officer on the line since I feel their pain as well…having your KPI fall due to long calls is incredibly demoralising.

At times, I had to put up requests [work items] to advise the back-end staff to proceed. It ranged from expediting assessments to replying of emails/calls and there are actually different types of requests. I put up some 123 case refs, 56 ‘complex’ case callbacks [eg tax-on-tax and double taxation agreements], 106 enforcement actions and 5 memos for other matters.

For a country as small as SG, it sure has a lot of companies. They range from sole proprietors to large MNCs and even wholly foreign companies. Most frequently registration numbers are what we term ROC numbers, with the format yyyynnnnnA [year in front and letter at the back]. There are also UENO numbers [S/TyyAAnnnnA] which have a wide variety. Foreign coys have FC as the two middle alphabets, LLPs have LL, embassies have DP, clubs/associations have SS and even primary/secondary schools have GS. I was quite surprised when some schools were listed as limited companies–they must have a hell lot of assets. There are also this class of reg numbers called ASGD numbers [idk what it stands for though]. They are usually given to non-resident companies and individuals with the format AnnnnnnnB [always starts with A]. Yet I have seen the LKC School of Medicine being given this identity number too–it seems to be a placeholder identification.

 

Different formats of reg numbers

I wished some things could have ended better but then they were out of my control. I’m believe the taxation module in accountancy will be simple enough, I hope! It was good while it lasted but 7 months is way too long already.

The inevitable

I don’t really want to pen this, but with much talk of impending terrorist attacks close to home, someone must still give the bitter pill, no?

As some netizens have pointed out, all terror groups just need a radicalised local to set their plans in motion. Barring the reality of creating a bomb/smuggling weapons etc due to our no-nonsense laws, staging an attack isn’t that hard after all. Having lived here all my life, I can point out certain loopholes that these individuals can exploit.

Note that recent attacks have taken place in civilian areas, so naturally Changi airport is the biggest target due to the immense movement of people. As demonstrated in Belgium, devastating results can happen even with CCTVs and heightened vigilance from the authorities. I trust that the STs are competent enough, but will they be able to stop the threat from materialising if they were to know that a bomb was about to go off. Tight security will be a moot point if any Tom Dick or Harry could waltz in with explosives before anyone knows it.

Previously, we were able to uncover a plot to bomb Yishun MRT by JI, showing how public transport is also at risk. I need not mention the effects of an incendiary device left on a bus or train during the rush hour. Just recently, a bus in China caught fire, killing many and injuring more. Buses are especially favoured due to free movement of people-tracking potential perpetrators can be a headache. While leaving unattended bags can be too conspicuous, there are instances of pipe bombs used (Taiwan train explosion). I have seen empty water bottles left under the seats and someone of a twisted mind could certainly use that as a mode of attack.

These attackers actually need not target large crowds like those in Orchard Rd or Vivocity. If they can even pull off one in a heartland area, the damage would be done. Given the relative success of the Paris attacks, it is reasonable to expect multiple crises over a few hours or even days. Let’s assume an attack staged in a hawker centre during lunch time, in school during recess, even explosives hidden in a rubbish chute of a HDB flat. Such attacks are meant to strike fear and paranoia, even more so than those in more well-known places. If they can take down places literally close to your home, what else can they do?

Public events and religious places are also ripe shooting ducks for these people to act against. Besides the act of terror, there will also be ramifications on how the religious populace will react.

The challenge after such an attack has happened is how the people will react to it. Besides “pray for sg” hashtags, profile pictures with the flag and sppeches by the PM on how we have to be strong in the face of adversity, it will be interesting to see how people will react to this. There will certainly be an undercurrent of hate against the perpetrators’ race or religion or whatever and the government would also have to deal with speculation and blame, correct or otherwise. The economy will certainly be weakened, along with constant media attention for the next few months and also draconian laws imposed. Our impregnable fortress will be an utter joke. What if the perpetrators were people we didn’t expect? That will really turn society upside down since anyone can be the time bomb.

Of course I’m not hoping for something like that to happen, but it’s still advisable to be prepared for it. Better to be safe than sorry eh?

Batam bound

First time to Batam and I can’t believe how things turned out. It had been a spur-of-the-moment kinda thing…I initially wanted to go to Bali and went to ask the bros but only D and N could make it for that weekend. Cue hasty booking for a hotel room and itinerary planning even though it would be a 2d1n trip. The fact that it was my first time there also meant that I didn’t know what to expect. However I was adamant not to go on a tour as it was too boring. Fortunately, I was given a contact by a friend whose parents had hired him. Without knowing what it was like, I got in touch and we agreed on $130 for the 2 days.

Saturday dawned bright and I had felt tired due to a celebration the day before. We met for lunch and set off for Batam in Sindo Ferry.

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First glimpse of Batam

Upon reaching Batam, I found out that the guide had been waiting for us while holding up my name. His name was Johan and he was an Indonesian Chinese, thus he could speak English, Mandarin and Bahasa. We felt a little apprehensive but he warmed us up by asking about us. He even pointed out the church that my friend’s parents were working at since he noted how I had got to know him. We checked in the hotel which was quite underwhelming but it didn’t really matter since it was for a night. Johan wondered why we had chosen this since it was quite a distance from the main area.

Along the way we described what we wanted to do: see the sunset, eat seafood, shopping, massage and the visit to Barelang bridge. Right after we were done with the hotel he drove us all the way to Tanjung Pinggir to KTM Resort. Unfortunately the sky was cloudy and we resorted to just talking about life. For some reason locals could not enter the beach area and Johan had to wait for us. For dinner he drove us to this roadside seafood restaurant-the fact that he knew this place well meant that he could bring us to good and not necessarily crowded areas. We went to Nagoya Hill shopping centre and there he brought us to a massage parlor. We were really pleased with the effects even though we felt ticklish, and the masseurs laughed at our reactions. We also knew that J. Co donuts were selling cheap and we couldn’t believe it when it was only $8 for a dozen–twice as cheap in SG! We bought a box to eat back in the hotel.

The very next day we met Johan at 7am since he mentioned it was a long drive to the bridge. Luckily it was a Sunday and traffic wasn’t heavy.

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Street view

We finally reached it and sadly there was no sun again. Johan said that couples liked to go there at night and sit by the edge, and that people also committed suicide before.

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This is how close the edge was from the railing

It was a pretty view needless to say despite the sky.

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Iconic view

 

He then brought us to his friend’s dragon fruit farm and also said about how the area would be developed. Whatever it was it looked quite run-down.

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Dragon fruit plants-had no idea it looked like this!

Later on we had seafood for breakfast at a kelong restaurant[ Kopak Jaya 007]-like what were we thinking?! However the food were freshly caught from the water and it was the bomb. Seeing the once-live crayfish turned into black pepper ones was surreal. We chased the food down with refreshing coconut juice.

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Feast at 9am

Next we went shopping at a mall reminiscent of Bugis Street. We bought clothes which were selling cheap even though we noted the quality wasn’t that good. D became fashion adviser as we pondered what shirts looked well on us. After checking out of the hotel, Johan brought us to this nasi padang stall. Instead of the cai png style we were used to, the servers brought all the food they had to our table. We were therefore billed only on what we had eaten. There was also teh botol, a famous glass bottled tea. Need I mention that the food was sedaap?

We also wanted to bring back the famed kueh lapis and Johan actually offered to call his mother who would order for us. There was no need for him to do this but we were pleasantly surprised by it. In the end a guy delivered them to us and each box was only around $20. It wasn’t the usual Batam Layer Cake brand but a less well known one (Nusa 2 Cake and Snacks), but it still tasted heavenly. In the end we decided to tip him such that the total was $150. He dropped us off at Mega Mall [opposite Batam Centre ferry terminal] where we spent the rest of the time at the Timezone arcade. We returned very satisfied and even D agreed it was a unique trip. The fact that Johan drove us to the more obscure and less touristy places made the whole experience special-he even brought us to his friend’s phone shop where we bought phone covers on the cheap. This was certainly something not a tour group, nor anyone would be obliged to do.

A bit about traffic in Batam: it takes guts to drive well! The high volume of motorcycles meant that one had to be doubly careful of them, and the car drivers didn’t really care about traffic rules except at traffic lights. There didn’t seem to be any speed limit in the outskirts-we were hitting 100km/h on the Barelang road. For some reason motorcycles travel on the outer lane and cars go on the inner one. We did see street peddlers hawking their goods at traffic junctions, and Johan also bought a newspaper from such a person. Cars were mostly 90s Japanese cars-only once did I see a Mercedes and a Porsche. The terrain probably wasn’t kind to luxury vehicles.

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Ft. Johan’s 1990s Toyota Unser

What I treasured most was the times and conversations we had together. I felt inspired and though things didn’t turn out well in the end, I was grateful for the words of wisdom. The company you travel with really makes the difference.

One third down and I wonder how it started to flake off. Group dynamics are a mysterious thing–how did it happen to end up like that? I guess I’m too idealistic for good things to last, but really, I felt real and excited for the first time, even more than in school. Was I too slow to see where it was going? Or had I done something wrong? Either way, it pains me to feel the chill. It was a giant step for me to emerge from the ice, but I feel like retreating again.

I apologise if I was never good enough for everyone, but I’m deeply grateful for the times spent.

Too long since I got the courage to pen this down. I do admit that nothing lasts forever, but to see it potentially ending like that is so galling given the times we spent together and the money we actually spent. It took a while to get used to it since I wasn’t much of a spender, but I am still thankful for accepting me into the fold. It remains puzzling just how I did that.

All I feel is how fate seems to put certain things together. Getting to know you was a stroke of luck– same background and school, making it easier to share what had happened during school days. I need not mention being seated next to each other. I respected how you carried yourself through leadership positions and your vivacity. It was the life that I never had. The conversations we had really made me feel better about life. I may be getting too carried away–trying to get attention is never an easy task for me. But I hope we can get to trust each other more. Let God decide the future! I rarely open myself up except to people I really trust and I’m happy to say that you are one of them. Somehow you were able to pick up certain vibes in me, which I tried not to admit. Thank you for everything.

It has already been a month since I started to man the line and what a journey it has been. Till today, I still marvel at how a simple question of going out for lunch has made a difference in what I am experiencing now.

In the batch of 26, only G and myself were the only guys, so it was very natural to ask him where to go for lunch. His friend C asked me along with T and X and suddenly, I found myself in a group. This was quite comforting since most of the people there had mutual friends with them. It was also just luck that C had been sitting right behind me and we were in the same group for a discussion. C gradually won over J and Y , who had been sitting on the same row and hey presto, a group was formed. Sometimes it felt quite odd that I had butted in like that when the rest had friends before that, but this didn’t affect me that much. However, it did help that C was the glue that brought us together despite our different backgrounds.

I still find it hard to believe how we pulled off the mass leave taking without raising suspicions. It had been an impromptu thing, with C suggesting a BBQ during CNY. Somehow we agreed and there was much anxiety when some of our leave wasn’t approved. Yet all went well and we met at her house to discuss plans. The next day dawned clear and G managed to convince his parents to drive their car. It was one hell of a ride but we managed to reach our destinations. After the BBQ, we thought of watching a movie but there was no suitable timings, so we decided to sing karaoke on a whim.

Not to mention the lunches/dinners we had together, which I felt cemented us together over food. The way we wait for each other after work and complaining about our callers speaks volumes of how we look out for each other. I just hope that it will be a fitting end to our stints as well despite being in different departments!

Book review #7

It’s been a long time since I wrote a book review. The books I have read so far are entertaining but not really worth writing reflections about. However, lately I read Underground by Haruki Murakami, a series of interviews with the eyewitnesses of the 1995 Tokyo subway sarin gas attack and even Aum Shinrikyo members.

Murakami decided to write it after wondering what the people were feeling on the day of the attack. He wanted to ‘give them a face’, so in every interview, the people introduced their professions and some parts of their lives. Almost all of the people interviewed recalled that no one seemed to know what had happened–they did not put much thought on the sarin packets and thought that everyone had been suffering a cold. Train attendants even used newspapers to wipe up the toxic spills, treating it like typical rubbish. More shockingly, a contaminated train had been running for over an hour before it was pulled out of service. They only  expressed mild surprise despite seeing many people doubled over, still unable to grasp the intensity of the attack even though a similar one had occurred 2 years ago. Hospitals at that time were severely under-equipped to deal with something of such magnitude– the doctors were lacking in important vaccines and generally were caught out cold.

Interestingly, after the attack that targeted an important form of transportation for the Japanese, a few expressed that they would continue taking the subway since there was no other choice for them. Though the survivors did suffer emotionally, they remained pragmatic due to the need to support themselves. In an essay written by Murakami at the end of the book, he condemns the viciousness of the attack, but feels that the Japanese will need to analyse the underlying reasons behind it rather than consigning it to forgettable history. He laments how the Japanese are also inept in dealing with disasters, as evidenced in the Kobe earthquake a few months ago.

What I felt disturbing was the relative ease the attacks were carried out. The sarin had been made from scratch in an Aum Shinrikyo base, and the perpetrators released the toxin by puncturing the bags with umbrella tips. There have been instances of explosives hidden in drink cans and even pens. It would be disastrous if the inconspicuous terror weapon were released during rush hour on the MRT, or even a packed bus as it happened in the London bombings. Though our police and civil defense units have been well trained in exercises such as Northstar, there will definitely be mass panic when it becomes real, so it remains to be seen how our emergency responses would be. It would be plausible that people will start to put the SG flag on their Facebook profile pictures, as a form of admittedly unhelpful expression of solidarity. Amidst the outpouring of grief and anger, it is worth noting that Singaporeans will certainly react differently from the Japanese– it will be mentioned many times, many years down if an attack really happens.

Though the Japanese have been aware of Aum for quite some time, they did not expect them to carry something like this on such a magnitude. With the current threat of ISIS looming around the region, I believe we are more on guard due to the recent attacks on Paris. Yet, what if the aggressors are from people we do not expect [ie non-Muslims] ? How will we, and the international community react? A lone wolf who hates the world or someone with borderline schizophrenia? Will we be reduced to mutual suspicion, since anyone could now be scheming evil thoughts?

I may be digressing, but Murakami’s idea of documenting those caught up in the attack was very informative–it brings a unique identity to each of the victims. Instead of being relegated to a series of numbers, these unfortunate people are like us–with their dreams, joys and resignation.

Underground has helped me to understand how such a terror attack could have happened and how the Japanese were grossly ill-equipped to react to the events that followed. Though Singapore may be able to face against such events, the main source of concern would be how the people will digest such news and the impact it will have in the years to come.