In the grey area

An economics scholar's suggestion to start taxing the singles has highlighted a not so age-old problem

When economics lecturer Terdsak Chomtohsuwan suggested in all seriousness that singles should pay more tax _ bachelor's tax, as some may call it _ he became an object of ridicule, anger and criticism. Terdsak has been mocked in the social media ("Will the government help me find a husband/wife if they don't want me to stay single," is a common jibe), while critics attacked his idea as absurd, unfair and groundless.

But Terdsak wasn't joking when he floated the idea at a seminar earlier this month. While the plausibility of his proposition is yet to be explored and studied, his core message is not about bachelors _ or married couples with no children _ but about the country's worrying population trend and the problem of Thailand as an ageing society.

Illustration by Cosbisimages/Profile

The mockery seems to have missed this point and the gravity of the scenario. The so-called "bachelor's tax" would be a way to "subsidise senior citizens and to alleviate the burden of those who choose to bear children", Terdsak explained. "This is because the country is facing a labour shortage due to the increase in an ageing population and a decline in birth rate, which could lead to a stagnant economy and stretched healthcare schemes."

In fact, Thailand is already on the path to become an "aged society" _ and is likely to become a fully-fledged aged society by 2021.

Defined by the Institute for Population and Social Research of Mahidol University, an aged society means when people above the age of 60 account for more than 10% of the total population. When the rate grows to 20%, it is called a "complete aged society", and a "super-aged society" is when the figure approaches 30%.

According to the institute, the demography of Thai population suggest that there are about 9,601,280 of people above the age of 60, accounting for 14.8% of the total population of 64,673,839, as of Sept 13.

Meanwhile, Thai life expectancy at birth rose dramatically from about 50 in the 1950s to over 74 years today. And while the Thai birth rate was 12.8 per 1,000 population in 2012, it was 16.4 in 2002.

The country's birth rate has fallen as the new generation chooses to have smaller families. Well-educated women are likely to spend more years in university and concentrating on their career, while a growing number of women enjoy being single, not wanting the additional financial burden of raising a child.

The phenomenon of an increase in an ageing population and a decreasing birth rate means less people working and paying income tax, while more people tend to claim for healthcare costs.

In short, Terdsak's idea is taken out of context. The Rangsit University's lecturer's side of the story for dealing with the issue is to impose a levy on the unmarried _ the gist of his idea which is often overlooked by the seemingly illogical surface.

Terdsak explained in an interview that his concept would be a tool for the government to deal with possible structure budget deficit.

''At the same time, it would help spur fertile people to become aware of a decline in the birth rate and urge them to start a family,'' he added.

He explained that not all the unmarried would need to pay the tax.

The target group would be unmarried, high income earners. And he noted that the tax system always grants an exemption to certain people.

In fact, Thailand implemented a bachelor's tax in 1944 during World War II. An unmarried man who earned more than 960 baht a year had to pay 5 baht in tax or 10% of his taxable income, depending which was larger. But the scheme was scrapped after a year.

To put Terdsak's idea into action, however, the economist said more studies need to be done. Clarification of individuals who would be affected by the new tax structure is also a must.

He proposes five main feasible solutions to deal with the issue _ population demography, education, social welfare management, economic and resources management. But his remark about imposing a higher tax on the unmarried _ just one part of his overall plan _ caught fire and become the only one that sparked a controversy.

However, raising tax might not necessarily be a solution to the problems incurred by the ageing population.

Dr Sirintorn Chansirikarnjana, head of Geriatric Medicine from the Department of Medicine at Ramathibodi Hospital's Faculty of Medicine, pointed out that increased longevity will not necessarily lead to unsustainable healthcare expenditure. As long as senior citizens are in good health and are not physically and mentally disabled, extra years spent in later life would not be a burden on public spending.

''Increased longevity itself is not a problem,'' the doctor said. If age is measured by the state of health rather than calendar age, the biological age of a healthy body can be younger than the body's real age. A 70-year-old woman could be 60.

To help decrease dependency on their family members and the public healthcare system, the doctor encourages healthy living. ''That's something we all can do,'' she said.

End-of-life care that includes palliative care and hospice care, she pointed out, would not be a huge proportion of total healthcare expenditure. The care that can be given at a centre and at home usually requires less expense than suffering from chronic illnesses in a hospital.

The other way around that which could help reduce national healthcare spending and deal with the alarming number of senior citizens, Dr Sirintorn said, is to set up a support network of voluntary caregivers. Younger members are encouraged to look after their older family members, and are inspired to care, help or support friends, neighbours and others who have chronic illnesses or other problems related to old age or are physically disabled.

''It's about giving and taking. Caregivers for today will be receivers of care tomorrow. This support system would be ideal for our social context,'' she said.

She said she believes that many unmarried couples wish to have a baby but today's economic and social environment might not be conducive to having a baby and particularly raising a good child, and as a result some opt not to have any.

''Life is not easy these days,'' she said. ''A child is a lifelong commitment to a person who is innocent of this choice.

''Caring for a child takes a lot of physical and emotional energy. Importantly it requires a lot of quality time invested by the parents.''

''It's not reasonable for unmarried couples who have no children to be penalised by the state by having a tax hike imposed on them.''

It's great to have opinions, however, about how to deal with the increasing number of ageing people, the doctor said.

''Different ideas will be a matter to debate,'' she concluded.

Photo by Gettyimages/Thinkstock

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About the author

Writer: Sukhumaporn Laiyok
Position: Life reporter