I'm still a bit stunned about how easy the tax code treats celebrities, actors and entertainers, and how blase actress Chermarn Boonyasak seems to be about a fundamental duty of all citizens in the country.
To recap, Chermarn, better known as Ploy, last month had a public falling out with an event organiser on Facebook, posting that the company, Absolute For You, had failed to pay a 150,000-baht appearance fee.
She claimed that the company withheld 3% from her payment, and alleged that the understanding was that the appearance fee was separate from any tax liability.
But the company said the 3% withholding fee was made based on Chermarn's own information given to the firm, which called for making the payment to a 77-year-old man.
In fact, 5% should have been withheld under the law, but Absolute For You withheld just 3%, arguing that they calculated the fee based on the information provided.
Needless to say, the public outcry has been vocal and virulent, with many expressing outrage not just for Chermarn's questionable tax management practices, but also the very question on why entertainers should be subject to such a low tax rate in the first place.
After all, the large majority of people paying personal income tax are subject to withholding based on their existing tax bracket, with deductions and exemptions occurring much later when annual tax returns are filed. What disturbs me more is that Chermarn _ who for many represents an idol of sorts _ appears to have a questionable attitude towards the concept of civil duty.
Yes, she has since recanted, apologised and sworn to implement changes in her tax dealings. But first impressions are important.
It's interesting how different this case is to another recent episode involving a Thai celebrity. Nichkhun Horvejkul, a Thai-American member of the Korean boy band 2PM, was arrested in July for drink driving. He has been forced to all but ban himself from the public eye due to a massive backlash and apologise to his Korean fans.
It's clear that Korean society has a high degree of respect for the law. Consider that even Nichkhun's own family's posts to their son, urging him to stay strong amid his adversity, came under heavy attack from Koreans who took umbrage at the perception that the pop star and his family lacked true regret for actions and for the damage caused. I don't see many Thai stars banning themselves in contrition for their mistakes.
Finance Minister Kittiratt Na-Ranong, when asked about Thailand's tax system, said Thais are quite good at evading taxes.
It may be difficult to estimate how good. But consider that the Revenue Department has estimated that it could double the country's annual tax revenues within the next three or four years simply through more efficient tax collection and database systems tracking financial transactions through the economy.
This would push annual tax revenues to as much as 3 trillion baht per year, giving the state ample room to invest in new roads, schools, hospitals and social welfare programmes.
But I am uncertain whether increased enforcement alone is sufficient, considering the current mentality by many taxpayers, particularly small companies, that evading taxes is simply a game which must be played to stay competitive. After all, if one's neighbours cheat, why shouldn't I?
It remains to be seen whether Mr Kittiratt's policy to cut tax rates succeeds in encouraging companies to comply with the law. Corporate taxes, held at 30% for years, have fallen to 23% this year and are set to drop to 20% in 2013 under the policy aimed primarily to help Thai companies better compete with other countries in the region, but also to partly reduce the financial incentives for violating the tax laws.
A costly gamble for sure, considering that the tax cut has already cost the government 50 billion baht in corporate taxes this year alone. Honest businesses no doubt welcome the policy. For the dishonest however, paying 20% in tax still is higher than paying nothing.
Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst. I hope the government does approve the modest requests by Satit Rungkasiri, the director-general of the Revenue Department, to approve 2 billion baht in new IT investments to help strengthen its enforcement capabilities. Hoping that the public respects the law without fear of penalty is overoptimistic, utopian and simply foolish.
The rule of law will only have meaning if politicians, celebrities, business leaders and ordinary workers are all treated equally within society, as Thai citizens each with similar responsibilities to the country.
Wichit Chantanusornsiri is a senior business reporter.