Tax and Covid-19 Part 3

As countries all around the world are slowly opening up their economies amidst declining Covid-19 infection rates, economies nevertheless already have irreparable damage done. At the time of writing, more than 100 hotels have closed down nationwide and well-known names such as MPH, Microsoft and Speedy are scaling down operations.

This post is part of the “Tax and Covid-19” series which serves to provide informative expository of the Covid-19 pandemic on taxpayers affairs. Part 1 addresses potential issues arising from Covid-19 related expenses and Part 2 relates to incentives under the PENJANA scheme. Part 3 now intends to explore the topic of the tax treatment of certain types of income.

** Please note that the deadline for submission of personal tax for YA 2019 is 30 June 2020. Please do file your taxes 🙂

1. Income from the release of bad debt

In challenging times, companies may not have the financial ability to repay sums owed to creditors and occasionally, as a sign of goodwill or due to special relationship between the debtor and creditor, the creditor may write off the debt owed. Whether or not writing off bad debt is a deductible expense had been discussed in Part 1 here, whilst now we deal with the tax treatment of the debt in the hands of the recipient.

As a matter of general principle, release of bad debts is taxable in the hands of the recipient. In dealing with the question of whether the debt ought to be taxed, taxpayers are guided by the principles in Section 34(2) of the Income Tax Act 1967 (“the Act”) which provides that a release of bad debts are to be taxed when:-

        1. The taxpayer had taken a tax deduction under Section 33 of the Act against the taxpayer’s business income; or
        2. The taxpayer had claimed capital allowances under Section 42 and Schedule 3 of the Act.

Where the release of bad debts does not fall into either of the categories above, the release of bad debt is arguably not taxable in the hands of the recipient.

In the case of Felda Trading Sdn Bhd v. KPHDN (“Felda Trading”), the court held that the release of bad debt owing to the holding company was taxable because it was “gains or profits from a business” under Section 4(a) of the Act. In this case, the holding company lent money to the taxpayer to settle debts owing to trade creditors and therefore the Special Commissioners of Income Tax (“SCIT”) considered it to be “gains or profits from a business”.

With respect, the Special Commissioners’ decision is flawed because the governing provision used to bring the release of debt was Section 4(a) and not Section 34(2).

As mentioned above, the governing provision to tax release of debt is canvassed in Section 34(2) of the Act. It is further stressed that this is the only section which addresses the release of debt. Therefore, in applying the interpretation principle of generalia specialibus non derogant, the Special Commissioners ought to have applied Section 34(2) instead of Section 4(a). Further reading on the matter can be found here (spoiler: the decision would’ve been different.)

However, in Bandar Nusajaya Development v KPHDN, the Court of Appeal agreed that the waiver of interest expense for loans taken by the taxpayer against its non-business income was not taxable. The Court relied on, inter alia, the fact that Section 30(4) was the only section which addresses the release of debts and the said section did not envisage that a release of debts against the taxpayer’s non-business income is taxable.

Although the Federal Court subsequently overturned the decision on point of judicial review and had the matter was referred back to the SCIT, this point of law still stands.

2. Income from compensation payments

Whilst Part 1 of the series discusses whether early termination payments/compensations payments are deductible, we now turn to whether they are taxable.

Compensation payments received in the course of business are taxable. Examples include compensation payments made to terminate a business contract prematurely, damages for any breaches of contract or damages to replace profits are revenue in nature and are taxable. In contrast, compensation made due to destruction of a profit-making apparatus and sale of rights are capital.

In the landmark case of Van den Bergh v Clark (Van den Bergh”), compensation payments made to terminate a contract was held to be capital in nature. The taxpayer, in this case, was in the business of manufacturing margarine and similar products. The taxpayer entered into an agreement with a Dutch competitor to work in friendly alliance, inter alia, to share profits, not to compete, territories and ancillary matters. Payments to each other under the contract was treated as revenue for income tax purposes at all material times. Owing to war and other difficulties, the parties were in dispute over the alleged payment ought to be made. The Dutch company wanted to terminate the contract but the taxpayer, who was in disadvantaged, refused to terminate unless £450,000 was paid. The Dutch company paid the sums on the condition, amongst others, that the sums represent final payment of all outstanding claims and there would be no counterclaim.

The taxpayer was assessed on the £450,000 received in income tax. The General Commissioners found that the sums were in relation to “pooling arrangements” and must be brought in for the purpose of arriving at the balance of taxable profits and gains. On appeal to the House of Lords, the sums were held to be capital in nature.

The House of Lords took note of the following:

          1. The taxpayers were giving up their rights under the agreements for thirteen years ahead. The agreements were not ordinary commercial contracts made in the course of carrying on their trade but the agreements related to the whole structure of the taxpayer’s profit-making apparatus.
          2. The contract controlled how the taxpayers conducted their business.
          3. The contracts provided the means of making profits, but by themselves did not yield profits. The profits arose from manufacturing and dealing in margarine.

In Malaysia, we have imported Van Den Bergh in the case of MSE Sdn Bhd v Ketua Pengarah Hasil Dalam Negeri and Toxicol Sdn Bhd v KPHDN (“Toxicol”). The latter, being higher in authority, will be discussed.

In Toxicol, the taxpayer entered into a contract with Kualiti Alam Sdn Bhd where Toxicol was to be a special purpose vehicle whose only obligation is to carry out obligations under the contract and is not allowed trade with any other businesses. There was a change in UEM management which frustrated the taxpayer and thereafter, entered a novation agreement to transfer all its rights to a transferee. In return, Toxicol was paid a sum of RM23mil. The bone of contention was whether the RM23mil was revenue or capital in nature.

In holding that the compensation payment was capital in nature, the court held that the novation agreement fundamentally crippled the whole structure as Toxicol could not be involved in Waste Management anymore as it was incorporated solely for the purposes of Waste Management. The taxpayer was also not in the business of selling contracts. The novation contract essentially destroyed the taxpayer’s profit-making apparatus and hence was capital in nature.

Therefore, the cases illustrated the fundamental understanding that if the compensation payments were made pursuant to the termination of a contract which materially affects the taxpayer’s profit-making structure, it is capital. Where the taxpayer is able to absorb the shock of termination, it is incident to the taxpayer’s business only had a minor impact, it is arguably revenue.

On the employment side of things, compensation payment for termination of service contracts is taxable. However, Para 15 Schedule 6 of the Act gives an exemption of RM10,000 for each completed year of service with the company or companies in the same group.

3. Income from government subsidies

Under the PRIHATIN Stimulus+ Package, the federal government introduced the wage subsidy program to encourage companies to retain employees and assist in overhead costs burden. The subsidy comes within the purview of the Income Tax (Exemption) (No. 22) Order 2006 (P.U.(A) 207/2006) (“the Order”) which exempts from tax subsidies given from the government but corresponding deduction/capital allowance for expenses incurred are allowed.

Although the application seems straight forward, taxpayers are reminded to always comply with the requirements to qualify for the wage subsidy and maintain adequate documentation.

Till date, the only case which dealt with the Order substantially is Chantika Kelang Beras Sdn Bhd v Ketua Pengarah Hasil Dalam Negeri. In this instant case, the taxpayer was in the business of rice miller. The taxpayer received a subsidy from the Ministry of Agriculture & Agro-Based Industry Malaysia for rice and paddy seedling. However, the taxpayer mistakenly declared the subsidy as part of the taxpayer’s income. The taxpayer then applied for relief under Section 131(1) of the Act but was denied.

In agreeing with the IRB, the SCIT and the High Court took the view that the taxpayer was not the targeted group as the subsidy was given to paddy farmers to purchase good quality paddy seedlings at a subsidised priced rice at ceiling price. Rice millers were therefore not part of the targeted audience.

On appeal to the Court of Appeal (no written judgment), the decision was overturned. There was no room for intendment that the Order did not apply to the taxpayer because it was not a condition contained within the provision of the subsidy that it was intended for paddy farmers only. The MOA will pay the subsidy after inspecting the taxpayer’s premises to confirm that it met their conditions. Only when the MOA was satisfied that the taxpayer met their conditions and would the subsidy be released.

Therefore, taxpayers are reminded to maintain adequate documentary evidence of the factors which would affect their claim under the Wage Subsidy Program such as the number of employees, the amount of income of each employee and the (mandatory) at least 50% fall in revenue.

Conclusion

The debate of whether an income is revenue or capital in nature is subjective and is often highly dependent on the facts of the case. To prevent ambiguity, parties should record the intentions of the party at time the contract was made in clear and unequivocal language (Lower Perak Cooperative Housing Society Bhd v KPHDN).

Author: sophiachoy

Dispute resolution by day, drafting recipes by night. Talk to me about tax at choycaiying@gmail.com.

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