I have nothing against people making money. Pandemic or otherwise, businesses have a right to make a profit as long as that profit is not one based on opportunistic profiteering.
The ongoing Corona Virus outbreak has seen a global surge in demand for ventilators. This surge in demand has in turn led to the net worth of Chairman Li Xiting, a Singapore citizen and the city-state’s richest man increasing by USD$3.5 billion (S$5 billion) in 2020.
According to Bloomberg’s Billionaires Index, as of the end of 2 April 2020, Li has a net worth of USD$12.5 billion (S$17.93 billion). While I am not suggesting that Li has done anything illegal or unethical, it is noteworthy that he has made a lot of money as a result of the pandemic.
Taxes in Singapore are not high and there is no inheritance tax in Singapore. With that in mind, does Li owe a moral duty to Singapore and indeed the wider world to donate some ventilators to the country in which he calls himself citizen and developing countries? Perhaps he has already done so but if not, I would urge him to do so.
Further, has he used his newfound wealth to increase the salaries of his workers who must no doubt be working round the clock to the meet the demand, putting their own lives at risk as the rest of the world works from home?
Singapore has been critical of small time dealers who have tried to make a quick buck by selling masks, toilet rolls and other sought after items online. Has it similarly tried to make sure that no corporations are cashing in on the pandemic? Given that Singapore already has such a competitive tax rate, it is even more imperative for us as a country to call on those who have benefited from that low tax to pay it forward. If not, it would be rather unfair to only penalise the small guys selling toilet roll on Carousell.
Nickkie Lu, a Bloomberg Intelligence analyst has opined that the ventilator boom will not continue indefinitely. Demand for breathing-support equipment will increase as more societies age, but not to the extent that the pandemic brings about: “Sales will definitely drop after the outbreak.” That said, it is not as if ventilators would no longer be needed after the pandemic is controlled. Using the more basic example of toilet roll – people may hoard it now but it is not as if people will stop wiping their bums once the pandemic is over?
In other words, ventilator manufacturers will always have a viable business and there is no need for them to push prices up (if they have) to meet demand out of fear that their product will no longer be required post pandemic.
Let me reiterate, I am not at all suggesting that Li has done anything unscrupulous. It is simply a reminder to all that businesses and individuals who have taken advantage of Singapore’s relatively low tax rates should now be encouraged by the government to help. It also cannot be one rule for the big corporations and one rule for the little guys. Is there currently legislation in place to ensure that companies or founders of companies who have benefited from Singapore’s tax rates do not increase their prices of medical equipment because of the pandemic?
If prices of medical equipment such as ventilators have been increased, the situation will be no different to the online toilet roll opportunists that the government has come down upon. In fact, I would venture to say that they are even worse! No one will die without toilet roll. Without a ventilator, however, lives could well be lost.