SINGAPORE: Woodlands Checkpoint was extremely busy during evening peak hour on Thursday (Jan 18). Throughout the meandering lines of cars and motorcycles, drivers vented their frustrations with random, pointless honking and flashing lights.
The tension was palpable, with people wanting to navigate their way through as quickly as possible.
The situation was not helped when I told the auxiliary officer checking my car boot that I wanted to pay Goods and Services Tax (GST) on the groceries I bought during my afternoon trip to JB.
“Err … can I see your receipts please,” said the young man, after glancing at the three Tesco supermarket tote bags filled with fruit, sporting goods and baby milk powder. I knew that the total value of my shopping spree was RM590 (S$197.66) - more than the S$150 of goods I could bring back after less than 48 hours out of Singapore without paying GST.
I passed him the receipts before taking a cursory glance at the driver of the blue BMW next in line behind me. If looks could kill, I would have been dead instantly.
After about five minutes, the officer at the passport booth directed me to another officer who had magically appeared next to my car, talking into his walkie-talkie.
He motioned me to follow him to a separate area, before instructing me to park. “Don’t forget your wallet,” he said, pointing me to a Singapore Customs booth, where four or five people were already queueing.
A man in line told me he had bought a table from IKEA and “had no choice” but to declare it, while a woman in the queue looked exasperated. Her car boot was filled to the brim with white boxes and an officer told her: “Sorry I’m afraid I have to hand this over to the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA).”
After another ten minutes of standing in line, I was told that the GST due for my purchases amounted to S$3.20. I paid by NETS and was waved off by the officer with a brochure with information on duty-free concessions and GST tax relief.
All in all, it took me 20 minutes to pay for GST, on top of the usual 45-minute evening peak hour jam.
SOME SHOPPERS ADMIT TO EVADING GST
For some Singaporean grocery shoppers I spoke to at Tesco Extra Tebrau City earlier in the day, paying GST at the land checkpoints is too much of a hassle.
They admitted to sneaking in small-sized items such as groceries, handbags and wallets as they thought they would not get caught by officers at both the Woodlands and Tuas checkpoints.
A 49-year-old engineer, who wanted to be known only as Khalid, said that he would travel up to Johor Baru every week just to buy groceries in bulk for his family. He has never paid GST.
“It can cost up to RM600 (S$199) each time. I buy everything – detergent, fruits, vegetables, milk for the kids,” said Khalid.
“I know I have to pay GST but I have never got stopped before (at the Checkpoint). Maybe it’s because everything is relatively small and in plastic bags,” he said.
According to the Singapore Customs website, all goods brought into Singapore – including new items, souvenirs, gifts or food products – are subject to 7 per cent GST.
However, travellers can enjoy GST relief on goods meant for their personal use depending on the time spent away from Singapore. For travellers who are away for 48 hours or more, the value of goods granted for GST relief is S$600, with those out of the country for less than 48 hours subject to the lower threshold of S$150.
Singaporean shopper Kelvin Cheng, 28, told me he was aware that other shoppers use creative ways to avoid detection when sneaking in luxury items like handbags and wallets at Singapore's land checkpoints.
“I heard that some would remove the price tags and wear it on themselves to avoid detection,” he said.
But Mr Cheng said he is aware of the S$150 tax relief limit and would remember to pay GST, adding that the recent case of a 25-year-old woman getting arrested for failing to declare branded handbags and accessories worth S$11,000 purchased overseas was fresh in his mind.
“Cases like this are a reminder to declare. It’s just not worth breaking the law,” he added. “Especially if I’m bringing in goods in many bags, I would declare at customs and pay the tax. I am scared to get caught.”
Mr Cheng added that shopping with his wife allows the tax relief limit for them as a couple to be S$300.
"My wife travels with me, so the chances of us exceeding (the combined tax relief limit of) S$300 for our items is low," he said.
'IT WILL BE ON MY CONSCIENCE'
Like Mr Cheng, food and beverage business developer Muhammad Syahid Bin Ismail told Channel NewsAsia that he would declare to custom officers, especially when buying large quantities of grocery items, as well as home furniture.
“Sometimes we really had no choice to declare because the car was full of boxes. But we usually do no matter what. It will be on my conscience,” he said.
Last year, Mr Syahid spent about RM2,200 (S$734) in total for lights and fans for his new home in Pasir Ris, which amounted to around S$51 in GST.
“It’s still worth the hassle because we saved at least 50 per cent,” he said.
WANT TO AVOID DELAYS? USE THE APP, CUSTOMS AND ICA SAY
In response to queries from Channel NewsAsia, Singapore Customs and ICA explained in a joint statement that to make the GST payment process "seamless and hassle-free", travellers may use the Customs @SG mobile app.
"The mobile app allows travellers to declare and pay duties and GST anywhere and anytime before they arrive at the checkpoints in Singapore," they said.
"Once tax payment is successful, the app will create an e-receipt in the travellers’ mobile devices and travellers may exit the checkpoints via the Green Channel," ICA and Singapore Customs added. "If travellers are stopped for checks, they can show the e-receipts stored in their mobile devices as proof of payment to the officers.”
The Singaporean shoppers Channel NewsAsia spoke to on Thursday were not aware that the app existed.
Newlyweds Sharon and Paul Chia, who were doing their Chinese New Year shopping at Tebrau City, told Channel NewsAsia that knowing about the app would have saved them a lot of time.
"We brought back a plasma TV and sound system last month. We had to spend an hour queuing because of the massive jam during the holiday period," said Mrs Chia.
After learning about the app, Mr Khalid said that he will consider using it.
"I guess this makes (paying for GST) easier. And if they (authorities) step up enforcement checks at the checkpoints, it's a good tool to have," he said.