India’s neighbours: The journey to becoming a tax professional
Tax specialists from Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal discuss the challenging tax world of their nations, and offer advice to aspiring professionals in the industry.
Tasnim Alam from Bangladesh knows exactly how tax plays a pivotal role in the development of a country and the wellbeing of its people. In his role as deputy commissioner of taxes at the National Board of Revenue (NBR), he splits his time between combatting tax evasion and money laundering, and drafting and suggesting new tax policy.
The journey to serve his country has been augmented by an appreciation for global values. After completing an MBA in marketing from the University of Dhaka, Tasnim spent almost seven important years within Bangladesh's NBR, Ministry of Finance, specialising in areas including drafting tax policy, tax recovery and transfer pricing. Following a master's degree on the global economy from the University of Glasgow, and an extended research stint at Kyoto University, he re-joined his government role for a new challenge. In 2020, he was named on a prestigious list of the 35 tax global leaders of the future.
Serving the country
Tasnim credits his interest in economic history and political economy as a key driving factor for his decision to initially pursue a career in tax.
"The anthropological legacy of taxation in the Indian subcontinent refers back to ancient books like 'Manusmriti' and 'Arthashastra'," he tells ITR. "With the advent of the Mughals, this region witnessed a sea of change in its taxation system. Tax was then introduced for the first time in the 1860s, in order to meet the losses sustained by the British Raj on account of the mutiny of 1857."
Tasnim adds that his patriotism – and the desire to see his country become more economically developed – prompted him to pursue a career in tax-related policymaking.
Bangladesh celebrates 50 years of independence in 2021. In February, the United Nations Committee for Development Policy recommended that Bangladesh is moved up from its status as a 'least developed country' (LDC), after it successfully fulfilled the eligibility criteria in terms of per capita income, human resources and economic vulnerability. Through national strategic plans such as Vision 2041 and a positive economic growth approach, Bangladesh is resolutely moving away from foreign grants, and is increasingly becoming self-reliant by building its internal revenue generating capacity.
"After independence, Bangladesh observed many political struggles and one such incident happened during my undergraduate days," Tasnim recalls. "To bring any sort of change to economic policy and systems, I knew that I would have to contribute in the bureaucratic system by joining the civil service."
The next generation
He notes that there is a renaissance of students aspiring to become civil servants in Bangladesh. Young tax attorneys – in their role as an assistant commissioner of tax – are expected to go through fundamental training at the tax academy in Dhaka and another multidisciplinary training at the Bangladesh Public Administration Training Centre.
"These can help provide academic knowledge. However, the real practical challenge is understanding the business environment," adds Tasnim. "The challenge to provide proper judgment of tax justice through knowledge and wisdom, comes with guidance and experience."
Tasnim urges aspiring tax professionals to supplement their knowledge of domestic tax law with international case studies from across the world.
"This will be an added advantage for the experience of working in developing countries," he adds.
Looking forward, Tasnim calls out two global taxation issues to contemplate. He suggests that guidance on digital services tax, and legislation surrounding cryptocurrency are long due in Bangladesh.
He also mentions that tax professionals, practitioners and investors can look forward to the impending arrival of a new law that will encourage sustainable economic development. He suggests that the law would help align the country's economy with the UN's Sustainable Development Goals and the Vision 2041 plan.
"I am one of the members of the legislative drafting committee of the NBR, who has worked relentlessly to prepare the draft which will support the modern revenue system," reveals Tasnim.
"The NBR is committed to introducing interactive, online-based taxation solutions and business processes for stakeholders, which will complement the inclusive economic integration of business sectors within the financial services."
Pema Jamtsho from Bhutan enjoys exploring concepts on a global and macroeconomic scale – a feature that has helped him through his first decade in the working world of tax.
"At a policy level, tax is an instrument which could be used to achieve social, political, as well as economic mandates globally", he tells ITR. "It is one of the most tabled discussions and has global forums like the OECD and the IBFD."
With international experience from India and Japan, Pema serves as a deputy collector of income tax within Bhutan's Ministry of Finance. In his role, he splits his time between auditing income tax returns, preparing collection reports and revenue forecasts, and reviewing tax policies and guidance.
The significance of tax
Excited by subjects such as economics and finance at university, Pema initially expected to pursue a career in a financial institution or the central bank, with little knowledge that a career in taxation would eventually come calling.
"Due to circumstances at the time, I ended up taking the civil service examination and being selected. From there, I landed my career in the government organisation as an officer."
When given the choice of a department to join, Pema opted to work for the Ministry of Finance, in a decision influenced by his preferred area of interests. He later chose to specialise in taxation after having garnered a liking for the area of accounting.
Pema states that the 'world of tax' grew on him as he began to appreciate the significance of tax matters at a domestic and global level. He mentions that he became intrigued by finding out more on how tax plays an important role in achieving the developmental mandates of a country, as well as the policies of countries as a whole.
"After a few years in taxation, I slowly understood the significance of the tax profession in achieving domestic tax revenue targets, which is an indispensable aspect of public finance," notes Pema.
"Through my engagement in international tax seminars, I came to know that taxes and its scope expands beyond domestic borders and plays an important role in international business, investments, movement and control of goods, and economic activities."
Pema holds a bachelor's degree in economics from the prestigious Sherubtse College, a branch of the Royal University of Bhutan. After deciding to focus on a career in tax, he pursued a postgraduate diploma in business law from the National Academy of Direct Taxes in Nagpur, India, and is currently completing a further master's degree in tax policy and management from Keio University in Japan.
"Through my experiences, I can say that in order to become a tax professional, one must have adequate knowledge in the areas of finance, accountancy and economics," notes Pema. "One must also have the maturity to relate your subject knowledge with work, and one must be tutored under senior officials, teams and peers."
Pema also stresses the importance of having knowledge of legal frameworks and jurisprudence, as well as having the right aptitude and attitude to learn. In addition, he emphasises that platforms like training programmes and knowledge-sharing seminars and workshops can also help build competency.
"One may not be so lucky to acquire those aspects, so easily", he adds. "It takes years of hard work and consistency in learning to reach the pinnacle."
"My advice for young tax professionals in Bhutan would be to stay determined and to present yourself forward in taking up challenges. In short, one should have a positive mindset, determination and consistent effort to learn and excel, which will lead them to achieve their mandates."
At an international level, technological advancement has increasingly reshaped how economic activities are conducted and this has persistently prompted the reworking of tax policies and rules. The rise of online businesses, the flow of digital goods and services, base erosion and profit shifting, and the operation of a shadow economy, are major issues that tax policy needs to increasingly tackle and reach a consensus on.
In contrast, Bhutan's journey of taxation and its policies rarely embark or emphasise much on these pertinent issues concerning international taxes. Pema sees that it is of paramount importance for Bhutan to understand these complexities involved in global taxation.
Bhutan has seen a growth of foreign direct investment (FDI) in the tourism and hospitality industries, and may see further FDI and joint ventures in other forms of business in the years to come. Therefore, issues related to international taxation will not be an exception for Bhutan and the country needs to be prepared.
"The threat from the digital economy is eminent for small economies like Bhutan as well," warns Pema.
"In order for the tax administration to be ready for global tax issues, I wish to promulgate the importance of international taxation to the tax department and engage Bhutan into signing double tax agreements, multilateral tax treaties and prepare an exchange of information regime", he states.
"This will ensure that international tax issues concerning Bhutan can also be dealt and addressed multilaterally or bilaterally."
Kaushlendra Kumar Jha from Nepal is fast approaching two decades as a tax professional. Having spent his career working on tax strategies and management for government agencies and multinational enterprises, he now has greater national goals in plan.
Kaushlendra completed his early education at Tribhuvan Vishwavidalaya in Nepal, before moving to pursue a degree in commerce at Magadh University in Bodh Gaya, India. He stayed on to qualify as a chartered accountant in India, where he continued to work in various tax, audit and consultancy practices for eight years.
Today, alongside his commitments as the managing partner of JKK & Associates, he runs JKK Foundation, an organisation which aims to promote youth empowerment through positive socio-economic programmes. He also regularly works as a corporate trainer, motivator and career guide for aspiring Nepalese professionals.
"The country is landlocked, but no opportunity is locked in today's open global economy," he tells ITR.
"As the famous saying goes – 'nothing is certain, except death and taxes'. It is impossible for anybody to escape from its clasp," quips Kaushlendra, when asked about his reason for taking on a career in tax.
In 2013, after 14 years away, he returned to Nepal with the purpose of contributing to the progressing field of taxation.
Kaushlendra admits that there is a lot of development to be done in Nepal – both in terms of tax and financial performance – as it looks to graduate from the 'least developed country' (LDC) category status given by the United Nations. He adds that the notion of 'brain drain' affects the country and stunts potential economic growth.
"The most talented resources of Nepal are often attracted to go towards Europe, or other developed nations, for their higher education and career," he notes. "It is a promising option for their careers but not from the perspective of serving their nation".
Kaushlendra suggests that Nepal's tax system reflects the socio-economic structure of the country.
"Nepal, which is slowly moving in the path of achieving sustainable development, can achieve its targets only through the implementation of a proper fiscal policy," he notes. "Taxation is the major component of fiscal policy which will have a wide-reaching implication."
Apart from local taxes, the major federal taxes of Nepal encompasses income tax as direct tax, and VAT, custom and excise duty as indirect tax. Tax professionals play a vital role in the implementation of the tax system and act as a catalyst between the government and taxpayers. Tax professionals can help the government in the collection of taxes, while protecting taxpayers from unnecessary litigation and assisting them in policy formation.
Kaushlendra states that the tax profession itself has its own challenges, which becomes tougher to solve in countries that are yet to achieve international standards.
"It is actually pretty good news for the nation that young faces are increasingly enrolling in the tax profession, but in some cases they are doomed by the challenges faced at the very onset," he warns. "This needs to be overcome by having a grip over charging, collection and the litigation aspects of taxation."
Some of the major challenges that young tax professionals in Nepal face include interpretational issues as statutes are often in the Nepalese language, security concerns involving client data, and general problems associated with the low-level of available technology resources. Kaushlendra also adds that there is a notable lack of strong tax framework and laws in place related to litigation and cross-border tax matters.
He calls for aspiring Nepalese tax professionals to help undertake a positive transformation of the system.
"Young, energetic faces need to understand how tax laws operate with various business models, be aware of double tax agreements with Nepal's top trading and investing partners, and develop interpretational skills with international tax statutes," says Kaushlendra.
"They also need a strong knowledge of tax laws and good interpersonal skills that can help them with tax planning, preparations, filings, clearances, and concluding tax litigations."
Kaushlendra states that the government, despite announcements, has yet to actively undertake work for the growth of a 'clean, transparent and technology-friendly tax administration' focusing on development, prosperity and good governance. He feels that this will provide every tax professional with the extra impetus to drive the system towards an international standard.
Support from authorities
In the present context of globalisation, an alarming issue in Nepal relates to international taxation policy, principles and practices. It is a major tool for corporate tax avoidance which has contributed to the evolution of the BEPS project by the OECD.
"Nepal is witnessing a number of cross-border business transactions of goods and services due to the presence of various multinational enterprises and the globalisation of the economy," notes Kaushlendra.
However, he feels that there is a need for the authorities to be wary of the high rise in cases of base erosion and profit shifting in Nepal.
"The government has to check the availability of tools to achieve the goals of avoiding double taxation and non-taxation. Some concepts to consider, among others, include the matters of source country versus residence country, taxable subject verses taxable object, and juridical double taxation versus economic double taxation," he summarises.
"Converges in acts, rules, manuals, circulars, specific guidelines, and trained income tax officials definitely the need attention of the government," says Kaushlendra. "This is in order to come into pace with global business development and for the development of a sound taxation system for economic growth vehicles of the country."
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