Faculty Feature

Associate Professor Stephen Phua:
Of Passion and Taxes

Stephen Phua ’88 teaches Income Tax, Goods and Services Tax, Corporate Taxation, International Tax and Business & Finance for Lawyers at NUS Law. He is a consultant with the Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore (IRAS) and an examiner with the Chartered Institute of Taxation in London. He is also an Eastern Scholar, and a Visiting Professor at the International Law School of East China University of Law and Politics in Shanghai. He is a member of Indonesia National Trade Repository, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, and is a programme advisor to the International Tax and Investment Center in Washington DC.

He was a visiting scholar and professor to several leading universities in Australia, Canada, China, Japan and the USA. He was a member of the Tax Advisory Group in Ministry of Finance. He served as a member for more than a decade on each one of the three tax tribunals in Singapore (Income Tax Board of Review, Goods and Services Tax Board of Review and Valuation Review Board). Prior to joining IRAS, he was a tax consultant in a leading law firm in Singapore.


What made you decide to specialise in tax law?

I have always been interested in the economic foundations of state governance. Taxation is the oldest and remains a mainstay of modern public finance. Yet, it is not economically intuitive that a legal system designed to extract private property for public purposes could enjoy universal acceptance by subjects in virtually every civilization.

Ultimately, taxation laws express the collective will of different societies through unique blends of policy choices in socio-economics and pragmatism. Yet, the socio-political values that underpin a need to advance public interests without undermining private incentive would necessarily have to evolve to remain relevant over time and changing circumstances. In this respect, I am particularly fascinated by the dynamism in the operation of tax laws despite the inherent tensions from competing, if not conflicting, interests. The other area of law that elicits a similar struggle is the criminal justice system.


What have been some of the highlights of your career?

It has been a source of great accomplishment to see batches of former students empowered by a working knowledge of tax law to become better corporate lawyers or to devote an entire career specialising in tax law or compliance. It also gives me a great sense of pride that many have excelled and are leaders in their respective field of tax practice.

Having become more active in tax practice over the last 10 years, I have come appreciate the beneficial impact client work has had on my teaching methodologies. Often, I found the practical issues and challenges encountered by clients and tax authorities beyond the contemplation of parliamentary drafters as well as scholars. Engagement in such work offers invaluable perspectives and enhances the technical rigour of my understanding of rules and characterisation of tax issues. Teaching is as noble as it is humbling.

Last, the opportunity to participate as a member of the boards of review for over three decades was a great privilege and honour. The most difficult and delicate aspect of my involvement in taxation is not teaching or practice but the determination of outcomes in disputes. As the standards of our tax administration and taxpayer compliance culture in Singapore are very high by international standards, the relatively few differences in views that ultimately reach the courts for adjudication are rarely straightforward.



What are some of the most challenging areas within tax law?

Tax laws can be technically very challenging when the provisions are either overly complex or too general. When it is too complex, there is an increased risk of non-compliance or unintended consequences in its application. When it is too general and broad, sometimes it may impair the desirable level of certainty in transactional outcomes.


During your time in NUS Law, you also helped establish the Center for International Tax Law in East China University of Political Science and Law in Shanghai, can you tell us more about your work there?

I was the first Singapore citizen to be appointed an Eastern Scholar by the Government of the Shanghai Municipality in 2011. The appointment was for the specific task of assisting in the capacity building of international tax resources in Shanghai. In that role, I set up the centre to promote research and teaching in international tax issues. Besides the usual research publications and conferences, the centre also raised funds from the private sector to support regular international tax essay writing competitions for young scholars from all over the world.


What would you advise students who hope to specialise in tax law?

Like all other areas, the practice of tax law requires an enduring passion and devotion. In particular, there are rapid and frequent changes in every domestic tax system, and every tax practitioner is expected to be aware of developments elsewhere as the Singapore economy is essentially a hub for international finance, trade and investments.