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The issue of tax compliance has been analysed over many years from different perspectives and recent works explore the perspective of personal moral values and their influence on taxpayers’ attitudes. Religiosity is one important dimension of one’s personal moral values. However, most studies look at religion as a whole and the real impact of a specific religion on tax compliance is hardly explained.

Our study aims to investigate the effects of religiosity on both voluntary and enforced tax compliance in two Muslim-majority countries, Malaysia and Turkey.

Religiosity and tax compliance

Religion plays an important role in shaping the lifestyle and the economic and social lives of individuals. The application of religious values, beliefs and rituals in a person’s daily life is defined as religiosity commitment (Worthington et al., 2003), which reflects the religiosity level of an individual.

The review of religiosity-related tax studies made by Pope & Mohdali (2010) shows that earlier studies have been more focused on the impact of religiosity on taxpayers’ negative attitudes while more recent studies examine the positive impact of religiosity on tax compliance. Overall, most of the studies have found that religiosity has a significant impact in preventing tax evasion or in encouraging tax compliance or tax morale.

However, the fact that religiosity-based tax compliance studies are scarce in number also reveals that this area has been neglected. Our study offers additional insights on this topic by comparing the effect of religiosity on tax compliance between two groups of taxpayers who live in different geographical locations but adhere to the same religion, to provide a better understanding of this issue.

Methodology

Data were collected using self-administered surveys distributed to individual taxpayers in both countries for all three variables – namely, religiosity, voluntary tax compliance and enforced tax compliance.

The level of religiosity for an individual was determined based on the score set by Worthington et al. (2003). The respondents were also required to indicate their attitudes regarding taxes, specifically, attitudes about complying with tax laws under voluntary and enforced circumstances, on a 5-point Likert scale. This is because tax compliance attitudes could be formed based on the underlying intention resulted from the interaction between taxpayers and authorities which leads to either a “well-accepted duty” (voluntary tax compliance) or an “onerous duty” (enforced tax compliance) (Kircher and Wahl, 2010).

In Malaysia, both salaried and self-employed taxpayers were included in the survey; in the Turkey study, however, the survey only comprised self-employed taxpayers.

Findings

A descriptive analysis was performed to understand the backgrounds of the respondents from both countries. The majority of the Malaysian respondents (approximately 80% of the total) had tertiary education. This stood in contrast with the respondents from Turkey, where high school prevailed as the highest education level. In regards to gender, the distribution between Malaysian respondents appeared to be even; for Turkish respondents, however, nearly all of the respondents were male. Most Malaysian and Turkish respondents were 25 to 44 years old (80% and 43%, respectively). However, the Turkish respondents appeared to be more even in all age groups when compared to the Malaysian respondents, of whom the youngest group was represented by only less than 2% of total respondents. This study focuses on Muslim individuals.

Both countries showed an inclination towards positive attitudes of complying with tax laws. There was no significant difference between the means for voluntary tax compliance and enforced tax compliance for both countries, although the mean for voluntary tax compliance for Malaysia (3.698) and Turkey (3.672) appeared to be higher than the mean of enforced tax compliance (Malaysia = 3.372 and Turkey = 3.348). A comparison of religiosity levels for both countries shows that the mean for highly religious people in Malaysia was slightly higher than for those in Turkey.

Overall, there seems to be a significant gap between people who are highly and less religious for both countries. The t-test findings indicate that taxpayers’ voluntary tax compliance attitudes show statistically significant differences between people who have different levels of religiosity for both countries. However, as for enforced tax compliance, there was no significant difference for Malaysian respondents with different levels of religiosity as shown in Table 1. This suggests that religious values are less likely to drive the Malaysian respondents to comply when tax laws are enforced.

Table 1: Comparison of tax compliance attitudes with religiosity levels between Malaysia and Turkey

Variable Country Religiosity Level Mean SD t Sig. (p)
Voluntary Tax Compliance Malaysia Low 3.539 0.643 -3.007 p < 0.01
High 3.791 0.616
Turkey Low 3.576 1.000 -1.266 p < 0.05
High 3.833 1.048
Enforced Tax Compliance Malaysia Low 3.301 0.608 -2.455 p = n.s.
High 3.414 0.704
Turkey Low 3.264 0.907 – 2.412 p < 0.05
High 3.488 0.898

Discussion

The study found a high tendency of voluntary tax compliance among individual taxpayers in both countries. This strong positive attitude may be a result of their tax systems.

In Malaysia, salaried individual taxpayers are subject to the Scheduled Tax Deductions (STD) scheme: a portion of the salary will be deducted by the employer on a monthly basis based on the estimated annual tax payment, and paid directly to the government. Since the majority of Malaysian respondents are salaried individuals, there is not much opportunity to avoid complying with tax laws.

Similarly, individual taxpayers in Turkey are mostly subject to a withholding tax. According to Article 94 of the Turkish Income Tax Code, all self-employed individuals who are required to withhold taxes need to report their true income. The withholding tax is applied on all kinds of payments and collections in relation to their business and services. In short, there is a similarity of tax systems between Malaysia and Turkey, where the lack of opportunity in avoiding taxes might shape the voluntary tax compliance attitudes of the respondents.

Highly religious people were found as showing a higher tendency for voluntary and enforced tax compliance, compared to less religious people for both countries. Notably, the mean for voluntary tax compliance appeared to be higher, compared to enforced tax compliance. Religiosity is found to have a significant influence on voluntary tax compliance in both countries. This finding may be explained based on the religious values held by the respondents, since religious values, regardless of religion, are expected to shape the attitudes and beliefs of individuals and drive their behaviour. In other words, religious values are considered a source of morality (Thornton & Camburn 1989).

However, religiosity is only found to be a significant predictor of enforced tax compliance in Turkey but not in Malaysia. This is probably because the majority of the Malaysian respondents are salaried taxpayers who have less opportunity to evade tax and hence tax laws seem to have minimal impact in shaping their tax compliance attitudes.

Conclusion

Our survey results for Malaysia and Turkey are in line with the majority of studies, which find that religiosity has a significant influence on tax compliance attitudes. This study also provides further insight that the religious commitment, which arises as a result of one’s beliefs and attitudes, can shape a taxpayer’s compliance behaviour. The findings from the comparative study of the two countries can offer an improved understanding of how people from different backgrounds, but with the same religious values, make tax compliance decisions.

The results yielded different findings for voluntary and enforced tax compliance: religiosity appears to play an important role in circumstances where one has an opportunity to avoid or evade taxes (voluntary tax compliance). This contrasts with the circumstances where one has less opportunity to avoid or evade tax (enforced tax compliance). In other words, even though religiosity seems to be an influential factor of tax compliance behaviour, in certain circumstances, it might appear to be irrelevant.

Despite its contribution, this study has its own limitations. Both religion and tax compliance are sensitive issues and there is a possibility that the respondents were not comfortable to disclose their true opinions on these issues. Further, the surveys assume that the inner values of all respondents are solely derived from the religious values, even though they could be derived from moral values and own principles without influence of religion. The fact that none of the Turkish taxpayers are salaried has further limited the analysis between the two groups of taxpayers.

Future research could be conducted on a comparative study of countries in different regions, to further understand the role of religiosity in influencing taxpayers’ compliance attitudes within different cultural backgrounds. In spite of these limitations, we hope to provide a better insight into taxpayers’ complex attitudes.

This blog post is summarised from Mohdali, R, S Benk, T Budak, K Mohd Isa & SH Yussof (2017), ‘A cross-cultural study on religiosity and tax compliance attitudes in Malaysia and Turkey’, eJournal of Tax Research, vol. 15, no. 3, pp. 490-505.

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