Singapore’s Crackdown: ‘Tip of the Iceberg’
Billions of hot money sloshing through banking system
By: John Berthelsen
The monumental crackdown on money laundering that began in Singapore on August 15, possibly triggered by the Chinese government in its Operation Fox Hunt campaign to reel in stolen money estimated so far at S$1 billion, is only a tiny fraction of the billions, perhaps trillions, of dollars hidden in the island republic's banks.
How far the scandal will go, and what effect it may have on the People’s Action Party which has dominated the government since 1959 is uncertain given the splintered and demoralized opposition, which has long been weakened by contempt and defamation suits brought in Singapore’s courts. Certainly, so far transparency plainly hasn’t applied to the banking system in Transparency International’s rankings, which placed Singapore fifth in the world for 2022. It appears to have required the Chinese, whose foreign minister Wang Yi visited earlier this month, to push Singaporean authorities into action.
But the presence of so much money sloshing through the banking system cannot have gone unnoticed. Whether this leads to reform, or whether authorities limit the damage to the Chinese suspects and leave the rest as business as usual, is another question. Singapore's banking and financial system have come under simultaneous attack and pressure from both the US and China in this regard. On August 9, UOB, a Singaporean MNC, announced it would cut ties with banks in Myanmar used as conduits for the Burmese junta to access the global financial system and evade western sanctions.
This development came shortly after a UN report named Singapore as a key hub for arms deals conducted by the Burmese junta, as well as a series of visits to Singapore in recent months by high-level US representatives including State Department Counselor Derek Chollet and senior sanctions coordination officials, who met with the Monetary Authority of Singapore and key Singaporean banks in April. On a visit in October 2021, Chollet tweeted about discussing with the MAS "ways to limit the Burmese military regime's access to overseas financial assets."
On March 17, 2009 – more than a decade ago – this reporter was present when the Burmese junta leader Thein Sein, the head of what was then one of the world’s most repressive and poverty-stricken countries, flew into Singapore for a ceremony in which an orchid was named for him in the island republic’s magnificent botanical gardens. Another was named for Thein Sein’s wife. The common wisdom in Singapore is that the orchid honor was bestowed because of the amount of money Myanmar’s generals had laundered out of their benighted country and deposited in Singapore’s banks.
Now Singapore’s largest money laundering bust rivals the 1MDB scandal, with the arrested targets all of Chinese origins and coming hot on the heels of Wang Yi's visit. This Chinese money laundering bust has shown that the country's financial institutions and professional services have not learned their lesson from the 1MDB saga. Once might be an accident. Twice cannot be down to mere ignorance or incompetence.
While the Singapore Police Force arrested 10 Chinese individuals on August 15 for their suspected involvement in this case, they are believed to represent only the tip of the iceberg for the true scale of the current money laundering operation. According to multiple reports by a Singapore Chinese-language newspaper Lianhe Zaobao on August 18, hundreds more Chinese mainlanders in a syndicate nicknamed the “Fujian Gang” may be involved, with another 60 local property agents also implicated and assisting with the investigations, a legal euphemism for being questioned.
On August 18, SPF announced that an additional 11 properties in Singapore had been frozen, bringing the total number of properties to 105. A day earlier, Bloomberg reported that Citi, a US bank, and CIMB, a Malaysian one, are among the financial institutions suspected of being used to launder money in this case.
“If the PAP regime is only able to discover money laundering and other criminal activity in our banks after outside and foreign pressure what does that say about us?” asked Kenneth Jeyaratnam, the secretary-general of the opposition Reform Party, on his Facebook page. “If we provide a warm welcome to very dirty businesses…then we can’t expect to escape without a stain on our ‘squeaky clean’ reputation. Meanwhile, the money laundering activity pushes up asset prices and makes property unaffordable for Singaporeans and of course car ownership as well.”
In an indication of just how much money is hidden in Singapore, in March 2019, Indonesia’s Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati asked the country’s Directorate General of Taxation to go after Indonesian wealth parked overseas, saying data indicate Indonesians had illegally moved Rp1.3 quadrillion (US$91.3 billion at then-prevailing rates) worth of assets outside of the country.
Most of it was in Singapore, as Asia Sentinel pointed out in an article titled “Indonesia’s Money Laundromat,” where 39,000 Indonesians were then said to be living. According to a 2014 Cornell University Southeast Asia Program study, total Indonesian money in Singapore at a minimum was US$93 billion. According to one study, however, as much as an astonishing US$380 billion had been spirited out of Indonesia alone – 40 percent of Singapore’s total banking receipts.
Among the other dictators, crooks, strongmen, and satraps who are believed to have deposits – or have had, according to other studies – in the Singaporean banking system are Zimbabwe’s former President Robert Mugabe, the late Philippine strongman Ferdinand Marcos, the jailed Taiwanese President Chen Shui Bian, the disgraced former French Budget Minister Jérôme Cahuzac, former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak and many more.
For decades, Indonesia has been in a half-hearted war to repatriate its money, at one point in 2007 blocking the delivery of Indonesian sand used to expand Singapore’s coastline in an effort to force the island nation to agree to an extradition treaty to get back bankers who stole US$13.5 billion from 48 ailing banks during the 1997-1998 Asian Financial Crisis and moved the money into Singaporean banks. They have never succeeded.
In the 2008 global financial meltdown, Indonesia’s Bank Century failed, with US$1.5 billion believed to have been allegedly stolen by the bank’s president, Robert Tantular, according to legal documents filed in Singapore and Mauritius. The Indonesian Bank Deposit Insurance Corporation, which is designed to provide an insurance cover for failing banks, allegedly poured in another US$750 million.
With global watchdogs increasingly cracking down on Switzerland, Singapore has become known as the go-to bolt hole for money flowing in from Cyprus, Russia, Dubai, and Qatar, according to investigators in London and the United States. It is an emerging destination for private wealth management – a code word for hidden money. Its banks are known as among the safest in the world. It has never had a bank failure, although it shut down two Swiss subsidiaries during the mess created by Malaysia’s huge 1Malaysia Development Bank scandal.
As authorities have put pressure on Swiss authorities to open the doors to the alpine nation’s bank records, Singapore has developed its banking secrecy laws to protect money flows, blocking regulations developed by the 36-country Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development on publication of bank customer information. According to a 2017 Boston Consulting Group report, these tight banking secrecy laws had attracted as much as US$1.1 trillion in foreign funds into the banking system.
The access to Singapore-based institutions by less-than-respectable money seems to have reached its apex with the long-running 1MDB scandal, during which now-deposed Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak and his confederate, Low Taek Jho, spirited billions of dollars through the Singaporean system. Najib famously moved US$681 million sent to him by Jho Low through the Kuala Lumpur-based Ambank in 2013, using part of the money to finance the successful 2013 election won by the Barisan Nasional, and then moved the remainder back out to subsidiaries of Swiss banks, both of which were suspended from doing business in Singapore.
Both China and the US have their own motivations for pressuring Singapore to clean up its financial act and move against entities designated by both countries for targeting. The global mood is rapidly turning against offshore tax havens and banking secrecy being used as a cloak for illicit financial hoarding of plundered/criminal funds in the post-Covid era of rising financial inequality, and the resultant increase in social unrest and political discord.
Singapore is already going to lose a major chunk of its international financial competitiveness once the US fully introduces the Global Minimum Corporate Tax Rate (GMCT), something heavily pushed by the Biden administration to achieve broadly similar aims as China: to curb MNCs from profit shifting for tax avoidance/evasion purposes. Now Singapore has shown that it is no longer as immune as it used to be to external pressure on its banking and financial institutions to do law enforcement on illicit funds sheltering within the country, or participate in sanctions against pariah states on the international stage by cutting off their avenues of tax evasion through the country.
Andy Wong Ming Jun contributed research for this article