Dirty Money: Will Singapore Clean Up Its Act? Singapore has become an increasingly popular haven for money laundering and tax evasion. Can it be both a home for fortune hunters and a bastion of integrity?

11/01/2013 06:59 PM

Dirty Money: Will Singapore Clean Up Its Act?

By Martin Hesse

Singapore has become an increasingly popular haven for money laundering and tax evasion. But now it faces calls for reform and a difficult dilemma: Can it be both a home for fortune hunters and a bastion of integrity?

A yellowish-brown fog has settled in the urban canyons of Singapore’s financial district. From a skyscraper high above the harbor, you can hardly make out the endless rows of containers in the port terminals. A cloud of smog locally referred to as the “haze” — caused by the slash-and-burn farming methods of the palm oil barons in neighboring Indonesia — regularly darkens the skies of the wealthy city-state of Singapore, at the southern tip of the Malaysian Peninsula. But the air has never been as bad as it is now.Local critics see the haze as a symbol of how nearby filth has dirtied the city-state’s business model. The city-state has made itself dependent on global trade, the growth of Asia‘s rising economies and on the patronage of wealthy people from around the world, who use the discreet financial center as a hub and storage site for their riches.

And now Singapore faces a delicate conundrum: There have been recent signs of crisis in emerging economies like India and Indonesia, and Singapore is under growing pressure from Europe and the United States not to create unfair advantages for itself in the competition among tax havens.

Critical voices are rare in this country accustomed to success, which has almost no unemployment. It has grown steadily for many years in its role as a platform for global companies seeking to do business in Asia while paying little in taxes. The companies produce their goods in the surrounding countries, where production costs are lower.

Singapore’s Ambitious Plan

“Singapore’s strategic plan to secure its own future is extremely impressive,” says German Ambassador Angelika Viets. The cityscape has changed dramatically, with skyscrapers now packed together tightly where there was nothing but mud a few years ago. The government plans to bring large numbers of immigrants into the country by 2030, to prevent the over-aging of the population. It is even reclaiming land from the sea to create space for new buildings and more people than the current population of 5.4 million.

In Singapore, everything revolves around growth and consumption. When the haze arrived, so many Singaporeans logged onto the online shopping giant Amazon to order respirator masks the server crashed. “It shows how much purchasing power is developing here,” says Jimmy Koh of United Overseas Bank (UOB), a major Singaporean bank.

UOB is an example of what drives Singapore. It has geared its entire strategy toward growth in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), an organization made up of ten countries in the region, and the prosperous middle class taking shape there. Koh, who runs the bank’s investor relations department, is a strong proponent of this strategy.

The domestic market for Singaporean banks is very limited. “But by serving the ASEAN market, we expand our potential customer base from 5 to 500 million,” says Koh. Five years ago, UOB had 40 billion Singapore dollars (about €20 billion, or $27 billion) in assets under management. Today it has S$ 60 billion and in five years it is expected to grow to S$ 100 billion SGD.

Sketchy Money

The bruising recently sustained by established financial centers, like London, New York and Zurich, has benefitted Singapore and its banks. After major banks on Wall Street and the Thames were shaken by the financial crisis, many investors turned their attention to Asia. “We benefit from the flight to safety,” says Elbert Pattijn, the chief risk officer of DBS, the country’s largest bank. “Singapore has one of the most stable financial systems in the world,” Pattijn notes. And one of the most discreet.

When authorities in the United States and Europe began hunting down tax evaders in recent years and chipping away at Switzerland’s banking secrecy, many of the super-rich moved their assets to Singapore.

Whenever bankers like Pattijn are asked about possible illicit money from Europe, their answers are quick and mechanical. “We don’t want that kind of money,” Pattijn says. “We have no appetite for that.” But the revelations the emerged from Offshore Leaks — an April report by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists which revealed the details of 130,000 offshore accounts — put Singapore in a tight spot. The data trails of the report led directly to Singapore or, more specifically, to Temasek Boulevard.

The Fountain of Wealth, the world’s largest fountain, is a bronze monstrosity located on the boulevard and surrounded by five gray office buildings, the Suntec Towers. The firm Portcullis Trustnet has its headquarters there. Portcullis builds what amount to virtual catch basins for fountains of wealth, establishes trust companies and moves assets to tax shelters.

Portcullis Chairman David Chong sharply rejected the indirect accusation by the journalists behind the Offshore Leaks investigation that Portcullis helps tax evaders hide their money. In the spring, Chong declared that Portcullis strictly adheres to laws and regulations against money laundering and tax evasion, and that it doesn’t do business with people who may engage in those activities. He has been silent since then.

Cleaning Up Singapore’s Image

Now the Singapore government and the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) are taking a more aggressive approach to improving the city-state’s poor image. “There is nothing inherently wrong with opening a trust account,” says MAS Managing Director Ravi Menon, when asked about Portcullis. So far, he says, the examination of the Offshore Leaks data has not revealed any wrongdoing. “Our anti-money laundering rules apply to the trust companies as well as to the banks.”

Menon likes to portray himself as someone who hunts down tax evaders and those who help them. “It is a serious misperception that there is a large flow of European funds to Asian centers like Singapore,” says Menon. Tax attorneys tell a different story, but no one is willing to be quoted. The prestigious consulting firm BCG estimates that 14 percent of the roughly $1 trillion (€740 billion) in offshore assets under management in Singapore and Hong Kong comes from Europe.

In 2009, Singapore endorsed the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) tax standard on the automatic exchange of information and integrated it into all double taxation treaties. Since July 1 of this year, willful tax evasion and tax fraud have been designated predicate offenses for money laundering. In October 2011, the MAS instructed banks to ensure that existing customers were in compliance with the future standards. And last but not least, Singapore is about to conclude an inter-governmental agreement that will facilitate Singapore financial institutions’ compliance with the American FATCA law. FATCA would require banks in Singapore to automatically transmit the account data of American citizens to US authorities.

“In principle, we are prepared to enter into a discussion with the European Union over the automatic exchange of information as well,” says Menon. “In the long run, this could become the new standard.” For Manon, a level playing field and a strict implementation in all major jurisdictions are preconditions for enhanced information exchange. “Singapore is extremely anxious not to come under suspicion, because it depends on its good reputation as a financial center,” says Ambassador Viets.

Loopholes for Foreigners

But the new, stricter laws only apply to taxes the city-state collects. Singapore has neither inheritance nor capital gains taxes. This means that someone who manages to evade taxes by moving his or her German inheritance to Singapore will not necessarily be penalized.

The Singaporeans defend their system, always tenaciously and often from behind a charming smile. Take, for example, Yah Fang Chiam, who is responsible for tax policy in the Singapore Ministry of Finance. “We are not a tax shelter,” she says. “We have competitive tax rates, because we promote entrepreneurship and want to attract companies to invest here and continue to develop our economy.”

The country’s effective tax rates are lower than almost anywhere else in the world. The maximum tax rate is a mere 20 percent, and businesses pay a top rate of 17 percent, but there are quite a few exceptions.

And therein lays the contradiction: Singapore wants to be an attractive financial center while preserving its reputation as a corruption-free zone and remaining a level above pure tax shelters, like Nauru. The government under the ruling People’s Action Party is relentless when it comes to keeping streets, subways and parks spotlessly clean, but some question whether it is equally diligent about implementing the new laws on money laundering and tax evasion.

Gambling Mentality Persists

Kenneth Jeyaretnam is an economist and the secretary-general of the opposition Reform Party. In 1981, his father was the first opposition politician to enter the country’s parliament. “Singapore was always a tax haven, a parasite of the corrupt systems that surround it,” says Jeyaretnam. A German attorney in Singapore concurs, saying that large amounts of money from dubious sources in surrounding countries are deposited in Singapore. This is desired, politically, within the ASEAN region, he explains.

Singapore receives high notes in the rankings of the World Economic Forum’s annual Global Competitiveness Report, especially when it comes to legal certainty and fighting corruption. But some of the surrounding countries, like Indonesia, are at the other end of the scale.

The problem in Singapore, says Jeyaretnam, is that there is insufficient parliamentary scrutiny of the economy and monitoring of the implementation of anti-corruption laws. “Personal relationships are very important in business and politics in Singapore.”

The government and the economy are tightly interwoven, a relationship that is reinforced by the influence of powerful family clans, which have exerted substantial control in politics and in many companies for decades.

Jeyaretnam describes the country’s political and economic leadership as a closed system. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is the chairman of the GIC sovereign wealth fund, while his wife Ho Ching manages the second sovereign wealth fund, Temasek. As a major shareholder, Temasek dominates the largest Southeast Asian bank, DBS.

European Banks Break In

It’s not only sovereign wealth funds and domestic banks that have a close relationship with politicians. When the co-CEOs of Deutsche Bank, Anshu Jain and Jürgen Fitschen, held a board meeting in Singapore some time ago, they used the opportunity to cultivate their good relationship with Singapore President Tony Tan. Deutsche Bank employs more than 2,100 people in Singapore, and according to Offshore Leaks, it has used its Singapore operations to set up more than 300 trust companies and foundations in tax havens. Tan is an old acquaintance. Before he was elected president, he was a member of Deutsche Bank’s Asia-Pacific advisory board.

Singapore is trying to capture more trade in commodities, from oil to gas to gold – for which it is perfectly suited, given its status as a port city on the trade route between China and India. Shortly before their recent encounter with the president, the Frankfurt bankers had rented space for 200 tons of gold in the Singapore duty-free harbor. Wealthy Chinese and Indians were recently fired up about the precious metal, which is relatively cheap after a recent decline in prices, especially in Singapore. Last year, the government exempted the processing of gold and other precious metals from its Goods and Services Tax (GST), so as to attract a larger share of the trade in precious metals.

Wealthy foreigners prize the futuristic duty-free harbor at the airport, where they can buy and store gold duty-free and without paying taxes. UBS has also leased new space there and it’s ahead of Deutsche Bank in terms of cultivating relationships in Singapore. The GIC sovereign wealth fund holds a stake in UBS, and the bank’s former CFO, John Cryan, now works for the other Singapore fund, Temasek.

Asia Rises

Peter Kok, who runs UBS’s investment management office for wealthy customers in Singapore and Malaysia, is bored by the discussion of untaxed money that is allegedly being moved from Switzerland to Singapore. “To be honest, from our perspective Europe is hardly relevant to growth in our business,” Kok explains. UBS manages 210 billion Swiss francs (€170 billion) in Asia. Kok believes in this area his bank can achieve annual growth rates in the double digits. Currently the share of business originating in Europe is in the low single-digit percentage range, says Kok.

BetriebsCenter für Banken (BCB), a subsidiary of Germany’s Postbank, predicts that most of the new wealth invested across borders will be created in Asia in the next five years, and that the region will accumulate $1.4 trillion in new wealth during that time. This will benefit Singapore in particular. According to BCB, the city-state is likely to become the world’s second-most important offshore center, after Switzerland, by 2017.

But sometimes Kok, who is Dutch, becomes exasperated with his Asian customers’ more adventurous attitude towards investment. Where Europeans talk about spreading risk, the customers in Singapore are always asking for hot tips, says Kok. “Asians simply like to bet,” he adds.

Bigger Than the Titanic

Their penchant for gambling is on full display at the Marina Bay Casino and the Marina Bay Sands Hotel, the latter of which seems to epitomize Singapore’s dreams. It consists of three skyscrapers that support a ship-like structure, bigger than the Titanic and complete with a swimming pool and landscaping. The structure is immodestly referred to as the Skypark. Someone drinking an overpriced cocktail at the bar in the KuDeTa luxury restaurant can easily feel like they’ve conquered the financial world in the shimmering towers along the Singapore River.

In the casino some 200 meters below, the rich and beautiful mingle in the exclusive club area. Those still longing to get there are gambling on other floors, most of them dressed in flip-flops or sneakers, T-shirts and jeans.

At the roulette table, a balding Chinese man in an olive-green polo shirt buys 1,000 Singapore dollars worth of chips and places them in small stacks onto several numbers. The croupier throws the ball, which dances around the wheel until it comes to a stop on Red 25.

The Chinese man loses everything. He frowns for a moment before pulling out the next large bill. In real life, he runs a shop in Chinatown. “I love roulette,” he says. And he’s not alone — when it emerged that many government officials also love roulette, the government became nervous. Now it wants to supervise its employees more closely.

Large warning signs that read “Play responsibly” are posted in the middle of a sea of jingling slot machines, and baccarat, roulette and Black Jack tables. It is also the contradictory motto of a country that wants to be two things at the same time: A home for fortune hunters and a bastion of integrity.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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