Money laundering: Banks in Singapore face the heat over accounts of tax evaders

SingaporeFinancial institutions in Singapore must identify accounts they suspect hold proceeds tax evasion. (Reuters)

Banks in Singapore are urgently scrutinising their account holders as an imminent deadline on stricter tax evasion measures forces them to decide whether to send some of their wealthiest clients packing.

The Southeast Asian city-state has grown into the world's fourth-biggest offshore financial centre but, with U.S. and European regulators on the hunt for tax cheats, the government is clamping down to forestall the kind of onslaught from foreign authorities that is now hitting Switzerland's banks.

Before July 1, all financial institutions in Singapore must identify accounts they strongly suspect hold proceeds of fraudulent or wilful tax evasion and, where necessary, close them. After that, handling the proceeds of tax crimes will be a criminal offence under changes to the city-state's anti-money laundering law.

"Because of banking secrecy, Singapore used to be an attractive place to put money if you didn't want the authorities back home to know about it," said Erik Wilgenhof Plante, head of compliance at Germany's DZ Privatbank in Singapore.

"That has left legacy problems for some banks."

Singapore officials have said the city-state's secrecy rules were aimed at safeguarding investors' legitimate interest in privacy and did not mean it was a haven for illicit funds. The tighter rules are intended to fall in line with new global standards announced last year that treat tax crimes as a money-laundering offence.

Bankers may now feel compelled to give up some of the lucrative accounts that have fuelled a boom in Singapore's assets under management to more than $1 trillion, with 50 percent growth in the five years to 2011, according to the latest government data.

But as the centre for managing wealth in fast-growing Asia, and with more millionaires per capita than any other country, Singapore's pain from the purge is likely to be short-lived and the gains long-lasting.

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