Law and Regulations

Singapore's unlawful money fight faces compliance challenges

Singapore's downtown central financial district.
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Singapore's fight to stem illicit fund inflows has shoved private bankers into a new quandary - finding enough qualified compliance specialists to ensure the money passing through their accounts is clean.

Like other wealth management centers around the world, Singapore is forcing banks to make more stringent checks on their clients as governments crack down on tax evasion and money laundering.

In Singapore, private bankers say extensive checks on the origin of their clients' money, tax status of those funds, whether they have political ties, and the reasons behind fund transfers all mean it could take up to three months to open a bank account. Five years ago, it would have taken just a week.

Compliance jobs were considered unattractive until a few years ago when the top dollar went to investment bankers and traders. Tougher regulations globally since the 2008 financial crisis have boosted demand for experienced compliance officers, who can get a pay raise of as much as 30 percent if they change companies, according to a Robert Walters survey this year.

"It's never easy to find the right people, and it's tougher than ever before - it's a war for talent as far as we are concerned," said Conrad Lim, deputy chief executive at LGT Bank (Singapore) and head of his bank's compliance department in Asia.

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Lim's compliance team has more than tripled in size over the last 10 years, but he is still looking to bring in more people as the bank's regulatory burden increases.

Overly onerous know-your-customer checks may lead to longer turnaround times or loss of clients, said Mark Wightman, Singapore-based partner for Wealth & Asset Management Advisory at EY.

But a softer approach may incur the wrath of regulators. The Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) said last week it issued nine warnings and reprimands in 2014 to financial institutions in Singapore for deficiencies in their anti-money laundering or counter-financing terrorism measures.

MAS did not identify the institutions, but said six banks were fined with penalties ranging from S$1,000 to S$700,000 ($512,632).

Earlier this month, the Wall Street Journal reported that Malaysian investigators had traced nearly $700 million in funds moving from Falcon Private Bank in Singapore into a bank account of Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak.

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Reuters could not verify the report, which cited documents from a government investigation. Najib has denied taking some $700 million for his personal gain.

Singapore's police force said last week it had frozen two bank accounts in relation to the probe. Zurich-headquartered Falcon said on July 16 it is co-operating with the MAS over the matter.

Past accusations

Singapore in the past had faced accusations from politicians in Europe that wealthy tax evaders were shifting their money to Southeast Asia as the veil of secrecy over Switzerland lifted.

Singapore has cooperated with other governments in the past in money laundering probes. In 2008 it helped Taiwan with an investigation into former Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian who was accused of moving money offshore via the Singapore bank accounts of a family member.

In April this year, MAS told banks they need to do extra screening of clients with political connections and more thorough checks to guard against money laundering.

MAS Managing Director Ravi Menon concedes banks have a tough time finding the people to do this type of work but said it is working with the industry to train more people in this field.

A European wealth manager said the number of people in his compliance department has more than doubled in the last three years. "We have been hiring like crazy."

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Some large banks like Credit Suisse are launching "grow-your-own" training programs in Singapore to expand the talent pool themselves.

"The competition for experienced professionals is fierce. The rapid growth of some markets is making it even harder to secure the right talent in this area," said Lito Camacho, vice chairman for Asia-Pacific and CEO Singapore at Credit Suisse.

The Thomson Reuters 2015 Cost of Compliance Survey, which polled nearly 600 compliance professionals, found 78 percent of respondents in Asia expected the cost of senior compliance staff to increase in 2015, higher than in Europe or the United States.

Financial institutions in Singapore have S$2.3 trillion ($1.7 trillion) in assets under management.