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Billion-dollar money laundering case: Singapore police began ‘comprehensive intelligence probe’ in early 2022

SINGAPORE: In early 2022, Singapore police acted on tip-offs regarding various suspicious activities and launched a “comprehensive, coordinated intelligence probe” into what would eventually become a massive, transnational billion-dollar money laundering case, said Second Minister for Home Affairs Josephine Teo in parliament on Tuesday (Oct 3).

The work initially was kept to a “very small group” of officers to avoid alerting the suspects. The officers’ aim was to investigate extensively and develop as full a picture as possible before making any move.

This led to the arrests of 10 foreigners in simultaneous raids across Singapore on Aug 15, Mrs Teo told the House in an update on the case.

Since it first emerged in the public eye, the value of assets seized or frozen has snowballed to over S$2.8 billion (US$2.03 billion) – almost triple the original S$1 billion worth of luxury cars, houses, cash and other assets that were initially thrown up.

It is now one of the largest anti-money laundering operations not just in Singapore but likely the world, Mrs Teo said.

The case has prompted a slew of questions on the effectiveness of Singapore’s existing measures to detect and counter money laundering, and whether more action is needed to curb such illicit activities here.

Mrs Teo was among three ministers who delivered ministerial statements on Tuesday on Singapore’s anti-money laundering regime.

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“THE WEB GREW AND GREW”

Mrs Teo fielded questions from MPs Murali Pillai (People’s Action Party-Bukit Batok), Gan Thiam Poh (PAP-Ang Mo Kio) and Associate Professor Jamus Lim (Workers’ Party-Sengkang) on whether there were any red flags before the arrests were made, and whether the suspects would be probed for criminal offences in other jurisdictions.

Mrs Teo noted that the intelligence gathering and planning for such a major operation can take months or years.

Police initially received “disparate information” in 2021, such as the use of suspected forged documents to substantiate sources of funds in bank accounts in Singapore, she said.

Some suspicious transaction alerts were also filed by financial institutions and other companies. Police then began looking separately into these alerts.

“In early 2022, police launched a comprehensive, coordinated intelligence probe. The probe uncovered a web of individuals believed to have connections amongst themselves, including by familial ties,” Mrs Teo said.

“Police analysed the information and probed further, quietly … A decision was made to hold off any enforcement or overt investigative actions,” she added.

“As the probe progressed, the web uncovered by police grew and grew.”

She pointed out the complex nature of such anti-money laundering probes and the need to be discreet. Connecting the dots between people and things “is a lot easier said than done”, she said.

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Earlier this year, when the police assessed that they had enough information, they consulted the Attorney-General’s Chambers, which determined there was sufficient reason to suspect criminal offences had been committed in Singapore.

Police then arrested the 10 suspects at their residences in areas such as Sentosa Cove, Tanglin, Orchard, Holland and River Valley.

The raids took place at Good Class Bungalows, condominiums and a landed property. More than 400 police officers from various divisions were involved.

The 10 suspects have since been charged in court with money laundering offences. They have all been remanded after being denied bail.

Some face charges of forgery, while two have also been charged with resisting arrest and perverting the course of justice.

They are all of Chinese origin but have nationalities and passports ranging from Cyprus to Cambodia.

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On Tuesday, Mrs Teo further stressed that speculation in some international and local news outlets – that the police operation was carried out at the behest of China – was “completely untrue”.

“Singapore does not need another country to tell us what to do to enforce our laws, nor will we do anything unless it is in our own interests,” she said.

“In this case, we started investigations because we suspected that offences had been committed in Singapore. Once we confirmed our suspicions, we acted.”

She told the House that “many others” who have not been arrested are assisting with investigations, while others are wanted by the police but are not in Singapore. She did not elaborate on how many.

At least two of the suspects who were arrested are said to be wanted by police in China, and an additional 24 suspects were also named in a Law Ministry notice sent out in late August.

The criminal proceeds that were allegedly laundered in this case likely came from activities outside Singapore, including illegal online gambling and unlicensed moneylending, Mrs Teo added.

In terms of immigration status, Mrs Teo said the 10 suspects were not on Interpol’s red notice list at the time of their applications for employment and dependant’s passes.

She was addressing questions by several MPs in relation to the entry and stay of foreign nationals in Singapore.

Mrs Teo said that many others who have been – and will be – interviewed include Singaporeans, permanent residents and those on different types of immigration passes.

“Anyone who is eventually found complicit in the wrongdoing after ongoing investigations will be dealt with in accordance with the law, regardless of their immigration status, or whether they are Singapore citizens,” she said.

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ASSETS SEIZED OR FROZEN

She then gave an update on the total value of assets seized or issued with prohibition of disposal orders.

The police had last said on Sep 20 that the total value stood at more than S$2.4 billion. Since then, they have conducted “further operations and extensive investigations”, bringing the figure up to more than S$2.8 billion, said Mrs Teo.

These include:

Prohibition of disposal orders issued against 152 properties and 62 vehicles with a total estimated value of more than S$1.24 billionThousands of bottles of liquor and wineMore than S$1.45 billion seized from bank accountsMore than S$76 million in cash, including foreign currenciesMore than S$38 million in cryptocurrencies68 gold bars294 luxury bags164 luxury watches546 pieces of jewellery

As police investigations are ongoing, more arrests could be made and more assets could be seized, said Mrs Teo.

Among the properties issued with prohibition orders, 94 are residential ones, said Second Minister for Finance and National Development Indranee Rajah in a separate ministerial statement.

Sixty of these residential properties are completed resale units, while the remaining 34 are uncompleted units sold directly by developers.

Eight of the residential properties are landed homes at Sentosa Cove where there are no restrictions on foreign ownership.

“None are landed residential properties on the mainland, where the approval criteria are much stricter. The rest are non-landed units, which can be purchased by foreigners. Hence, the requirements of the Residential Property Act had been met,” Ms Indranee noted.

Fifty-three commercial properties and five industrial properties were also issued with prohibition orders.

Ms Indranee said investigations are ongoing into the property agencies and agents who had facilitated transactions for properties linked to the money laundering probe. Necessary regulatory action will be taken if any breaches are found, she said. 

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GOVT WILL CONTINUOUSLY REVIEW PRACTICES

Mrs Teo said that the police are also working closely with sectoral regulators and will take action against companies and individuals if they have broken the law, such as by abetting money laundering.

The sectoral regulators – including government agencies that oversee corporate service providers, real estate agents and financial institutions – will take action if there is negligence or non-compliance with anti-money laundering requirements, she added.

As for whether charitable donations made by some of the 10 suspects are being investigated, Mrs Teo said that some charities have decided to ringfence these donations. Others have lodged police reports and plan to surrender the monies to the police.

She added: “We probed extensively to uncover the linkages. We were comprehensive in our actions and operation.

“We will not hesitate to take strong enforcement action against people who would use Singapore as a haven to launder proceeds of crime. We will deal with them and their ill-gotten gains to the fullest extent of our laws.”

She told the House that as a major financial hub, this is not the first or last time that Singapore has taken serious enforcement action against money laundering offences.

For example, in the 1MDB case, the police “extensively investigated” individuals suspected of committing offences in Singapore, while the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) “thoroughly examined” financial institutions through which the funds flowed, said Mrs Teo.

Among the enforcement actions taken was the seizure or prohibition of assets amounting to more than S$240 million. Four bankers were prosecuted in court, including Yeo Jiawei, a former BSI banker who was sentenced to four-and-a-half years’ jail in July 2017 for money laundering and cheating.

Another example cited by Mrs Teo was the Wirecard fraud scandal that emerged in Germany. Three banks and an insurer in Singapore have been issued penalties totalling S$3.8 million for failure to perform customer due diligence and to adequately establish the sources of wealth of high-risk customers.

Seven individuals have been charged in court, with three being convicted of offences that include money laundering.

“Singapore is an attractive place for investments and businesses. There is political and economic stability, strong rule of law, and transparency. People are assured that their money is safe here,” Mrs Teo said.

Criminals seeking to launder money will try to exploit Singapore’s economic openness and its strong reputation for rule of law, she noted.

Mrs Teo added that the government will continuously review its practices even with stringent measures in place, with the aim to “reduce risk, have a robust alert system and take prompt enforcement action” when illegal activities surface, such as in this case.

“We must also not fool ourselves into thinking that no news is good news. Instead, we must have the capability to detect wrongdoings, and when we do, have the resolve to act decisively and robustly,” she said.

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