Monday, July 30, 2007

Lawyers Roped In To Combat Money Laundering

Source : The Business Times, July 30, 2007

New rules state that they can no longer keep anonymous accounts

(SINGAPORE) Lawyers sitting on millions of dollars of clients' money in trust or client accounts will have to be more sure where the money came from, under new rules that aim to curb money laundering.

In particular, lawyers will no longer be able to maintain anonymous accounts - they will have to know a client's business and keep records for at least five years.

The moves - spelt out in the Legal Profession (Professional Conduct) (Amendment) Rules 2007 that takes effect Aug 15 - come amid whispers that some crooks are using Singapore's hot property market to launder ill-gotten gains. The fear is that crooks who are using the property boom could be parking cash with lawyers here pending a purchase.

More than 90 per cent of all property purchases go through lawyers. 'To help combat laundering through law firms, two areas need to be looked at,' said Wong Partnership's managing partner Dilhan Pillay Sandrasegara - 'retail conveyancing and clients that come to us via private banks'.

Law firms also need to pay more attention to funds from overseas or by way of telegraphic transfer, he said. Singapore banks have had to implement increasingly stringent rules to prevent 'black' money being moved into the financial system.

And now lawyers are going to have to do the same, to prevent illegal funds seeping into the legitimate economy through investments in real estate, luxury assets or business ventures. But once clients clear the first hurdle of opening a bank account here, it is difficult for lawyers to know whether funds are illicit.

'I've yet to see anyone come in with a suitcase of cash,' said KCChuang, conveyancing partner at Advent Law Corp. 'Usually they have a cheque or demand draft issued from a Singapore bank.'

Mr Chuang said he has been approached three times by suspected money launderers in the past few years.

'They asked to use our client account, saying they would remit money from an overseas bank and if we could remit onwards to their accounts - one was to Thailand, another to New Zealand.'

The amounts were US$5 million a month, for which the launderers offered a 2-5 per cent service fee, he said. 'For some lawyers this can be very tempting.'

Mr Chuang turned down all the requests. 'One of them said he was dealing in second-hand cars,' he said. 'I asked him why he could not remit directly, but got no answer.'

Lawyers typically hold clients' money in common accounts that can be huge, running to tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars. Once illegal funds are sent into a client account, it can be difficult to separate them from the rest of the account.

Law firms typically have three accounts - trust account, client accounts and an office account.

Worldwide, laundering illicit money by buying real estate has become a common tactic.

The new rules here put the onus on lawyers to know a client's business, with the 'acquisition, divestment or any other dealing of any interest in real estate' at the top of the list. Reputable law firms say they will not be affected by the amendment because they have systems to guard against money laundering.

'Our reputation is very important to us,' said Wong Partnership's MrDilhan. But some tweaking will have to be done with regard to private banking clients, he said.

Private banks do not want to reveal clients' identity at first for requesting searches, such as for caveats, before a deal goes through. 'But going forward, in keeping with the principal of know your client, the private banks will have to disclose upfront their clients and vouch for them,' he said. 'Otherwise we cannot accept instructions.'

Every financial centre is a target for money launderers. 'The real estate market is so global that the issues we face are the same issues a lawyer in London faces,' Mr Dilhan said.

Still, the new rules are no tougher that those in London or New York, so legitimate investors will have no problem buying property or other assets here, he said.

For instance, most law firms already keep records five years after a transaction. 'Law Society rules already say we have to maintain files for 6-12 years,' MrChuang said. 'It's a storage nightmare.'

Many firms use external warehouses to store records and files, he said. 'We don't look at the new rules as negative. They formalise requirements that some of us already practise.'

Will law firms that are expanding overseas, such as in China, have to be extra vigilant against suspicious transactions?

Wong Partnership exercises the same diligence on clients at all its offices, Mr Dilhan said. 'So far the number of incidents in China when we've had to discharge ourselves is very small.'

The Dot Is Hot

Source : Straits Times, Sunday, July 29, 2007

It's boomtime, boomtown Singapore as the island sheds its stuffy image and revels in the sound policy decisions that were made

Happy days are here and Singaporeans are spending like there's no tomorrow. Restaurants are packed, fast cars crowd the roads and people are stocking up on high-end furnishings for their multi-million-dollar homes. But how long will the good times last? -- ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL; ST DESIGN: SALLY LAM

WHAT a difference two years make.
In 2005, Singapore was still recovering from a recession and MP Charles Chong remembers crowded meet-the-people sessions with heartrending cases of families that could not make ends meet. He helped out-of-work men find jobs and wrote letters to the HDB to reschedule housing loans.

Fast forward 24 months and now the issue is no longer about finding a job. It is about finding a better-paying one, says the Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC MP.

South West District Mayor Amy Khor senses a more upbeat mood on the ground as well. A restaurant owner who was operating in the heartlands recently told her that his business was much better this year. Tables are fully booked on weekends and he did roaring business on Mother's Day.

'The sense of optimism was reflected not only in the greater number of diners, but also the increase in the average bill size. More diners were willing to spend more on their meals,' she says.

'The average sentiment on the ground is much more positive now than it was a year or so ago.'

It's all thanks to the boom that Singapore is enjoying, which began around 2004 after the Sars crisis ended, analysts say. The economy rebounded, with growth surging from 3.1 per cent in 2003 to 8.8 per cent the following year and has averaged about 7.8 per cent since then. Between January and March this year, there were 49,000 jobs created, continuing a trend that started in 2003.

The number of people made bankrupt has gone down as well. After hitting a 19-year high of almost 400 a month in 2004, it now hovers at fewer than 300 a month.

As for the stock market, the Straits Times Index has been repeatedly setting record highs since it surged past the 3,600-point mark for the first time last month.

Mr Song Seng Wun, a research head with brokerage CIMB-GK, says: 'People who are selling cut fruits and drinks at the kopitiam are asking me for stock tips.'

He last saw such fervour during the bull run of the early 1990s. That screeched to a halt with the Asian financial crisis in 1997. Stocks then went on a roller-coaster ride, what with the dotcom bust, Sept 11 and Sars.

Capitalising on globalisation

ONE of the reasons Singapore has bounced back is careful, detailed and strategic planning, notes DBS economist Irvin Seah, pointing to the work done by the Economic Restructuring Committee from 2001 to 2003.

One key objective was to diversify the economy instead of putting too many eggs in one basket. Pharmaceuticals and transport engineering now play a significant part in the manufacturing sector when previously there was an over-reliance on electronics.

Services, as well as the construction sector, have also become key drivers of growth, and new areas such as the clean energy sector are being explored, too.

These efforts make Singapore more resilient to external shocks, says Mr Seah.

Another important measure was the signing of numerous free trade agreements with countries such as the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, India and potentially China, which Singapore is in the midst of negotiations with.

The emergence of China, India and Middle East countries - which have benefited from rising oil prices - has helped the Republic as well, with the new rich from these places being lured to invest money here, says Mr Song.

Mr Seah adds: 'These factors allowed us to ride on the current wave of the global economic boom. Essentially, we've capitalised on globalisation instead of resisting it.'

Ironically, the bad times did some good, too.

The swift manner in which Singapore bounced back enhanced its reputation as a reliable place to invest in, says Professor Neo Boon Siong, director of the Asia Competitiveness Institute at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

'The Government showed that it responds quickly and pragmatically to problems and this has given the world greater confidence in Singapore,' he says.

But beyond the hard restructuring of the economy, Singapore is looking to spruce up its stuffy image as well.

The concerted attempt to inject buzz and vibrancy began in earnest in 1991, with the launch of the Global City for the Arts project, notes Institute of Southeast Asian Studies sociologist Terence Chong.

'This has been followed by the Government's mindset change on Formula 1 racing, casinos and Crazy Horse, which signalled that the city-state is serious about shedding its conservative cloak,' he says.

While these efforts enhance the feel of Boomtown Singapore, the bigger picture is to entice foreign talent to not just come here to work, but to also make Singapore their home by portraying an exciting image, says Prof Neo.

'When someone decides to stay here long-term, that is when he will be willing to invest in the country, which he won't if he thinks of it as a layover,' he notes.

Ms Rebecca Bisset, editor-in-chief of magazine Expat Living Singapore, feels there is now a 'freer' atmosphere here.

'The whole image of Singapore as a 'fine' city isn't so relevant anymore. In the past, when I told people that I lived here, they go: 'Ooh, that's where they whip people for committing crimes.' But now that perception of a controlled society has really eased off,' says Ms Bisset, who has lived here for 10 years.

This has attracted expatriates like sales manager Jo Cooper to uproot from Britain and relocate here. She and her husband Martin, both 41, looked at Shanghai, Hong Kong and Beijing as possible choices for their new home, but eventually plumped for Singapore because of its English-speaking population, lower costs and cultural mix.

Having lived here since last October, what the couple had initially planned as an overseas experience for a few years with their two children has become an intention to stay for good.

'Singapore has really made us feel at home and we are hoping to apply for permanent residence now,' says Ms Cooper, whose family lives in a condominium in Cairnhill Road.

Indeed, in the past year, the Republic has been popping up in a string of very desirable and 'hip' global surveys: No. 2 in the world for nightlife and dining, 17th most liveable city, the best quality of life in Asia.

Conducted by respected magazines like Monocle and world-class organisations such as the World Economic Forum, these surveys no doubt add to the buzz surrounding Singapore. For example, in making Monocle's most liveable cities list, the country was featured alongside long-recognised happening cities such as Sydney, Paris and Barcelona.

Mr Gavin Coombes, Asia-Pacific chief executive officer of consultancy FutureBrand - which compiled the survey in which Singapore scored well for nightlife and dining - notes the Republic is clean and safe where it matters but 'not so much so that people don't know how to have fun'.

'It has a unique combination of advantages over places which can be a bit too dangerous, a bit too isolated, a bit too foreign and a bit too restrained for international travellers,' he adds.

Boom for whom?

DESPITE the hurrahs and champagne-popping, 'boomtown' needs to be qualified, warns Dr Chong.

'Boom for whom? The needy still face pressing concerns like rising prices, while older citizens still find it hard to get jobs. Even large sections of the middle class do not have the ready capital to invest in the boom,' he says.

'For many of them, the GST rise and increase in transport fares will negate the feel-good factor. It's boomtown for those who are lucky enough to have capital or own property.'

Sociologist Paulin Tay Straughan adds that when a society is developing and economic opportunities arise, people tend to be more excited and view opportunities positively, even if they do not gain from it themselves, as they see in these opportunities hope and optimism for the future.

But as a society matures, many such cycles pass and social inequalities set in. 'It gets more difficult for the have-nots to view the boom period with equal enthusiasm - especially when they perceive that they will not stand to gain significantly,' she says.

Dr Khor says the Government is aware of this and has set aside aids for the needy, such as a higher share of the GST offset package, workfare bonus, school subsidies and interim financial assistance while they look for a job.

But she adds that the responsibility lies with them to come forward to get help and that 'they must make the effort to upgrade themselves and get out of the poverty trap and become self-reliant again'. She also notes that it is not uncommon for people to have concerns and worries during boom times.

'The worry, for instance, of young couples being priced out of the market and unable to find affordable homes to purchase due to the current property market boom is genuine but not new,' she says.

'This concern also surfaced during the last property boom in the 1990s and as in the previous boom, the Government has reiterated its stand to ensure affordable public housing.'

The issue may be a matter of expectations, says Mr Seah. 'During a recession, a young couple may be happy with a four-room flat, but because it's boom everywhere now, they may be aiming for a condominium in a prime estate and grumbling about how they can't afford it. The problem isn't the affordability - it's the expectation,' he says.

The million-dollar question then is: How long will this boom last? While the experts say it's impossible to know for sure, it's safe to expect a few more good years.

'As long as our policies are ahead of global economic trends and the external environment remains favourable, we are likely to see reasonably strong growth of about 6 to 8 per cent per annum in the years ahead,' says Mr Seah.