Singapore banks discuss cooperation to fight money laundering

DBS Group Holdings, OCBC and UOB are exploring the possibility of a countrywide model for anti-money laundering and enhanced client knowledge.
DBS Group Holdings, OCBC and UOB are exploring the possibility of a countrywide model for anti-money laundering and enhanced client knowledge.PHOTO: REUTERS

SINGAPORE (BLOOMBERG) - Singapore's biggest banks are in talks about setting up a system for sharing information on prospective clients, in an effort to combat money laundering in the city-state.

DBS Group Holdings, OCBC and UOB are exploring the possibility of a countrywide model for anti-money laundering and enhanced client knowledge, according to Loretta Yuen, the head of legal and regulatory compliance at OCBC. The bank believes the new model "will bring significant control and operational efficiency benefits to the industry and Singapore," Ms Yuen said by e-mail, adding that it's premature to discuss details of the initiative.

The model under review would see the three banks pool data at a newly-created registry, according to people familiar with the matter, who asked not to be named because the talks are private. The banks would use the information when deciding whether to approve applications for new accounts, the people added.

The pilot project may start with corporate accounts, according to one of the people. The talks come as Singapore has frozen bank accounts as part of probes related to 1MDB Development Bhd, the embattled Malaysian state fund, and charged a former BSI SA private banker in the city with money laundering.

The Singapore unit of the Swiss private bank was the custodian of fund units, which were valued at US$2.32 billion (S$3.14 billion) as of March 31, 2015, for a 1MDB subsidiary.  There is no timeline on when the registry would be set up, said the people. The plan may be expanded to international banks in Singapore if a pilot proves successful, they said.

One of the main hurdles in planning the project is the sharing of potentially sensitive customer information because of Singapore's strict banking secrecy laws, according to the people. A requirement to get applicant consent is among the possible solutions, they added.

Banks in Singapore and elsewhere already share client data for the purpose of assessing their creditworthiness. Singapore's credit bureau, for example, compiles records of consumer loans based on information contributed by the banks.

A spokesman for DBS confirmed that it was involved in an exploratory study on the initiative, but declined to comment further. UOB didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

1MDB has been the subject of overlapping investigations in Malaysia and Singapore, as well as in countries such as Switzerland and the United States, amid allegations of financial irregularities. 1MDB has consistently denied wrongdoing.

The Monetary Authority of Singapore said in March it has been conducting a "thorough review of various transactions as well as fund flows" related to the case through its banking system.

The MAS last year boosted its anti-money laundering rules, requiring financial institutions to have more comprehensive checks on customers. Singapore in July 2014 raised the maximum jail term for money laundering to 10 years from seven years.

Spending by Asian financial-services companies on technology for anti-money laundering and customer screening may rise to US$300 million this year from 2015's estimated US$260 million, according to Boston-based research firm Celent.