Silver lining in 1MDB saga

A construction worker in front of a 1MDB billboard at the Tun Razak Exchange development in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Feb 3, 2016.

Singapore's reputation as a financial hub was at stake as the authorities investigated a maze of transactions passing through the banking system here in the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) controversy.

The result of the Republic's most extensive probe to date: A total of $29.1 million in penalties slapped on eight errant banks and the conviction of five people linked to Malaysian businessman Low Taek Jho. Three of the five have been banned either for life or a minimum of 15 years from Singapore's securities industry, while another has been banned for 10 years. Three more face three- to six-year bans.

The authorities stress that the scale of the review has been unprecedented, spanning hundreds of thousands of transactions involving many shell firms and people operating in the United States, Switzerland, Hong Kong, Luxembourg and Malaysia.

But it may not be over yet, given the complexity of the case.

The Monetary Authority of Singapore noted that its findings stem only from transactions known so far. The US Department of Justice is said to be eyeing criminal prosecution of Mr Low, the man at the centre of a scheme in which billions were allegedly looted from the Malaysian state fund and laundered.

The fines, ranging from $700,000 to $13.3 million, may be a drop in the bucket for some banks - five of the affected are big Swiss private banks, and two are among Singapore's biggest lenders.

But the price paid is far more than a financial penalty. Swiss-based BSI and Falcon Private Bank were stripped of their licences to operate here. BSI was later sold to EFG International, spooking clients into withdrawing 6.3 billion Swiss francs (S$9 billion) in the second quarter of last year.

Arrests and enforcement actions against BSI and Falcon have pushed other Swiss private banks to work harder at confirming how their clients made the money that is moved through the banks.

And there is a silver lining. The financial industry here is now much stronger, thanks to efforts taken by institutions to step up anti-money laundering controls in recent years.

Grace Leong

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 02, 2017, with the headline Silver lining in 1MDB saga. Subscribe