Why did the suspects in a Singapore billion-dollar money laundering case have so many passports?

The 10 foreigners Singapore police arrested last week in a billion-dollar money laundering case were reported at the time to be citizens from a range of countries including China, Vanuatu, Cyprus, Türkiye and Cambodia.

However, all also had passports believed to have been issued by various other countries.

So where were these alleged money launderers really from and how might they have obtained all those passports? 

What were the raids about?

Police said 400 officers fanned out across the city state last Tuesday, August 15, and launched simultaneous raids on residences at least nine locations, netting assets totalling $S1 billion ($1.15 billion).

These included 94 properties, bank accounts with $S110 million, 50 vehicles, cash amounting to more than $S23 million, hundreds of luxury handbags and watches, fistfuls of jewellery and two gold bars.

The foreigners arrested were aged between 31 and 44, including a 40-year-old Cypriot national who jumped out of the second-floor balcony of his bungalow and was found hiding in a drain.

Twelve more were “assisting with investigations” and eight are still wanted, police said. 

A  blue luxury car in a parking lot.

Police seized a large number of luxury cars from the accused money launderers’ premises. (Supplied: Singapore Police)

A police statement said the group was suspected to be laundering proceeds from overseas organised crime, including “scams and online gambling” and were charged with offences including money laundering, forgery and resisting arrest.

Some were found with one or even two extra passports for different countries.

David Chew, director of commercial affairs at the police force, said Singapore had “zero tolerance” for being used as a safe haven for criminals or their families and for banking facilities to be abused.

“Our message to these criminals is simple — if we catch you, we will arrest you. If we find your ill-gotten gains, we will seize them. We will deal with you to the fullest extent of our laws,” he said.

Valuable collectables in a drawer including watches and jewellery in a drawer.

Other items seized included a range of valuable collectables like jewellery and watches. (Supplied: Singapore Police)

Isn’t Singapore supposed to be ‘squeaky clean’?

Transparency International Australia chief executive Clancy Moore told the ABC that despite Singapore’s reputation for strict enforcement of the law, it was actually an attractive place to set up shop for money launderers.

“Singapore offers criminals, crooks and kleptocrats one of the world’s top secrecy jurisdictions to stash their illicit finances and proceeds from crime,” Mr Moore said.

“It’s home to many regional banking institutions, has a very low corporate tax and people can create company structures with a click of a mouse.

“For example, we know that many organised crime gangs and authoritarian regimes like the Myanmar junta use Singapore as their financial hub to clean their dirty money.”

Singapore police in uniform walk in front of a yellow fence.

Singapore is reputed to be one of the least corrupt countries in Asia. (Reuters: Kim Kyung-hoon)

Where were the suspects originally from?

Among the nine men and one woman arrested were three citizens of China, three of Cambodia, one of Vanuatu, one of Türkiye and two of Cyprus.  

However, in the days following the raids it emerged that all were originally from China’s Fujian province.

Among the items seized were extra passports for the suspects — in addition to their nominal citizenship — that police believed were issued by countries including Vanuatu, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Cambodia and Dominica.

Many countries have pathways to citizenship through investment, though some pathways are much shorter than others. 

Countries that still have fast-track schemes taking just months include Türkiye, Saint Kitts and Nevis and Dominica.

The EU last year suspended Vanuatu’s visa waiver agreement over its lucrative “golden passport” scheme amid concerns it lacked due diligence and could pose security and money-laundering risks. 

The scheme, which accounted for about a third of Vanuatu’s government revenue in 2020, allowed people to buy citizenship for $US130,000.

Cyprus cancelled its Citizenship by Investment Program in 2020 following an Al Jazeera investigation into its use by criminals. 

In the wake of the Singapore police operation, Cypriot MP Irene Charalambidou asked for a full briefing from the interior ministry, the Cyprus Mail reported.

“The international stigmatisation of our country as a result of the abuse behind the golden passports should be immediately managed by the competent minister, so their passports are revoked,” she said.

The Phnom Penh Post reported that three of the suspects had received Cambodian citizenship through naturalisation in 2018 and 2019

Passports with details blurred out sitting on a table

The alleged money launderers were citizens of China, Vanuatu, Cambodia, Türkiye and Cyprus. (Supplied: Singapore Police)

Why might the suspects have extra passports?

Mr Moore said obtaining additional citizenships was useful for money launderers.

“Citizenship makes it easier for money launderers to set-up company structures and buy property and invest in a new country so as to avoid detection and regulation,” he said.

“Many countries set up golden visa and passport schemes to attract investment and business.

“Over the last decade, corrupt public officials and business people have bought up golden passports and visas, helping to conceal their assets and identities.”

Mr Moore said scandals had demonstrated that these opaque schemes were not about genuine investment or migration.

“Since the invasion in Ukraine, Russians are making up a majority of people who have acquired citizenship using this route,” he said.

“Transparency International Australia has argued for years that fast-track investment migration schemes are riddled with corruption risks and enable money laundering.

“In Australia and parts of Europe, controversial golden visa programs have been scrapped in recent years due to concerns with rorting, risks of money laundering and general integrity of the schemes.”


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