July 26, 2006
You are an Indonesian businessman. You've bribed a state bank official to give you a $US200 million ($A265 million) loan without sufficient collateral, or a risk assessment, for a business venture you know won't get off the ground.
The authorities have found out and you're facing arrest. You need somewhere to go where authorities can't touch you. So where do you go? The answer is Singapore. Why? Because it is a half-hour flight from Jakarta, or 45 minutes by ferry from the Indonesian island of Batam, and, most importantly, it does not have an extradition treaty with Indonesia.
It is largely ethnically Chinese, just like many of Indonesia's white-collar criminals, if only because Indonesians of Chinese ancestry dominate that country's business sector.
Singapore finally agreed to negotiate an extradition treaty last year after years of Indonesia begging for one. The process has been ridiculously drawn out. At least six rounds of talks have been held. Indonesia is angry and feels that Singapore is being obstructionist. But why should Singapore be slow? Probably because it is a haven for Indonesian crooks on the run, and they bring their money with them. Billions of dollars in corruptly obtained funds have flowed into Singapore's property market and its banks.
It's a sensitive matter because financial services account for 22 per cent of Singapore's economy. You can imagine the situation from Jakarta's point of view. Singapore lectures Indonesia about the importance of the rule of law while giving its criminals a haven.
Despite the billions it gets from Indonesia, it gives back only a fraction in foreign assistance but then decries Indonesia for being insufficiently grateful.
Among the Indonesian crooks and suspects believed to be on the run in Singapore are Bambang Sutrisno and Adrian Kiki Ariawan, who were found guilty of embezzling the equivalent of $US162 million from Bank Surya; Sudjiono Timan, who was convicted of improperly diverting $US120 million from a state-owned investment company; Lidia Mochtar, who is wanted over the embezzlement of $US20 million from Bank Tamara; Agus Anwar, a suspect over $US214 million that's unaccounted for from Bank Pelita; and Pauline Maria Lumowa, who is wanted over $US184 million that's missing from Bank BNI. Others whose whereabouts are unknown are able to safely visit Singapore.
The US doesn't have an extradition treaty with Indonesia but co-operation by US officials saw the fugitive Indonesian David Nusa Wijaya, wanted in connection with embezzlement of about $US140 million, return to Indonesia from San Francisco earlier this year.
The US embassy in Jakarta said at the time: "The US Government understands that returning fugitives and stolen assets from abroad in corruption cases is a top law-enforcement priority in Indonesia."
Singapore argues that because its laws are based on English common law and Indonesian law is based on Dutch codes, the two systems are incompatible, making an extradition treaty difficult.
But that didn't stop India from signing such a treaty with the Philippines in 2004, or Australia from signing one with Indonesia. Fugitive Indonesian banker Hendra Rahardja, who embezzled almost $US300 million, was on the verge of being extradited from Australia in early 2003 when he died of cancer in Sydney. His funds in Australia were frozen and returned to Indonesia.
A corollary of Singapore's reluctance to sign an extradition treaty with Indonesia is its apparent lack of fussiness about the sources of the funds attracted to its banking sector.
Singaporean officials make all the right noises when it comes to monitoring illicit funds. But there is a perception that in practice Singapore is not fully meeting international expectations and obligations. One person involved in monitoring international money flows for a Western government told me last week that the results of Singapore's efforts to date were disappointing.
And a senior fund manager in the region had this to say: "Singapore has truly become the global centre for parking ill-gotten gains. The private banking teams are huge and in practice ask almost no questions (compared with the branches elsewhere, including Switzerland).
"An acquaintance of mine who made $US13 million through a corrupt deal (in Indonesia) was not asked about how he got the money despite obviously having a job that would not have allowed such amounts to have been accumulated. Russians, mainland Chinese and Indonesians are pouring money into Singapore. High-end property has risen 30-50 per cent in the last 18 months or so."
Singapore, he argues, is out of step internationally. He cites a recent case in which even a Swiss bank co-operated with the Indonesian Government in tracking down $US5.2 million in allegedly improper funds deposited by the former head of Bank Mandiri, Indonesia's largest state-owned bank.
Attention is now being turned to China. Singapore is working hard at making itself more attractive to Chinese mainlanders, be they tourists or individuals, with funds to park. Singaporean Government representatives are trawling through China, promoting Singapore over Hong Kong as a safe destination for funds and property investment. Direct flights are being established with regional centres across China. Casinos are being set up. There has even been an influx of mainland Chinese prostitutes into Singapore's quasi-legal sex industry. And there's no extradition treaty, or little chance of one.
Of course, Singapore will argue that it takes money laundering seriously and has all types of detection methods in place. But that is not the point. It's what happens in practice that counts. After all, even Chinese laundries can have window dressing.
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