November 14, 2023
SINGAPORE – The United Arab Emirates’ head of anti-money laundering has praised Singapore’s handling of the $2.8 billion money laundering probe here, describing the operation as a case of global significance.
Mr Hamid Al Zaabi, director-general of the UAE’s Executive Office of Anti-Money Laundering and Counter Terrorism Financing, said he hopes the bust will spur other jurisdictions into similar efforts to tackle the problem.
“Singapore’s money laundering case is globally significant and is worthy of applause,” he said.
“I know some commentators have said that the size of the bust suggests weaknesses in the national anti-money laundering and counter-terrorism financing system, but this is completely wrong.
“Instead, it demonstrates two things: one, that money laundering operates on a massive scale globally; and two, Singapore will go after the bad guys, no matter how big or powerful they are.”
The case involving some $2.8 billion so far is Singapore’s biggest money laundering case and has drawn international attention.
Mr Al Zaabi is in Singapore this month as he leads a delegation of Emirati authorities with the objective of strengthening collaboration with Singapore partners in the fight against financial crime.
Speaking to The Straits Times, he said both the UAE and Singapore are reputable financial hubs, inevitably attracting both legitimate investments and bad actors such as organised crime groups looking to launder criminal proceeds.
“Organised crime spreads like a cancer and causes harm in many ways,” he said.
“Ultimately, money laundering poses serious risks to economic stability because it undermines competition, hampers growth, deepens inequality and erodes confidence in the integrity of the global financial system.”
He added that money laundering is typically done across jurisdictions, and it was thus necessary to build international cooperation to effectively deal with the problem.
“International cooperation will be hard only if you make it hard,” he said.
“We need to work together with a high level of trust, which often requires established personal relationships. And it’s not just law enforcement agencies that need to work together. There has to be judicial cooperation in order to extradite and prosecute criminals effectively.”
Several of the 10 accused people in Singapore’s money laundering case have links to the UAE through properties, business investments and personal relations.
Cypriot national Wang Dehai, who in September 2019 bought a $23 million condominium unit at The Marq on Paterson Hill, said in court that the apartment was bought with proceeds from real estate investments in Dubai.
Police in Singapore have seized $43 million in assets from Wang, who faces two charges under the Corruption, Drug Trafficking and Other Serious Crimes (Confiscation of Benefits) Act.
Su Jianfeng, who said he was a property agent in Dubai, purportedly owns 11 condominium rooms, two offices and a villa worth a total of 30 million dirhams (S$11 million) there.
The Vanuatu national also said he has a bank account in Dubai containing three million dirhams.
Zhang Ruijin and Lin Baoying separately told investigators that they have siblings living in the UAE. Lin said she owns a residential property there worth $3.7 million.
While Mr Al Zaabi said he could not comment on the specifics of the case as investigations are ongoing, he emphasised that the Emirati authorities are taking it seriously.
“What I can say is that the Emirati authorities have a close cooperation with their Singaporean partners and will do their utmost to bring criminals to justice,” he said, noting that criminals use laundered funds in many ways, including to live an opulent life with mansions, prestige cars and luxury goods.
He said the funds can also be used to perpetrate other crimes, such as corruption and the trafficking of drugs, wildlife and people.
“Funds can also be used for the financing of terrorism, and this has been in the news recently with focus on the financial system of Hamas,” he said.
The Hamas government runs Gaza, and its militant wing carried out the Oct 7 attack in Israel.
The Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an intergovernmental organisation founded on the initiative of the Group of Seven political forum to combat money laundering, identifies jurisdictions with weak measures for combating money laundering and terrorist financing.
High-risk jurisdictions are put on a black list.
In 2022, the UAE was put on the grey list, which “identifies countries that are actively working with the FATF to address strategic deficiencies in their regimes to counter money laundering, terrorist financing, and proliferation financing”.
Mr Al Zaabi said he sees it as a positive thing, as the task force has helped his country to improve its processes.
“The UAE has since made significant progress in the fight against financial crime. Reporting, investigations, prosecutions, and fines have all risen dramatically as the authorities have thwarted criminals with ever-increasing effectiveness,” he said.
From March to mid-July this year, his office investigated 183 new money laundering cases, and seized more than 1.3 billion dirhams worth of assets linked to financial crime.
During the five-month period, there were also more than 199 million dirhams in fines issued, with prosecutions involving money laundering offences securing a 92 per cent conviction rate.
In August, the UAE’s Ministry of Interior revealed that it had dealt with 521 money laundering cases over the past two years, involving the confiscation of more than 4 billion dirhams in illicit funds.
The authorities there also arrested 387 individuals wanted globally through cooperation with international law enforcement agencies.
Mr Al Zaabi said criminals are becoming increasingly sophisticated, and are constantly switching up their tactics to evade detection.
It is for this reason that law enforcement needs to do more, he said, by building international cooperation and investing in training, talent and innovative technologies.
“Criminals have become more sophisticated and use more advanced methods, and they don’t need to follow procedures like law enforcement agencies do, and so can be very agile and fast moving,” he said.
“Law enforcement agencies need to do everything that the criminals are doing, but better.”
Mr Al Zaabi added that the UAE is similar to Singapore in many ways, and is keen to learn more about the best practices here.
“Singapore has a good system, and also has the experience and good reports,” he said.
“It also has very strong public-private partnerships, so we want to learn from this and build a stronger working relationship with Singapore.”