SINGAPORE (The Straits Times/Asia News Network): The first sign of trouble, that something big was afoot, came in 2021 when the authorities noticed possible forged documents being used to substantiate sources of funds in bank accounts here.
So as not to alert the suspected money launderers, only a small group of police officers were involved in the initial investigations.
After an extensive probe in 2022, the police uncovered a web of people, some connected by family ties, who were allegedly transferring money here from abroad that were earnings from suspected criminal activities.
Following islandwide raids on Aug 15, assets seized or issued with prohibition of disposal orders are now worth more than $2.8 billion, making it one of the world’s largest money laundering cases.
Second Minister for Home Affairs Josephine Teo said this in a ministerial statement on Tuesday to address about 60 parliamentary questions filed on the case.
She said the authorities were alerted in 2021 when they picked up several signals, including the use of suspected forged documents to support sources of funds in bank accounts here.
Some suspicious transaction reports (STRs) were filed by financial institutions and other companies, and the police investigated these alerts.
In early 2022, the police launched an extensive intelligence probe, which uncovered a web of people believed to be connected to each other, including by familial ties.
Teo said: “The police analysed the information and probed further, quietly. To avoid alerting the suspects, the work was kept to a very small group of officers, and a decision was made to hold off any enforcement or overt investigative actions.”
She said the police’s aim was to develop as full a picture as possible of the suspects and their associates, their suspected criminal activities, and their assets, before moving against them.
Teo added: “As the probe progressed, the web uncovered by the police grew and grew.
“More and more individuals were implicated in the alleged money laundering operation, and more and more of their assets held in Singapore were discovered. The police painstakingly and discreetly traced their ties and assets.”
She highlighted that anti-money laundering probes of this scale and nature are complex.
She said: “Had the suspects caught wind of our probes, the suspects and their assets might have fled, and the investigations and the entire operation might have been jeopardised.”
Teo said that earlier this year, the police consulted the Attorney-General’s Chambers, which decided there was sufficient reason to suspect the criminal offences had been committed in Singapore.
Following the extensive reviews of information and evidence, the police conducted a massive islandwide blitz on Aug 15 that involved over 400 officers led by the Commercial Affairs Department.
Nine men and one woman were arrested and charged the next day with offences such as money laundering, forgery and resisting arrest.
Addressing reports in international and domestic news outlets that the operation was done at the behest of China, Mrs Teo said: “This is completely untrue. Singapore does not need another country to tell us what to do to enforce our laws, nor will we do anything unless it is in our own interests.
“In this case, we started investigations because we suspected that offences had been committed in Singapore. Once we confirmed our suspicions, we acted.”
Providing an update on the case, which is before the courts, Mrs Teo said the proceeds likely came from criminal activities abroad. These included illegal online gambling and unlicensed money lending.
There are others who have not been arrested but are assisting with investigations, she said. Meanwhile, other individuals are wanted by the police for investigations but are not in Singapore.
She said the police had conducted further operations, and more than $2.8 billion worth of assets have been taken control of by the authorities.
These assets include 152 properties and 62 vehicles with an estimated value of more than $1.24 billion, money in bank accounts amounting to over $1.45 billion, and cash of various currencies worth over $76 million.
Other items include thousands of bottles of liquor and wine, cryptocurrency worth more than $38 million, 68 gold bars, 294 luxury bags, 164 branded watches and 546 pieces of jewellery.
Teo said there may be more arrests made and assets seized.
The police had said on Sept 20 the total value of assets seized and frozen in the case stood at over $2.4 billion.
Teo added that a number of those arrested had donated to charities here.
“Some charities have decided on their own to ringfence these donations. Others have made police reports and plan to surrender the monies to the police,” she said.
The Commissioner of Charities will issue an advisory to encourage all charities to review their donor records. This is to check whether they have received donations from the accused and entities linked to them, and file STRs if needed, the minister added.
The advisory will also include advice to charities on how to handle the monies.
Calling this case one of the largest anti-money laundering operations in the world, Mrs Teo said: “We will not hesitate to take strong enforcement action against people who would use Singapore as a haven to launder proceeds of crime. We will deal with them and their ill-gotten gains to the fullest extent of our laws.”