Mr Png Eng Huat, WP MP for Hougang SMC, posed a question to DPM Tharman, who is also the minister-in-charge of MAS, in Parliament yesterday (8 Apr).
Mr Png asked Mr Tharman in the past 10 years, how many times have Malaysia and Indonesia approached Singapore to provide information on their citizens who operate bank accounts out of Singapore, for tax or investigation purposes. He further asked whether any suspicious and irregular bank accounts were detected in the process.
Mr Tharman did not answer Mr Png’s questions directly. In fact, he refused to give any answers citing “international practices”.
Mr Tharman replied Mr Png using motherhood statements that Singapore cooperates readily with foreign jurisdictions to fight financial crime. [Ed. Wiktionary defines a "motherhood statement" as a "feel good" platitude, usually by a politician, about a worthy concept that few people would disagree with, without any specified plans for realisation. For example, "Our country must contribute to world peace."]
He said, “The channels of cooperation for tax and investigation purposes include Mutual Legal Assistance under the Mutual Assistance in Criminal Matters Act and Exchange of Information provided for under our bilateral tax agreements.”
With more motherhood statements, he added, “Our cooperation under each channel is guided by international standards and norms. Furthermore, under our anti-money laundering regime, financial institutions in Singapore are required to be vigilant against suspected illicit monies. They have to know their customers, and to report any suspicious transactions in customers’ accounts.”
He said that under the Mutual Assistance in Criminal Matters Act, Singapore stands ready to assist foreign authorities investigating possible criminal activity, including the exchange of bank account information.
“We can provide mutual legal assistance for investigations into money laundering as well as a wide range of serious crimes – including corruption, bribery and fraud. This is in line with the recommendations of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) and the United Nations Convention Against Corruption. Through our bilateral tax agreements, we also exchange information actively with Malaysia and Indonesia for tax investigations,” he said.
He then refused to divulge the numbers demanded by Mr Png, citing “international practices”.
Mr Tharman said, “It is generally not the international practice among authorities to reveal the number of legal assistance and information requests from specific countries.”
“However I can assure Members that we have helped fully on all requests from Malaysia and Indonesia in accordance with our current tax agreements. This includes information on details of transactions and companies.”
“Once our tax agreements with Malaysia and Indonesia are updated with the Standard… we can enhance tax cooperation further.”In concluding his reply to Mr Png, Mr Tharman made the following cryptic remarks, “We have also offered to Malaysia and Indonesia to update our tax agreements with the internationally agreed Standard for exchange of information for tax purposes. The Standard provides for the exchange of bank information.”
“Once our tax agreements with Malaysia and Indonesia are updated with the Standard, just as for our tax agreements with other countries, we can build further on our good working relations with Malaysia and Indonesia and enhance tax cooperation further.”
Mr Tharman’s last remarks seem to indicate that something is currently stalling between Singapore and Malaysia/Indonesia on tax cooperation matters?
Mr Png’s questions came after a controversial video clip surfaced online last month, alleging that Sarawak Chief Minister Taib Mahmud, a senior leader of Malaysia’s ruling Barisan Nasional coalition, is involved in corruption. It was alleged that certain property transactions were done through Singapore to avoid paying Malaysia’s Real Property Gain Tax (RPGT).
In the video, Alvin Chong, a lawyer supposedly acting on behalf of Mr Taib’s family interests, said, “That’s why we choose Singapore. The Singapore Government has a China Wall… a firewall. They will not tell the Malaysian government, nothing… They [i.e the Malaysian government] ask them and they’ve been turned down… Sorry, it’s none of your business. They [i.e. Singapore] are the new Switzerland. Jurisdiction by choice for people like us.”
The video drew a strong response from the Monetary Authority of Singapore and Singapore’s Ministry of Finance (‘MAS & MOF: Allegation in video is simply false‘). The Singapore government countered, “The allegation is simply false. Contrary to what was claimed in the video, Singapore has to date provided fully the information requested by Malaysia for tax purposes.”
The government further said Singapore has designated a wide range of crimes as predicate offences to money laundering – including corruption, bribery and fraud. “Singapore therefore has been and remains able to provide mutual legal assistance to the fullest extent permitted under our laws where there are requests from Malaysia,” it said in a statement on 21 March 2013.