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Saturday, September 12, 2009

World turns disapproving eyes on Singapore banquet

World turns disapproving eyes on Singapore banquet
September 8, 2009

WERE every high school as wonderful as Singapore's United World College.

Each morning, a convoy of chauffeur-driven Mercedes, BMWs and SUVs sweep up to the expansive campus, dropping well-shod students dangling all manner of modish teenage bling; mobile phones, computers, designer this and that. The sumptuous grounds are more suggestive of a five-star resort than a secondary school.

With yearly fees of more than $40,000, UWC is where Singapore's well-heeled foreign residents send their kids. That's the common or garden expat professionals on an Asian posting, as well as Tay Za, regarded by Washington as bagman to the Burmese junta. Tay Za's teenage boy Htet is dropped off in a chauffeur-driven Lamborghini, as his father evades US sanctions.

Some teachers are disquieted by all this but Singapore seems to subscribe to a ''don't ask, don't tell'' policy on where money comes from. In recent years, Singapore has actively sought to become Asia's Switzerland, the discreet depository of the super-rich, however they made their money. That led to a boom in private banking, with an attendant boom in property and high-end services for this monied elite, including education.

While the vast majority of Singaporean depositors are squeaky-clean, as anywhere, some are not. The Burmese junta banks in Singapore and the money of some of North Korea and Zimbabwe's potentates is widely thought to be salted away here.

The big money comes from Indonesia, whose tycoons have regarded Singapore as a refuge from volatility at home. The two countries have no extradition treaty and there's good reason for it to remain that way. Merrill Lynch estimated a third of Singapore's 60,000-odd millionaires were Indonesian, making the city-state Jakarta's affluent northern suburb. Re-elected on an anti-corruption ticket, Jakarta's Yudhoyono Government suspects a good few of its countrymen in Singapore have salted away tarnished money there.

But while markets were roaring, no one really much cared.

Singapore's private client relationship managers (RMs) were pushing high-margin exotic derivative products created by their investment banks, and the rich got richer. The atmosphere was perhaps best exemplified by the appearance of UBS executive director James Tulley, known to friends as ''Tulley Tubby'', in Singapore Tatler magazine boasting about his 30 pairs of spectacles and 100 pairs of shoes.

But the financial crisis changed everything. It devastated values, banks and depositors, and Western governments sought to crack down on tax havens and regimes reluctant to adequately disclose their financial affairs. Earlier this year, Singapore was threatened with a blacklist of financial shelters compiled by the G20. Germany's Angela Merkel, Britain's Gordon Brown, France's Nicolas Sarkozy and the new US president Barack Obama linked arms against international tax havens and secretive financial regimes, seeking scalps to make up for their own economies' failings.

Now the Europeans are pressing Singapore and other financial centres to open their books. Just 3 per cent to 5 per cent of Singapore's private banking clients are regarded as European, most of them thought to be Russian. That's incidental in the private banking scene in Singapore but the implications beyond Europe are acute.

What Singapore doesn't want is the same rules as the EU and the US. It also doesn't want to be singled out among Asian financial centres if Hong Kong doesn't face the same rules. But Singapore cherishes a self-styled reputation as an exemplary international corporate citizen, operating by globally accepted norms.

Complicating the picture is a spate of court actions in Singapore's courts where the big Asian tycoons Singapore loves are at war with big international banks it also covets over who's responsible for the massive GFC trading losses in their private accounts. Several cases involve ''accumulators'' which involve banks signing clients to a long program of buying stocks, often bank stocks, at fixed discounted prices. That was great when Citibank was trading at $90 and the client bought shares at $45, but not much fun when Citi shares slumped to under $10, but the contracted accumulators kept, well, accumulating at $45. Banks claim caveat emptor, but no wonder clients dub the contracts ''I kill you later''.

Private banking consultant Roman Scott of Calamander Capital says private banks are in denial over the extent of the problem. And, he says, Singapore faces a tricky dilemma. He likens Indonesia and countries like it to diners in a restaurant where various regulators, unfamiliar with the menu, look to the smaller European table and chorus ''We'll have what they're having.'' And, as it struggles to again economically re-invent itself, Singapore is hoping everyone somehow is well fed.

Eric Ellis writes for Forbes from Asia.

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