Private banking: Singapore, Indonesia in private banking tug-of-war

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Indonesians hold $300 billion in Singapore; controversial tax amnesty on the cards.

by Sara Webb

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Indonesia’s finance minister Bambang Brodjonegoro told Euromoney earlier this year that tax collection falls way short of targets and must improve to provide funding for infrastructure and other projects


It doesn’t take much for Indonesia’s government officials to rattle Singapore’s private bankers. 

Talk of tax amnesties and the need for greater disclosure of the funds Indonesians keep offshore in Singapore, as well as closer scrutiny of how Singapore-based private bankers operate on Indonesian soil, is sending shivers through the city-state’s financial community.

At stake are hundreds of billions of dollars parked in Singapore, which Indonesia wants repatriated to bolster tax revenue and pay for crucial infrastructure but which Singapore considers important for its flourishing financial services sector.

It’s an open secret that Singapore is a second home for many Indonesians, especially among its wealthy, ethnic Chinese community. Singapore is where Indonesia’s elite can keep secret bank accounts, jewels and safe deposit boxes, not to mention second homes, maybe a mistress or two, and where they come for medical treatment, to shop for designer clothes, gamble at the casinos, or put their heirs through school.

Wealthy Indonesians are legally obliged to declare their worldwide income and assets for domestic tax purposes, but in reality they often don’t, especially if the money comes from corrupt practices.

For resources-starved Singapore, private banking is an important industry, creating jobs and revenue. Last year, Singaporean bank DBS bought the Asian private banking business of Société Générale in Singapore and Hong Kong for about $220 million to boost this side of the business, having already poached one of Singapore’s leading private bankers, Su Shan Tan, from Morgan Stanley.

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The city-state has attracted an estimated $470 billion in private banking assets and ranks sixth in the global league tables, after Switzerland, the UK, the US, Panama & Caribbean, and Hong Kong, according to a recent report by The Deloitte Wealth Management Centre Ranking 2015.

Of that total, Indonesian officials put the amount of money Indonesians have stashed away in Singapore at around $300 billion – split roughly half and half between individuals and companies.

Indonesia’s finance minister Bambang Brodjonegoro told Euromoney earlier this year that tax collection in his country falls way short of targets and must improve to provide funding for infrastructure and other projects – and he pointed to Singapore’s private banks as part of the problem, while proposing a solution. 

His government plans to introduce a tax amnesty to encourage Indonesians to repatriate their funds. But the proposal is highly controversial because in return for bringing back the money, these Indonesians would be pardoned for any financial crimes committed, such as corruption, money laundering and tax evasion.

We have a bigger agenda, an agenda to bring back the funds from overseas. In order to do that, people need assurances
Bambang Brodjonegoro, Indonesia’s finance minister

“The point is that this bill is not merely about tax,” Brodjonegoro told The Jakarta Post newspaper in a recent interview. “We have a bigger agenda, an agenda to bring back the funds from overseas. In order to do that, people need assurances. In exchange for having to pay taxes, they want their past crimes — which led to them owing so much — to be forgiven as well.”

He continued: “They got their money somehow, and how they got it may not be in accordance with our laws, for example through tax crimes. Most importantly, when we repatriate the funds and tell them to pay the taxes, there has to be an incentive. And that incentive is in the form of an amnesty.”

Finance ministry officials have indicated the law could be implemented as soon as this year or next, and that once the money is brought back to Indonesia, it must stay there. Brodjonegoro said in the newspaper interview that repatriated funds would be locked in, to prevent them from being stashed overseas again. The amnesty will aim to put an end to capital flight, he said.

But bankers in Singapore and Indonesia warn that it would be difficult to ensure the repatriated funds stay in Indonesia. 

“The only way to control things is through transfer of funds and that would mean capital controls which would not look good for Indonesia,” says one foreign banker in Jakarta. 

Another warns that Indonesians do not trust their government because they have seen too many policy flip-flops in the past.

“Clients want to keep their money offshore. Even if the government forces them to bring money back, or even if there is a tax holiday, they will never bring money back because they will think ‘I can’t get it out again’,” the Singapore-based banker says.

However, more stringent rules on disclosure could make it harder to keep any dubious gains hidden offshore in Singapore. 

A robust framework of law to maintain the confidentiality of the information exchanged, confining its use for tax purposes
Bambang Brodjonegoro, Indonesia’s finance minister

When the finance ministers of both countries met last December, they agreed to step up the sharing of tax-related information to help fight tax evasion.

Indonesia and Singapore do not have a formal agreement to exchange information about each other’s citizens if they are suspected of financial crimes: requests for such information are considered case-by-case.

However, both Singapore and Indonesia have effectively endorsed automatic exchange of information, or AEOI, as a global standard for transparency and exchange of information for tax purposes, and have committed to a timeframe for its implementation. 

Singapore says that a bilateral AEOI agreement is required for such an exchange to be implemented between two countries. It says it is studying the legislative changes needed to meet its commitment to implement AEOI by 2018, and will then consider entering such arrangements provided the other partner meets certain criteria, such as having “a robust framework of law to maintain the confidentiality of the information exchanged, confining its use for tax purposes”.

While the possible implementation of AEOI is a few years down the track, already one international bank is rumoured to have advised its Indonesian customers to close any accounts they have with that bank in Singapore as it does not want to be in a position of having to share financial information with the authorities in Indonesia.

In the meantime, Indonesia has hinted at a crackdown on Singapore’s smart-suited private bankers who commute to and from Jakarta during the week to schmooze clients, tempting them with sophisticated Brazilian real-yen currency swaps and the latest alternative asset classes of collectable art or a cellar of Chateau Petrus wines.

Brodjonegoro told Euromoney earlier this year that the authorities might keep closer tabs on the passenger manifests for Singapore Airlines.

Senior bankers in Singapore say they are lobbying against several other measures intended to curb their business in Indonesia. They cite proposals that foreign bankers visiting Indonesia should apply for work permits, and possible amendments to the hiring regulations whereby their local businesses may have to hire 10 Indonesians for every one foreigner, rather than the current ratio of five per foreigner.

“There’s no purpose, it’s just to make things more difficult as far as I can see,” one Jakarta-based banker told Euromoney. “It’s not as if there’s a big pool of talent to draw on here in Jakarta.”

But others are more sanguine.

“If I can’t go in as a private banker, it isn’t that important because every single Indonesian client comes to Singapore and stays here, at least once a month.”

Additional reporting by Rin Hindryati in Indonesia.