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BANKING

Singaporean private banking: The moral maze of privacy

Singapore has made great strides as a private banking centre, attracting almost every bank that matters to set up shop there to service the region’s rich. But recent developments in Burma (Myanmar) suggest that the city state’s financial success has come with a string attached to it: increasing scrutiny of its morality.

This happens to all private banking centres at some stage: if you guarantee privacy to your customers, it’s fair to assume that some unsavoury characters are going to try to take advantage of that privacy. Switzerland has faced questions about the fine line between client confidentiality and ethical probity since World War II at least. And now the clashes between Burma’s ruling junta and protesters have put Singapore in the spotlight for the same reason.

Singapore is believed to be home to bank accounts for many key figures in Burma’s ruling regime. In fact, Singapore in general has many ties to the country. Temasek, the investment arm of the Singapore state, and government-linked companies are believed to have between $2 billion and $3 billion invested in the country; junta leader Than Shew comes to use Singapore’s hospitals; and Singapore is understood to house many shell companies for Burmese individuals. Lacking democracy in any functional sense, Singapore’s leaders don’t have to worry too much about the weight of public opinion (and there has been little protest locally anyway), but one thing that it does worry about is keeping a reputation for being a scrupulously clean financial centre.

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