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FACETS-2024 to showcase historic masterpiece pavilion

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FACETS Sri Lanka 2024, Asia’s Premier Gem and Jewellery Exhibition, a collaboration between the Sri Lanka Gem and Jewellery Association (SLGJA), the National Jewellery Authority (NGJA), and the Export Development Board (EDB) takes centre stage from January 6th to 8th, 2024. Located at the prestigious Atrium Lobby of the Cinnamon Grand Hotel in Colombo, this event promises to be a celebration of Sri Lanka’s abundant gemstone and jewellery heritage, featuring several special pavilions.

Among these pavilions, the Masterpiece Pavilion will emerge as a grand attraction. This pavilion is meticulously designed to showcase the exquisite beauty of Sri Lankan sapphires and rubies, giving patrons a rare opportunity to witness some of the world’s most valuable uncut as well us cut stones under one roof.

The Sapphire Masterpiece Pavilion will feature a diverse range of sapphires, including the mesmerizing blue, alexandrite, green, and more. What makes this showcase truly unique is the inclusion of both rough and cut & polished stones, all sourced from various regions across Sri Lanka. This ground-breaking event marks the first time in history that a gem and jewellery show will exhibit stones in their raw, uncut state alongside their meticulously refined, cut, and polished forms.



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The $2bn dirty-money case that rocked Singapore

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The case has put Singapore's status as a financial hub in the spotlight (BBC)

A Singaporean court has begun handing out sentences in a sensational case, which saw 10 Chinese nationals charged for laundering $2.2bn (£1.8bn) earned from criminal activities abroad.

The scandal embroiled multiple banks, property agents, precious metal traders and a top golf club. It led to extensive raids in some of the most affluent neighbourhoods, where police seized billions in cash and assets. The lurid details have gripped Singaporeans – among the seized assets were 152 properties, 62 vehicles, shelves of luxury bags and watches, hundreds of pieces of jewellery and thousands of bottles of alcohol.

Earlier this month, Su Wenqiang and Su Haijin, became the first to be jailed in the case. Su Haijin, police said, jumped off the second-floor balcony of a house trying to flee arrest. Both men will serve a little over a year in prison, after which they will be deported and barred from returning to Singapore. Eight others are still awaiting the court’s decision.

Even as it draws to a close, the case – the biggest of its kind in Singapore – has raised inevitable questions. The money that paid for their plush lives in the country, prosecutors said, came from illegal sources overseas, such as scams and online gambling.

How did these men, some of whom had multiple passports from Cambodia, Vanuatu, Cyprus and Dominica, live and bank in Singapore for years without drawing scrutiny? It has sparked a review of policies, with banks tightening rules, especially around clients who hold multiple passports.

Most important, the case has spotlighted the country’s struggle with welcoming the super wealthy, without also becoming a destination for ill-gotten gains.

Getty Images A Rolls-Royce Dawn vehicle seized by police at a residence of Su Jiafeng, one of the suspects in the S$2.8 billion money-laundering case, in Singapore, on Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2023.

Luxury cars were among assets police seized in their raids (BBC)

Singapore, which is often referred to as the Switzerland of Asia, started wooing banks and wealth managers in the 1990s. Economic reforms in China and India had begun to pay off, and then in the 2000s, a newly-stable Indonesia saw wealth grow as well. Soon, Singapore became a haven for foreign businesses, with investor-friendly laws, tax exemptions and other incentives.

Today, the ultra-rich can fly into Singapore’s private jet terminal,  live it up in luxurious quayside neighbourhoods, and speculate on the world’s first diamond trading exchange.  Just outside the airport is a maximum security vault called Le-Freeport that provides tax-free storage for fine art, jewels, wine and other valuables. The $100m-facility is often dubbed Asia’s Fort Knox.

Singapore’s asset managers drew S$435bn from abroad in 2022, almost double the figure in 2017, according to the country’s market regulator. More than half of Asia’s family offices – firms which manage private wealth – are now in Singapore according to a report by consulting giant KPMG and family office consultancy Agreus.

They include those of Google co-founder Sergey Brin, British billionaire James Dyson and Chinese-Singaporean Shu Ping, boss of the world’s biggest chain of hotpot restaurants, Haidilao.

Authorities say some of the accused in the money laundering case may be linked to family offices that were given tax incentives.

“There is an inherent contradiction for a place like Singapore, which prides itself on clean and good governance but also wants to accommodate the management of massive wealth by offering advantages such as low taxes and banking secrecy,” says Chong Ja-Ian, a non-resident scholar at Carnegie China.

“The risk of also becoming a banker for individuals who earned their money through nefarious or illicit means grows.”

Getty Images Infinity pool on top of a hotel in Singapore

Singapore’s attraction for the ultra-rich comes with risks, analysts say (BBC)

For rich Chinese, Singapore is a top choice because of its reputed governance and stability, as well as its cultural links to China. And more Chinese money has been entering Singapore in recent years.

One of the 10 suspects in this case was wanted in China since 2017 for his alleged role in illegal gambling online. Prosecutors claimed that he settled in Singapore because he “wanted a safe place to hide from the Chinese authorities”.

Chinese investment into Singapore is growing. .  .

This isn’t the first time Singapore-based banks have been implicated in a financial crime. They were found to have played a role in cross-border laundering in the 1MDB scandal, where billions were misappropriated from Malaysia’s state investment fund.   Dan Tan, who was once described by Interpol as “the leader of the world’s most notorious match-fixing syndicate” also had strong business links to Singapore. He was arrested here in 2013.

The country has strict rules targeting white collar crimes and is an active member of the Financial Action Task Force, a global body which targets money laundering and financing for terror networks. Over the years, banks have invested heavily to strengthen compliance, to screen prospective customers and to urge regulators to report suspicious transactions. But none of this is foolproof.

For one, it is difficult for regulators to spot suspicious cases in a sea of high-value transactions. “It’s not just one needle in a haystack, but one needle in several haystacks,” Singapore’s second minister for home affairs, Josephine Teo, told parliament in October last year.

Singapore’s buoyant property market is a popular means to “clean” dirty money, some experts pointed out. And there are the casinos, nightclubs and luxury stores.

“Massive amounts of money pass through Singapore’s banking system every day. Criminals can exploit this feature and disguise their money laundering activities among legitimate ones,” accounting professor Kelvin Law from Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University told the BBC.

Getty Images Buildings under construction in Singapore, on Saturday, Feb. 17, 2024.

Singapore’s property market is one of the routes for dirty money, experts say (BBC)

Singapore also does not limit the amount of cash that can be carried in and out of the country, only requiring a declaration if the sum exceeds S$20,000. And that is an advantage, says Christopher Leahy, the founder of Singapore-based investigative research and risk advisory firm Blackpeak.

“If you want to move lots of money, you hide it in plain sight and Singapore is a great place for that. There is no point putting it in the Cayman Islands or the British Virgin Islands, where there is nothing to spend money on,” he said.

When asked for a response to analysts’ comments that Singapore’s advantages as a financial capital are also a draw for dirty money, authorities pointed the BBC to the law and home affairs minister interview in a local newspaper last year.

“We can’t close the window, because if we did that, then legitimate funds will also not be able to come. And legitimate business also can’t be done, or becomes very difficult to do. So we have to be sensible,” K Shanmugam said.

“When you are successful, you are a major financial centre, a lot of money comes in, some ‘flies’ will also come in,” he added, referring to an oft-repeated quote of the late Chinese leader, Deng Xiaoping.

Singapore has to decide how far it will go in accepting “money with varying shades of grey”, says Dr Chong of Carnegie China.

While increased regulation will help, he says transparency poses a bigger challenge: “Transparency goes against the very model of discretion that allows many wealth management hubs to thrive.”

Some analysts say this may well be the price Singapore is willing to pay to retain its position as a financial hub.

“The vast majority of the funds are legitimate, after all,” Mr Leahy says. “But there is an inevitable cost to being a major financial centre.”

(BBC)

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Vietnamese billionaire Truong My Lan sentenced to death for $44bn fraud

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Truong My Lan is accused of looting one of Vietnam's largest banks over a period of 11 years (BBC)

It was the most spectacular trial ever held in Vietnam, befitting one of the greatest bank frauds the world has ever seen.

Behind the stately yellow portico of the colonial-era courthouse in Ho Chi Minh City, a 67-year-old Vietnamese property developer was sentenced to death on Thursday for looting one of the country’s largest banks over a period of 11 years.

It’s a rare verdict – she is one of very few women in Vietnam to be sentenced to death for a white collar crime.

The decision is a reflection of the dizzying scale of the fraud. Truong My Lan was convicted of taking out $44bn (£35bn) in loans from the Saigon Commercial Bank. The verdict requires her to return $27bn, a sum prosecutors said may never be recovered. Some believe the death penalty is the court’s way of putting pressure on her to help locate the missing billions.

The habitually secretive communist authorities were uncharacteristically forthright about this case, going into minute detail for the media. They said 2,700 people were summoned to testify, while 10 state prosecutors and around 200 lawyers were involved.

The evidence was in 104 boxes weighing a total of six tonnes. Eighty-five defendants were tried with Truong My Lan, who denied the charges.

“There has never been a show trial like this, I think, in the communist era,” says David Brown, a retired US state department official with long experience in Vietnam. “There has certainly been nothing on this scale.”

The trial was the most dramatic chapter so far in the “Blazing Furnaces” anti-corruption campaign led by the Communist Party Secretary-General, Nguyen Phu Trong.

A conservative ideologue steeped in Marxist theory, Nguyen Phu Trong believes that popular anger over untamed corruption poses an existential threat to the Communist Party’s monopoly on power. He began the campaign in earnest in 2016 after out-manoeuvring the then pro-business prime minister to retain the top job in the party.

Vietnam's Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong speaks to the media after a meeting with US President Joe Biden at the Communist Party of Vietnam Headquarters in Hanoi on September 10, 2023.

Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong is leading an anti-corruption campaign (BBC)

The campaign has seen two presidents and two deputy prime ministers forced to resign, and hundreds of officials disciplined or jailed. Now one of the country’s richest women has joined their ranks.

Truong My Lan comes from a Sino-Vietnamese family in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon. It has long been the commercial engine of the Vietnamese economy, dating well back to its days as the anti-communist capital of South Vietnam, with a large, ethnic Chinese community.

She started as a market stall vendor, selling cosmetics with her mother, but began buying land and property after the Communist Party ushered in a period of economic reform, known as Doi Moi, in 1986. By the 1990s, she owned a large portfolio of hotels and restaurants.

Although Vietnam is best known outside the country for its fast-growing manufacturing sector, as an alternative supply chain to China, most wealthy Vietnamese made their money developing and speculating in property.

All land is officially state-owned. Getting access to it often relies on personal relationships with state officials. Corruption escalated as the economy grew, and became endemic.

By 2011, Truong My Lan was a well-known business figure in Ho Chi Minh City, and she was allowed to arrange the merger of three smaller, cash-strapped banks into a larger entity: Saigon Commercial Bank.

Vietnamese law prohibits any individual from holding more than 5% of the shares in any bank. But prosecutors say that through hundreds of shell companies and people acting as her proxies, Truong My Lan actually owned more than 90% of Saigon Commercial.

They accused her of using that power to appoint her own people as managers, and then ordering them to approve hundreds of loans to the network of shell companies she controlled.

The amounts taken out are staggering. Her loans made up 93% of all the bank’s lending.

According to prosecutors, over a period of three years from February 2019, she ordered her driver to withdraw 108 trillion Vietnamese dong, more than $4bn (£2.3bn) in cash from the bank, and store it in her basement.

That much cash, even if all of it was in Vietnam’s largest denomination banknotes, would weigh two tonnes.

She was also accused of bribing generously to ensure her loans were never scrutinised. One of those who was tried used to be a chief inspector at the central bank, who was accused of accepting a $5m bribe.

The mass of officially sanctioned publicity about the case channeled public anger over corruption against Truong My Lan, whose haggard, unmade-up appearance in court was in stark contrast to the glamorous publicity photos people had seen of her in the past.

But questions are also being asked about why she was able to keep on with the alleged fraud for so long.

People relax on the bank of Saigon River in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, on Sunday, February 25, 2024.

The trial took place in Ho Chi Minh City, where Saigon Commercial Bank was based (BBC)

“I am puzzled,” says Le Hong Hiep who runs the Vietnam Studies Programme at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore. “Because it wasn’t a secret. It was well known in the market that Truong My Lan and her Van Thinh Phat group were using SCB as their own piggy bank to fund the mass acquisition of real estate in the most prime locations. “It was obvious that she had to get the money from somewhere. But then it is such a common practice. SCB is not the only bank that is used like this. So perhaps the government lost sight because there are so many similar cases in the market.”

David Brown believes she was protected by powerful figures who have dominated business and politics in Ho Chi Minh City for decades. And he sees a bigger factor in play in the way this trial is being run: a bid to reassert the authority of the Communist Party over the free-wheeling business culture of the south. “What Nguyen Phu Trong and his allies in the party are trying to do is to regain control of Saigon, or at least stop it from slipping away.

“Up until 2016 the party in Hanoi pretty much let this Sino-Vietnamese mafia run the place. They would make all the right noises that local communist leaders are supposed to make, but at the same time they were milking the city for a substantial cut of the money that was being made down there.”

At 79 years old, party chief Nguyen Phu Trong is in shaky health, and will almost certainly have to retire at the next Communist Party Congress in 2026, when new leaders will be chosen.

He has been one of the longest-serving and most consequential secretary-generals, restoring the authority of the party’s conservative wing to a level not seen since the reforms of the 1980s. He clearly does not want to risk permitting enough openness to undermine the party’s hold on political power.

But he is trapped in a contradiction. Under his leadership the party has set an ambitious goal of reaching rich country status by 2045, with a technology and knowledge-based economy. This is what is driving the ever-closer partnership with the United States.

Yet faster growth in Vietnam almost inevitably means more corruption. Fight corruption too much, and you risk extinguishing a lot of economic activity. Already there are complaints that bureaucracy has slowed down, as officials shy away from decisions which might implicate them in a corruption case.

“That’s the paradox,” says Le Hong Hiep. “Their growth model has been reliant on corrupt practices for so long. Corruption has been the grease that that kept the machinery working. If they stop the grease, things may not work any more.”

(BBC)

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‘NSB continued to prove its resiliency within economic shudder’

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Rs. 1.7 Tn Asset base

Rs. 1 Tn investment base

Rs. 1.5 Tn Deposit base

Impaired Loans (Stage 3) Ratio 2.41% (net of stage 3 impairment)

Gross Income raised by 33% YoY

The year 2023 was another challenging year for almost all the sectors of the economy specially the banking sector. Grappling with aftermath of pandemic followed by largest economic crisis in post-independence history, and socio-political uncertainties and monetary tightening, National Savings Bank including all the other banks faced their toughest financial year.

Being a licensed specialized bank with limited financial market opportunities, NSB demonstrated its mettle by recording a Profit after Tax (PAT) of Rs. 7.2 billion for the fiscal year ended December 31, 2023, a testament to its adept management and highly skilled workforce.

The Banks’ achievement of Rs. 7.2Bn PAT was mainly surged by 31% increment of Interest Income. The Bank strategically allocated more than 60% of its customer deposits investing in Government Debt Securities capitalizing on the higher interest rates prevalent in 2022. This prudent investment strategy yielded a substantial interest income of Rs. 137.7Bn which was an upswing of 36%. Interest received through Loans and Advances also grew by 36.3%, an increment of Rs. 23.4 Bn.

Net Gain from trading rose up to Rs. 3.7Bn at the group level which was a 206% increase from last year where we recorded a loss from trading. However, NSB was able to turn around the situation with professional due care and commitment, underscoring NSB’s adeptness in capitalizing on market opportunities.

The Bank however, encountered challenges in net fee and commission income, witnessing a 34% decline due to subdued demand for loans and advances amid higher interest rates then prevailed. Fee and Commission Income was mostly contributed from Retail Loans and Corporate Banking. Both lines of business were clogged due to unwholesome micro financial conditions.

Exceeding the growth rate of Interest Income, the Interest Expense of the Bank also increased by 41% year-over-year (YoY). This rise in the cost of funds, particularly from Fixed Deposits which represent the largest portion (81%) of NSB’s deposit base, contributed to a congestion in the positive growth of Net Interest Income due to the lag effect of liability repricing.

Impairment charges of the Bank decreased by 12% on 2023 compared to the same period last year. The Bank closely monitors and considers the impact of economy to business operations and performance.

In terms of Asset Quality, with all the obstacles, NSB has one of the lowest Impaired Loans (Stage 3) Ratio 2.41% (net of stage 3 impairment) compared to the industry rate of 7% at the end of year fiscal year 2023. Further, the Bank maintains above industry impairment coverage ratio of 53.3%.

Personnel and other expenses were increased by 17% and 16% respectively being in consistent with inflationary situations globally. The Bank recorded a PBT of Rs. 4.3 Bn which was a 5% decrease from the last year. Recording deductible temporary difference of Differed Tax there was a credit of Rs. 2.5 Bn to Income Tax Reversal and created differed tax asset. Accordingly, the Bank was able to spot Rs. 7.2 Bn PAT.

Despite the challenges posted by micro financial conditions and moving to low-interest-rate set-up, the Bank was able to grow its deposit base by Rs. 5.8Bn. On the back of 100% ownership of Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) and the 100% explicit guarantee provided by the GoSL for the money deposited with the Bank and the interest thereof through the National Savings Bank Act, NSB continued to assure the customer confidence on their deposits.

The Bank’s investment portfolio grew by Rs 62.4Bn amidst the low demand for loans and receivables and the Bank’s strategic move to flow its interest earning assets to a most profitable alternative available. As perfectly described earlier these investments in Government Securities could earn Rs. 137.7Bn Interest Income. Surpassing the industry average of Investment to Total Asset Ratio of 35.8%, NSB recorded 62.4% in 2023.

Total Asset base remarked to Rs. 1.7Tn on 2023 showing a markup of 4% compared to last year. The Bank generated 9.36% of ROE and 0.26% of ROA (Before Tax) in 2023.

The Bank maintained highly liquid asset portfolio when compared with the banking industry. Surpassing the minimum requirement of 20%, NSB has 55% of Statutory Liquid Asset Ratio where the industry average is 44.9% at the end of the year 2023. Liquidity Coverage Ratio (All currency) of NSB is 293.7% which is far more than the minimum requirement of 100% at the end of the year 2023.

The Bank is cushioned adequately to cover potential losses to protect the interests of the Bank’s depositors and other lenders. Accordingly, NSB marked well above regulatory minimum in terms of Capital Adequacy Ratios. The Banks’ Common Equity Tire 1 Capital Ratio was 15.3% at the end of 2023 (minimum requirement -7%) where industry score was 13.4%. Tier 1 Capital Ratio of NSB was 16.9% (minimum requirement – 8.5%) where industry score was 13.8% at the end of 2023. Total Capital Adequacy Ratio of NSB at the end of 2023 was 19.3% where the industry marked it to 16.9%.

As such, NSB continued to stamp its position as “Safest Bank in Sri Lanka” in every aspect such as liquidity, balance sheet management, performance and credit and market risk management. The Lanka Rating Agency (LRA) has assigned the Bank with the issuer rating of [SL] AAA with Stable Outlook. The Bank has been awarded the 6th most valuable brand in Sri Lanka by the Brand Finance Lanka Ltd on 2023. NSB also ranked among the Top 10 Women Friendly Workplaces in Sri Lanka for third consecutive year on 2023.

(NSB)

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