This article first appeared on The Star
THE Panama Papers, the world's biggest leak, highlighted the complex ways used by companies and individuals to conceal who the actual beneficiaries of a company are.
Some of them put their money into offshore accounts such as in Labuan, which is also an off-shore financial centre and tax haven.
One way to overcome corruption and money laundering activities is by introducing a central registry for beneficial ownership of companies registered in Malaysia and those keeping funds in Labuan.
A beneficial owner of a company is the person who truly owns, enjoys and controls the company even though the title to some form of property or security is in another's name.
The goal of registry for beneficial ownership is to provide greater transparency as to ownership and who really controls a company so as to distinguish between the registered shareholder and the ultimate beneficial owner when the two persons are not the same.
This move also ensures corrupt officials and politicians will be unable to award themselves, through their families or cronies, any government contracts. Apart from preventing the giving of contracts to related parties, it can also promote good governance and prevent companies from being misused or involved in illicit business, and help identify and report suspicious activities.
Such accountability will attract investors who will be able to access information and scrutinise relevant data when considering an investment.
The Government should ensure that all information related to the person who ultimately controls or benefits from companies is included in a central business registry which the public can access. For a start, the Government must make it mandatory for all companies who are bidding for public sector contracts to disclose those who actually own, control or benefit from the company.
In the UK, the government has started to introduce and create a public register of beneficial ownership, and the US introduced a rule on July 11. 2016 which requires financial institutions to collect information on significant beneficial owners of legal entities.
Creating and accessing this open data repository is important to disclose who owns the companies and makes it more difficult for fraudsters and white collar criminals to hide their illegal money, and also helps to detect acts of corruption, tax evasion and money laundering.
In KPMG's 2013 Fraud, Bribery and Corruption Survey, 90% of respondents said that bribery and corruption were the biggest problem for businesses in Malaysia.
PwCs Global Economic Crime Survey 2016 showed that bribery and corruption rose from 19% in 2014 to 30% in 2016. It also estimated that global money laundering transactions comprise 2% to 5% of global GDP, or roughly US$1 tril to US$2tril annually.
Yet, based on the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), less than 1% of global illicit financial flows are currently seized by authorities.
Offshore funds are also a potential source of illegal money. The amount of money stashed via shell companies and offshore tax havens has been pegged to be as high as US$21tril. according to the Tax Justice Network. There are also studies which show that terrorist financing, money laundering and corruption are among the byproducts of offshore secrecy.
In Malaysia, the Commercial Crime Department of the Royal Malaysia Police reported that "any criminal activity that generates significant profit creates a need for money laundering. Organised crime and financial crime together costs Malaysia between RM15bil and RM25bil per annum."
The requirement for disclosure of beneficial ownership can help stop the proceeds of corruption, transnational crime and organised crime from being laundered through investments in high-value property in Malaysia.Apart from damaging economic and capital flow, these illegal activities have a greater impact on our society and the image of Malaysia. There is no good reason why this measure should not be immediately adopted by the Government.
DATUK AKHBAR SATAR
President, Transparency International Malaysia.
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