THE money-laundering scandal that saw $81 million in stolen funds disappear after passing through accounts at RCBC bank has gripped the local media for the past several days. In addition to daily news reporters, nearly all of our columnists here at The Manila Times (and in most of the other newspapers in town) have expounded at length on the topic, and we would assume, knowing columnists, probably have a great deal more to say about it.
Despite the volume of written news and opinion the scandal has produced so far, we have the impression that no one – especially not our public officials, but also including us in the media and the public at large – has a proper understanding of just how damaging the affair is to the Philippines.
The theft of $100 million from the account of Bangladesh Bank at the Federal Reserve of New York is the single largest bank robbery in history, and the second- or third-largest robbery of any kind, surpassed only by the theft of nearly $1 billion by Russian-based hackers in April last year – that robbery involved dozens of banks – and the $300 million Hatton Garden diamond heist in London, which was ultimately unsuccessful, that occurred the same month. Even though investigators are still trying to connect the dots, the Bangladesh heist evidently involved a widespread conspiracy operating in three or more countries, with the Philippines playing the most significant role as the place the money, all but $19 million of it intercepted by Sri Lankan authorities, was last seen.
Our government is facing two immediate and very critical challenges. First is to solve the crime, at least that part of it involving the apparent ease with which the conspiracy was able to launder the money through our country. The second, and more important in the long run, is to take whatever action is necessary to demonstrate that we have a proactive system of laws and oversight to prevent this sort of scandal from happening in the first place – or rather, prevent it from happening again, since it is obvious that our existing systems were helpless against criminals who were carrying out an operation that simply required more determination than imagination, as laundering money through casinos is, as we have heard it described, the most basic form of money laundering there is.
This is not the time for the Aquino Administration to dispatch its spokespeople to flippantly dismiss the matter by claiming, “the systems are basically working,” only because the relevant authorities are now aware the crime occurred. And this is also not the time for the Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC), personified by its chairman, Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas Governor Amando Tetangco, Jr., to largely disappear from public view. Forthright and honest explanations of what went wrong to allow the scandal to happen here, and what needs to be done to improve the country’s defenses against illicit financial transactions are needed not only by the public, but more importantly, by the business and investment community, and the financial authorities in other countries, if the Philippines has any wish to restore its battered reputation and blunt the now very real risks of being declared a financial pariah.
Not acting quickly, transparently, and effectively puts our country’s credit standing and the financial well being of millions of OFWs and their families at grave risk, and as a consequence, threatens the entire economy that Governor Tetangco and his colleagues, as well as the country’s banking sector, have worked very hard to support, with good results so far. There is still time to do so, but the sand in that particular hourglass has almost run out.
With the turmoil a change in Administration will bring even under the best of circumstances, the last thing our country needs is to be regarded with even greater suspicion by the outside world.