SINGAPORE: The Singapore Police Force’s operation against a money laundering group on Tuesday (15 Aug) sent shockwaves across the entire island.
The authorities successfully apprehended ten individuals and seized assets, encompassing properties and luxury cars, with an estimated combined value of around S$1 billion (equivalent to US$737 million).
While possessing different nationalities, all ten individuals hail from Fujian, China. They hold multiple passports issued by countries including Vanuatu, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Cyprus, Turkey, and Cambodia.
Interestingly, an examination of online resources uncovers that these countries’ passports, often dubbed “golden passports,” grant individuals the privilege of obtaining citizenship and a passport by making an investment ranging from US$100,000 to over $1 million, without the obligation to take up residency.
Tracing back to the 1980s, European and Mediterranean nations introduced “investment migration” initiatives, giving birth to the phenomenon of “golden passports” that magnetize the affluent class.
These passports provide unparalleled global mobility and can be strategically employed for asset relocation to mitigate tax implications.
Jho Low, Malaysia’s most wanted fugitive, also holds a ‘golden passport’
In recent times, illicit groups have capitalized on this system for money laundering activities, prompting strong condemnation from both EU nations and international transparency organizations.
Jho Low, the Malaysian financier now among the world’s most wanted fugitives, reportedly possesses several such passports.
Low obtained a citizenship passport through investment from Saint Kitts and Nevis, a small Caribbean island nation, back in 2011.
However, his citizenship there was revoked in 2018 after comprehensive international investigations into the 1Malaysia Development Berhad scandal.
He is believed to currently hold a Maltese passport and had acquired a Cypriot passport in 2015.
Passport issuance standards under scrutiny
A Chinese firm specializing in offshore office setup and account establishment highlighted in an article that Cyprus, Vanuatu, and Turkey are widely recognized in the industry for their lenient due diligence processes when it comes to passport issuance.
“Past records reveal that individuals, including those with questionable or criminal histories, have been able to acquire passports through financial avenues.”
Addressing the individuals implicated in the notable money-laundering scheme exposed in Singapore, the service provider underlined that Cyprus suspended its program three years ago, leading to the revocation of numerous passports in recent years. This has significantly marred the country’s reputation.
An Al Jazeera report in 2020 compelled Cyprus to close its investment-for-citizenship program.
The report unveiled that, among the 2,500 individuals who acquired Cypriot passports between 2017 and 2019, dozens were facing criminal charges in other countries, had previous convictions, or were under international sanctions.
While Vanuatu’s program has not been entirely terminated, the European Union has revoked visa-free access, leaving only a few countries eligible for such entry privileges.
As of now, Turkey seems relatively stable. However, there’s a strong likelihood that a scenario similar to Cyprus might emerge in the near future.
Concerning one of the arrested suspects, Su Haijin, who was found in possession of foreign passports believed to be issued by the People’s Republic of China and Cambodia, the article speculates that alleged bribery could have been involved in obtaining the Cambodian passport.
This passport might have been a stepping stone for acquiring a Cyprus passport, potentially aimed at concealing any prior criminal history.
Most “affordable” golden passport?
Each year, approximately 50,000 individuals secure secondary citizenship through the acquisition of so-called ‘golden passports,’ as revealed by Dr Kristin Surak, an assistant professor at the London School of Economics and the author of the comprehensive book “The Golden Passport: Global Mobility For Millionaires.”
This count doesn’t encompass those opting for long-term residency instead of full citizenship.
According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), more than 100 nations extend some form of citizenship-for-investment or donation programs.
While many maintain robust safeguards against misuse, the OECD has identified 14 countries that, it asserts, harbor citizenship and residency initiatives that “potentially pose a high-risk to the integrity” of a worldwide agreement aiming to combat tax evasion and money laundering.
Online resources provided by agencies facilitating applications for affluent individuals indicate that the Dominican Republic, situated in the Caribbean Sea of South America, currently boasts the most affordable entry point.
Its Citizenship by Investment (CBI) program requires a minimum donation of just US $100,000.
Next on the list is Vanuatu, nestled in the Pacific, with an investment threshold of $130,000.
Saint Kitts and Nevis, another Caribbean gem, extends citizenship for a mere investment of $250,000.
Cyprus demands a commitment of $320,000.
In the realm of Mediterranean island nations, Malta, once a popular choice among the affluent, necessitates investments, donations, or property ownership amounting to over 1 million euros (approximately US$1.09 million).
|Countries||Passport delivery||Minimum Investment||minimum donation||
Visa-free Travel countries
Length of residency
|Malta||14 months||€750,000||€10,000||186||12 months|
|Dominican Republic||3 months||$200,000 (on real estate)||$100,000||153||–|
|Saint Kitts and Nevis||4 months||$400,000||$250,000||166||–|
|Saint Lucia||4 months||US$300,000||US$100,000||147||–|
|Austria||2-3 years||€10 million||€3 million||199||–|
|Antigua and Barbuda||4 months||$200,000||$100,000||161||–|
The booming golden passport industry
Investment Migration Insider, a publication focused on migration matters, estimates the value of the golden passport industry to be approximately US$21.4 billion.
By the year 2025, this industry is projected to generate revenues of US$100 billion for the nations participating in it.
In nations like Canada, a stringent approach prevails regarding citizenship bestowal. Prospective citizens can attain Canadian citizenship by making an investment of C$1.2 million (approximately US$884,401) or by contributing a C$350,000 donation.
Nonetheless, these applicants must undergo a five-year waiting period before being granted their passport, during which they are obligated to uphold their Canadian residency.
Germany maintains a lower investment threshold of €350,000 (US$381,202), yet the passport waiting period is extended to eight years.
As for those aspiring to acquire American citizenship, a minimum investment of US$900,000 into a US company is mandatory. Furthermore, they must maintain US residency for at least five years.