AI-based compliance systems to play key role in ASEAN’s fight against money laundering

Photo: Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and its impact on Southeast Asia’s economies, banks in the region remain committed to enhancing compliance. Most institutions see artificial intelligence as vital to combating money laundering and other financial crimes.

By Joelyn Chan

No bank can prosper without a financial crime strategy in place. As financial crime has evolved and cybercriminals have developed different ways of attacking banks, financial institutions have had to constantly refine those strategies to try to stay one step ahead and protect their customers.

In May, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), a global anti-money laundering (AML) watchdog, reported an increase in COVID-19 related crimes. FATF increases its monitoring of countries it sees as not doing enough to combat money laundering, which can limit their ability to receive foreign direct investment. Cambodia and Myanmar are currently the only two ASEAN countries that could end up on FATF’s blacklist.

FATF found they had strategic deficiencies in their regimes to counter money laundering, terrorist financing, and proliferation financing. Adhering to timelines agreed with FATF or the Asia/Pacific Group on Money Laundering, they must now work on action plans to enhance due diligence. For now, both nations remain on FATF’s “grey list”.

The compliance industry takes center stage, highlighting issues with legacy systems

That development highlights how governments and regulators are facing challenges on several fronts. They cannot ignore COVID-19 and its impact on their economies but they must also keep a close eye on compliance. However, Jaede Tan, managing director of ComplyAdvantage Asia Pacific told ASEAN Today that “the pandemic has shone a spotlight on the compliance industry.”

He added that this is due to the stimulus packages governments in the region have provided for businesses. “Governments have taken care to make sure that the money only reaches legitimate businesses and helps keep them afloat,” he clarified.

Existing or legacy regulatory solutions are no longer fit for purpose in the modern business environment. COVID-19 has triggered new norms such as remote working practices, alternative working arrangements and greater use of online services.

Being able to work securely from anywhere in the world with easily customizable and configurable solutions is now a vital part of compliance technology where previously it might not have been considered. It’s no longer a feature but a necessity. “The pandemic has not just meant remote work for employees but remote onboarding for customers too,” said Tan.

Compliance and security go hand-in-hand and are increasingly important. Global police body Interpol reported that between January and April, one of its private sector partners detected 907,000 spam messages, 737 incidents related to malware and 48,000 malicious URLs related to COVID-19. The Lyon-based agency expects another spike in phishing, network intrusion and cyberattacks attempting to steal data from individuals and institutions.

How can artificial intelligence help the fight against criminal behavior?

ASEAN nations are now pinning their hopes on artificial intelligence (AI). According to FICO’s Integrated AML Compliance Survey, the majority of Southeast Asian countries are committed to using AI to improve AML.

This shows a significant shift from initial skepticism of the effectiveness of new technologies. Depending on the level of complexity, AI can provide automation, analytics and predictive risk management capabilities—an improvement on previous methods and much more reliable.

In fact, one expert, KV Karthik, a partner at Deloitte’s Forensic practice, expects a shift from incident-driven AML programs to frameworks with strategic and longer-term views. “Regulators today expect banks to have a consolidated view of customer transactions across businesses and jurisdictions, to identify any unusual transactions and behaviors, or potential sanctions violations,” he said. “The current technology frameworks may pose a challenge to doing that and banks need to take a strategic and longer term view of technology investments.”

Regulatory technology (regtech) firms grow in importance

“The pandemic didn’t accentuate the importance of regtech, it highlighted the importance of having flexible systems of compliance that can work in any setting,” added Tan. “Regtech fills that gap. In the future, regtech should no longer be considered a separate identity from other regulatory products, it’ll simply be the standard.”

Digital transformations that could otherwise have taken decades to achieve have occurred in months, mirroring rapid developments and rollouts in other sectors, for example healthcare. However, things are moving quickly in the short-term as the industry reacts to the crisis. To avoid losing momentum, regtech firms should unite and work together more than ever before in the long-term. Businesses must work with multiple providers for the various elements of compliance that they require.

For example, Tan shared details of how data suppliers are working closely with identity verification (IDV) and electronic Know Your Customer (eKYC) providers. With the use of technology, regtech firms like ComplyAdvantage can mitigate compliance risk and detect new AML patterns quickly.

ASEAN members are ready to invest to increase compliance

COVID-19 has forced businesses to adapt and removed barriers that were delaying upgrades to their financial crime strategies. During profitable and busy times prior to the pandemic, institutions would have struggled to find time to carry out upgrades.

That argument is no longer viable and enhancements are needed to bring businesses back into profit. When software company FICO surveyed ASEAN-based banks in May, the respondents indicated firm commitment to AML spending despite the recent economic downturn; banks are willing to spend more to improve their AML compliance defenses.

Source: FICO’s Integrated AML Compliance Survey

Source: FICO’s Integrated AML Compliance Survey

Among the ASEAN nations surveyed, banks in Indonesia were most inclined to increase compliance technology expenditure in 2020 and 2021. The nation has seen a recent surge in online crimes, which strongly justifies the need for institutions to be extra vigilant. The Indonesian National Police has stepped up online monitoring efforts, but a round-the-clock AI-based system will be more efficient.

The rapidly shifting regulatory landscape demands a parallel evolution in compliance standards. Instead of playing catch up and reacting to criminal activities, it is time for financial institutions to take proactive measures with AI-based compliance systems.

To their credit, ASEAN banks seem committed to doing so—and with good reason. After all, a strong compliance system will not only maintain customers’ confidence amid uncertainty, but also boost business resiliency.

About the Author

Joelyn Chan
Joelyn is a freelance writer based in Singapore. She graduated from Nanyang Technological University with a Double Bachelor in Accountancy and Business. During her free time, she explores the latest developments in fintech and business.