Is Singapore Inc. Putting Down the Welcome Mat for White-Collar Criminals?
When I lived in Singapore between 2001 - 2012, I admit I bought into the propaganda that Singapore's Government is very apt at spreading. I didn't give a thought to the fact that they controlled the press, curtailed free speech and had a huge marketing budget to buy some great smoke and mirrors. I believed the PM when he promised that there was a zero tolerance to corruption, no cover-ups allowed and that no-one was above the law. Yes, what a naive, bloody moron I was!
When I spoke up publicly that all was not as it appeared, I believe it was in late 2015, I was lambasted. How dare I suggest that the Singapore regulators and legal bodies were impotent and maybe even wilfully blind to the fraud that was happening under their nose. But I continued nonetheless, even after the Singapore trolls attacked me and my family members. I tried as hard as I could to get audit committee chairpersons, banks, regulators, and legal bodies to see that they were protecting an errant board member and investors would be left the victims. But sadly, it all fell on deaf ears and blind-eyes, whilst me and others watched on as Singapore's darling, the EZRA Holdings group hit the proverbial iceberg. But by that time most of the crew had already jumped ship and were on their way to steer another vessel with plans to pick up some more unsuspecting passengers, once the dust settled and investors had forgotten their pain.
But as Arnaud Vagner of Iceberg Research wrote in the case of Noble and I totally agree with him, "Singapore's regulators just don't care." They can’t be criticized by the press. They can try to discredit whistleblowers. They are the unreachable elite."
"Stock exchange regulators are defined by the actions they take against major frauds. Noble’s fraudsters will get away with no consequence in Singapore. I compared Noble to Enron in my reports because of the similarities in their accounting practices, and both filed for bankruptcy. But the regulatory environment made all the difference. Enron’s management faced a jury after nine months. Its CEO and CFO served time in prison. Singapore regulators, on the other hand, took seven years for a slap on the wrist and some “stern” warnings."
Like Arnaud I found exactly the same after liaising with MAS and SGX, "My interlocutors showed little enthusiasm for digging into the nitty-gritty." "They didn’t seem interested."
"But Singapore has a unique regulatory environment. The frontline regulator is SGX’s own subsidiary: SGX RegCo, run by Mr. Tan Boon Gin. The SEC in contrast is an independent agency that oversees securities markets in the US. The SGX’s priority was never to go after fraudsters. Noble was an index constituent with substantial trading volumes. This was what mattered: protect the money flow. The SGX would insist that RegCo is an independent entity. I don’t know about that. Would you incorporate a subsidiary if you want the company to be independent? Mr. Tan also received a total remuneration of US$1.2m in 2021, which is a very nice salary, even by Singapore’s standards. He earned a total of US$4.1m between 2018 and 2021. I doubt SGX would pay Mr. Tan so much if he started to rock the boat. Meanwhile, frauds and scandals pile up on this small stock exchange: Best World, Hyflux, Eagle Hospitality… Enforcement is virtually non-existent."
But we have to understand that compliance staff, regulators and indeed many others in Singapore have little choice but to stay silent and be wilfully blind or suffer the consequences. As former Singapore President Devan Nair wrote "...the bread of those who conform is handsomely buttered. Keep your head down and you could enjoy one of the highest living standards in Asia. Raise it and you could lose a job, a home, and be harassed by the Internal Security Department or the Inland Revenue Department, or by both, as happened to Francis Seow.” Is Mr. Tan or any other regulator going to raise their head to protect investors?
"Historically, SGX was able to attract high-quality companies from around South Asia, expanding its market beyond its own country. But the number of new listings has declined over the years."
"And along with delistings, the number of listed companies and total market cap has steadily decreased."
"The cause of this slowdown is that the regulators have refused to go after fraudsters, whose dubious companies have been attracted by the environment of impunity. Noble is an example. It was listed in Hong Kong but moved to Singapore. Many hedge funds and investors gave up on investing in SGX-listed companies, because of this lack of enforcement. Valuation and liquidity declined. Companies that want to maximize their valuation choose not to list in Singapore as a consequence. It’s a vicious cycle."
"Nobody is more outraged at the situation than Singaporeans themselves. The stock exchange is a perennial black spot in an otherwise successful finance center. But Singaporean journalists who did a fabulous job of reporting on Noble have less freedom to criticize regulators the same way. The media is controlled by the government."
Since Arnaud made the above comments, we have seen six-parties implicated in the US$55M Keppel bribery scandal also just given a stern warning and allowed to maintain their anonymity. Similarly, the EZRA Holdings and Triyards board members have never been held to account and can now go forth and rinse and repeat their errant activities, in the knowledge that they will be protected.
I suspect that white-collar criminals will flock to the island because of the welcome mat that allowed the Noble fraud. As Michael Dee ex-Temasek described "The SGX and MAS have proven themselves incapable and impotent while greed has blinded the vast array of financial intermediaries..." Again, given my experience, I agree with Michael's comments.
It seems implausible to me that Singapore's leadership are a bunch of naked emperors or empresses who can't see what's happening from their ivory towers, and whose underlings are pulling the wool over their eyes and telling them how good Singapore's regulatory reputation looks. But who knows maybe their egos are that big. Perhaps they will only wake from their slumber when they find themselves ruling over the ashes of what once was a reputation to be proud of.
SGX agreed with the EZRA Holdings Board this was nothing for the investors to see. It wasn't material that a board member was implicated in forgery relating to an acquisition, and the misappropriation of shares. Or that he had personally offered A$3.5M for the writ to be retracted, for evidence to be handed over and letters of retraction of complaints made to SGX, DBS, himself and many others to be provided. It was OK that he repeatedly failed to make disclosures, be accused of insider trading and much more... he could go on to oversee companies proposing to announce US$2 billion of transaction and then steer the ship into the Iceberg! It was OK that DBS would be financially exposed by some S$637M... because SGX had a listing!
And legal bodies had enough work to do chasing after an Indonesian maid to prosecute after her elite boss feared she might expose his activities!