"Don't Shoot the Messenger" - My Journey to Uncover a Singapore Fraud

Updated: Jan 13

If my speaking up has achieved nothing more than exposing the stench of cronyism, impotent watchmen and the loopholes in the banking secrecy laws in Singapore, all of which could be abused to cover up or facilitate fraud or corrupt activities, it will have been worth it.

I raised serious concerns about a Board Member of several SGX listed entities ["EZRA Group"] who alarmingly is a long serving member of the SGX listings advisory committee and remains a member despite being involved in three companies that collapsed and with so many alleged breaches. Clearly, this Board Member has a poor grasp of Corporate Governance and the lack of action by regulators raises serious questions about the ability and appetite of the SGX and other regulators to take action against well-connected, errant Board Members and companies. Instead, it is easier to shoot the messengers to keep the Singapore façade looking pristine, whilst putting investor funds at risk. I suspect that the Wirecard, Noble, City Harvest Church, National Kidney Foundation whistleblowers may have all faced similar headwinds in Singapore.

"The idea that SGX cares about whistleblowers and by extension protecting investors is proven false by the tragic Noble Group fiasco. The whistleblowers who would like to expose issues about a Singapore-listed company should think twice: SGX is unlikely to act and may try to discredit them instead." ~Arnaud Vagner Director, Iceberg Research, Seychelles

I want to publicly thank John Berthelsen Editor of the Asian Sentinel, not just for the article "Australian Woman's Fight to Prove Singapore Fraud" which he had the courage to write and publish, but for achieving what several others had failed to do. That is to have the Board of DBS put their heads on the block and publicly claim that all the DBS investigations have found that the two DBS letters which had been used in a conspiracy to defraud are authentic.

Yes, Wong Partnership did advise me of the findings in 2018. However, having a forensic document examiner and a former DBS financial crime employee stating that the DBS letters lacked credibility, numerous DBS investigations undertaken which raised concern; and being aware that some lawyers can stretch the truth, I reached out to the two former DBS Group Heads of Financial Crime for confirmation.

Both former DBS Group Heads of Financial Crime, despite being asked, had earlier refused to confirm that the DBS letters had not been tampered with, before they left their roles. After reaching out to them, I was swiftly threatened with legal action if I disclosed the findings to any third-party, it appears that included those individuals who had undertaken the investigations. If I am not mistaken the DBS Board are now confirming that:

  1. The two DBS letters and the supporting documentation which were used in a conspiracy to defraud, did originate from DBS on the dates shown on them

  2. The two DBS letters match the bank's file copies

  3. DBS staff are responsible for all the errors and inaccuracies contained in the letters and documents

  4. DBS staff omitted to include references and a return address on both letters

  5. The two DBS letters were sent for legitimate reasons

  6. The DBS investigations conducted by DBS Legal, two former Group Heads of Financial Crime and the former Company Secretary all found that the two DBS letters which were presented to Minter Ellison had not been tampered with.

Saying something is true does not necessarily mean it is true, again I refer back to the City Harvest Church and National Kidney Foundation frauds. In this instance, given that DBS was in a position of conflict, I believe the burden of proof resides with DBS. If DBS has the confidence in its own findings, then I suggest it provides proof. We have offered to pay for the original DBS letters to be subjected to the same forensic analysis as the copies of the letters we have in our possession, which found the DBS letter to be lacking in credibility. I also offered for a full forensic signature analysis of the author's signature to be undertaken. DBS have declined both requests, only agreeing if regulatory or legal bodies request that this is undertaken.

Note: a DBS whistleblower program would refuse to investigate the authenticity of the letters.

To an outsider, the response provided to Asian Sentinel by the lawyers representing Government Linked DBS bank makes it all appear so simple, She asked if the DBS letters were authentic, DBS told her, but she doesn't believe them! But as can be seen from my prolonged interactions with DBS it has been a long journey, with our lawyer at Minter Ellison starting the ball rolling when he wrote to DBS Legal in 2014. Minter Ellison raised concerns in regard to a DBS conflict of interest and the authenticity of two DBS letters which had been used to wipe 92.2% - 96.6% (A$30m - A$40m) off a one-week-old valuation of an Australian company Strategic Marine Pty Ltd (SM) which the MD EZRA Holdings (Lee), an influential DBS client was attempting to acquire. The DBS letters were also used to strip the pre-emptive rights which a SM shareholder had exercised, making way for a A$1.265m acquisition attempt by a company controlled by Lee.

The two DBS letters were used as part of a conspiracy to defraud and of additional concern was that Lee was described on two occasions as being able to request favours from a senior member of DBS staff, on the condition that DBS was not made aware. And this was no 'normal' acquisition. A sham option deed was used in a plan to manipulate the share price of an SGX entity, there were allegations of forged signatures being affixed to agreements on behalf of a struck off Bahamas entity, there were numerous breaches of a Director's statutory duty to disclose interest in transactions and this was followed by the non-disclosure of a writ which implicated an EZRA Holdings Board Member in an alleged pattern of fraud. The DBS letters remain an important piece in the jigsaw.

Banking Secrecy Loopholes

If DBS Legal knew that under section 47 of the Banking Privacy Act they were prevented from authenticating any documents purported to have been sent by DBS, the standard "we are hiding behind banking secrecy" spiel could have been sent within 24-hours. But DBS took eight-weeks to respond with that spiel, during which time the EZRA Group subsidiary would acquire the Singapore and Vietnam assets of SM, after significant pressure was alleged to have been exerted over the SM subsidiaries by both DBS and OCBC. DBS and OCBC may have been totally unaware that their names were being bandied about in order to defraud others, but being unable to confirm if the banks were exerting the alleged pressure, due to banking secrecy, is yet another loophole for errant individuals to exploit. That is, in addition to the refusal by banks to authenticate letters, documents, statements in a timely manner, if at all. The Wirecard fraud immediately springs to mind.

DBS and OCBC may not have exerted the pressure alleged of them below, but banking secrecy prevents them from confirming. Lee's company had failed to acquire SM and its subsidiaries due to allegations of forgery and because a shareholder had exercised his pre-emptive right to purchase SM. At the time the banks were alleged to have exerted the pressure below, which would force SM to sell its assets to Lee (leaving a shell company behind), the SM group had cash in the bank, had paid down the bank's loans, would go on to make over A$15m NPAT, pay out millions in dividends and would be building boats for stock. There was no mention in the SM valuation report prepared by BDO of the alleged actions taken by DBS or OCBC or the DBS letters. Incredulously, the SM valuation would dramatically increase from the A$1.17m - A$3.26m decimation which was caused by the DBS letters, to A$49.3m - A$63.6m! BDO were asked to verify the authenticity of the DBS letters and the actions undertaken by DBS and OCBC, it appears that they were unable to verify either. Unfortunately, this valuation report only appeared after Lee's company had acquired the SM assets. DBS and OCBC would later use the SM assets acquired by the EZRA Group as collateral for EZRA Holdings loans.

Extract from Minter Ellison letter to DBS

The delay in DBS legal responding to Minter Ellison's letter was of course a concern and it was disappointing that DBS refused to authenticate the DBS letters prior to or after the completion of the acquisition by the EZRA Group subsidiary. The Commercial Affairs Department of the Singapore Police refused to engage with DBS unless I could prove to them that the DBS letters originated from the Singapore bank, which of course DBS had refused to confirm! Perhaps another Singapore loophole that investors need to be mindful of, "the passing of the buck".

Contrary to what the DBS lawyers Wong Partnership suggest, I have never spoken up out of malice, just sheer frustration. We were the ones standing up and waving the red flags that something was seriously amiss within the EZRA group. The same group of companies in which Government Linked DBS; and OCBC were heavily financially exposed and now face becoming the biggest losers following the group's collapse. I have only one regret, I wish I had blown the whistle harder and sooner, to possibly help save some of the EMAS Group investors/creditors from facing significant financial losses. But that really shouldn't have been my job.

Never have I seen such shoddy and conflicted governance in any company as within the EZRA Group. I saw the potential for fraud, but when I raised the alarm I looked on as the board members stepped down and not up, regulators were impotent, auditors E & Y hid behind client privilege; and DBS and OCBC behind banking secrecy.

"The timing of the actions is crystal clear, the pieces fit together like a John Grisham novel. It was a brilliant but corrupt scheme..." ~ former Singapore GLC Executive


When I uncovered and reported numerous serious concerns involving a Board Member of the EZRA Group and asked that an independent auditor be appointed by the SGX, I didn't see or hear the "no cover-ups are allowed in Singapore" message, but instead saw impotent watchmen, followed by a financial offer to buy silence.

Despite promises made by Singapore's Prime Minister that no cover-ups are allowed, here we were being threatened that we would receive nothing for my husband's shares, after Lee's company had stripped the assets, unless we agreed to ratify and endorse the four documents which I had uncovered contained the alleged forged signatures. Others and I had to agree to handover the evidence and provide letters of retraction of all the complaints made, to Lee. Lee being the very person I was making the complaints about. It reminded me of the City Harvest Church whistleblower being forced to publicly apologize to the later convicted pastor. Here I was being put in the position of writing to financial institutions, regulators, audit committees and even those implicated in the affixing and witnessing of the forged signatures, if my husband was to recoup any losses resulting from the conspiracy to defraud him.

"I hereby unconditionally and irrevocably withdraw and retract the said communications and the subject matter therein. A dispute had initially arisen between parties which has since been amicably resolved." (extract)

Vincent Lau claimed that his signature had been forged on at least four SM documents and a forensic document examiner supported the claim that Lau did not sign those documents. Prior to Lau being offered A$3.6m to ratify and endorse the same four documents and retract the writ, he repeatedly stated that he didn't see, sign or authorise anyone to affix his signature to the SM documents on behalf of a struck-off company. Documents which were claimed to have been delivered to the offices of EZRA Holdings. No-one falls over a rug and accidentally affixes forged signatures to four documents and finds a witness to do the same!

Left genuine signatures. Right four alleged forged signatures.

An extract from one of the four documents containing the alleged forged signature

A writ was issued in Singapore on two subsidiaries of SGX listed EZRA Holdings, by Lau who alleged the misappropriation of shares, which again I uncovered during extensive research. The Statement of Claim also referred to allegations that Lau's signature had been forged on four documents relating to SM. Lau described how Lee's Singapore lawyers unsuccessfully attempted to have any reference to the forgeries removed from the writ. I presume faced with the prospect of the writ being made public and the whole dirty can of worms being exposed in Singapore, the decision was taken to make a financial offer of A$3.6m which would see the writ retracted. Then Lee's personal assistant Barbara Ong, would not be forced to disclose the identity of who she witnessed affixing the alleged forged signatures on behalf of a struck off entity.

The Singapore lawyers who flew to Perth to meet with us the day prior to the financial offer being made to Lau, claimed that making the writ public would lead to 'fireworks' in Singapore. Their tone of voice and facial expression didn't suggest to me that a champagne celebration was on the cards for the EZRA Group, more likely the iceberg would move significantly closer. It is not clear how many parties to the transaction prominent law firm Allen & Gledhill were representing and they have not responded when asked that question.

If someone has been accused of being a fox, would you employ them to look after your henhouse? Why weren't local and international investors/stakeholders made aware of the writ prior to being lured to invest in the EMAS Offshore Limited S$500m Debt Issuance Program, the EZRA Holdings US$300m Rights Issue and the EMAS Chiyoda US$1.25bn JV? These were serious allegations implicating an EZRA Group Board Member, who in addition to many other corporate governance lapses, including an allegation of insider trading, had on several occasions failed to disclose conflicts of interests in transactions.

One must sit back and wonder what is going on when two of the largest banks in Singapore, who stood to lose so much money, appeared to do so without a whimper. Had the EZRA Holdings Board also failed to appraise their principal financial institutions about the undisclosed writ, the allegations of forgery and misappropriation of shares, and the background to the writ's withdrawal? In addition to the red flags which I was ferociously waving, did both banks not see the red flags that NUS Prof Mak Yuen Teen would later write about?

EZRA was placed into Chapter 11 in the US for a couple of years and then went under Judicial Management in Singapore. The sceptic in me wonders if this was more about hiding the wrongdoings and protecting Singapore's well-connected, than allowing the rehabilitation of a financially distressed company for the benefit of investors.

"Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong highlighted the role of the whistle-blower, explaining that there was no way the Government could keep watch on everything.

He said: "If you feel some group has gone wrong and you have the information about it, then come forward and give the information."

I did come forward in 2014 as Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong suggested to little avail. The watchmen proved themselves impotent, and maybe greed blinded others. Whilst I remain open to being proven wrong, in my opinion the board members of EZRA and Triyards have utterly disgraced themselves through the most appalling lack of transparency, financial controls and governance which may have contributed to the Group's collapse, leaving many victims in its wake.

If Singapore's leadership GENUINELY want a clean system and to protect Singapore's international reputation, they should stop shooting the messengers and instead concentrate on straightening their beams, starting now!

There is a Chinese proverb: "If the top beam is askew, the bottom beams will be crooked." Keeping a system clean must start at the very top ~Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong