Whistling in the Wind - The Decline of Equality, Truth and Trust in Singapore
Updated: Oct 19
18 October 2023
Dear Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong,
I recently read this in-depth piece on whistleblowing in Singapore written by a Channel News Asia (CNA) journalist. It was titled "Harassment, intimidation and sabotage: Can more be done to protect whistleblowers? Davina Tham wrote a great article and should be praised for her courage in tackling this important subject, but it didn't go far enough in my opinion. There seems little point in protecting whistleblowers if the Singapore legal system is inequitable, and conflicted individuals are taking decisions whether to protect or persecute, with no independent oversight.
Pav Gill who was the whistleblower in the Wirecard fraud said in the article that the Singapore Police Force (SPF) were the only ones to act immediately after he had taken his complaint to the Financial Times who exposed it internationally. But if Wirecard had been a Singapore Government Linked Company, or parties connected to the power structure were involved, and Pav Gill had taken his complaint to the Straits Times or other local media, he too may have found himself in the same situation as the Noble Group, City Harvest Church, NUS and other whistleblowers. As was seen in the Noble Group fraud, the regulators attempted to discredit the whistleblower until the matter was exposed internationally, and only then did the Singapore authorities act. Even then the perpetrators were given a slap on the wrist and not unlike those implicated in the US$55 million Keppel bribery case, were allowed to maintain their anonymity, which led to the headline “HOW SINGAPORE’S REGULATORS HAVE FAILED NOBLE’S INVESTORS AND SHIELDED THE FRAUDSTERS”
In the CNA article, NUS Professor Mak Yuen Teen was quoted as saying that "If a company does not take a report seriously or blocks investigations internally, external options for the whistleblower can be limited." That has certainly been my experience in Singapore, and I question if maintaining Singapore's 'clean' reputation and protecting those connected to the power structure, is the unspoken mandate for the authorities and Government Linked Companies? Is there some small print to the claims of a zero tolerance to corruption, no cover-ups allowed and no-one being above the law that is not visible to most of us?
In 2015 I went to the Audit Committee Chairpersons of SGX listed EZRA Holdings and Triyards and reported a host of issues including but not limited to a conspiracy to defraud, allegations of forgery, non-disclosures, conflicts of interest, plans to manipulate a share price, misleading investors when raising funds, non-disclosure of a writ which implicated a board member in a pattern of fraud, and that a A$3.5 million payment had been offered which would lead to the writ being retracted and the allegations hidden. Yes, the CEO, COO and Chairman of Triyards stepped down from the board en-masse but investors were kept in the dark as to the background. The wealthy, well-connected father of the Chairman stepped into his son's shoes, whilst his son Lionel Lee (Lee) remained MD of EZRA Holdings, being the largest shareholder of Triyards. Both EZRA Holdings and Triyards Audit Committee Chairpersons stepped down, along with many other board members.
Lee was a member of the SGX Listings Advisory Committee and the SGX Regulator sat idly by whilst investors were kept in the dark and US$2billion of proposed transactions were announced. The EZRA Holdings Group would go on to collapse leaving many facing significant financial losses, including Chiyoda and NYK who wrote off over US400 million between them, with DBS, OCBC and UOB financially exposed by some $637 million, $300 million and $166 million respectively. I had warned both the authorities, and financially exposed DBS and OCBC that something was very wrong, and my whistles fell on deaf ears.
Two letters from Government linked DBS bank, an option deed purportedly drawn up by politically connected law firm Allen & Gledhill, and Lee's associate the former CEO of KTL Global Wilson Tan were utilized in the conspiracy to defraud. DBS Legal was asked by lawyers if the two DBS letters were authentic and it took DBS almost 8-weeks to send a standard rejection letter citing banking secrecy obligations. During that delay, investors were misled when Triyards raised funds to purchase assets from a company in which Lee held an undisclosed claim to a beneficial interest, and the acquisition was completed.
Over many years I liaised with two DBS Group Heads of Financial Crime, two DBS Group Company Secretaries and two PwC Partners in Charge of the DBS Audit and requested assistance. Whether coincidence or not, I would watch on as all would leave their roles. I witnessed DBS Legal stipulate that the two DBS letters were not to be included in a supposedly independent whistleblower submission. No-one has accepted accountability for auditing the DBS whistleblower program and to explain how the whistleblower program of the World's best bank could be so easily compromised, purportedly without the bank’s knowledge.
Lawyers acting for the DBS Board told Asian Sentinel that I had acted with malice, when DBS would have known that was untrue. A former MD of another Singapore GLC had raised the same concerns about my complaint and the DBS whistleblower program with the DBS CEO. Why should anyone have any confidence that whistleblower programs in ANY Singapore Government Linked Company, or submissions made to regulators and legal bodies are not railroaded to whitewash toward a predetermined conclusion, never to see the light of day unless exposed internationally? I wasn’t surprised when Lee Hsien Yang and others raised questions in relation to the Ridout saga, because to me that demonstrated the lack of trust which exists.
Lee had been legally represented by Allen & Gledhill, which was headed up at the time by the current Attorney General, and the current Second Minister of Law was Lee's lawyer. Because of what I saw as clear conflicts, I directed my complaint to the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB). However, the CPIB passed it to the SPF who would seek guidance from the Attorney General’s Chambers. The SPF purportedly ASSESSED my complaint for 18-months and within a week of me reaching out to the Attorney General to raise concerns over the delay, the SPF said it was case closed due to lack of sufficient evidence. It was later alleged that the SPF made no contact with the Directors, Executives or Management of Triyards, or the DBS Group Head of Financial Crime during their 18-months assessment.
Asian Sentinel wrote an article on my long fight for justice. Your Office (PMO) told the Editor of Asian Sentinel that the office has “corresponded directly with Ms. Julie O’Connor regarding her allegations and will continue to engage her as necessary. We will not be commenting further on the matter, or responding to the questions you have posed, as it is inappropriate for us to discuss such matters with third parties.” I was surprised that the PMO didn't tell Asian Sentinel the truth, that the SPF had already closed the case citing insufficient evidence.
There was no further engagement from the PMO, so I followed up on the feedback provided to the Asian Sentinel. The SPF then wrote to me and advised that it had been asked to REVIEW its original ASSESSMENT, and it went on to consult with Attorney General's Chambers. It was not surprising that the findings remained the same, there was insufficient evidence for an INVESTIGATION to be commenced into the client of the former law firm headed by the Attorney General. This is astounding when Indonesian maid Parti Liyani was investigated, charged, prosecuted, and found guilty based on flimsy and perjured evidence before her acquittal. Even if my damning evidence were to be pushed one side, I would argue that from the information contained in the five-articles written by prominent NUS Professor Mak Yuen Teen which are based purely on public information, there was enough for an investigation to be undertaken into the activities of the EZRA Holdings group.
Your former personal lawyer, who is the current Attorney General, was head of Allen & Gledhill when one of the firm's lawyers sat across the table from me in Perth whilst the EZRA Holdings Legal Counsel admitted that a shareholder agreement was invalid due to a forged signature being affixed. The Allen & Gledhill lawyer went on to state that if the writ which implicated Lee in allegations of forgery and had been served on two subsidiaries of EZRA Holdings was made public in Singapore the following day, that there would be a fallout. This public fallout was prevented because Lee's lawyers facilitated an agreement where A$3.5 million would be paid to the authorised representative of the Plaintiff and his associates (of which I was one), if the documents containing the forgeries were ratified and endorsed, the evidence was handed over, letters of retraction of complaints made to authorities were provided, and the undisclosed writ was retracted. Paying for evidence to be hidden doesn’t mean that crimes were not committed, just that there was an attempt to cover-up, as we saw happen in cases involving Jeffrey Epstein, Harvey Weinstein and the Watergate scandal.
If the Attorney General, the Second Minister of Law and the DBS Board are somewhat legally or politically constrained, and their first and foremost duty must be to protect their former client Lee, then my understanding is that the only way forward is for you to request the CPIB to investigate? If you refuse, then the Director of the CPIB who reports to you can ask permission from the President to investigate. The same President who was until recently a former PAP Minister under your leadership. Maybe after eight-years of blowing the whistle I have become sceptical as to the existence of the mythical independent Singapore watchmen.
The hypocrisy wasn’t lost on me when Law Minister Shanmugam recently stated that your brother Lee Hsien Yang wanted ‘special treatment’ after Lee Hsien Yang suggested independent arbitration in relation to a defamation suit he is facing. If suggesting independent arbitration is described as wanting 'special treatment', one must question what the description for overlooking cover-ups and hush money might be. Perhaps 'extra special treatment' for well-connected individuals like Lee?
Legal firms can hide behind client privilege, financial institutions can hide behind banking secrecy, the regulators can hide behind privacy obligations and the legal bodies can hide behind the Attorney General's prosecutorial discretion. So, who or what is there to prevent selected individuals in Singapore from receiving the 'extra special treatment' which undoubtedly destroys equality, truth and trust?
Earlier this year you addressed the spate of scandals that have beset your government in the past few months acknowledging that such incidents occur from time to time. You said:
"When they do, we deal with them properly and transparently. That is what we have always done, and that is what we have done this time too… Let there be no doubt: my Government is determined to keep our system free of corruption and wrongdoing. We will maintain our high standards of honesty, integrity, and propriety. Singaporeans have come to expect this of us, and so have our international partners.”
Which begs the question what happened in my case?
Rather timely, I saw the following comments included in an international publication today, which also happens to refer to the lack of an investigation into the EZRA Holdings Group of companies.
“Mr Goh and his former Swiber colleagues can only reflect on why they face criminal charges for a corporate announcement, when those who were complicit in Keppel for alleged bribe payments of US$55 million to officials of Brazilian state-owned oil giant Petrobras received only a warning.”
“Mak Yuen Teen has already published an excellent five part blog on the corporate governance issues that afflicted Ezra Holdings, Emas Offshore, and Triyards, three listed companies with intertwined shareholdings, dealings, and directors. He dubbed this fiasco the “Tri-Tanic”.”
“The wheels of justice grind mighty slow, and sometimes they grind imperceptibly.”
In my long-drawn-out fight for justice, not one person has had the courage to say sorry, to have the iron in them to say what took place was wrong. There has been a cover-up and if there was an independent investigation it may well be discovered to have been an institutional one. It's easy to stand on a podium and talk about honesty, transparency, integrity, and propriety, but it takes courage and integrity to walk that talk. I'm no longer whistling in the wind; I'm now whistling at you.
The buck is now on your desk Prime Minister, and without an independent investigation or some 'special treatment', the empty promises and political propaganda will be there for all to see.