The charismatic bankrupt who allegedly pulled the strings behind Singapore's largest stock manipulation scandal

The charismatic bankrupt who allegedly pulled the strings behind Singapore's largest stock manipulation scandal

Stanislaus Jude Chan
26/03/19, 04:23 pm

SINGAPORE (Mar 26): Garbed in purple overalls, John Soh Chee Wen cuts a relaxed figure as he takes his seat. The garment falls fittingly on his athletic frame, not unlike a designer suit. It could well have made a fashion statement, save for the word "prisoner" emblazoned in white across the back.

As his legal team huddled around him before the start of the trial, the 60-year-old is a picture of calm. At one point, he casually flashes a thumbs up at his lead counsel, N Sreenivasan, a managing director and senior counsel at Straits Law LLP.

Then, as he turns back to his seat in the dock, Soh shares an easy smile with a hawk-eyed guard standing over him.

Just moments ago, before the defence counsel returned to the courtroom from the judge's chambers, Soh was deep in conversation with his co-defendant, Quah Su-Ling. The alleged co-conspirators are said to have shared an “intimate relationship”.

Quah is attentive. Armed with a yellow notepad, she scribbles down notes during the conversation. Presumably, she would later share these points with her own defence counsel, led by Philip Fong, a managing partner at Eversheds Harry Elias LLP.

In contrast, Soh looks tranquil. His prison uniform – he has been held in remand since November 2016, and has been denied bail for fear of being a flight risk – is the only visible sign that he is on trial. Almost nonchalantly, he crosses his legs – no mean feat, considering his ankles are cuffed – and leans back ever so slightly. His body language betrays no sign of anxiety, if he was feeling any.

Though, he should be feeling anxious. Soh is described as the mastermind behind what authorities have described as "the most serious case of stock market manipulation in Singapore".

Together with Quah, Soh is alleged to have orchestrated, via 189 trading accounts controlled by the pair, the remarkable rise – and just as spectacular plunge – in prices of shares in three companies: Blumont Group, LionGold Corp, and Asiasons Capital (now renamed Attilan Group).

In October 2013, their ploy unravelled, wiping out $8 billion in market value in the aftermath.

"Do you understand the charges against you?" asks Justice Hoo Sheau Peng in court on March 25, in Day One of the long-awaited trial for the scandal that rocked the Singapore Exchange and has battered investor confidence in the bourse.

"Perfectly," Soh answers.

He could have replied with a simple "yes", as did Quah when she was asked the same question moments later. But that would have been uncharacteristic of him.

Soh is a showman, and beams with a self-confidence that has allowed him to charm his way into a position of power in the penny stock saga, despite being an undischarged bankrupt. And this is the John Soh show.

Soh is said to have been the mastermind behind the scheme. Indeed, the Malaysian national pulled the strings, and masterfully played the role of puppet-master.

First, none of the 189 trading accounts used to artificially inflate the liquidity and manipulate the price of the shares in the three companies was his own. Instead, Soh willed Quah and 59 other individuals and companies – drawn from family, friends and known associates – to hand over their trading accounts for him and his co-conspirator to control.

These include the trading accounts belonging to Adeline Cheng Jo-Ee, who prosecutors describe as Soh’s “romantic partner”, as well as trading accounts belonging to two companies owned by Cheng and her father. Cheng is expected to be called as a prosecution witness against Soh and Quah later in this first tranche of the trial.

Soh and Quah used a variety of manipulative means, including a practice known as "wash trading", where they repeatedly traded shares in the three companies with themselves, to manufacture false trading volume.

Then, by offering the shares in these companies as collateral, the pair is alleged to have deceived financial institutions into extending share financing to the controlled accounts. In this way, Soh and Quah are believed to have duped financial institutions of millions of dollars in financing. Prosecutors say banks, brokerages and other financial institutions suffered a total of more than $350 million in unpaid losses in the wake of the October 2013 crash of Blumont, LionGold and Asiasons.

As an undischarged bankrupt, Soh was not allowed to be concerned in the management of a company without the leave of court or permission from the Official Assignee. But he is believed to have been involved in the corporate affairs of the three companies, pulling the strings in the background by bending others to his will.

Soh is also alleged to have later sought to conceal his and Quah's involvement in the scheme from the investigating authorities by tampering with no less than four witnesses.

With his arms crossed and his reading glasses pressed against his lips, Soh showed no emotion as the prosecution, led by deputy public prosecutor Peter Koy, laid out his alleged crimes and modus operandi.

Looking at how supremely confident and self-assured Soh was in court – even as he faced 189 charges, 11 more than Quah – it was not difficult to imagine how he managed to pull off the most audacious case of stock market manipulation in Singapore’s history.

In arguing for Soh to be given bail, his defence counsel Sreenivasan had earlier claimed that Soh faced adverse conditions while in remand, where he has been for the past 29 months since his arrest, which interfered with his trial preparations. The defence lawyers had argued that the team faced limitations in preparing for the trial while he is kept in prison, where he had to sit cross-legged or squat in front of a plastic box.

Yet, Soh no sign of being worse for wear as he appeared in court on March 25. Indeed, there was hardly any indication of any anxiety on the face of the man who could potentially be facing the longest-ever jail term for financial crime in Singapore.

Soh’s sentence is expected to dwarf that of former Asia Pacific Breweries’ accountant Chia Teck Leng, who made history 15 years ago when he was convicted of cheating four banks of $117 million and sentenced to 42 years’ jail.

But if Soh is worried, he’s not showing it – characteristic of a man fully in control even as he allegedly pulled off Singapore’s largest stock manipulation scandal.

Making casual conversation with his client as Soh returned to the courtroom after a mid-day recess, a member of Soh’s legal team was overheard asking Soh if his lunch was better than in prison.

"Eh, about the same," Soh quips, as he broke into a grin.

Purple is the colour of royalty. And the charismatic mastermind behind the 2013 penny stock crash is holding court.

2013 Penny Stock Crash

John Soh Chee Wen is the alleged mastermind behind the penny stock crash of 2013, which prosecutors have called “the most audacious, extensive and injurious market manipulation scheme ever in Singapore”.

Together with his alleged co-conspirator and girlfriend Quah Su-Ling, Soh and his associates are alleged to have been behind the massive rise and sudden collapse of shares in Blumont Group, LionGold Corp and Asiasons Capital (now Attilan Group), which wiped out some $8 billion in market value.

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