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Singapore’s rise sparks boost in defense against financial crime

Bloomberg
Bloomberg4/27/2022 12:58 PM GMT+08  • 3 min read
Singapore’s rise sparks boost in defense against financial crime
Singapore is girding to tackle white-collar cases that are expected to become more complex. Photo: Bloomberg
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Singapore is girding to tackle white-collar cases that are expected to become more complex as the city-state expands as a global financial hub.

The crime unit of its prosecutor’s office is “actively recruiting” to add to its current bench of about 200 prosecutors and investing in technology that’s able to sift through documents that could run into millions of pages, according to one of its top law officers.

Singapore’s regulators have already moved to tighten oversight after a series of high profile corporate collapses and alleged frauds in recent years threatened the city-state’s reputation.

“Singapore is going to be an international hub for various matters,” Tan Kiat Pheng, chief prosecutor at the crime division of the Attorney-General’s Chambers, said in an interview, citing the city’s role as a financial, fintech, shipping and oil bunkering centre. “We welcome all sorts of investments in Singapore, but we will not allow anyone to come in and use our system.”

Recent corporate blow-ups include an alleged billion-dollar nickel trading investment scam at Envy Group that may be the biggest in the country’s history. The collapse of oil trader Hin Leong Trading Pte has also left its bank creditors struggling to recoup debts. Other unresolved cases that have hit retail investors hard over the years include blow-ups at Noble Group Ltd., the commodity trading house that remains under investigation for its accounting practices, and former market darling Hyflux Ltd., a water and power company that is also under probe for suspected false and misleading statements.

Move Quickly

See also: UOBKH says impact of $375k fine 'not material', appointing external party to validate remedial measures

Tan, who’s worked on cases including Malaysia’s 1MDB scandal, said he recognizes the need for urgency, especially for high-profile cases where investors and creditors are anxious to see a resolution. He cites court charges brought against alleged Envy nickel mastermind Ng Yu Zhi and Hin Leong founder Lim Oon Kuin within months of the scandals surfacing as instances of prosecutors moving quickly.

Ng and Lim haven’t entered pleas.

“We have to move in and quickly seize assets, forfeit them or return them to the victims,” Tan said. “The money cannot go back to the criminals.” In the case of 1MDB, he said Singapore has returned about $88 million in cash that was misappropriated from the plundered investment fund as of February.

See also: SGX RegCo flags Eneco Energy for further probes following independent review

Cooperation

The growing cross-border nature of financial crimes is one of the key challenges and will need increasing cooperation between agencies in various jurisdictions to counter this threat, Tan said. While working with the likes of the Monetary Authority of Singapore and Commercial Affairs Department at home, Tan’s team is also in close contact with counterparts in countries like the U.S., Switzerland and Luxembourg.

“We want to send a message to criminals who commit cross-border crimes that they aren’t only dealing with Singapore investigators and prosecutors, but with several global counterparts together and that means we are upping our game substantially,” Tan said.

“The reputation that Singapore has always enjoyed is that it’s a very orderly and safe place to conduct business. It took decades for us to build that reputation and position,” he said. “We have to guard that very closely.”

Photo: Bloomberg

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