Singapore may send a former government executive to prison for life to protect its graft-free image, after jailing the first of his alleged accomplices in a decade-long scam for 10 years.
Ho Yen Teck, 31, was sentenced on Friday for his part in cheating three government agencies of more than S$12.5 million (US$9.7 million), the city’s biggest public-sector graft case since 1995. Prosecutors say Koh Seah Wee, a former deputy director at the Singapore Land Authority (SLA), masterminded the fraud, which has “severely shaken the public confidence” in government controls. Koh, whose trial hasn’t been set, faces 372 charges, each of which carries a maximum term of up to 10 years.
“Given the severity of the case, it’s not surprising that Ho was given a heavy sentence,” said Wilson Ang, a Singapore-based regulatory and investigative lawyer with London-based Norton Rose LLP, who isn’t involved in the case.
Public servants convicted in the case will face a more severe sentence as a deterrent, Ang said.
Prosecutors have moved Koh’s case to the High Court given the seriousness of the matter, according to an e-mailed statement from the Attorney General’s chambers. There isn’t a statutory ceiling on possible jail terms in the High Court.
Singapore pays its top officials the world’s highest public salaries to prevent graft and was ranked the most business-friendly country by the World Bank in November. The city-state has built a US$182 billion economy by attracting companies including Hewlett-Packard and Pfizer with its reputation for strong investor protection and low corruption.
That image has been dented by the duration of the fraud, which lasted from July 1999 to March last year, and the allegation that Koh and former colleague Christopher Lim Chai Meng used the money to buy apartments and cars including a S$1.6 million limited-edition Lambor-ghini Murcielago LP670-4 SV and a Ferrari F430.
“Singapore’s a small island with a tough reputation,” said Glenn Knight, a former director of the Commercial Affairs Department who was sentenced to a day’s jail and suspended from legal practice on corruption charges in 1991.
“You have to wonder how the SLA guys got away with it for such a long time,” said Knight, who resumed working as a lawyer in 2007.
Koh, 40, is accused of defrauding the Singapore Supreme Court of an undisclosed amount, the Intellectual Property Office of Singapore of S$286,000 and the land authority of S$12.2 million. He and Lim, 37, his former subordinate, submitted false invoices through various shell companies set up by five people, including Ho, for fictitious information technology services and goods at the land agency, according to court papers.
Ho’s lawyer, Jackson Eng of Drew & Napier LLC, said he is seeking his client’s instructions on whether to appeal the sentence.
Besides luxury apartments and sports cars, Koh allegedly used the money to buy US$500,000 worth of American International Group shares and unit trusts, according to court documents.
About S$10 million in cash and assets have been recovered, the police have said.
Koh’s lawyer Ravinderpal Singh declined to comment as the case is before the courts.
“It’s a warning against complacency in both the internal controls and the quality of people in the public service,” said Ang of Norton Rose.
While most people feel the fraud is an aberration rather than a systemic problem, the city should work toward regaining public confidence by closing the loopholes that were exploited, he said.
Singaporean Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam told Parliament in November that the fraud was due to “human failure” and that public sector purchasing processes were “fundamentally sound.”
The law ministry, which oversees both the intellectual property office and land authority, set up independent review panels and recommended both agencies tighten certain processes.
“No system can guarantee to prevent fraud against a skillful operator,” Singaporean Law Minister K. Shanmugam said in November.
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