Speech for Ministry of Home Affairs Committee of Supply 2022: White Collar Crime & Death Penalty

1. Sir/ Mdm, I beg to move “That the total sum to be allocated for Head P of the Estimates be reduced by $100”.

2. The Singapore Home Team enjoys high levels of trust and confidence amongst Singaporeans. Why is this so? Principally, it is because our Home Team continues to deliver on the promise to make Singapore safe and secure.

3. This is achieved despite significant challenges. As Parliamentarians, we need to ensure that we provide our Home Team with sufficient resources and legislative levers so that they will be in a good position to deliver on their mission.

4. In my speech, I will focus on 2 areas:

a. Providing better support to the Commercial Affairs Department, our premier white collar crime buster, in the fight against complex white-collar crime; and

b. Reviewing the effect of the death penalty as a deterrence against drug trafficking, murder and other serious crimes.

5. Turning to the 1st topic:

a. We have seen a significant increase in complex white-collar crime cases in Singapore which are being investigated by the CAD. Several examples, some of which I gleaned from the CAD Annual Report 2020/21, include:

i. The fraudulent billion-dollar investment scheme by nickel trading companies.

ii. Trade financing fraud involving several oil trading companies that has left banks with a combined exposure reported to be about US$3.5 billion.; and

iii. Numerous cases involving misconduct in the stock markets

  • Some of these cases have been unearthed because of the economic downturn caused by Covid-19 pandemic.

6. Needless to say, such cases affect the reputation of Singapore and her financial system. These perpetrators need to be firmly dealt with by the law.

7. But one thing astonishes me — what makes these people think they can get away with their offending conduct in Singapore? The scale and nature of these crimes show us that it is daylight robbery, not a thief in the night.

a. Everyone knows we have tough laws.

i. People convicted of serious white-collar crimes are imposed deterrent sentences.

b. But why do these serious crimes worth several billion dollars still happen with some regularity on our shores?

c. It seems to me that one issue that we have not yet nailed is detection.

i. A good number of these fraudsters think that their acts will not be detected. Is there any basis for this sort of thinking? If there is, we’d better make sure we address this expeditiously.

ii. We need a framework that will enable white collar crime to be detected as early as possible.

  • These persons must get the message that if they do the crime, they will be detected and will have to pay a high price.

d. How can we do this?

i. I note that there are already established strategies such as:

  • Leveraging on data analytics tools to process suspicious transaction reports, cash movement reports, cash transactions reports by institutions and individuals in Singapore; and

ii. One suggestion I wish to make is to have a whistleblowing legislation that not only protects whistleblowers from recrimination but also incentivises them should the information they provide lead to successful prosecution and recovery of stolen assets.

  • This is not a new idea;

— I have made the same suggestion in the past.

  • The reality is the white-collar crime criminals obviously commit their acts in secrecy — what we see in the open is not robbery but a legitimate front.

— The real underbelly can only be exposed through insiders.

— Insiders are not likely to volunteer information unless their interests are protected. I know this is a separate matter from providing incentives, but in a risk-benefit calculus, the benefit may not be mere protection. We are incentivised by way of rewards too.

iii. Another suggestion I have is to review the role of external auditors in order that they are in a better position to detect fraud in companies and report the matter to CAD.

  • Some Hon Members may be familiar with the German Parliament’s investigation into the shortcomings of the Wirecard’s auditor.

— By the way, the CAD has investigated Wirecard too which involves losses of more than E$ 1 billion and prosecution in Singapore is afoot.

— The report concluded that the auditor did not maintain sufficient professional skepticism, and this led to it accepting documents and instructions without sufficient scrutiny.

— There must be better alignment between the auditor’s role currently and the investing public’s expectations.

8. Next, we need to decisively tackle the problem of resourcing. I suggest we beef up manpower internally, and be more open to engaging other experts from the outside.

a. CAD is operating in a challenging environment on a day-to-day basis. Despite that, it is doing a very good job in bringing offenders of complex white-collar crimes to book.

i. As legislators, we need to ensure that CAD is sufficiently resourced so that investigations into complex white-collar crime are conducted fully and with due dispatch.

ii. The faster the culprits are prosecuted, the stronger the message of deterrence will be against like-minded offenders in the future;

b. The CAD faces manpower constraints:

i. After all, its officers continue to be highly sought after in the private sector:

  • Recruiters include banks, accounting firms and law firms too.

ii. We must acknowledge this and pay our CAOs as close as possible to their market value so that CAD will be able to retain its fair share of talent that it so assiduously honed over the years.

iii. It is the Government’s responsibility to ensure adequate resourcing to deal with criminality

  • I have heard laments about problems in recruiting people as IOs.

c. In addition, CAD should be given the flexibility to engage external resources from the private sector with sufficient safeguards put in place.

i. Every white-collar crime investigator of complex fraud knows that he has to contend with a data explosion in every case involving several terabytes of digital evidence.

  • Every whatsapp message, every email, every file has to be perused painstakingly.

— In the 1980s, when CAD was first formed under MOF, that drawing of private sector resources and talent did allow for successful prosecution in high profile cases.

— The UK Serious Fraud Office, set up under the Roskill Model, does tap on private sector talent to support the investigation and prosecution of its cases.

  • Of course, private sector resources need to be paid for.

— As far as possible, CAD must be given means to recover these costs as prosecution costs or under a Deferred Prosecution Agreements.

9. I look forward to hearing from the hon Minister on his plans to deal with scourge of complex white-collar crime to protect Singapore’s good reputation.

10. I now turn to the second part of my speech dealing with the death penalty.

11. The hon Minister spelt out the Government’s position on the death penalty on 5 Oct 2020.

a. He said as follows:

i. In determining whether to apply the death penalty to a particular offence, the Government takes into account 3 key considerations in totality:

  • Seriousness of the offence;

ii. Applying these considerations, the main offences for which the death penalty is imposed are intentional murder, gang robbery with murder, trafficking of significant quantities of drugs, terrorist bombing and use of firearms.

iii. The Government’s approach has resulted in Singapore being one of the safest places in the world to live; something that is deeply valued by Singaporeans.

12. Whilst the Government’s position on the relevance of death penalty has not changed, the approach taken to apply the death penalty to cases has changed dramatically since 1 Jan 2013 when the amendments made by this House in 2012 took effect.

a. 2 significant changes to the law were made:

i. Drug couriers convicted of capital drug trafficking offences who have been issued with certificates of substantial assistance to curtail drug trafficking activities or found to suffer from abnormality of mind would be imposed life sentences instead of the mandatory death penalty.

ii. In addition, the death penalty would only be imposed as a mandatory sentence for intentional murder. For the other forms of murder, the Court has a discretion to impose either the death penalty or life imprisonment.

13. Pursuant to a PQ I filed last month, the hon Minister revealed that for the period 1 Jan 2013 to 11 Feb 2022, out of 104 accused persons found to be couriers and convicted as drug traffickers:

a. 82 of them received certificates of substantial assistance and imposed with life imprisonment terms.

b. Of the remaining 22, the Court imposed life imprisonment on 8 persons on the basis that they were suffering from an abnormality of mind.

c. The Court imposed the death penalty on 14 persons. In other words, 13% of the persons found to be couriers and convicted of capital drug trafficking charges were imposed with mandatory death penalties.

14. In response to another PQ I filed last month, the Minister revealed that for the period between 1 Jan 2013 and 31 December 2021:

a. 20 persons were convicted for murder;

b. Of this number, 5 were sentenced to mandatory death sentence for intentional murder.

c. Of the remaining 15 who were convicted for committing other forms of murder, 14 were sentenced to life imprisonment and 1 person was imposed the discretionary death penalty.

d. In other words, 25% of the convicted persons were imposed mandatory death sentences.

15. The impact of the law is clear — the number of persons who are sentenced to mandatory death sentences have been reduced significantly.

a. Nonetheless, there could possibly be a watering down of the deterrent effect of the death penalty for drug trafficking.

i. I therefore ask whether there been any deterioration on the part of the Home Team’s ability to keep our country’s drug situation under control since the change in policy which has allowed a good number of drug couriers to escape the death penalty?

ii. If there is no deterioration of the drug situation, may I ask if Government is prepared to consider extending the issuance of certificates of substantial assistance to cover cases where drug couriers whose death penalties have been affirmed on appeal?

  • Currently, certificates are issued at end of the trial after conviction but just before sentence.

16. Most essentially, Singaporeans must continue to be convinced that the retention of the death penalty is essential for the Home Team to do its job in keeping Singapore safe and secure.

a. The fact that most Singaporeans agreed in the past does not mean their views may not change.

b. Outside Singapore, more and more jurisdictions have abolished the death penalty.

i. Singaporeans’ opinions can be shaped by these developments.

c. The Government has a responsibility to continually make the case of the continued use of the death penalty.

i. May I ask what has been the efforts of the Government on this front?

ii. Has there has been any recent survey to measure Singaporeans’ support for the death penalty regime as modified by the amendments I highlighted in 2012.

17. Sir, the Home Ministry’s mission is one which needs constant vigilance, not only in terms of policy implementation, but in its alignment with changing social norms and mores.

18. Our officers already enjoy the trust of Singaporeans. It is the duty of the Government to ensure that we help these officers succeed. From arresting the trend of increasing white collar crime to deterring serious crimes such as drug trafficking, our officers must be well resourced and adequately compensated so as to ensure that we continue to attract the brightest and the best, to take on the heavy duty of keeping us all safe.

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Murali Pillai

Member of Parliament, Bukit Batok SMC, Advisor to Bukit Batok SMC GROs.