Speech on the 2nd Reading of the Corruption, Drug Trafficking and Other Serious Crimes (Confiscation of Benefits) (Amendment) and Computer Misuse (Amendment) Bills
I spoke on the occasion of the 2nd reading of both bills which are really aimed at providing our Home Team with the necessary legal tools to combat the scourge of scams. I took the opportunity to acknowledge the good work of our Home Team officers, especially those in the Anti-Scam Command, in dealing with these cases which are complex to investigate and require quick action too. I sought a better understanding of the proposal to make a person criminally liable if he had negligently allowed his bank account to be used by scammers. I also suggested that Government and private agencies which allow members of public to use SingPass to access their services should proactively monitor attempts to spoof their websites so as to retain the confidentiality of users’ SingPass user IDs and passwords. My speech may be accessed below.
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Mdm Deputy Speaker, I rise in support of both Bills. These Bills are really about equipping our Home Team with the necessary legal tools to combat the scourge of scams.
The hon Second Minister for Home Affairs apprised us of the staggering numbers involved here — tens of thousands of victims, tens of thousands of bank accounts used to launder money from local victims, billions of dollars lost.
The pain and suffering caused to the victims of the scams is very real. I have spoken to several residents in the Bukit Batok Single Member Constituency (SMC) who have fallen victim to scams and lost their life savings to criminals who preyed on their vulnerabilities. It is heartbreaking for them to realise that, given the international nature of these crimes, there is little prospect of them recovering their monies stolen from them once the monies get transferred overseas, despite the best efforts of our enforcement officers.
The introduction of these Bills represents a decisive step in Home Team’s strategy to deal with this scourge. Madam, before I go further, I wish to pay tribute to our Home Team officers who have been waging an all-out battle against the perpetrators of the scams, especially the officers charged with the responsibility of investigating these cases.
Our officers from the Anti-Scam Command (ASC), which includes the Scam Strike Teams in all land divisions, have been working feverishly on thousands of cases since the Command was set up last year. Their job is complex. Frequently, cross-border cooperation is needed to bring perpetrators to book and recover funds transmitted overseas. This can, admittedly, be a frustrating exercise.
Also, speed is of the essence as these officers, through their network of more than 80 partners, try to freeze and recover monies belonging to these victims to the victims before they leave our jurisdiction. These officers deserve our appreciation and full support as they discharge their duties to the best of their abilities.
I now turn to the proposals set out in the Bill. I appreciate the policy underpinning of the decision to make account holders responsible for the transactions in their accounts so that their accounts would not be used by scammers. I have no issue with the proposal to extend criminal liability to an account holder who engaged in rash money laundering activities.
As I see it, the account holder would have been put on notice but decided to assume the risk, nonetheless, usually for profit, as explained by the hon Second Minister in her speech. Hence, he should be made criminally liable for helping the scammers. I am, however, concerned about the proposal for an account holder to be criminally liable if he was negligent and that led to his account being used for money laundering activities.
The reality is that account holders have different levels of knowledge and experiences. Their susceptibility to overtures and influences of a scammer may also vary. This is an observation made by the hon Member Ms Sylvia Lim in her speech yesterday and by the hon Member Mr Louis Ng in his speech today.
In these circumstances, to apply an objective standard may operate unfairly against some of the account holders who do not have sufficient knowledge and experience and, therefore, are less discerning than others.
On the other hand, I do appreciate though that this may give a free pass to too many people who can feign ignorance after the fact. This is especially unhelpful, given the sheer number of scams we face on a daily basis — on an industrial scale, actually.
Clearly, there is a pressing need to clamp down on accounts that may be accessible by scammers. Hence, I appreciate why a tough stance has to be taken. I wonder though, if the potential harsh effect of applying an objective standard on certain account holders, by reason of their personal backgrounds, can be mitigated by two measures.
First, to have what I call a “whitewash” policy which allows for the account holders not be held criminally liable if he were to lodge a Police report soon after they received monies which they believe to be derived from ill-gotten gains, even if they may be criminally liable in the first place for facilitating the transfer of these monies into their accounts owing to their negligence.
By lodging the Police report, the ASC will be placed in a position to freeze the monies in the accounts and prevent the monies from falling into hands of the scammers.
For the account holders who do not act with diligence, I will imagine that the penny would drop for them as soon as they are put into funds. So, these account holders should be incentivised and given credit for proactively reaching out to the authorities in such circumstances.
Second, for the Home Team to set out clearly in legislation or other platforms what its expectations of the account holders are. In this regard, I note that the hon Second Minister mentioned that the rash/negligence concept is not new and is employed in the Penal Code as well as the Road Traffic Act. I would suggest that the hon Minister consider the approach taken under the Immigration Act in relation to persons who are found to have harboured immigration offenders as a result of their negligence.
As some Members here may recall, in the 1980s, we had a big problem with illegal immigrants. Hence, the Government passed strict laws to deal with this problem by making it an offence for employers and landlords to harbour illegal immigrants.
In 1993 and later in 1998, the Government set out the due-diligence requirements in legislation so that employers and landlords were put on notice on the checks they have to perform, failing which they will be deemed not to have exercised due diligence. In short, all these measures will make it harder for someone to say, “But I didn’t know!”. The response would be, “Well, you ought to have known.”
I also would like to take this opportunity, as an aside, to deal with a scenario that I believe may come up from time to time in Police investigations against suspected money mules for not exercising due diligence in allowing their accounts to be used by others.
The suspects may explain that this is because the subject to whom he provided access to his account is unbanked, meaning no access to a banking account, and had sought his assistance to receive or send monies.
Whilst at first glance this explanation may be rejected as being unbelievable, there is anecdotal and statistical evidence to suggest otherwise. The Government statistics show that while more than 98% of Singapore residents here have bank accounts, about 2% do not. This works out to about more than 200,000 persons here who are unbanked. I have also come across cases of adult Singaporeans who have not being able to open bank accounts because of their criminal past, or because they are subject to investigations of certain offences. As a result, the banks have assessed them to be high risk cases and reject their applications to open bank accounts.
I suggest that more be done between MAS and the banks to ensure that even if a person has a criminal past or is a subject of investigation, he or she should be able to open an account to at least to have access to basic banking services. No bank regulated by MAS should be allowed to reject an application for basic banking services on the basis that he is high risk. This should be a universal right, and in fact, this is not a controversial point. I note that in 2020, Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, in response to a Parliamentary Question filed by hon Member Louis Chua, stated that MAS was working with banks on further ways to enhance financial inclusion whilst ensuring that risks were adequately managed.
Should we be able to ensure that all Singapore residents have universal access to banking services, this can help in the fight against scams too. Money mules will no longer be able to provide the excuse that the third party who took control of their account is unbanked.
I now proceed to deal with the proposed amendments to the Computer Misuse Act. I support the hon Second Minister’s proposal to make it an offence for an individual to disclose his Singpass credentials to another knowingly or having reasonable grounds to believe that the purpose of the disclosure is to facilitate the commission of an offence. Such access would enable criminals to open bank accounts, registering companies and sign up for new phone lines.
There is one further area that I would like to respectfully suggest to the hon Second Minister with a view to further bolster the steps to prevent unauthorised disclosure of Singpass credentials.
As part of our efforts to be a digital nation, the Government offers Singpass Application Programming Interface (API) to both Government and private entities. As a result, Singaporeans now, through Singpass, can gain access to a plethora of services provided by both Government and private entities.
With the convenience, unfortunately, comes the risk of some Singaporeans being scammed. We have heard and seen cases of people falling prey to phishing and spoofing scams by scammers allegedly representing the Government and private entities that led them to disclose their Singpass credentials to scammers.
For this reason, I would like to suggest that it should be made a regulatory must for all entities using Singpass APIs for access into their services be given the responsibility to proactively conduct due diligence to identify phishing and spoofing attempts on unsuspecting people.
By imposing a regulatory responsibility, I hope that alarm can be raised sooner rather than later and the number of victims falling prey to such scams can be reduced.
There is no sure way to guard against the ill intentions of malicious men, just as there is no way to match the ingenuity of criminal minds, save by the ingenuity of all of us who stand against them.
My first set of proposals requires the presence of minds from individuals to pay attention to the rules of engagement in a digital world. My second requires institutions to play this role too. Together, we can form a tighter net against those would wish us harm.