$5 million fraud

Co-op seeking to recover funds after probe

The Singapore Statutory Boards Employees' Co-operative Thrift and Loan Society (SSBEC) told ST the CAD was "currently carrying out investigations to recover the money".
The Singapore Statutory Boards Employees' Co-operative Thrift and Loan Society (SSBEC) told ST the CAD was "currently carrying out investigations to recover the money".ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

The cooperative which was defrauded of $5.1 million by two former employees is waiting for a Commercial Affairs Department (CAD) probe to be completed before deciding on civil remedies to recover its funds.

The Singapore Statutory Boards Employees' Co-operative Thrift and Loan Society (SSBEC) yesterday told The Straits Times the CAD was "currently carrying out investigations to recover the money".

Its spokesman said it will "decide on the civil suit options to recover the money once we know the outcome" of the investigations.

Two female employees of the cooperative were jailed on Tuesday for misappropriating $5.1 million in funds between 2008 and 2013.

Assistant manager Arni Ahmad, 42, and administrative executive Hanati Jani, 50, falsified documents to deceive the co-op into disbursing funds to phantom members' bank accounts. They were jailed for 12 years, and nine years and eight months respectively.

They had used the money to fund an extravagant lifestyle - including buying luxury staycations at five-star hotels and gym memberships with personal trainers.

A 2014 inquiry by the Registry of Co-operative Societies found that the fraud had placed the co-op in a vulnerable financial position.

After the inquiry, the registry instructed SSBEC's management committee to strengthen the co-op's governance and internal controls, and protect the interests of its members, said its spokesman.

"These steps include tightening of its processes and ensuring that new and existing members are aware of the situation," the spokesman said.

The SSBEC's 4,000 members are employees of statutory boards - mainly from national water agency PUB and the Housing Board. It also has members from Singapore Power. Founded in 1925, the co-op takes deposits and disburses loans to members, who make monthly contributions of at least $10 to specific deposit accounts.

The industry body, the Singapore National Co-operative Federation (SNCF), said the SSBEC case was an isolated one and "has not affected the confidence and trust of members in other credit cooperatives".

The case comes amid an ongoing move to change laws to strengthen the governance of co-ops and better safeguard their members' funds.

Earlier this year, the Registrar of Co-operative Societies had sought public feedback on proposed amendments to the Co-operative Societies Act.

There are 84 registered co-ops in Singapore, with a total membership of about 1.5 million.

Experts said it can be difficult for co-ops to completely prevent such fraud cases from taking place, but having a robust system of checks in place will help detect wrongdoing.

Dr R. Theyvendran, who chairs the TCC Credit Cooperative which has 44,000 members, said co-ops here have been strengthening governance over the years.

For instance, the Registry of Co-operative Societies and SNCF jointly issued a code of governance and a governance evaluation checklist last year. These provide guidelines on how co-op officers should act, and how credit co-ops should assess their state of governance.

"We must look at things objectively, and look for solutions and how improvements can be made," said Dr Theyvendran.

Said Mr Ang Hoe Kiat, chairman of the Straits Times Cooperative which has more than 1,600 members: "The only thing we can do is put in a robust system of checks."

He cited how every cheque the ST Co-op issues to members has at least three signatures.

Charity Council chairman Gerard Ee said having checks to verify whether accounts are legitimate can help ensure there are no phantom ones.

"Any organisation without a robust system of internal controls or a system of internal audit opens itself to a higher risk of things going wrong," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 18, 2017, with the headline 'Co-op seeking to recover funds after probe'. Print Edition | Subscribe