This story was first published in July 2015 in an e-book titled Guilty As Charged: 25 Crimes That Have Shaken Singapore Since 1965. A collaboration between The Straits Times and the Singapore Police Force, the e-book appeared in The Straits Times Star E-books app. Read the other crime stories here. (Warning: Some content in these stories may be disturbing for some individuals.)
High-rolling hustler (2004)
“Unremarkable” family man, who led double life as the darling of offshore casinos, cheated banks of millions
Living in a Serangoon Road condominium with his wife and two teenage sons — Chia Teck Leng appeared to most as an unremarkable family man, with all the trappings of upper middle-class Singapore. But unbeknownst to his friends and family, Chia secretly led a double life as a high-rolling hustler, complete with flashy cars, luxury apartments and a girlfriend half his age.
He was the darling of offshore casinos — gambling operators would personally fly him in on private jets so he could have a flutter in their betting halls.
To feed and fund his gambling addiction, he swindled four foreign banks out of $117 million from 1999 to 2003, using his position as the financial manager of Asia Pacific Breweries (APB). The case at that time was Singapore’s biggest involving commercial fraud.
In 2004, the then 44-year-old was sentenced to 42 years in jail by High Court Judge Tay Yong Kwang — the longest for a case of commercial fraud.
“Bankers knocking on his door were there to meet the man… to forge a business relationship, but the man they met was unfortunately in the business of forgery,” said Judge Tay at the sentencing.
Chia had been a compulsive gambler since at least 1994, when he was a financial controller with Swire Pacific Offshore, a marine services company.
He had plunged deep into debt during 1995 to 1996 and owed several banks about $100,000 in the form of overdrafts and credit card dues. But fortune smiled on him the next year when he began visiting Star Cruise ships almost every fortnight, to try his luck at the gambling tables.
He won on several occasions and was offered a credit line of $75,000. In less than a year, his winnings grew to about $1 million.
However, the tides turned in August 1998. In a gambling spree that lasted a fortnight, he not only lost all his previous winnings, but racked up new debts as well.
By the time he joined APB in 1999, the debts had mounted sky-high, and he was a desperate man. He trained his sights on four foreign banks, one after the other — Skandinaviska Enskilda Banken (SEB), Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corporation (SMBC), the Mizuho Corporate Bank and the Bayerische Hypo-und Vereinsbank Aktiengesellschaft (HVB).
Submitting forged documents, he was able to open accounts in APB’s name, with himself as the sole signatory. With SEB he had a credit facility for $500,000 — which he intended to use for himself.
Meanwhile, APB had no idea of what its finance manager was doing behind its back. Chia remained in sole control of all these accounts by forging director board resolutions that authorised him to receive the credit and loan facilities provided, sign all transactions and operate the bank accounts on behalf of APB.
To forge the signatures of the various directors of APB, he obtained specimens from annual reports and internal documents. He practised the signatures till he was sure they would pass muster.
Chia’s modus operandi was to draw money from SMBC, Mizuho and HVB, and transfer it to the SEB account. From there, the money was siphoned into his two personal accounts with DBS before it was remitted to casinos in Australia, Britain, Hong Kong, Malaysia and the Philippines.
He rolled over funds provided by the banks, making timely deposits to each account whenever repayments were due, thus creating the impression of a credit-worthy customer.
During a crunch situation in November 1999, he even withdrew $53 million from an APB account with OCBC. He managed to replace the entire amount by October 2002, escaping detection. As the amount of illegal money available increased, so did the stakes for which Chia gambled.
In 2002, he met his girlfriend, Chinese national Li Jin, 22, on one of his gambling trips onboard a cruise ship. Li was a croupier in the VVIP (Very Very Important Person) room.
He won $1 million from her and, from then on, she became his “good luck charm”. To make sure his luck continued rolling in, he spared no expense. Chia purchased a $530,000 apartment in Grange Road for her and bought her branded goods and jewellery.
He also bought a $10,000 forged passport so Li could enter Singapore easily. She used it twice — in 2002 and 2003 — and was jailed six months for the offence.
But as the adage goes, the casino always wins and the Commercial Affairs Department got wind of Chia’s activities. He was arrested on Sept 2, 2003. Before his four-year run ended, he had withdrawn $117.1 million. Of this, only $34.8 million was recovered. The authorities estimated that he lost $62 million feeding his gambling habit.
While he was in jail, Chia wrote a 13-page paper as a form of penance. Called “Taming the Casino Dragon”, he shared his experience as an insider to the world of high rollers.
Self-deprecating at times, and hoping others would not make the same mistakes he did, he wrote that “like an inexperienced teenager succumbing to the lure of a newly discovered vice, I was soon hooked”.
CHIA’S DOUBLE LIFE
Accountancy graduate Chia Teck Leng began his career at accounting firm Arthur Andersen before taking on a host of high-flying positions, including assistant vice-president at UOB, before becoming finance manager at Asia Pacific Breweries on Jan 20, 1999, with an annual salary of between $200,000 and $300,000.
To colleagues, his wife and two teenage children, he was a hard-working executive and an unassuming family man. But behind that veneer, was a high-rolling casino gambler with a mistress and a “hedonistic” lifestyle.
He had been gambling since 1994. Since July 2000, he had been flying in private chartered jets to Melbourne where he would gamble at the Crown Casino. He was given VIP treatment, staying in its most expensive room, complete with butler service. A night there cost A$25,000.
He was also a regular at London Ritz’s Club, where he could gamble even higher stakes.
From $200 bets during his Star Cruise days, he went up to single bets of A$20,000 and 25,000 in British ones. He even played for A$400,000 a hand at the Crown Casino.
He met his mistress, Chinese national Li Jin, in April 2002 at the casino on board a cruise ship. She was then a croupier.
He won $1 million from her that night. From then on, he would ask to gamble against her - his “good luck” charm.
Such were the losses suffered that she was eventually given a day off whenever he came on board. The Nanjing University graduate later left her job to be with Chia in Singapore.
He got her a forged passport for $10,000, under the name Chu Chiao-Ling, to enter and leave the country.
He spent lavishly. He bought a $150,000 Mercedes-Benz, a $530,000 apartment in Grange Road, and gave gifts totalling $300,000 to various people, including his girlfriend.
Bayerische Hypo-und Vereinsbank (HVB), Skandinaviska Enskilda Banken (SEB), Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corporation and Fuji Bank, now known as the Mizuho Bank, sued Asia Pacific Breweries seeking repayment for the fraud committed by its employee Chia Teck Leng.
First Mizuho withdrew its suit, then Sumitomo’s was dismissed. This was followed by HVB and SEB’s cases also being dismissed.
Justice Belinda Ang, in her judgment against HVB and SEB, said that the banks had made themselves “easy prey” by ignoring their own banking procedures and failing to notice discrepancies or irregularities in documents that were “staring bank officers in the face”.
The banks were so eager to do business with APB that they willingly gave out loans of millions of dollars without doing due diligence to verify that Chia was authorised to act for the company, she said.