Social service officer stole $340,000 meant for needy and spent it on luxury goods

The Louis Vuitton boutique at Ion Orchard.
The Louis Vuitton boutique at Ion Orchard.PHOTO: LOUIS VUITTON
The Louis Vuitton boutique at Ion Orchard.
The Louis Vuitton boutique at Ion Orchard.PHOTO: LOUIS VUITTON

Alert raised when money went to two accounts

SINGAPORE (THE NEW PAPER) - His job involved disbursing money to low-income families in need of financial assistance.

But a Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) employee allegedly diverted the funds to his own bank accounts, and then used the money to pay off his debts and lead an extravagant lifestyle.

Over three years from 2011 to 2014, he allegedly pocketed $343,480 and splurged part of his ill-gotten gains on fine dining, airline tickets and high-end boutiques.

He is accused of spending $5,465 at Louis Vuitton outlets at Marina Bay Sands and ION Orchard, $3,500 at Francis Cheong boutique at Orchard Hotel, and $1,252 at a Jean Yip salon at Nex mall in Serangoon. 

He also repaid his debts, amounting to about $13,000, to several licensed moneylenders and an individual, and used nearly $14,000 to pay for the redemption of gold.

In a press statement yesterday, MSF said Chia Kwang Hwee, 33, has been charged with misappropriation of funds.

  • How Chia allegedly spent the money

  • Air tickets

    $3,647: Cathay Pacific Airways

    $1,992: China Eastern Airlines

    $1,418: SilkAir

    $2,480: Thai Airways

    Boutiques

    $3,701: Club 21

    $1,930: Mulberry

    $5,465: Louis Vuitton

    $3,500: Francis Cheong boutique

    $1,500: Lane Crawford

    $1,263: Ssense.com

    $1,148: Christian Dior

    Hotels

    $1,000: Sheraton Towers

    $2,047: W Hong Kong

    Dining

    $2,588: Chao Gang Cun Fine Dining

    Grooming

    $1,252: Jean Yip

He faces a total of 126 charges under the Computer Misuse and Cybersecurity Act and the Corruption, Drug Trafficking and Other Serious Crimes (Confiscation of Benefits) Act.

When he was caught, Chia was a team leader at a Social Service Office (SSO) at Geylang Serai.

His duties included assessing applications for financial assistance and putting them up to his supervisor for approval, approving assistance for cases handled by other officers in his team, and case-managing families with multiple needs.

Chia's alleged crime came to light after a ComCare beneficiary alerted MSF on Aug 14, 2014, that he had not received his financial assistance payments.

The management of the SSO at Geylang Serai detected suspicious transactions of social assistance involving Chia, where the Giro payments for 26 clients were disbursed into two bank accounts.

The next day, the ministry made a police report against Chia for alleged fraud after confirming that one of the bank accounts was Chia's payroll account. He was arrested on Aug 18 and suspended the next day.

"I am proud that many of our officers serve with passion and dedication. But the ministry will not condone or tolerate any conduct that undermines the integrity of our social assistance system and interest of our beneficiaries."

- Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin

It was later found that a total of 42 MSF clients had been affected.

The ministry contacted the affected families immediately to ensure their financial assistance was not affected by the case.

MSF started rolling out its network of SSOs island-wide in July 2013.

They are staffed by MSF officers who had previously undertaken the disbursement of social assistance before the SSOs were set up.

Chia's first offence allegedly happened before the SSOs were set up.

He reportedly started small - by encashing cheques worth $2,400 issued by the South East Community Development Council in 2011 - but got increasingly bolder.

 
 

In 2012, he allegedly misappropriated cheques worth almost $60,000, and in 2013, he misappropriated cheques worth nearly $140,000.

He also faces 65 charges of using the Social Assistance Network System accounts of his colleagues to misappropriate more than $140,000 in 2013 and 2014.

MSF said its internal auditor has conducted checks on all SSO payment records, and confirmed that there were no other occurrences of a similar nature. 

Commenting on the incident, Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin wrote on his Facebook yesterday that his ministry had cooperated fully with the police.

He wrote: "Control measures can only go so far. Too many and it becomes onerous and less agile, too few and you run the risks of abuse...

"I am proud that many of our officers serve with passion and dedication. But the ministry will not condone or tolerate any conduct that undermines the integrity of our social assistance system and interest of our beneficiaries."

Chia is out on $100,000 bail, and has surrendered his passport.

His case will be mentioned again on Sept 7.


REVIEW FINDINGS

After the incident, the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) convened an independent review panel comprising senior officials from other government agencies to look into the checks and control mechanisms for financial assistance payments in all Social Service Offices (SSO).

Recommendations include:

  • Strengthening the administration of access to MSF's IT system
  • Including additional checks to ensure payments to clients
  • Allocating cases to ensure no officer is allowed to take charge of a particular client for more than two consecutive years.