20 words & phrases that defined 2020: Bellagraph

2020 has been a year of upheaval and crisis – one that was shaped by the coronavirus pandemic. It also saw significant developments, such as a general election in Singapore and the United States electing its next leader. In this 12-day series, The Straits Times spotlights 20 words or phrases that defined 2020.

This doctored image of former US president Barack Obama with (from left) Mr Nelson Loh, Ms Evangeline Shen and Mr Terence Loh was released by the Bellagraph Nova Group. PHOTO: BELLAGRAPH NOVA GROUP

SINGAPORE - Singaporean cousins Nelson Loh and Terence Loh captured the imagination of many after they made a bold bid for English Premier League football club Newcastle United in August.

The £280 million (S$500 million) bid was made under the Bellagraph Nova (BN) Group which they founded with Chinese entrepreneur Evangeline Shen in July this year.

But their plan quickly unravelled when the media exposed how they had used doctored images which purported to show that they were rubbing shoulders with high-profile personalities like former United States president Barack Obama in Paris.

While the Loh cousins and Ms Shen had taken photos with Mr Obama at a charity event they sponsored in Singapore last December, they certainly did not hold any private meeting with him in Paris.

The company's marketing chief Nereides Antonio Giamundo de Bourbon later admitted to Reuters that the pictures were doctored.

The group also billed itself as "a world's leading conglomerate" with 31 entities in "all major business fields, from financial to sport, healthcare and luxury goods, entertainment and robotics".

It claimed revenue of US$12 billion (S$16 billion) last year and said it had 23,000 employees and a new headquarters in Paris - all of which were not substantiated when probed by the media.

One Instagram post by BN Group claimed they had 10,000 private jets at their disposal. But a report in The Guardian last year said there were only 4,700 private jets in operation around the world.

The company also said one of its entities was implementing a trading system for the Singapore Exchange. Another entity was said to have paid $20 million for a 55 per cent stake in two day-surgery centres - Aptus Surgery Centre at Paragon Medical Centre and Novaptus Surgery Centre at Camden Medical Centre.

The Straits Times found out that those claims were untrue.

As the company and its founders came under intense scrutiny, individuals and organisations distanced themselves or denied any ties with them.

Axington, a Catalist-listed company owned by the Lohs, had to halt trading. Several directors including former US ambassador to Singapore Kirk Wagar, stepped down because of the increasing controversy surrounding the group.

The controversy also prompted the Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority (Acra) to look into the registration of entities linked to the Loh cousins in Singapore, of which eight were found to have breached Acra regulations. Enforcement actions are ongoing.

Singaporean cousins Terence Loh (left) and Nelson Loh had founded the Bellagraph Nova Group with Chinese entrepreneur Evangeline Shen in July. PHOTO: BELLAGRAPH NOVA GROUP

In September, the police launched an investigation into Novena Global Healthcare Group registered in the Cayman Islands by the Loh cousins after accounting firm Ernst & Young (EY) made a police report alleging unauthorised signatures were used in some financial statements related to the group.

With police investigation and scandal dogging the Loh cousins and their web of companies, they decided in October to legally separate all their business interests.

The separation agreement saw Mr Nelson Loh, 41, leaving Novena Global Healthcare Group and Mr Terence Loh, 43, leaving the BN Group, for the price of $1 each.

In the latest development this month, the High Court granted an application by DBS Bank to wind up Novena Healthcare Group's Singapore-registered subsidiary - Novena Global Healthcare - which owes the bank more than $14 million.

The group also owes millions of dollars to Citibank, United Overseas Bank, Maybank and Standard Chartered Bank.

The Lohs were not particularly known in Singapore's corporate circles before they made the news with their audacious bid to take over the football club.

In an interview with The Peak magazine in 2018, the Loh cousins said they had let a roulette wheel spin in a casino in Las Vegas decide if they should leave their cushy investment banking positions at JPMorgan to start their own business in 2008.

They spoke about growing their healthcare business to be one of Asia's largest integrated medical healthcare and aesthetic groups. And while some families had broken apart because of business feuds, they claimed to have grown closer. Trust was never an issue and there was no second-guessing each other, they said.

But family bonds have since come under severe stress test this year.

In a statement in response to DBS' application to wind up Novena Global Healthcare, which he co-founded with his cousin, Mr Terence Loh last month said: "Perhaps more than anyone else, I feel deeply betrayed by Nelson, who has left Singapore and appears to have no intention to sort out this terrible mess we are left with."

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