Singapore Writers Festival

Get inside scoop on Panama Papers

Investigative reporter Frederik Obermaier tells of the dangers and precautions taken when he was working on the project

For more than a year, investigative journalist Frederik Obermaier - one half of the German duo at the heart of the Panama Papers revelation - lived a life that seemed better suited for the pages of a thriller.

He and Bastian Obermayer, his colleague at Munich-based daily Suddeutsche Zeitung, wrestled with fear and paranoia as the names of drug cartel members and world leaders surfaced among the 11.5 million documents leaked from Panamian law firm Mossack Fonseca.

They chained their computers to the wall to prevent them from being carried off, worked in a secured room armed with a vault and an alarm system and joined forces with hundreds of journalists from all corners of the world to comb through the treasure trove of confidential data.

When the story finally broke in April, it brought to light the secret offshore dealings of the rich and powerful, igniting public ire and political and financial fallouts.

  • • Chaining PCs to the wall

    • Working in a room with vault and alarm

    • Painting computer screws with nail polish

But Obermaier - who will be in town next month for the Singapore Writers Festival, which runs from Nov 4 to 13 - tells The Straits Times wryly: "To be honest, I nearly missed the project."

The 34-year-old was on parental leave and had just received an offer from a renowned media outlet in Germany when Obermayer came calling.

"I told Bastian about the offer and shortly afterwards, he called me, asking me not to leave Suddeutsche Zeitung as there may be an interesting investigation. I thought it was a trick to keep me there - especially as he didn't tell me any details," says Obermaier.


    WHERE: Play Den @ The Arts House, 1 Old Parliament Lane

    WHEN: Nov 12, 10am

    ADMISSION: Festival pass event, $20 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to


    WHERE: Victoria Theatre, 9 Empress Place

    WHEN: Nov 12, 4pm

    ADMISSION: $25 from Sistic

"So we met in the evening, in a shady corner of a Greek tavern near where we both live. There, he told me about John Doe and the Mossack Fonseca data and gave me some names. I was electrified."

It was Obermayer, 38, who had, late one night early last year, received an anonymous e-mail that would set off the world's most massive data leak.

"Hello, this is John Doe," it read. "Interested in data?"

In the months that followed, John Doe - whose identity still remains unknown - sent more than 2.6TB of data, exposing an intricate web of corruption and tax evasion.

"The more names of notorious individuals we found, the more I was scared," says Obermaier.

"I mean, hey, they were members of drug cartels, of the mafia, (Syrian president) Bashar al-Assad's cousin, the best friend of (Russian president) Vladimir Putin, guys close to (Libyan dictator) Muammar Gaddafi. In other words, questionable people you don't want to mess with."

It soon became clear the leaked documents had to be handled with utmost care and caution, even for two seasoned journalists who had lifted the lid on financial scandals and Germany's weapons dealings.

"We asked our boss for a specially secured project room, with a vault and alarm system. We chained our PCs to the wall - and then came the part my girlfriend is still making fun of me about," says Obermaier. "I bought glitter nail polish and painted the screws of our computers."

If anyone tampered with their computers, he adds, the polish would likely crack, a signal that something was up.

Although the pair turned to the Washington-based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists to handle the deluge of material, only Obermaier and Obermayer had direct access to John Doe, with whom they communicated over various encrypted channels.

The source's anonymity is not just a necessity - "My life is in danger. No meeting ever," John Doe had told them - but also a safeguard.

"The authenticity of the data and public interest are what counts for me. It is important that I can trust the documents. The source and his or her motivation are secondary for me as long as the source makes no conditions," says Obermaier.

"And although I'm very interested in the individual behind the pseudonym, I think staying anonymous is the best John Doe could have done for his or her safety - and for ours."

He adds: "Someone could put a pistol to my head and I wouldn't be able to lead him to John Doe. What better protection could John Doe have?"

Already, some journalists who worked on the project have suffered repercussions.

Obermaier rattles off a laundry list of casualties: a Venezuelan journalist dismissed by Ultimas Noticias, a pro-regime newspaper; and a Tunisian partner's website, the online magazine Inkyfada, hit by hackers after it reported on Tunisian involvement in the Panama Papers.

Closer to Singapore, Hong Kong daily Ming Pao's executive chief editor Keung Kwok Yuen was dismissed the very day the paper carried a front-page report on Hong Kongers named in the leak.

It was, the paper said, a cost-cutting exercise, but hundreds took to the streets in protest, believing the veteran editor's dismissal to be politically motivated.

Printing the leak at a secret location

Newspaper colleagues in Panama, meanwhile, took to printing the first issues about the leak at "a secret location, for fear that someone would use violence to stop their work", says Obermaier.

And in Ecuador, President Rafael Correa tweeted the names, private details and photos of reporters involved in the Panama Papers investigation.

"The message was clear: He wanted to put them under pressure. All these happenings are unacceptable," says Obermaier.

"Society needs a free press and if the rich and the powerful try to attack freedom of the press, we should all raise our voices. If you fight one of us, you fight all of us, you fight free society."

The thrills and spills behind the scenes of the Panama Papers saga are captured in the German duo's book, The Panama Papers: Breaking The Story Of How The Rich And Powerful Hide Their Money.

  • Big names to catch


    Manga fans, rejoice. The Japanese artist behind the beloved Detective Conan series is bound for Singapore. The series began its weekly run in Shonen Sunday, a weekly manga magazine, in 1994, and is still one of Japan's leading comics, with 90 volumes and a long-running anime series.

    Catch him at: Two Comic Icons: Gosho Aoyama Meets Sonny Liew, which will unite two heavyweights in the comics scene. Aoyama and Singapore's Liew - behind graphic novel The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye - will speak on topics ranging from artistic integrity to the pressure of putting out best-selling work

    Where: Chamber, The Arts House, 1 Old Parliament Lane When: Nov 13, 2.30pm Admission: Festival pass event, $20 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to

    Also catch him at: Creating Detective Conan: The Life And Works Of Gosho Aoyama, where he will open up about his struggles, his successes and how Detective Conan came to be

    Where: Chamber, The Arts House, 1 Old Parliament Lane When: Nov 12, 5.30pm Admission: Festival pass event, $20 from Sistic


    He made literary history this year as the first Indonesian author nominated for the Man Booker International Prize for his novel Man Tiger, which was published in Bahasa Indonesia in 2004 and translated into English last year.

    His other English offering, Beauty Is A Wound - published in Bahasa Indonesia in 2002 and translated into English last year as well - explores fraught events in his country's history.

    Catch him at: Eka Kurniawan, Man Tiger Of Asia, to learn more about his life and works

    Where: Ngee Ann Auditorium, Asian Civilisations Museum, 1 Empress Place When: Nov 13, 4pm Admission: Festival pass event, $20 from Sistic

    Also catch him at: The Allure Of The Otherworldly, one of three panels he is part of. Kurniawan, along with British authors Andrew Michael Hurley and Joanne Harris, will speak about walking the realm between reality and imagination

    Where: Chamber, The Arts House, 1 Old Parliament Lane When: Nov 12, 11.30am Admission: Festival pass event, $20 from Sistic


    The American author is known for her dark takes on contemporary issues.

    Her 2003 novel We Need To Talk About Kevin, about a fictional school massacre, was adapted into a 2011 film starring Tilda Swinton, and her latest book, The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047, looks at a United States grappling with a catastrophic economic collapse.

    The frank author touched a nerve at the Brisbane Writers Festival last month when she argued that sensitivities over cultural appropriation muzzled writers of fiction.

    Her Melding Fact And Fiction masterclass for the Singapore Writers Festival is sold out.

    Catch her at: An Unflinching Eye Into Truth, where she will speak on The Mandibles and its plausibility in today's world

    Where: National Gallery Singapore Auditorium, 1 St Andrew's Road When: Nov 13, 11.30am Admission: $20 from Sistic


    The American author, who in her books boldly confronts thorny topics - from self-harm to childhood abuse - had the literary world sitting up and paying attention with her second novel, A Little Life.

    The book, which made the shortlist of last year's Man Booker Prize, deals with the lingering scars of sexual abuse.

    Yanagihara made her debut with her 2013 novel The People In The Trees, an unsettling tale of abuse and power that follows a Nobel Prize-winning scientist convicted of paedophilia.

    Catch her at:Creating Lives Less Ordinary, to hear her speak on why she takes on such tough subjects and why her two books so far have focused on men

    Where: Chamber, The Arts House, 1 Old Parliament Lane When: Nov 11, 8.30pm Admission: Festival pass event, $20 from Sistic

    Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh

Since its publication in June, its film rights have been snapped up by Netflix.

At the Singapore Writers Festival on Nov 12, Obermaier is set to take on issues such as personal privacy, public accountability and transparency in the Internet age in his lecture Privacy Versus Surveillance: What The Panama Papers Mean For Everyone In The 21st Century.

On the same day, he will discuss the changing face of journalism at the panel The World In The Age Of Digital Journalism.

Besides the rise of data journalism, he sees collaboration as one of the ways forward. The Panama Papers project, after all, took the work of more than 400 journalists.

"In the past, investigative journalists were lone wolves, not sharing anything. But projects like the Panama Papers have shown what we can accomplish if we work together and share radically," he says.

At the same time, adds Obermaier, whose frank responses are peppered with frequent bursts of humour, the nature of journalists made them the project's greatest risk too.

"What can I say, journalists are chatty people. They love to speak about their job. I felt sure it would leak, to be honest. And I was sure we would lose stories along the way," he quips.

"But I am very happy it didn't in the end and that was because everyone on the team understood that the story was better for everyone if we published at the same time."

Investigative journalists - such as American Seymour Hersh, who exposed the mass killing of civilians in Vietnam by US troops - have long fascinated Obermaier, but he says "in high school, I didn't even dare work for the school magazine as I thought I couldn't write".

"My teachers also were of this opinion. I got the worst grade in a test with the topic Article Writing."

He started off studying political science in university - but met journalism students there and fell into their world.

"I was thrilled by what they told me about their studies. I started studying journalism, besides political science - and I've never regretted it."

His passion has yet to wane. He is still in love with journalism and its ideals, even at a time when the industry looks to be on the rocks.

And if dwindling trust is an issue journalists find themselves grappling with, they have to work hard to regain it, says Obermaier.

"We can do this only by responsible in-depth reporting. It is the duty of us journalists to have a critical view on the world, on the rich and the powerful, and to make wrongdoings public," he adds.

"This may sound a bit pathetic, but I believe in it."

When asked what he saw as his mission in releasing the data, he promptly dismisses "mission" as too big a word.

"I simply did my job - informing people about wrongdoings. The Panama Papers showed that there is a whole parallel world offshore in which the rich and powerful enjoy the freedom to avoid not just taxes, but also all kinds of laws they find inconvenient," he says.

"We should always keep in mind - the offshore world is not designed for the blue-collar worker or average earner. It's not for the 99 per cent."

The Panama Papers, he says, show that a person needs at least €1 million (S$1.53 million) before he can head offshore and see his taxes drop. The twisted reality, he points out, is that the more you have, the easier it is to pay less tax.

To him, the most important result of the leak is how it has sparked a fierce worldwide debate about tax havens and anonymous companies, and the threat they pose to society and democracy.

There are many other Mossack Fonsecas out there, after all, where the uber-rich can head for shelter, says Obermaier.

"Our democracy is at stake. People will lose faith when they see that the rich and the powerful do not stick to the rules that govern how lower- and middle-income earners pay tax," he says.

"There are already signs of deep hatred towards the elites and scorn for democracy. This will only increase if politicians keep ignoring the issue."

But the Panama Papers are not just about tax evasion. The documents show that non-transparent company structures allow for all sorts of financial misconduct, such as money-laundering, and help criminals hide their wrongdoings.

Obermaier says: "We have to stop this. To be precise: We, politicians, citizens, taxpayers, have to stop it."

•The Straits Times is the official media partner of the Singapore Writers Festival. For more stories on the festival, go to singapore-writers-festival-2016

Other events

This year, the Singapore Writers Festival continues to go beyond the written word.

Literature leaps off the page with a dazzling array of events that range from music performances that unite the voices and visions of writers and musicians to tours to bookstores and publishers for a rare look at book-making in Singapore.



Writers and musicians unite to explore themes such as remembrance and longing. Memory is at the heart of this double bill, where poet Jennifer Anne Champion works with dream-pop band enec.e, and Chinese poet Tan Chee Lay and Malay sci-fi writer Hassan Hasaa'ree Ali join forces with music collective Sa. Where: Esplanade Recital Studio, 1 Esplanade Drive When: Nov 12, 8pm Admission: $25 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to


Between The Lines: Rant And Rave II

Trace the evolution of the Singapore literature scene in this madcap performance, where actors Serene Chen and Jean Ng step into the shoes of real-life poets, novelists and publishers. The production is written and directed by The Finger Players' Chong Tze Chien. Where: Studio Theatre, School of the Arts , 1 Zubir Said Drive When: Nov 4 and 5, 8pm; Nov 6, 3pm Admission: $35 from Sistic


Spices Have Superpowers!

Namita Moolani Mehra and Heetal Dattani Joshi, the Singapore duo behind illustrated children's book The Magic Spicebox, will take children aged three to six - and their parents - on a magical journey that unites storytelling and creating their own spice blend. Where: Empress Lawn When: Nov 12, 2.30pm Admission: $10 from


Shades Of Sayang

Associated Press photographer Wong Maye-E explores different interpretations of the word "sayang" in an exhibition at The Arts House Film Gallery. PHOTO: NICHOLAS CHEE

Look through Associated Press photographer Wong Maye-E's lens as she explores different interpretations of the word "sayang" - from love to regret - through her photos, inspired by extracts from more than 20 works of Singapore literature across genres and languages. The literary works were curated by The Arts House. Where: Film Gallery, The Arts House, 1 Old Parliament Lane When: Nov 4 to 13 Admission: Free


Utter 2016: One Hour To Daylight

Harmonious Residences is one of four stories in the film One Hour To Daylight. PHOTO: WONG MAYE-E

Singapore literature is reimagined on the silver screen with One Hour To Daylight, which is woven out of the works of four Singapore authors: Jeremy Tiang, Chia Hwee Pheng (or Xi Ni Er), Siti Aisyah Mohamed Salim (or Chempaka Aizim) and Kanagalatha (or Latha).

Four directors - Sufyan Sam'an, Jacky Lee, Jonathan Choo and D Vel Murugan - take on each of the four works.

The stories of the different protagonists intertwine and collide in an incident inspired by the "curry dispute" that broke out here four years ago, where a China woman objected to her Indian Singaporean neighbour cooking curry.

This is the first time the festival is featuring an original, full-length film. Where: Screening Room, The Arts House, 1 Old Parliament Lane When: Nov 4, 8.30pm Admission: Festival pass event, $20 from Sistic


The Paper Trail: A Backroom Tour Of Singapore Publishers

Go behind the scenes and explore the offices of five Singapore publishers: Epigram Books, Ethos Books, NUS Press, Lingzi Media and Mini Monsters.

The tour is led by Singapore poet Yong Shu Hoong. Where: The Arts House Entrance, 1 Old Parliament Lane When: Nov 5, 9 am Admission: $20 from Sistic

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 18, 2016, with the headline 'Panama Papers thriller'. Print Edition | Subscribe