8 more charged in $40 million SkillsFuture fraud case

Ng Cheng Kwee and his wife Lee Lai Leng are said to be the key players among the five members of a syndicate who were charged in court in 2017 for roles relating to the SkillsFuture scam. The number of people arrested and charged has grown to 13, inc
Ng Cheng Kwee and his wife Lee Lai Leng are said to be the key players among the five members of a syndicate who were charged in court in 2017 for roles relating to the SkillsFuture scam. The number of people arrested and charged has grown to 13, including some who had fled Singapore.ST FILE PHOTO

$20m still unaccounted for; bail denied for the fourth time for woman accused of playing integral role in scam

Eight more suspects, including some who had earlier fled Singapore, have been charged over a $40 million SkillsFuture scam that has been described as the largest case of fraud perpetrated against a public institution in Singapore.

In an update on investigations into the scam, the High Court yesterday was told that about $20 million remains unaccounted for as the prosecution argued against granting bail to one of the alleged masterminds of the scam.

Housewife Lee Lai Leng, 40, who was described by prosecutors as playing a "pre-eminent role" in the syndicate, had her fourth attempt to seek bail denied. Her first three applications were denied by the district court.

Lee and her husband Ng Cheng Kwee, 42, are said to be the key players among five members of a syndicate who were charged in court in 2017 for various roles they allegedly played in relation to the scam.

The number of people who have been arrested and charged has grown to 13, including some who had skipped town. The details of how they were caught were not given in open court yesterday.

Between May and October 2017, the syndicate used nine shell companies - three training providers and six business entities - to submit more than 8,000 course fee subsidy claims to SkillsFuture Singapore (SSG).

  • 9 

    Number of shell companies used by the syndicate. 

    >8,000 

    Number of course fee subsidy claims submitted to SkillsFuture Singapore. 

    $39.9m 

    Amount disbursed by SkillsFuture Singapore to the nine companies.

Under an SSG scheme, provided certain conditions are met, a Singapore business entity that had sent its employees for skills training courses with registered training providers can apply to SSG for subsidy.

This subsidy comprises a portion of the total course fee paid by the applicant entity to the training provider. Depending on the claim method used, subsidies are payable to either the training provider or applicant entity.

The syndicate submitted the false claims on the basis that courses were provided by the three training providers to about 25,000 employees of the six business entities. The fraudulent applications and claims were made via SSG's online portal, SkillsConnect, using the SingPass credentials of various people.

After $39.9 million was disbursed to bank accounts of the nine firms, a network of runners was used to dissipate the criminal proceeds.

Lee's brother, Lee Chi Wai, 32, is serving a jail term of five years and eight months for helping her stash away $6.7 million in cash and 11kg of gold at his Sengkang flat.

Lee, who has been remanded in custody since November 2017, sought bail, contending that she needed to tend to her three children.

She also said she wanted to seek medical help for depression, and argued it was inconvenient for her to instruct her lawyers from prison.

 
 
 
 

Her lawyer, Mr Bachoo Mohan Singh, said her remand was "oppressive", given that other suspects, including some who had fled to China and withdrawn huge sums, have been granted bail.

Deputy Public Prosecutor Jordon Li said Lee should not be granted bail, given her "integral role" in the entire scam.

In the initial stages, she registered the business entities with SSG and allegedly submitted forged documents to support the bogus applications, said the DPP.

After the funds were disbursed, she allegedly received cash withdrawn by other syndicate members, hid the money at her brother's flat and used $626,500 to buy 11kg of gold.

The DPP said the Commercial Affairs Department (CAD) has seized and frozen assets of about $18.5 million. This includes the $6.7 million, the gold and about $11.1 million frozen in the bank accounts of companies and individuals used to receive the criminal proceeds.

The DPP argued that there was a risk Lee could further dissipate the proceeds if she was granted bail.

Since her arrest, Lee has not given CAD any information to help in the recovery of funds, and instead provided false information that hindered investigators, he said.

Lee was also at risk of absconding, he said, given that she faces a lengthy prison term that will be longer than the one her brother received for his relatively minor role.

She faces 14 charges of laundering criminal proceeds, five of cheating, nine of using forged documents and two of destroying evidence.

The maximum punishment for each charge of money laundering is 10 years in jail and a $500,000 fine. Each charge of forgery carries up to 10 years in jail and a fine.

Apart from the 30 charges relating to the SkillsFuture fraud, she also faces four cheating charges in relation to a separate scam.

The DPP added that after investigations into the SkillsFuture scam are concluded, additional charges may be tendered against Lee, which will increase the sentence that she may face eventually.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 12, 2019, with the headline '8 more charged in $40 million SkillsFuture fraud case'. Print Edition | Subscribe