The rise and fall of Sunshine Empire

James Phang Wah, founder of marketing company Sunshine Empire, swindled 20,000 Singaporeans out of nearly $190 million. PHOTO: SHIN MIN DAILY NEWS FILE

SINGAPORE - Ten years ago, the police raided James Phang Wah's plush office suite in Toa Payoh and brought his Sunshine Empire crashing down.

The fraudster had set up an elaborate Ponzi scheme that swindled 20,000 Singaporeans - including students and retirees - out of nearly $190 million.

Only $21 million was ever recovered.

Phang was hit with a $60,000 fine and a nine-year prison sentence. A day after his release on Dec 20, he faced fresh charges in Malaysia that could send him back behind bars for a second time.

"He felt shocked... He was not ready in fact to be charged in Malaysia," Phang's Malaysian lawyer Shah Rizal Abdul Manan was quoted as saying.

"He thought initially that the case was over in Singapore, and (that) the Malaysian government... would not charge him for whatever offences he was seen to have done in Malaysia."

Phang grew up on a vegetable farm in Lim Chu Kang and worked as a labourer to pay for night classes for his A-level examinations.

He graduated from the National University of Singapore in 1983, joined Shin Min Daily News as a feature writer for six years, and then left to start multi-level marketing firm Number One Product, which sold magnetic mattresses.

In 2003, he set up a complex network of different businesses collectively known as the Empire Group Alliance - of which Sunshine was a part.

Individuals poured in thousands of dollars to buy "lifestyle packages", which they believed could earn them monthly cash payouts amounting to several times what they had put in.

But in truth, the Sunshine Empire had no legitimate profit-generating mechanism, and relied on money from new investors to pay old ones, in a classic Ponzi scheme.

Phang and his cronies drew their followers with the promise of easy money to lead the high life. Their office was decorated with plush carpets and gold trim. Phang himself drove a Mercedes-Benz.

The Empire's footsoldiers - its "managers" - would dress in black suits and carry Montblanc wallets, taking trainees out for supper in flashy luxury cars.

But along the way, cracks began to appear. No official records could be found of projects touted by the Sunshine Empire on its website - such as an underwater theme park in Malaysia.

Even then, Phang appeared unfazed. "We accquire companies like you go to market buying beancurd," he boasted in one interview conducted at around the time the Commercial Affairs Department was investigating the Empire's dealings.

Victims of the scam told local newspapers at the time that they had been "naive" and "stupid".

"I was naive and foolish," one undergraduate told The New Paper. She had put in $66,000 into the scheme, using money borrowed from her parents. "I really thought it was easy money."

Criminal lawyer Subhas Anandan, who defended Phang, penned his personal thoughts on the case in his book, It's Easy To Cry.

"James Phang Wah is a brilliant man and I think he is one person who could have done very well in any venture that he chose to start," he wrote.

"I am very sure that if he were to use the intelligence he has wisely, he could have started a venture that would have made him very rich, the legal way."

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