Retiree lost $90,000 to Ponzi scheme of Sunshine Empire

The authorities could recover only $21m out of nearly $190m lost when it collapsed 10 years ago

Sunshine Empire founder James Phang is now facing new charges in Malaysia.
Sunshine Empire founder James Phang is now facing new charges in Malaysia. PHOTO: SHIN MIN DAILY NEWS

Retired electrician Choo Lai Chong thought he was on to a sure thing when he invested thousands of dollars in the Sunshine Empire business years ago, but his hopes of landing an easy buck led to financial disaster.

Sunshine flogged itself as a multi-level marketing business but it turned out to be a massive Ponzi scheme that crashed and burned 10 years ago, leaving investors like Mr Choo, 78, well out of pocket.

Sunshine founder James Phang served nine years in jail and is now facing new charges in Malaysia, but the authorities could recover only $21 million out of nearly $190 million lost in the collapse.

Mr Choo alone lost about $90,000 of his savings.

He fell into the scheme in July 2007 when a friend and neighbour, Ms Stella Chau, persuaded him to join, emphasising high returns. "She heard about the business from her colleague, who heard about it from a friend, who heard about it from someone else. It was like a whole chain of people signed up together," he told The Sunday Times.

"I didn't know it was a con. I don't know much about investments or trading, so I just followed Stella. We both trusted that it was real."

Mr Choo bought four Gold Prime packages costing between $9,600 and $12,000 each after attending a seminar run by a Sunshine associate. A month later, he received returns of $14,000.

He used this to buy 10 more Gold Prime packages and one Silver Merchant package for $1,200.

Mr Choo said that even back then, some of his colleagues became suspicious when they visited the lavish Sunshine Empire office in Toa Payoh Central.

"Word went around that the firm was being investigated in Malaysia. And that (Sunshine founder James) Phang and his followers were trying to secretly move everything to Hong Kong," he said.

Mr Choo and a group of more than 10 investors, including Ms Chau, feared the firm's bosses were about to flee so they quickly lodged a police report.

The courts later revealed the business to be a sham and Mr Choo testified in court but he never saw any of his money again.

"Of course, I was sad for a while," he said, adding that the loss did not affect him much financially.

"I didn't borrow money from my children, so I didn't need to worry about paying anyone back," said Mr Choo, who has lived alone in a one-room flat in Bukit Merah since his wife died seven years ago.

He said he has enough to pay his utility and phone bills and to buy food. His son and daughter, and four grandchildren, a boy and three girls, sometimes visit, he said.

Mr Joseph Kwok, president of the Financial Planning Association of Singapore, said the laws are comprehensive in protecting consumers and the punishment in Phang's case was stiff enough to deter potential offenders from defrauding consumers.

But he also said people needed to be responsible for their own choices. "No law is enough if one is willing to be 'cheated' by getting into get-rich-quick schemes."

Mr Kwok advised consumers to first ask if the investment scheme is registered with the authorities here. "If it is not, then consumers need to be alert and ask tough questions with regard to how the return is generated," he said.

"If the return sounds too attractive without requiring the consumers to do much, then one needs to be worried."

Mr Choo says he is no longer angry about falling prey to the scam. "The game is over, our money is lost and we cannot get it back.,"

But the experience has soured him on ever making financial investments again.

"It's just not possible any more. I'll never invest again."


To not bribe and yet bag deals is a challenge

Low-level graft a business reality

Avoiding risks when dealing with neighbour

Some turn a blind eye to get things done

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 07, 2018, with the headline Retiree lost $90,000 to Ponzi scheme of Sunshine Empire. Subscribe