The rise and fall of an empire

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

The fraudster had set up an elaborate Ponzi scheme that swindled 20,000 Singaporeans out of nearly $190 million. The victims included students and retirees, and only about $21 million was recovered.

Phang was hit with a $60,000 fine and a nine-year prison sentence. He was released from prison here on Dec 20, and the next day, he faced fresh charges in Malaysia that could send him to jail for a second time.

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

"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," he added.

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, which included Sunshine.

People paid thousands of dollars to buy "lifestyle packages", which they believed could earn them monthly cash payouts that would add up to several times what they had put in.

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

Phang and his cronies pulled in their followers with the promise of easy money that would allow them to live the high life. Their office was decorated with plush carpets and gold trim. Phang himself drove a Mercedes-Benz.

Sunshine Empire's foot soldiers - its "managers" - were dressed in black suits, carried Montblanc wallets, and took trainees out for supper in flashy luxury cars.

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

Even then, Phang appeared unfazed. "We acquire companies like you going to the market to buy bean curd," he said in one interview, conducted at around the time the Commercial Affairs Department was investigating Sunshine Empire's dealings.

Victims of the scam said at the time that they had been "naive" and "stupid". An undergraduate student, speaking to The New Paper, said: "I was naive and foolish." She sank $66,000 into the scheme, with money borrowed from her parents. "I really thought it was easy money."

The late criminal lawyer Subhas Anandan, who defended Phang, discussed the case in his book It's Easy To Cry. He wrote: "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.

"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."

Linette Lai

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 07, 2018, with the headline 'The rise and fall of an empire'. Print Edition | Subscribe