Longest jail term for the worst case of commercial fraud
by Nureza Ahmad
On 2 April 2004, Chia Teck Leng was sentenced to 42 years in jail in the largest case of commercial fraud in Singapore, to date. The jail term is also the longest ever meted out for a commercial crime. Chia was a finance manager at Asia Pacific Breweries when he forged documents to swindle $117 million from banks over four years, to feed his gambling addiction. Before him, the worst commercial fraud was committed by Singapore Airlines’ employee Teo Cheng Kiat, who embezzled $35 million from the airline over 13 years. He was convicted in 2000 and jailed for 24 years for the crime.1
Chia was an accountancy graduate who began his career at the now-defunct accounting and consultancy firm, Arthur Andersen. He went on to hold several senior positions in various companies, including assistant vice-president at the United Overseas Bank, mergers-and-acquisitions manager at Jack Chia-MPH, and financial controller at Swire Pacific Offshore Services. He joined Asia Pacific Breweries (APB) on 20 January 1999 as its finance manager. APB was then one of the region’s largest breweries with sales of $372.7 million and an after-tax profit of $38.6 million in 2001. The job required Chia to travel, paying him a generous salary of between $200,000 and $300,000 a year.2
By all accounts, Chia, 44 (in 2004), was said to be a nondescript executive who got along well with his colleagues. He lived with his wife, a teacher and their two teenage sons in St Francis Lodge condominium, off Serangoon Road. Little did his colleagues and family know that the hard-working Chia was leading a double life. He was a frequent patron of casinos in Australia, Britain, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Cambodia and the Philippines. Chia was so well-known in some casinos that the casino operators would personally invite him to their betting halls and fly him there in their private jets. He was known to get the VIP treatment at the Crown Casino in Melbourne, Australia, and even stayed in its most expensive room costing A$25,000 a night. The gambler had a Chinese-national girlfriend, Li Jin (then 23 years old). He considered Li his lucky charm, as he had won $1 million from her when she was a croupier in the Very Very Important Person (VVIP) room in a cruise ship casino.3
Chia had been a habitual gambler since 1994. Over the years, he swung from being deep in gambling debts to winning large sums of money. However, his luck turned for the worse in 1998. In a two-week gambling spree, he lost all his previous winnings of $1 million, and chalked up new debts. By the time he joined APB in 1999, he was already heavily indebted.4
Chia was accused of forging documents to cheat several banks over a period of four years, between February 1999 to March 2003. The forged documents, known as certified extracts of board resolutions, deceived the banks into extending him credit and loan facilities in the name of APB, with him as the sole signatory. One of the forged resolutions, dated 3 February 1999, purportedly gave approval for APB (Singapore) to open an account with Scandinavian bank, Skandinaviska Enskilda Banken (SEB), and authorised Chia “to operate and sign all transactions in relation to the said account”.5
Chia forged the signatures of top APB executives such as chief executive Koh Poh Tiong and Ton Blum,6 as well as then-managing director of Fraser and Neave, Tan Yam Pin. At that time, Fraser and Neave owned 37.9 percent of APB.7
Chia was arrested on 2 September 2003 by the Commercial Affairs Department. He was first charged in court on 4 September, on two counts, one of cheating and one of forgery involving $3 million. He was accused of cheating SEB in February 1999 into giving him $3 million in credit.8
As investigations continued, more charges were levelled against Chia. By 11 September 2003, he was facing eight new charges. He was accused of cheating four banks into giving him a total credit of about $113 million: SEB, two Japanese banks (Sakura Bank, now known as Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corporation; and Fuji Bank, now known as Mizuho Corporate Bank), and a German bank (Bayerische Hypo-und Vereinsbank Aktiengesellschaft).9
On 17 September 2003, 18 more charges were added. These included charges of money withdrawals from banks, such as US$25 million from SEB, and US$10 million from Sakura Bank.10
On 24 September 2003, Chia was charged with four more counts of forgery. This time for opening a schedule of fixed deposit with Citibank, and transferring funds from APB’s OCBC bank account to the fictitious Citibank account.11
By the end of September, Chia was facing 32 charges. He was also denied bail in October, as the likelihood of him absconding was high. This was because he was known to have overseas personal bank accounts, of which he had refused to divulge details to investigators.12
The charges against Chia escalated on 5 December 2003 when 14 new charges were added to the existing 32, bringing the total number to 46.13
The 46 charges comprised 14 charges of forgery, 18 of cheating four foreign banks of about $117 million, four of criminal breach of trust involving $53 million, two of money-laundering, and eight of abetting Li to use a forged passport. Li purportedly used a forged Taiwanese passport to enter and leave Singapore between November 2002 and January 2003.14
With the embezzled money, Chia was said to have led an extravagant lifestyle, lavishly buying branded goods for himself, his girlfriend and his friends. His purchases included a $150,000 Mercedes Benz, a $530,000 apartment in Grange Road, and gifts totalling more than $300,000 to various people.15 In October 2013, the Australian police unearthed A$190 million (S$230 million) in Chia’s account in a Melbourne casino.16 He was also said to have stashed away A$8.8 million (S$11 million) in three Swiss bank accounts. In addition, Chia was accused of hiding S$1.5 million by “buying” 1.5 million shares in Business Continuum Solutions (a company he founded with another partner) in his girlfriend’s name.17
With these 46 charges, Chia was ordered to stand trial in the High Court on 26 March 2004 in what was considered the biggest case of financial fraud in the history of Singapore.18
On 2 April 2004, Chia was convicted by the High Court after pleading guilty to six charges of forgery and eight charges of cheating.19 Another 32 charges were considered during sentencing. High Court Judge Tay Yong Kwang sentenced him to 42 years in jail, the longest jail term ever given out for a commercial crime. In all, Chia had swindled the banks of more than $117 million, losing $62 million in casinos around the world. Only $34.8 million has so far been recovered.20
Judge Tay noted how Chia had managed to deceive banks undetected over a period of four years, reiterating the prosecution’s stand that Chia’s crime was the work of a “criminal genius”. He dismissed Chia’s mitigating plea that the banks had approached him first, offering to lend him cash; that the banks had been too naive, trusting and negligent, making it easy for him to commit the crimes. The judge emphasised that bankers were eager to forge business relationships, and not be the unwitting victims of forgery. Judge Tay had also presided over the case of commercial fraud by Singapore Airlines’ employee, Teo Cheng Kiat, previously regarded as the worst case of commercial fraud.21
The sentencing was not the last time Singaporeans heard about Chia, however. During the debates about the proposed integrated resorts in 2005, the government threw a last-minute surprise at casino-watchers and debaters by releasing a 13-page paper written by “a gambling addict behind bars for Singapore’s biggest financial fraud ever” – Chia Teck Leng. According to the Ministry of Home Affairs, Chia had sought permission from the Director of Prisons to write the paper, titled “Taming The Casino Dragon”, which recounted his gambling experience in casinos: how they operated; the risks involved, and his view on safeguards that should be put in place should the government decide to build a casino.22 The reaction to Chia’s article was mixed; while some found the article insightful, others felt that Chia was merely deflecting the blame away from himself.23
In July 2015 (and as recent as 16 May 2016), there was a revived interest in this case, when an e-book titled Guilty As Charged: 25 Crimes That Have Shaken Singapore Since 1965 was published collaboratively by The Straits Times and the Singapore Police Force.24
1. Lum, S. (2004, April 3). Brewery man gets 42 years. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
2. Tan, C. (2003, September 6). Brewery man held over huge alleged fraud. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
3. Lum, S. (2004, March 12). She was brewery man’s good luck charm. The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
4. Menon, A. (2004, April 3). Gamble that went wrong. The Straits Times, p. 10. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
5. Lee, S. S. (2003, September 5). APB exec charged with forging papers. The Straits Times, p. 19. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
6. Lee, S. S. (2003, September 5). APB exec charged with forging papers. The Straits Times, p. 19. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
7. Lum, S. (2003, September 11). Brewery man now faces charges totalling $116m. The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
8. Lee, S. S. (2003, September 5). APB exec charged with forging papers. The Straits Times, p. 19. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
9. Lum, S. (2003, September 11). Brewery man now faces charges totalling $116m. The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
10. Lum, S. (2003, September 18). Brewery man charged with pocketing $117m. The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
11. Ho, K. (2003, September 25). Brewery man slapped with four more charges. The Straits Times, p. H3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
12. Lum, S. (2003, October 2). $30m found, no bail for brewery man. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
13. Lum, S. (2003, December 6). APB exec allegedly hid $11m in Swiss accounts. The Straits Times, p. 10. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
14. Lum, S. (2003, December 13). Passport lands exec’s woman friend in court. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
15. Menon, A. (2004, April 3). Gamble that went wrong. The Straits Times, p. 10. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
16. Vijayan, K. C. (2003, October 18). $230m in brewery man’s casino account. The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
17. Lum, S. (2003, December 6). APB exec allegedly hid $11m in Swiss accounts. The Straits Times, p. 10. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
18. Ex-brewery exec may plead guilty. (2004, March 5). The Straits Times, p. 12. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
19. Menon, A. (2004, April 3). Gamble that went wrong. The Straits Times, p. 10. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
20. Lum, S. (2004, April 3). Brewery man gets 42 years. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
21. Lum, S. (2004, April 3). Brewery man gets 42 years. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
22. Ng, A. (2005, April 15). Former high-roller tells a bitter tale. Today, p. 2; Taming the casino dragon. (2005, April 16). The Straits Times, pp. 4–6; Chia, T. L. (2005, April 16). Taming the dragon. The Business Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
23. Tan, M. L., & Low, C. L. (2005, April 17). Insightful, say some. Shifty, say fellow gamblers. The New Paper, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
24. Guilty as charged: Chia Teck Leng led a double life and cheated banks of millions. (2016, May 16). The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/
Singapore Academy of Law. (2016, May 16). Public Prosecutor v Chia Teck Leng  SGHC 68. Retrieved 2016, July 5 from Singapore Academy of Law website: http://www.singaporelaw.sg/sglaw/laws-of-singapore/case-law/free-law/high-court-judgments/16153-public-prosecutor-v-chia-teck-leng-2004-sghc-68
The information in this article is valid as at 2016 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.