Singapore trader alarmed some banks long before his arrest

FILE PHOTO: Ng Yu Zhi, a director of Envy Global Trading, arrives at the State Court in Singapore April 20, 2021. REUTERS/Edgar Su

SINGAPORE: The trader charged with orchestrating what police describe as one of Singapore’s biggest suspected investment frauds began setting off alarm bells at banks more than a year before his arrest in February, according to people familiar with the matter.

Ng Yu Zhi’s unusually large cash transfers from his trading company to his personal account prompted Oversea-Chinese Banking Corp. to file suspicious transaction reports ( STR) to police as far back as 2019, the people said, asking not to be identified discussing private information.

The bank shut the personal account in August 2020. Ng’s corporate account at United Overseas Bank Ltd. was closed more than a year before the 34-year-old was arrested, one of the people said.

The previously unreported timeline raises fresh questions about how Ng could have maintained an alleged S$1.46 billion ($1.08 billion) fraud for so long.

Even as OCBC and UOB cut ties with the trader, other banks including DBS Group Holdings Ltd. and CIMB Group Holdings Bhd. still had relationships with him at the time he was charged, people familiar with the matter said. Ng continued accepting money from wealthy Singaporeans until his arrest, enticing them with purported investment gains that averaged 15% a quarter.

Prosecutors and court-appointed judicial managers of Ng’s companies allege that he was in fact fabricating trades and misappropriating client money to finance a S$2 million-a-month spending habit that included private jet travel, a personal butler and nightclub outings.

All told, Ng funneled about S$475 million from his companies -- Envy Asset Management and Envy Global Trading -- into his personal accounts, according to an interim report from the judicial managers led by Bob Yap of KPMG LLP, who have proposed liquidation for the firms.

Ng’s case has riveted Singapore’s moneyed elite and thrust a spotlight on the challenges of developing effective early warning systems for fraud even in the most advanced financial centers. Assets under management in Singapore swelled by 17% last year to a record $3.5 trillion.

"For international financial centers, the difficulty in detecting financial scams may be exacerbated due to the sheer volume and complexity of transactions, ” said Nizam Ismail, founder of Singapore-based Etikom Consultancy, which advises firms on compliance.

Ng, who has been out on bail, has yet to enter a plea and his lawyer didn’t respond to an email seeking comment. "It is inappropriate to comment on ongoing police investigations, ” a spokesperson for Singapore’s police department said.

Spokespeople at CIMB and OCBC declined to comment on Ng’s accounts. Loretta Yuen, OCBC’s group head of legal and regulatory compliance, said transactions that are found to be suspicious or unusual are reported to the authorities.

A DBS spokesperson said the bank maintains "robust systems” and controls to identify and report suspicious transactions. "We cooperate fully with law enforcement efforts, and this includes account freezing and property seizures, ” the spokesperson said. "As a matter of policy, we do not comment on cases under investigation.”

Corporate Accounts

DBS filed suspicious transaction reports to Singapore police on Ng’s corporate accounts and was in the process of closing them before he was arrested, a person familiar with the matter said. Ng allegedly misappropriated at least S$201 million from Envy Global Trading’s account at DBS, according to charge sheets seen by Bloomberg.

HSBC Holdings Plc, where Ng had a personal account, also filed STRs between 2019 and 2020, a person familiar said. The police later froze Ng’s personal account at HSBC, people familiar with the matter said, without specifying when that happened.

An HSBC spokesman declined to comment on Ng’s accounts but said the bank has measures in place to spot suspicious transactions. A UOB representative declined to comment.

A spokesman for Malayan Banking Bhd., which is listed in the judicial managers’ report among banks that dealt with Ng’s companies, also declined to comment. The report showed no money in the Maybank account, suggesting it had been closed, although the timing wasn’t clear.

The judicial managers have described the pattern of transactions in Ng’s accounts as "highly unusual.” Between July 2020 and February 2021, there were about 150 transfers a month, on average, from Envy corporate accounts to Ng’s personal ones, according to an interim report by the judicial managers in May.

Global banks are required by most major financial centers, including Singapore, to alert authorities to suspect activity via suspicious transaction reports.

These so-called STRs can help expose possible fraud, but they’re not always easy to analyze quickly given the high volume of reports, according to Oonagh van den Berg, managing director of Virtual Risk Solutions in Hong Kong, a consultancy firm that offers advisory and training services on compliance.

Investor Alert

In Singapore alone, about 33, 571 STRs were filed on average each year from 2016 and 2019, according to data from the Commercial Affairs Department, the white-collar unit of the Singapore Police Force.

"Generally banks are risk averse, and would err on the side of caution” when it comes to filing a STR, said Chenthil Kumarasingam, a partner at law firm Withers KhattarWong. "This is understandable given the rigorous regulatory oversight in Singapore.”

Ng had appeared on authorities’ radar for a different reason as early as March 2020. That’s when the Monetary Authority of Singapore put Envy Asset Management on its "Investor Alert List, ” which highlights companies that have been wrongly perceived as being licensed by the regulator.

The alert did little to deter some investors, however, in part because Ng distributed a letter from a top Singapore law firm, Allen & Gledhill LLP, expressing its opinion that Envy Asset didn’t need to be licensed by MAS because it wasn’t providing a fund management service as defined by the regulator, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Ng was also honoring withdrawal requests, giving clients little reason to suspect wrongdoing, another person said. As for banks, they aren’t required to stop dealing with entities on the investor alert list.

MAS said in a response to questions from Bloomberg this month that it received "additional information” on Ng’s companies between May and September 2020 and subsequently sent its findings to the police.

Allen & Gledhill said in an emailed reply that the firm’s advice was addressed only to Envy Asset and Envy Global, and not to be relied upon by anyone else. "We did not advise on Envy’s credit standing or the suitability of its products for investors, ” the firm said. "We are not able to comment further due to client confidentiality.”

Ng’s companies had six bank accounts holding about $7.9 million as of April 30, according to the judicial managers’ report. About 86% of that was in four accounts at DBS, with the remainder at CIMB. At least S$282.2 million of cash that investors gave to Ng’s companies remains unaccounted for, the prosecutors have said in affidavits. - Bloomberg

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