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SkillsFuture fraud: First syndicate member who stashed S$6.6 million in cash, 11kg of gold at home sentenced

SINGAPORE — The first of five individuals in a syndicate behind what is believed to be the largest defraudment of a public institution was sentenced to five years and eight months’ jail on Tuesday (Nov 27).

SkillsFuture fraud: First syndicate member who stashed S$6.6 million in cash, 11kg of gold at home sentenced
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SINGAPORE — The first of five individuals in a syndicate behind what is believed to be the largest defraudment of a public institution was sentenced to five years and eight months’ jail on Tuesday (Nov 27).

Lee Chi Wai, 32, pleaded guilty last week to three charges under the Corruption, Drug Trafficking and Other Serious Crimes (Confiscation of Benefits) Act. They include concealing more than S$6.6 million in cash and 11kg of gold, which formed part of the S$40 million allegedly disbursed as a result of bogus SkillsFuture claims.

Two other similar offences were taken into consideration for sentencing by District Judge Luke Tan.

Under the SkillsFuture Course Fee Grant scheme, a Singapore business entity may apply to government agency SkillsFuture Singapore (SSG) for subsidies if it has sent its employees for skills training courses with registered training providers.

Between May and October 2017, six firms and three training providers — which were all later found to be dormant entities — submitted 8,386 fraudulent applications for course fee grants, as well as 8,391 corresponding claims to SSG.

In total, the agency disbursed S$39.9 million to the nine companies, which were later traced to the syndicate.

Lee is the younger brother of Lee Lai Leng, 40, one of the key persons in the syndicate. Lee Lai Leng was married to Ng Cheng Kwee, described by prosecutors as one of the main perpetrators of the crimes.

The court heard on Tuesday that sometime around July 27 last year, Lee Lai Leng asked her younger brother for his bank account details, as well as details of his parents’ bank account.

She had done so because she said that her bank account “cannot have money”, prosecutors said.

In total, she transferred close to S$50,000 to her younger brother, who asked for piecemeal transfers to avoid raising any alarm.

On Sept 1 last year, before Ng and Lee Lai Leng went on a holiday, she handed her younger brother a bag containing S$930,000 in cash to safekeep in his home.

A few days later, Lee Chi Wai got wind of knowledge that his older sister and Ng were to receive S$1.4 million from bank withdrawals. He did not know then where the money came from.

He asked his older sister for a loan to buy a car for himself, and she agreed, transferring about S$30,000 to his account.

Around the same time, she bought a safe which was placed in her brother’s home in Sengkang.

By November that year, more than S$6.7 million in cash, as well as 11kg of gold — worth about S$626,000 — were in the safe.

On Nov 1 last year, Lee Chi Wai received a call from his sister, instructing him to “empty the contents in the safe and pass (them) to someone else for safekeeping”.

“(He) understood from (Lee Lai Leng’s) instructions that she wanted to conceal the cash and gold in order to evade detection,” the prosecution said.

He followed her instructions and moved the loot to a friend’s place, which were later seized by the authorities. It is not known if Lee Chi Wai’s friend has been dealt with by the law.

The next day, the siblings were arrested.

The court heard that Lee Chi Wai has made restitution of S$30,000 to SSG.

The prosecution, which urged the court to impose a sentence of at least 75 months, said that his restitution was made belatedly.

While he was charged in November last year, he only surrendered S$9,000 in August this year and another S$21,000 on Nov 23, a few days before he was to be sentenced.

“It should not be viewed as a sign of genuine remorse, but as (his) hope or expectation of obtaining a lighter punishment,” the prosecution added.

And while he did not play a main role in the scam, he had “significantly contributed to the scale of the offence” by helping to hide, as well as launder the cash and gold bars.

Defence lawyer Gino Hardial Singh argued that his client did not know the extent to which his older sister was involved in the larger scam.

“He knew something was wrong but didn’t know what really was going on,” Mr Singh said.

The cases of the other four individuals involved in the syndicate are still before the courts.

Last May, SSG introduced new guidelines for all claims of SkillsFuture Credit to be paid out directly to the training providers instead of to individuals.

It has also changed the guidelines to prevent training providers from using gimmicks such as lucky draws and freebies to promote their programmes.

The SkillsFuture Credit scheme, which gives Singaporeans aged 25 and above a S$500 credit to attend courses by approved training providers, was started in 2016.

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