SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Singapore has long cultivated a reputation as a clean, safe and regimented place to live and do business in a turbulent region, but the apparently major role of Singaporeans in a global football match-fixing scandal shows a seamy underside often out of view.
The football scam, graft cases against high-level officials and revelations that some bank traders colluded to manipulate currency rates run contrary to the image of an orderly society, well-swept streets and manicured greenery in a place dubbed “Disneyland with the death penalty” by writer William Gibson.
There was no particular reason for match-fixers to be based in Singapore, other than some of the suspects happened to live in the wealthy city-state, said Shashi Nathan, a leading criminal lawyer, noting that the syndicates worked in private and across borders using mobile phones and computers.
“I‘m on the one hand surprised that this has come out of Singapore. On the other hand, even with its heavy regulation, we have to keep in mind that the nature of the offence is very, very hard to detect,” said Nathan, a director at INCA Law LLC.
“The mistake people make is, because Singapore is so clean and regulated, there’s no crime. If so, I’d be out of a job.”
Singapore - a major financial centre whose long-ruling government favours an investor-friendly, technocratic approach - is ranked the fifth least-corrupt country in the world by Transparency International and regularly tops global lists for the ease of doing business.
Murders are rare, gun crime is nearly non-existent and drug possession of any kind is a serious offence leading to jail time and sometimes lashings with a rattan cane. Drug traffickers face the death penalty by hanging.
But Singapore still has its share of scandal and vice.
An opposition party won a by-election last month after the speaker of parliament quit over an extramarital affair, one of several recent embarrassments for the government.
Others include the arrest of the civil defence chief and the head of the police anti-drug unit on corruption charges last year after the men allegedly had sexual relations with female employees of vendors in exchange for help in influencing the awarding of government contracts.
In the Geylang district, licensed prostitutes from China, Thailand and other Asian countries work in brothels that are technically illegal but obvious in their purpose with red lights and flashing signs.
An unlicensed and illegal sex trade is rampant in doorways and on street corners elsewhere in Geylang, at the notorious Orchard Towers complex known as “Four Floors of Whores” on one of Singapore’s glitziest shopping streets, in numerous massage parlours and in explicit online ads.
Gambling is legal at two casino resorts that opened in 2010, at horse races and on football matches at state-run outlets but loan-sharking is a problem and, as the global football scandal shows, match-fixing has deep roots in Singapore.
Investigators in Europe said this week they suspected a criminal syndicate in Singapore was at the heart of a bribery scam to affect the outcomes of hundreds of matches at the club and national level over several years.
Authorities have stressed they are cooperating with the Europeans and take the problem of match-fixing seriously but have been tight-lipped about the details and extent of their investigation.
The Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau said “stern action has been taken” in eight match-fixing cases it has investigated since 2005, including the jailing last year of two South Koreans who used to play in Singapore’s S-league.
“In all, 11 individuals were charged and convicted in court,” the anti-corruption bureau said on Thursday.
“One prominent case in 2007 involved the Liaoning Guangyuan Football Club ... where the footballers were found guilty of having received bribes from the general manager of the club to influence the result of the matches. All involved players were eventually charged and dealt with.”
In sentencing a mainland Chinese player in the Liaoning Guangyuan case to seven months in jail, the judge warned of the dangers to Singapore from match-fixing.
“Football is a sport with a wide following,” District Judge Toh Yung Cheong wrote in February 2008. “Offences of this nature have attracted much public attention lately. If left unchecked, they are capable of tarnishing the image of Singapore.”
The dangers are real for Zaihan Mohamed Yusof, who has reported extensively on match-fixing for The New Paper tabloid. He is concerned for his safety after his car was vandalised four times and over some “strange sightings of people” at his door.
“The vandalism only started when we announced Singapore was a hub for match-fixing in about May 2011,” he said. “It could be coincidental. It could be kids. But other neighbours have not had cars vandalised, just me.”
Additional reporting by Rachel Armstrong and Paul Carsten; Editing by Nick Macfie