On 8 May this year, Mr Paul Lee was surprised to receive a call notifying him that his company had been nominated as one of the “Top 100 companies” in the “Singapore Excellence Award.”
The call, he said, was from a “senior project officer” from the Singapore Enrich Group (SEG).
SEG is a publishing and consultancy firm.
“The officer came to my office on May 11 to present this ‘good news’,” Mr Lee said.
All he needed to do was to pay S$6,000 to receive the award.
The fee also entitles him to publicity in the SMRT trains, a gala dinner and an award which would be presented to him by a Member of Parliament (MP).
“Without a doubt, I agreed and signed this ‘scam contract’,” Mr Lee said. “Indeed, I checked their web site and there are video showing award ceremony, especially when Members of Parliament were there such as Dr. Lim Wee Kiak, MP of Nee Soon GRC; Ellen Lee Geck Hoon, MP Sembawang GRC.”
Mr Lee said the award certificate even carried the Lion Head symbol to “reinforce the national award identity.”
But it was too good to be true, Mr Lee said.
The Lion Head symbol is government property and can only be used with permission from the authorities, particularly the National Heritage Board.
Mr Lee’s suspicions about the authenticity of the award were raised when he said SEG became aggressive in colleting the full payment of the S$6,000 fee.
SEG, he said, wanted to collect it on 14 May, which was only three days after visiting him at his office.
“In addition,” Mr Lee said, “I found out that a tuition center next to my office has a similar Award!”
Mr Lee then apparently made up his mind to decline the award, and asked for it to be cancelled.
“When we said we want to cancel, they said we need to pay 50 per cent of the S$6,000,” Mr Lee said.
“This term was listed in small print behind the contract but I was not notified about this small clause in this first place,” he added.
He said he became “even more suspicious that I fell into a scam.”
His doubts were also heightened because he said he ran a sole proprietorship, which was “a small business.”
“Therefore, it would not make sense to be nominated by public to be Top-100 companies in Singapore. There are many SMEs in Singapore,” Mr Lee said. “It should be given by SMEs association or government body such as SPRING.”
He also had questions about the timing of the award being given in May, and that it was the public which nominated the awardees, as claimed by SEG.
“Another reason is that parents [who] sent their children to our art studio would not be bothered about this,” Mr Lee said. “We are doubtful who and why would anyone nominate us.”
He said that there was no evidence to show that SEG had received approval for the use of the Lion Head symbol.
Mr Lee also described the “scam” as a “million dollar business”.
“This million dollar business scam can be broken down with simple math: 100 companies x $6,000 (it was $7,500), it will be $600,000. If they are 10 such ‘awards’, it would be $6 million. Indeed, their web site has 10 Awards!”
And finally, Mr Lee noticed that there is no mention or transparency about the criteria, selection process, or the committee involved in giving out the awards.
“It was a wake up call for me about this Scam Award and reported to the Police accordingly,” Mr Lee said.
“I was lucky to have awakened before I made any payment,” he added. “From the list of companies mentioned on their website, there are many companies [which] seemed to [have] fallen into these scam awards, even the MPs are made to believe by giving these awards with speeches at a Gala Dinner.”
The Straits Times had also reported in July about the nature of these awards.
In his defence, the chief executive of SEG, Alex Yeo, denied that the awards were part of a scam but were instead a “legitimate business”.
“If I was running a scam, I would not have more than 500 companies supporting me since I started the business,” he said.
The presence of MPs gracing the events as guest-of-honour have raised eyebrows and questions. Their presence, some say, lend a veneer of glamour and credibility to the awards which are given out by a private company.
The Straits Times reported that at least seven PAP MPs have attended these events in the past few years, and had presented the awards to the recipients.
MPs say they attended these events to support local SMEs, and also for fundraising for charity reasons.
“Winners feel important when receiving the award from an MP on stage and having photos taken,” said a staff member of one of the firms handing out such awards.
But it is not just MPs who have been approached to lend their presence to such events – even ministers were too.
“For instance, last year’s Promising SME 500 award was handed out by Senior Minister of State for Health and Manpower Amy Khor. The year before, it was Senior Minister of State in the Prime Minister’s Office Heng Chee How,” the Straits Times said.
Mr Heng said that “the invitation for the 2013 Promising SME 500 awards dinner was made through a grassroots leader.”
He said he had “stood in for a minister who could not attend the event because of scheduling.”
Questions about the nature of the awards have been raised since at least 2013, as can be seen in this post: “The Singapore Excellence Awards – whut???”
Here is an email sent to a company by Media Enrich Enterprise Pte Ltd, which is a subsidiary of Singapore Enrich Group Pte Ltd.
Only towards the end of the email does it say, rather casually:
“For your info,there will be a sponsorship required to cover for the printing and editorial interview as well as for the logistics and operational cost of this prestigious event.”
This “sponsorship” turned out to be $6,000 for Mr Lee.