Ong Beng Seng. Source: The Straits Times

Singapore hotel tycoon’s alleged involvement in Maldives’ rampant corruption revealed in leaked files

Singaporean luxury hotelier Ong Beng Seng was accused of being involved in what was dubbed by reporters of the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) as “an orgy of corruption” in the Maldives.

Ong, who is the co-founder and managing director of Hotel Properties Limited (HPL), which owns the Four Seasons and Hilton hotels in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, the United Kingdom, and Maldives, had allegedly “showered” Maldives’ current president Abdulla Yameen and vice-president Ahmed Adeeb “with stays at luxury hotels in Singapore and the Maldives”.

In a report by OCCRP journalists titled “Filed Implicate President, ex-Tourism Minister, and Singapore Billionaire in Island Deal,” detailed accounts of Ong’s role in the alleged corruption of the Maldivian officials were listed:

Records show that, as early as June 27, Adeeb spoke with Gan Kim Leng, a senior HPL executive, about potentially leasing Lavadhoo, a small island in the southern Maldives near the company’s COMO Maalifushi resort. The COMO brand is headed by Ong’s wife, Christina.

Almost three weeks later, Ong himself reached out to Adeeb, asking the tourism minister to come to Singapore. But first, Ong said, he was wondering if President Yameen and Adeeb would be interested in a stay at his Maalifushi resort.

“We will have 2 sea planes by next week,” Ong wrote, “pls b my guests.”

It’s unclear from the files whether Yameen and Adeeb accepted the offer. But this would not be their only opportunity to enjoy Ong’s hospitality.

Adeeb’s phone files show that within a matter of days, both he and Yameen would find themselves in Singapore, where they appear to have been hosted as Ong’s guests for several days before finally meeting the tycoon.

There is no evidence that they were ever asked to pay for any of this, or offered to do so.

Chat records show that Adeeb stayed at HPL’s Four Seasons hotel in Singapore from July 28, and was personally offered the use of a car by Ong “4 yr use till u leave.” The Maldivian minister readily accepted.

The apparent gifts continued to come thick and fast. Text messages from July 30 show Adeeb contacting Gan and other HPL employees to arrange transport and rooms for his wife and family at the company’s Four Seasons Kuda Huraa resort back in the Maldives.

At the same time, Adeeb asked Gan for “one more favor”: an extra room at the Four Seasons in Singapore, where he was staying with a mistress.

Ong also extended an invitation to both Adeeb and Yameen to attend the Singapore Grand Prix, an event he had founded that would be held that September.

On August 1, Adeeb messaged Ong to confirm that he and the president would come to the Formula One race. He also asked Ong if Yameen could stay at the Singapore Hilton’s presidential suite for the next two days.

“Yes dats gud,” Ong replied. “Pls give my best 2 President.”

Time-stamped photographs taken from Adeeb’s phone show him inside the presidential suite at Ong’s Singapore Hilton that evening. Reporters were able to match two of the photographs with a publicly available floor plan of the suite.

Three days later, a meeting between Ong, Yameen, and Adeeb finally took place. It’s unclear what the men discussed, but Adeeb and Yameen returned to the Maldives in good spirits.

“Thank u very much for your kind hospitality for myself and President, he is very happy,” Adeeb wrote to Ong. “I will follow up on all the pending issues we discussed.”

Just three days after their Singapore meeting, Adeeb again messaged Ong. Fohtheyo, the unspoiled island at the Maldives’ easternmost tip, was available for lease.

Two hours later, Ong’s executive, Gan, messaged the tourism minister: “Mr Ong says interested, below US$5m and we can pay cash full amount.”

A week later, the deal was done. In another message, Adeeb confirmed to Ong that he had signed off on a contract to lease Fohtheyo to him for $5 million.

Adeeb had also drafted an agreement to lease out Lavadhoo, the second island, for free. “I found a way to make it without acquisition cost, as part of [the existing lease for Maalifushi],” he wrote.

Ong’s involvement was discovered through “a cache of leaked files” seized from Adeeb’s personal electronic devices, which include “text messages, time-stamped photographs, and even a receipt for the sale of Fohtheyo”.

Adeeb, who was then the Tourism Minister, is currently in prison for embezzlement via tenders for island leases that were given out to tourism developers such as Ong without any public bids or auctions.

It is understood that detailed questions were sent to Ong through HPL, including two separate website contact forms, alongside “three follow-up emails,” as well as phone calls and text messages to his mobile phone. However, the reporters have yet to receive any response.

Ong was listed as one of Singapore’s 50 Richest by Forbes this year, coming in at No. 16 with a net worth of $1.8bil as of today (20 Sep).

For the younger generation of Singaporeans, Ong was involved in the Nassim Jade saga which had the late Lee Kuan Yew and current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong accused of receiving discounts in their family’s purchase of apartments in the exclusive four-storey condominium.

Back in 1996, Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong raised this matter to the Parliament in light of public perception over LKY and PM Lee’s purchase of condominium units from HPL, and concluded that there was no impropriety in their purchases of units in Nassim Jade and Scotts 28.

Prior to the parliamentary debates, Ong held a press conference to dispel the rumors.