Corrupt practices at Keppel — Is there more than meets the eye?

Corrupt practices at Keppel — Is there more than meets the eye?

by Joseph Nathan

It is understandable why so many Singaporeans and netizens remain outraged by the high-profile corruption practices at Keppel Offshore & Marine Limited (KOM) where all the six former senior executives involved were let off with just a stern warning.

This even prompted a Senior Counsel to rightfully express his difficulty in appreciating the decision by the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) not to prosecute these executives as more questions were being asked about Singapore’s commitment of its zero tolerance for corruption.

Has Keppel lost its competitive edge in Rig-Engineering until it has to resort to using bribes to win contracts?

Looking Back – Keppel’s Earlier Success Story:

During the chairmanship of Sim Kee Boon, Keppel Corporation was without a doubt Singapore’s most successful & dynamic Government-Linked Company (GLC), and it is not hard to see that most of their senior executives back then were always willing to go all out to make Keppel even more successful as they truly respected Kee Boon for his leadership and know well that he will stand on their side should the need arises.

This allowed Keppel to stay away from questionable contracts, as there are more contracts available than it could handle.

That was the dynamic that “respectfully” transformed Keppel into being “Tough Men, Bold Vision”, and I was privileged to be in the company of those good men and women.

These days, even my former colleagues and associates from other GLCs would regularly joke about Keppel and how it has fallen from grace into becoming a national embarrassment due to the absence of inspiring leadership.

In a sad way, I truly feel sorry for these six executives because their Chairman, whom they had served dutifully, was nowhere to be found and has yet to stand up to defend them like a true gentleman and bring this scandal to an end.

Just think about it – how on earth can these six executives engineer such a complex “scheme of thing”, secure the needed approvals and draw out US$55 million to pay bribes without the knowledge of their chairman?

If they could do so without the knowledge of their Chairman, they would have criminally committed embezzlement of funds, which is a very serious offence.

If so, then CPIB and Attorney General’s Chambers (AGC) would have a real crisis on their hand by now and will need to immediately investigate all our GLCs before more scandals hit us, no?

It is interesting to note that Dr Lee Boon Yang, a former Cabinet Minister, was the chairman of Keppel during the period when the offences were committed and the chairman of Singapore Press Holdings (SPH), which has also been caught in another major scandal.

Instead of looking forward to a peaceful retirement, it is looking like he may have to face fellow Singaporeans and give his side of the story for both scandals, one at Keppel and the other at SPH.

Back To The Scandal:

Instead of getting the CPIB and the AGC to step forward to explain for themselves as to why they are not prosecuting the six executives, out came Indranee Rajah, who started to defend them by brushing Singaporeans off for making “speculative” assertions against Keppel, CPIB and the AGC based on “inadequate understanding of the facts”.

In parliament yesterday, we saw how Indranee, when questioned by parliamentarians from the Workers’ Party (WP) and the Progress Singapore Party (PSP), ended up claiming that the “short answer” is – she herself does not know if the six executives had authorized the bribery payment or had knowledge of the payment.

As such, isn’t Indranee also guilty of “making speculative assertions that are based on an inadequate understanding of the facts too”, no?

What Indranee was doing in parliament is looking like the People’s Action Party (PAP)’s latest Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) in dealing with the growing scandals and public displeasure against the government — just keep complicating the “facts” until everyone gets confused, tired or lost, and hopefully will be forgotten when another more pressing issue come along.

For those who may not know much about Indranee, she was once a “White Swan” who could dance freely and merrily during Lee Kuan Yew’s time, always cheerful, always smiling.

After the demise of LKY, she is now looking more like a “Black Swan”, and with a black face, goes around cleaning up the messes created by other 4G politicians like an obedient servant girl.

Seriously, her current portfolio is no different from cleaners at the hawker centres or coffee shops except that she is paid obscenely and her composure is getting to be bitterly cold, like some frustrated old lady who has been emotionally deprived.

Thanks to the hard questioning from members from the opposition parties, Indranee unwittingly ended up opening several cans of worms and has in fact make the whole case more daunting for the CPIB, AGC and ultimately, even for PM Lee.

Unravelling Keppel’s Corruption Scandal:

“For a start, the amount of bribe in question is US$55 million (S$72.8 million) and not just a few insignificant dollars, and as such, how on earth can such a huge amount of monies be siphoned out of Keppel without the approval or knowledge of their Chairman, Financial Controller and its appointed external Auditors?

If the Chairman claims that he is not aware, then all the six executives ought to be charged for embezzlement of monies without the due approval and knowledge of their chairman, which is already a very serious offence.

So it is high time that the government start taking this corruption saga more seriously since the Chairman can only claim he is aware of it or he is not aware of it.

For someone who is legally trained, why didn’t Indranee ask the AGC or CPIB to interview the Chairman to ascertain this fact prior to addressing parliament?

But if the Chairman is aware, why isn’t he stepping forward like a true “Oriental Gentleman” and taking full responsibility for this scandal, as it is clear that all the executives are only “foot-soldiers” who must have duly sought permission and have proper authorization from their bosses, and as such, he must know something about the complexity of the whole “scheme-of-thing” unless he has been sleeping on his job the whole time.

As a Chairman of any GLC, he too must seek proper authorization for such a major “scheme-of-thing” before such a massive amount of fund can be allowed to be released and that means that he would have to explain to his boss/es higher up the command chain, no?

So a vital question that Indranee ought to have addressed in parliament yesterday should be – just how far up the command chain will be at risk of being implicated should these executives or the chairman of Keppel speak up when prosecuted?”

The 50 Shades Of Criminality:

The mere movement of unauthorized or illegally obtained fund across borders is already a very serious financial crime, to begin with.

Then there is the US$422 million “leniency” settlement with the US Department of Justice and the Brazilian authorities.

Again, the issue at hand is whether those six executives were guilty or not guilty of the bribery charges.

If guilty, then there is nothing to argue but to seek settlement and that is what the US$422 million leniency settlement is all about, and both the CPIB and the AGC were a party involved in approving this settlement, no?

But if those executives were presumed to be “not as guilty” as alleged by the various foreign authorities or there is a lack of evidence to prosecute them as Indranee want us to believe, why didn’t the AGC not advise our Ministry of Finance and assist our “whiter than white” Temasek to instruct Keppel to fight it case since it is a GLC and help them save the half a billion dollars?

As such, it is not speculative to state that no one will ever pay US$422 million to settle a case if they are not guilty of the crime.

If the CPIB and the AGC still need more evidence to be convinced about prosecuting those who are liable, why not just haul up all those who had signed their approval for these payments, including the auditor, as all GLC generally require at least four signatures so there is a lot of fishes to catch over there.

While doing that, why not seek the help of Interpol to detain and extradite Jeffery Chow, the former lawyer at Keppel who had pleaded guilty to the various charges as a “person of interest”?

Implications & Consequences:

Being a major listed entity on the Singapore Stock Exchange (SGX), one that is also CPFIS-rated, both the bribery and the total amount of US$422 million paid have serious material implications on its stock price and overall valuation over the affected period.

So what are SGX and the Central Provident Fund Board (CPF) going to do about it?

Surely both SGX and CPF Board would need to file a police report against Keppel and seek “punitive” redress on behalf of their shareholders, no?

As such, it is really hard to appreciate why SGX has given Sembcorp Marine the green light on 27 January 2023 to proceed with the proposed S$4.5 billion acquisition of KOM instead of placing the whole acquisition on hold until all the matters are properly addressed.

As Sembcorp Marine has been a poor cousin compared to KOM in the past, isn’t it odd that it is trying to acquire KOM for just S$4.5 billion when it only has a market capitalization of S$4.36 billion?

Given these troubling developments, isn’t it prudent to be asking, what if someone guilty is trying to destroy all evidence by pushing for this merger so that when merged, the “old” Keppel will be gone for good?

Is this too far-fetch a conspiracy theory for the CPIB to consider?

Should Securities Investors Association Singapore (SIAS) consider raising this as their 12th question to Sembcorp Marine on possible shareholders’ concerns?

Honouring LKY’s Legacy:

Lee Kuan Yew was smart in making Anti-Corruption a cornerstone of his premiership.

So when news broke that Teh Cheang Wan, the then Minister for National Development, had committed suicide in December 1986, LKY was quick to reveal that he had personally given the CPIB the green light to open an investigation against Teh while concurrently instructed the Cabinet secretary to ask Teh to take a leave of absence until the investigation is completed.

By being decisive, it was clear that LKY was not going to help or allow Teh to cover up his crime, and as Teh was overwhelmed by his own shameful criminal acts, he decided to take his own life to spare the establishment further misery.

The simple message of Singapore’s Zero Corruption Policy — if you dare to do the crime, be prepared to pay for your crime.

That is LKY’s legacy.

So it is definitely not enough for the current PAP-led government to keep talking about zero tolerance for corruption, as that means nothing if it is not consistently backed up by firm and decisive action.
In this light, the current scandal in not prosecuting those liable in Keppel will definitely tarnish the integrity of Lee Hsien Loong’s premiership unless he can demonstrate that he has the courage to decisively intervene in this saga to “right this wrong” and show that he can be equally decisive & firm as his father when the need arises.

Unless PM Lee can show his firm resolve in this matter, as his father had done so consistently, the legacy of LKY will be badly eroded.

So in the wider scheme of things that are slowly unfurling as this scandal gains further scrutiny, Singaporeans will need to ask if PM Lee still thinks that Singapore deserves better.

This post was first published on Mr Joseph Nathan’s Facebook page and reproduced with permission

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