AUSTRALIA — Klaxon, an Australian investigative news outlet, has uncovered a major scandal involving Optus, a Singaporean Government-owned telco giant that has been operating in Australia for decades.
Optus has been accused of making almost AUD 70,000 in political donations to Australian political parties between December 2021 and April 2022, which is illegal under Australian law — which is backed up by an official declaration to the authorities.
Under laws introduced in 2019, political parties are prohibited from receiving donations of over AUD 100 from “foreign donors”, including foreign public enterprises.
In 2001, Singtel, under the leadership of its former CEO Lee Hsien Yang, launched a successful takeover bid for Cable and Wireless Optus, resulting in the company being renamed as Singtel Optus Pty Limited.
Optus is fully controlled by the Singaporean Government through its ownership structure. Singtel, which fully owns Optus, is itself 52% owned by Temasek Holdings, a company that is 100% owned and controlled by the Singaporean Government.
Therefore Optus appears to meet all five criteria under Section 70.1 of the Criminal Code, which defines a “foreign public enterprise”.
The revelation that Optus has made illegal political donations is particularly troubling given the ongoing investigation into the company’s hiring of a former NSW premier, Gladys Berejiklian.
Berejiklian was hired by Optus as an executive in February last year, just months after she resigned as NSW Premier after the announcement of a major corruption probe by the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption.
Furthermore, Optus paid zero income tax on Australian revenue of AUD 8.4 billion in 2020-21, according to figures released by the Australian Taxation Office. This raises questions about the company’s compliance with Australian tax laws and its commitment to ethical business practices.
The Australian Electoral Commission (AEC), which is responsible for overseeing electoral laws, has been criticised in the past for not doing enough to enforce the law. While the AEC acknowledged the discrepancy in the disclosure of the donations, it has refused to comment on the legality of the matter.
According to Klaxon, Singtel chairman Lee Theng Kiat and Group CEO Yuen Kuan Moon have also repeatedly refused to comment on the matter.
The illegal nature of the donations raises questions about the company’s ethical practices and its potential to influence Australian politics.
The report also raises concerns about Optus’ cybersecurity practices, given that it was the subject of the largest data breach in Australian history last year. The personal details of around 10 million Australians were exposed in the breach, raising serious questions about the company’s ability to protect the privacy of its customers.
Klaxon notes that CEO Kelly Bayer-Rosmarin has repeatedly claimed that Optus was subjected to a sophisticated cyber attack, despite providing no evidence to back her claims. Cybersecurity Minister Clare O’Neil has rejected Bayer-Rosmarin’s claims, as have many other experts.
The scandal involving Optus is just the latest in a string of controversies involving foreign interference in Australian politics. In recent years, there have been increasing reports of foreign governments and entities seeking to influence Australian politics through donations and other means.
The Australian Government has taken steps to counter foreign interference, including passing laws that prohibit foreign donations and introducing a foreign interference transparency scheme. However, the Optus scandal highlights the need for continued vigilance and scrutiny to ensure that Australian democracy is not compromised by foreign interference.
It is also ironic to note that Optus, which is owned by the Singapore Government, has been accused of making illegal political donations in Australia, while Singapore has passed the Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act to counter foreign interference in domestic politics.
The Singapore Government has stated that the Act is being implemented progressively, with provisions related to countering foreign interference by hostile information campaigns in effect since 7 July 2022, and that is crucial to safeguard Singapore’s political sovereignty and social cohesion by ensuring that only Singaporeans decide on matters of governance and domestic politics.