The number of contraband cigarettes smuggled into S'pore remains high. An ex-smuggler who was caught and jailed shares his tale
For six years, he felt like he had a dream job - all Peter (not his real name), a Malaysian, had to do was drive across the Causeway and into Singapore, deliver contraband cigarettes and return to his home in Kulai, Johor.
He could earn RM6,000 (S$1,900) a day.
But several years ago, he was caught at Woodlands Checkpoint for smuggling duty-unpaid cigarettes into Singapore.
Peter, now 48, told The New Paper: "It was not hard to see why people do it. What other easy job can give you that kind of money?"
For his crimes, Peter spent a year in jail in Malaysia.
If he had been caught here, he could have been fined up to 40 times the amount of duty and GST evaded and/or jailed for up to six years.
But be it a year or six, Peter said it was not worth it.
"If I could turn back time and choose to have done something else, I would," he said
In 2015, 2.8 million packets of duty-unpaid cigarettes were seized, said Singapore Customs.
Before he became a smuggler, Peter worked as an air-conditioner technician here, earning around $1,500 a month.
"I just had to do one or two trips to bring the cigarettes in and I would have more than enough money for my family," said Peter, who is married with two children aged 9 and 17.
Peter said he would receive a message with instructions from a "towkay".
Sometimes, he would meet someone who would pass him the key to a vehicle, which could be a van, a small bus or a car.
It would be parked in a designated spot nearby. Other times, the key would be in the vehicle.
The contraband cigarettes would already be hidden inside the vehicle, such as in a compartment under his seat or above the gas pedal.
Each time, there would be around 10 cartons - amounting to 2,000 sticks .
Peter said he was one of several drivers who would smuggle these cigarettes in. He said: "These people are organised. I did not ask questions and was strictly a driver. I had no idea where they made the cigarettes or where they would get them from."
The vehicles he drove would also operate as a shuttle for those who worked in Singapore.
Peter would pick them up from a central location in Johor and drive them across the Causeway to different factories or industrial estates here before dropping the cigarettes off.
The drop-off locations included Geylang and residential areas such as Toa Payoh and Sungei Kadut.
He would then wait in coffee shops or his friends' homes until it was time to pick up the workers and drive them back to Johor.
He said the workers he drove did not know they were in a vehicle smuggling cigarettes.
While initially nervous about the possibility of getting caught, Peter said his confidence grew with each successful trip.
"At first I was scared. But I got used to it and felt more secure," he said.
His wife, who is 42, constantly asked him where the money came from. But Peter lied, saying he earned it from freelance jobs.
His luck ran out in 2003. While waiting for his passengers to clear customs on the Malaysian side of the Causeway, 10 officers suddenly surrounded him.
Peter said: "That was when it all fell apart. I think they had already been tailing me for a while."
He was arrested and convicted.
He described his year in jail as the hardest time of his life.
"It was tough to be away from my family. We started running into money troubles, borrowing money that until now, we are still trying to pay off," said Peter.
His criminal record made finding a job difficult, but Peter eventually found work as a factory worker.
Now banned from entering Singapore, he said: "Life is getting better now, but I wish I could continue working in Singapore where the money is good and my family could be living so much better.
"I regret working as a smuggler."
Cigarette smuggling might fund terrorism
The sale of duty-unpaid cigarettes remains a problem here.
Singapore Customs said some 2.8 million packets of such cigarettes were seized in 2015 with more than 22,700 offenders caught for duty-unpaid cigarette-related offences.
In 2014, 3 million packets were confiscated with more than 23,800 offenders.
While the numbers may be decreasing, there is a worry that the sustained distribution of duty-unpaid cigarettes here could be funding something even more sinister - terrorism.
Last year, security studies academic Antonio Rappa from SIM University wrote in The Straits Times that these cigarettes indirectly fund terrorist activities.
Dr Rappa said: "Trading in cigarettes is a popular choice for terrorists because they are easy to smuggle, have low barriers of entry, enjoy a huge market and provide high profits."
In response to queries by The New Paper, a spokesman for Singapore Customs said: "On reports regarding the possible link between duty-unpaid cigarettes and terrorism financing in other countries, Singapore Customs is monitoring the situation in Singapore closely.
"We take a serious view on the smuggling of duty-unpaid cigarettes, and we collaborate with other local law enforcement agencies and our foreign counterparts on an ongoing basis to deter and curb the illegal supply of cigarettes into Singapore."
The latest development in the problem of duty-unpaid cigarettes here? Foreign workers.
According to a media release by Singapore Customs last Thursday, 21 foreign workers on work permits were caught last year for their involvement in duty-unpaid cigarette activities.
The workers usually solicit for jobs on social media platforms and are hired by syndicates to deliver duty-unpaid cigarettes.
Singapore Customs highlighted the story of Chinese national Chen Jie, 35, who used his employer's van to deliver duty-unpaid cigarettes. He had been hired by fellow countryman Zheng Chao Lin, 23.
When they were caught, more than 1,873 cartons of illegal cigarettes and the company van were seized.
The duty and GST evaded amounted to about $145,380 and $14,630 respectively.
Chen and Zheng were each jailed for four months and slapped with fines of $1,250 and $1,000 respectively in November.
This article was first published on Jan 17, 2017.
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