By Tan Kee Yun
THEY wear designer clothes, Rolex watches, drive around town in their flashy cars and splurge on nightclubs and lounges.
Welcome to the world of the "Ah Long Lieutenants", the "inner circle" of the loan-shark leaders in Singapore.
"If you look at the loan-shark organisation in terms of five levels, they are probably at the third or fourth level," said 66-year-old Lionel de Souza, an ex-police officer, in an interview with The New Paper on Sunday.
Mr De Souza, who has more than 25 years' experience in the police force, is the managing director of LJ Investigation & Consultancy Services.
While the ages of these "Ah Long Lieutenants" span a wide range, from their late 20s to 50s, they often share the same demographics.
Lowly educated ("many left school at Primary Six or Secondary Two") and with a long criminal history, they usually build up criminal affiliations during their time in jail.
Mr De Souza said that because of their connections, they become the "big fish" of the Ah Long leaders after they are released from jail.
Money comes easily to them, as they take a large slice of commission off the earnings of their bosses.
A good example would be the assistants of brothers Chua Tiong Tiong, now 52, better known as Ah Long San, and loan-shark king Chua Tiong Chye, 44, who headed a multi-million illegal moneylending syndicate before they were busted in 1998.
The younger Chua, notoriously known as Lau Ter Kor, which means old maniac in Hokkien, reportedly took in $300,000 a month at the peak of his loan-sharking business and was often seen zipping around in his swanky Lexus.
The loan-shark hierarchy
He worked on a "profit-sharing scheme" with his lackeys, police told The New Paper then. He gave $50,000 to each of his senior assistants and it was their responsibility to loan and collect the money.
Ultimately, it was an incentive plan for the assistants. Out of the $50,000 given to them, if they made back the same amount, Lau Ter Kor would let them keep half the amount.
In reality, these loan sharks are taking a loan from the "kings" but pay less than the usual 20 per cent interest.
So when they loan money out themselves and the debtors are slow in repaying, the pressure is also on the assistant to squeeze the debtor. Otherwise the "kings" will be hounding the assistants themselves.
According to Mr De Souza, in recent years, some of these "Ah Long Lieutenants" have become more ingenious with their moneylending tactics.
For one, they only use prepaid mobile numbers registered by their debtors, many of whom are forced to become runners when they cannot repay their debts. So when police arrest a debtor-turn-runner and trace the mobile number, they end up with another debtor.
Another trick up their sleeve is to use debtors to open bank accounts but to hand the ATM card and the access number to the loan shark.
Debtors credit money into their own account and the loan sharks make an ATM withdrawal, again covering their tracks.
Mr De Souza added: "There is a group of them who will even get their debtors to gamble on ships. They'll tell their debtors, oh you don't have money to return us, never mind, we'll take you to gamble on international waters.
Those in debt will end up in greater debt, added Mr De Souza.
Loan sharks typically give loans with a flat interest rate of 20 per cent. For a $1,000 loan, the borrower only receives $800 because $200 is immediately kept by the moneylender as interest.
If $600 is repaid the next week, it is still short of the $1,000 and the moneylender will only count it as $400 having been repaid, taking another $200 as further interest. That's how some borrowers end up paying 100 per cent interest.
Fearful of big bosses
For all the bravado and arrogance they display, these sidekicks of the Ah Longs are extremely fearful of their big bosses.
And it often shows upon their arrest, said Mr De Souza.
While the runners are nabbed and jailed for offences ranging from vandalism to illegal moneylending, the lieutenants face the tougher penalties.
These men are detained under the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act, also known as detention without trial.
The Act is applicable only when a serious crime has been committed and prosecution is not possible because witnesses are not willing or afraid to testify in court.
Only a minister can sign the detention order, which is valid for two years and renewable.
"As the saying goes, when you throw a stone, you hide the hand," said Mr De Souza.
"The sidekicks know the Ah Long leaders wield a lot of power and they do not want to divulge the identity (of their bosses), for fear of reprisals.
"So, they are willing to sacrifice themselves instead."
» See also: Photos - Harrassed by loansharks
This article was first published in The New Paper