'Unprecedented and staggering': Singaporean woman cheated major international banks of $631m

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SINGAPORE – A former chief financial officer of commodity firm Agritrade International duped 16 financial institutions worldwide into providing her company with millions of dollars in trade financing, causing losses of US$469 million (S$631 million).

The financial institutions, which included major banks in Japan, South Korea, India and Taiwan, incurred the losses between January 2016 and November 2019.

This amount, described by the prosecution as "unprecedented and staggering", is almost as high as the $633.3 million victims in Singapore lost to all scams in 2021.

On Friday, Singaporean Lulu Lim Beng Kim, 63, pleaded guilty to 12 charges, including cheating and falsification of accounts. Twenty-four similar charges were taken into consideration.

Seeking a sentence of 19-and-a-half years, Deputy Public Prosecutor (DPP) Nicholas Khoo said: "The losses caused in this case are unprecedented and staggering. Singapore's reputation has been tarnished as a result." 

While serving as the chief financial officer of Agritrade, Lim instructed her subordinates to submit financial statements which were unaudited and false to the financial institutions.

These documents were required by the financial institutions to assess how much credit they would extend to Agritrade. 

The financial institutions would then disburse these sums to Agritrade's suppliers for the purchase and sale of goods and other purposes. 

Agritrade or its suppliers were then expected to pay back the financial institutions at a later date. 

In total, the 16 financial institutions disbursed more than US$886 million to the suppliers and their subsidiaries.

Investigations revealed that members of the commodity firm's senior management had helped to incorporate these subsidiaries or sat on their board of directors. 

In January 2020, Agritrade, whose business spans palm oil and coal mining, came under financial strain due to the collapse in oil and coal prices. 

The company also faced allegations of fraud directed against Mr Ng Xinwei, its chief executive, and his father, Mr Ng Say Pek, who founded the business.

On Jan 15, 2020, the Commercial Affairs Department started investigations against Agritrade. Lim left Singapore for the UK the next day and did not respond to multiple attempts by the police to contact her over the next year.

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She was arrested in January 2021, after the police received information that she was in the United Arab Emirates. 

On Friday, Mr Noor Marican, who heads law firm Marican & Associates, pleaded for mercy on behalf of Lim. 

He said: "She takes full responsibility for her actions and makes no excuse for her conduct. She is of age. She has pleaded guilty at the earliest possible time."

Lim, who appeared in court via video link, buried her face in her hands as Mr Marican spoke.

In his mitigation plea, he said that Lim claimed she was manipulated by Mr Ng Say Pek and that there was no evidence she had accrued personal benefits.

In response, DPP Khoo said that he had taken into account the fact that Lim had drawn a $400,000 annual salary before bonuses.

He said: "A submission like this has force if she was a data entry clerk who had just graduated from school.

"The accused is a local graduate with a Business Administration degree. She is not an uneducated individual. She was the No. 2 or No. 3 person in the company."

District Judge Kow Keng Siong said that he required some time to mete out a sentence and adjourned the case for sentencing. 

Lim is the first person in connection to the case to be sentenced.

She will be back in court on Jan 17, 2023.

For each count of cheating, an offender can be jailed for up to three years, fined, or both.

The offence of falsifying accounts carries a jail term of up to 10 years, a fine or both.

This article was first published in The Straits Times. Permission required for reproduction.