How a Singapore trader allegedly defrauded investors of $740m

Ng Yu Zhi was able to raise huge sums of money by touting average quarterly gains of 15%

Ng Yu Zhi's scam is the latest in a series of scandals in Singapore, where assets under management have swelled to S$4 trillion thanks largely to inflows from overseas. Photo: EPA
Ng Yu Zhi's scam is the latest in a series of scandals in Singapore, where assets under management have swelled to S$4 trillion thanks largely to inflows from overseas. Photo: EPA

At 33, Ng Yu Zhi had all the trappings of a wildly successful trader: a Rolodex full of rich clients, a three-storey villa in a posh Singapore neighbourhood and a Pagani Huayra supercar reportedly worth more than $5 million.

Local prosecutors allege Mr Ng also had a dark secret: His lavish lifestyle, they say, was built on lies.

In a case that has riveted Singapore’s moneyed-classes, Mr Ng was charged last month with four counts of fraud for allegedly raising at least S$1 billion ($740m) from investors for commodity trades that didn’t exist.

The police have called it one of the city-state’s largest-ever suspected investment fraud schemes. It’s also the latest in a series of scandals in the financial and commodities-trading hub, where assets under management have swelled to S$4 trillion thanks largely to inflows from overseas.

Much about Mr Ng and his dealings remains shrouded in mystery. But open court proceedings, interviews with investors and charge sheets by Singapore prosecutors indicate the young financier was able to raise huge sums of money by touting average quarterly gains of 15 per cent – a track record that would have placed him in the same league as the world’s top-performing hedge fund managers.

While Singapore offers plenty of legitimate business opportunities, there will likely be other instances of suspect behaviour as money flows into the country and investors reach for returns in an era of historically low interest rates, according to Song Seng Wun, an economist at CIMB Private Banking who’s been working in the country’s finance industry for more than three decades.

“This won’t be the last case and that’s the sad reality,” Mr Song said.

Attempts to reach Ng for comment via email were unsuccessful. His lawyer, Davinder Singh, executive chairman of Davinder Singh Chambers, didn’t reply to emailed questions. It’s unclear from charge sheets and court proceedings whether Mr Ng has entered a plea. A citizen of Singapore, he’s been released on S$1.5m bail and is subject to electronic monitoring. The court will hear further proceedings in coming weeks.

While little is known about Mr Ng’s early life, he had become an increasingly visible figure in Singapore’s philanthropic, supercar and corporate communities in recent years.

In August 2020, he won praise from the prestigious Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine at the National University of Singapore for his contribution to a fundraising drive.

A Pagani Huayra supercar was among S$100m worth of assets seized from Mr Ng by the nation’s Commercial Affairs Department, the Straits Times reported. “It is inappropriate to comment on ongoing police investigations,” the Singapore police said when asked about the seizure.

Industry sources have valued Mr Ng’s Pagani Huayra at between S$7m and S$8m, according to the Straits Times.

Mr Ng’s business interests spanned everything from commodities trading and tech start-ups to Japanese restaurants and a veterinary clinic, according to corporate filings.

If you put in the sledgehammer too harsh, maybe no investment will come

Lawrence Loh, director, Centre for Governance and Sustainability

The fraud allegations against Mr Ng centre on his dealings at Envy Asset Management and Envy Global Trading, companies he controlled and where he was a director. Of the more than S$1bn that was invested in the companies, S$300m was transferred to Ng’s personal account while an estimated S$200m remains unaccounted for, prosecutors alleged in court proceedings last month.

While investors received payments worth S$700m, they’re owed another S$1bn based on the face value of outstanding contracts, prosecutors said.

Both Envy Asset and Envy Global are under investigation by Singapore police, according to a police statement, though only Mr Ng has been charged. An external representative for Envy Global didn’t respond to emails seeking comment. Envy Asset is no longer active, the representative of Envy Global said in February.

Mr Ng’s purported investment strategies that are under the spotlight were linked to nickel, a key ingredient in many electric-car batteries. The metal has become a popular speculative bet in recent years amid soaring demand for Teslas and other EVs.

In one transaction described in charge sheets, Mr Ng was involved in raising money from investors claiming he would use it to buy nickel from an Australian company called Poseidon Nickel. He never followed through with the purchase, prosecutors said. Poseidon’s chief executive, Peter Harold, said in an email that the company has had no engagement with Mr Ng or related entities.

While Singapore is far from the only place grappling with instances of suspected fraud, large corporate scandals have made waves in the city in recent years – including the collapse of oil trading giant Hin Leong Trading last year.. Photo: EPA
While Singapore is far from the only place grappling with instances of suspected fraud, large corporate scandals have made waves in the city in recent years – including the collapse of oil trading giant Hin Leong Trading last year.. Photo: EPA

Mr Ng was involved in deceiving investors into buying supposed forward contracts that were purportedly with French lender BNP Paribas, but those contracts didn’t exist, according to the charge sheets. BNP had no account or trading history with Mr Ng, Envy Asset Management or Envy Global Trading, a person familiar with the matter said.

One person who said he began investing with Mr Ng in 2018 after hearing about him through business associates said he never withdrew money because he believed Mr Ng was delivering sustained high returns.

Documents seen by Bloomberg that were sent by Envy Asset Management to potential investors and partners include details such as purchase and sale prices of prior nickel transactions, contract durations and expected profits in percentages down to the fourth decimal point.

Mr Ng’s investors included Envysion Wealth Management, a Singaporean fund management company, and its founder Shim Wai Han. While Envysion has a similar name to those of Mr Ng’s companies and shared meeting rooms and pantry services with them through a rental agreement, Ms Shim said in an April 1 interview and subsequent messages that Envysion is otherwise unrelated to Mr Ng. He isn’t an owner or executive at Envysion, she said.

Prosecutors allege that Mr Ng convinced Envysion and Ms Shim to invest S$48m in receivables on nickel products that never existed.

“Our objective now is just one thing,” Ms Shim said in the interview. “To get back the money for investors and for ourselves.”

The Monetary Authority of Singapore, the nation’s financial regulator, is conducting a supervisory review of Envysion to determine if there have been governance or risk management failures by its board and senior management. Envysion hasn’t been accused of any wrongdoing, Ms Shim said.

Ms Shim said she and Envysion are “working on this together with MAS to help investors”. She said she conducted due diligence into her investments with Mr Ng, including by asking friends in the commodities industry to assess his trades and strategy. Other executives at Envysion also did due diligence on the investments with Mr Ng, according to Ms Shim.

Both Envy Asset and Envy Global aren’t licensed by MAS, since the regulator doesn’t require licences from firms investing in physical assets for high-net-worth investors or institutions. MAS put Envy Asset on its investor alert list last year to highlight that the firm may have been wrongly perceived as being licensed by MAS, according to a March statement from the monetary authority.

Mr Ng has been removed as managing director of Envy Global, the company said last month, adding that it established an independent interim management committee to meet obligations to clients in cooperation with authorities.

While Singapore is far from the only place grappling with instances of suspected fraud, large corporate scandals have made waves in the city in recent years – including the collapse of oil trading giant Hin Leong Trading last year.

Authorities have to strike a balance between ramping up reporting requirements to alleviate concerns about misbehaviour and supporting the expansion of the financial centre, said Lawrence Loh, director of the Centre for Governance and Sustainability at the National University of Singapore Business School. “If you put in the sledgehammer too harsh, maybe no investment will come.”

Updated: April 15, 2021 05:29 PM

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