There are crimes and there are crimes

I was, until a month ago, married to Vietnamese girl, who believes that Singapore is heaven on earth. Whenever it came voting, she’d always remind me that it was “Lee Hsien Loong” and his family who built up Singapore to what it is.

In fairness to my ex-wife, she grew up in rural Vietnam and had a tough upbringing. She’s been through things that most of us have not imagined in our nightmares and so, to her, the comforts of Singapore are a world away from what she knew in rural Vietnam. She’s argued that “Singapore made me strong,” and has a certain sense of gratitude towards Singapore that I don’t always have.

So, what I am about argue is here is probably going to rub her the wrong way. However, I don’t believe I’m wrong to make the case to state that the Communist Party of Vietnam has recently taken an important stance, which I believe that Singapore and much of the developed world could learn from.

I am, of course, referring to the recent announcement that Ms. Truong My Lan, had been sentenced to death for masterminding a US$44 billion fraud. More of the story can be found here.

I used to get caught up in the “nationalism” of the death penalty debate. During my student days, I’d get this sense of nationalistic pride whenever we hanged someone from a “developed” country who got caught with drugs and we had to listen to their politicians lecture us about the death penalty. Call it a case of “Our land – our laws.”

However, as I’ve gotten older, I look at the issue from a less emotive point of view. Fact remains, no justice system is perfect and how do you say sorry to a corpse, should evidence come out later that the guy hanged, was in fact innocent. I’ve also started to notice that the guys who get hanged are inevitably of a particular socio-ethnic demographic and this over representation of death row inmates from this particular socio-ethnic group makes it feel like we’ve found it easier to go to war against poor people rather than poverty and thus disposing of lives to distract people from the fact that the real issues are not being tackled.

However, let’s leave aside my issues with the death penalty and focus on the one of the favourite arguments of people who believe in the death penalty – namely the argument that harsh penalties “deter” crime. Let’s point to the fact that people who make this argument might have a point. Singapore is on the surface of things wonderfully safe. I’m father of a young woman and I have no worries about her going out late at night. That, as, an English expat once said to me “Gives you freedom.” The safety of our society is a Godsend.

So, let’s take the deterrence argument for the death penalty at face value. The benefits seem obvious. In Singapore, we have wonderfully low drug rates, murder rates and armed robbery doesn’t seem to exist at all. Treason only seems to exist in “name calling.” You could say that this wonderful situation comes from the fact that these are all crimes where the price is the ultimate price. A list of capital crimes in Singapore can be found at;,death%20penalty%20under%20Singapore%20law.

However, while these crimes are headline grabbing due to their immediate effects, there are other forms of crime. These crimes tend to be related to financial matters and they are grouped as what is called “Financial Crimes.”

Part of my life in the insolvency business involves looking for financial crimes, specifically the various forms of fraud. For anyone in a profession, one of the greatest worries is being associated with anything that can be construed as a “financial irregularity” let alone being sent to jail.

However, despite it, financial crimes do happen, even in the world’s major financial centres. Yet, financial crimes somehow never get the same attention as “blue collar” crimes nor do they end up being classified as “capital” crimes. In Singapore, you will be sent to the gallows if you had a few grams of weed on you. Should you smack someone in the face, you will be canned and scared for life. The official reason for this is that we need to deter people from selling dangerous substances and from being violent.

It's a different story when you swindle people out of their life savings through dubious accounting. The main punishment for such acts is usually a fine or a spell in prison or both. Apparently a high fine or lengthy prison sentence is enough to deter someone from say, committing fraud. Nobody talks about the need to hang or cane people when it comes to “financial crime.” Why is that so?

I guess the most obvious is that its hard to prove. In most of the drug offenses, its usually an open and shut case. The guy (the majority are) is more often than not caught red handed and the prosecution pretty much as an open and shut case.

Proving a financial crime is not the case. To find and build a case for something like fraud takes allot of work. One has to dig into financial records and transactions may have a cross border element to them. Documents get destroyed and getting the evidence to convict is a challenge. Easier to spend resources chasing after the low hanging fruit.

This becomes even more challenging when the person on the other side is a billionaire. A Grab driver who gets caught with weed outside his house usually ends up with a legal aid lawyer who really doesn’t have the incentive to do his or her best. A billionaire gets the best possible lawyer who will tie up the authorities for years in the legal system.

Then, there’s the fact that executing billionaires for financial crimes doesn’t look good, especially if you’re a country desperate to attract “investment.” If anything, the usual habit for countries competing for billionaires, is for them to find ways of making the legal system easier. Loopholes in laws were invented for this purpose.

Then there’s the fact that financial crimes don’t create news headlines unless the numbers are large. Reading about some tycoon swindling other tycoons doesn’t hit home the way watched a teenage boy bash up a toddler would.

So, Vietnam handing down the death sentence to Ms. Troung is pretty remarkable in that sense. It sends a message out that nobody is above the law. Billionaires face the same consequences as the rest of us and given that Vietnam is a country hungry for foreign investment, its all the more remarkable.

Then, you could say that this sends a message out to people who want to commit fraud. Let’s face it, fraud is not a victimless crime. It’s not just corporations and billionaires swindling each other. It is, as the British found out in the 1990s when the Daily Mirror Pension fund was found to have been looted, a crime that robs people of their security and livelihood. Ordinary people have their lives ruined because the people who ran institutions that were supposed to look after them were more interested in lining their pockets rather than running institutions.

Why can’t we apply the same reasons to financial crimes that we do to drug mules. The benefits would definitely help so many more people.


Tang Li

*Although I’ve been based mainly in Singapore for nearly two decades, I’ve had the privilege of being able meet people who have crossed borders and cultures. I’ve befriended ministers and ambassadors and worked on projects involving a former head of state. Yet, at the same time, I’ve had the privilege of befriending migrant labourers and former convicts. All of them have a story to tell. All of them add to the fabric of life. I hope to express the stories that inspire us to create life as it should be.




5 Responses to “There are crimes and there are crimes”

  • Clap:

    “We’ve found it easier to go to war against poor people rather than poverty and thus disposing of lives to distract people from the fact that the real issues are not being tackled.”

    Great writer! Some countries tackle poverty and some countries tackle poor people.

    I will not mention those countries, in order not to hurt the feelings of some very sensitive commenters.

    GD Star Rating
  • Cannot lah:

    Cannot make financial criminals face death penalty.

    We know a big trustee make 10% from the trust fund but return only 3% to be fund owners. The other 7% disappear. Is this a financial crime?

    With the fund the size of RM 2 trillions, how much is 7%?

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  • Financial crime:

    Vietnam and China seems to lead the way to punish harshly Financial crime.
    Only right as it cause more harm to many families.

    GD Star Rating
  • $600 out of $12,000:

    Is this a financial crime?

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  • rice:

    If only those criminal$ go rob the rich to give to the poor!
    Hell to those who “rob” the poor t “give” to the rich!!
    Govts,businessmen,corporate execu-thieve$,$cammers ,what is the difference?
    me says SCREW THEM!

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