DAVID CHEW, HONORARY MEMBER (ISCA), DIRECTOR, COMMERCIAL AFFAIRS DEPARTMENT, SINGAPORE POLICE FORCE
Rarely, if ever, do crooks now physically go to a bank, make a large cash withdrawal over the counter and then walk away with the loot. With the click of a mouse, criminals can, in a flash, transfer money electronically and wire it to an offshore ‘safe haven’. They can even move the loot through a number of ‘money mule’ bank accounts in multiple jurisdictions, to throw investigators off the trail.
David Chew, 53, a Legal Service Officer who has specialised in white-collar crime since 2006, has seen this transformation with his own eyes. “Technology has changed the landscape of financial crime in three ways: One, it has sped up transactions; two, it has enabled transnational financial crime, making it harder to follow the money trail, and three, it has disintermediated the human, specifically bank tellers, as transactions can be done remotely,” says Mr Chew. The only way to stop crooks from getting away with the crime, he insists, is to “fight technology with technology”.
“The combination of accounting knowledge and legal, technological and investigative skills in the Financial Forensic Accounting Qualification will allow accountants to take on the role of an investigator, as the first line of defence against illicit financial activities across industries and sectors.”
SPEED IS OF THE ESSENCE
Financial crimes are on the rise globally, and Singapore is no exception. From January to November 2019, a total of 8,361 reports were lodged with the Singapore Police Force (SPF) for the top 10 types of scams, most of which were tech-enabled, such as those involving e-commerce, with victims losing S$188.5 million to the scammers. This marked a 62.3% increase in the number of police reports filed and a 21.6% increase in amounts cheated, compared to the same period the year before.
However, the problem is not technology per se. As Mr Chew points out, technology is “agnostic” in that it can be used for good or for evil. People who use technology for nefarious ends are to blame for this unfortunate trend. Therefore, the importance of the work carried out by individuals like Mr Chew, now Director of SPF’s Commercial Affairs Department (CAD), the principal white-collar crime investigation agency in Singapore, cannot be overstated.
CAD has embarked on several initiatives in the past year to further its mission to prevent, deter and detect financial crime. One example is Project POET (Production Orders: Electronic Transmission), an ongoing public-private collaboration between CAD and OCBC Bank that leverages OCBC’s robotic process automation software to enable prompt exchange of banking information. Under the Project, the turnaround time taken by the bank to process a police request has been shortened to as little as one or two working days, thus improving the agility of law enforcement to react faster to catch the perpetrator and solve the crime.
By aggregating financial information onto one platform, Project POET also enhances Singapore’s anti-money laundering and countering the financing of terrorism (AML/CFT) regime. OCBC Bank can use artificial intelligence and transaction link analysis tools to mine the data, so as to identify hidden connections and suspicious activities within its customer base. “The monitoring and indepth analysis of suspicious accounts will strengthen the sense-making capabilities of both OCBC Bank and CAD’s Suspicious Transaction Reporting Office,” says Mr Chew. Project POET is also being extended to more banks and other law enforcement agencies in Singapore.
In addition, CAD established the Anti-Scam Centre (ASC) in June 2019. ASC aims to disrupt scammers’ operations and mitigate victims’ losses by working with various stakeholders including banks – to swiftly freeze suspicious bank accounts and stop fund transfers involving such accounts; digital platforms like Carousell – to introduce scam prevention measures such as scam advisories and secure payment methods, and telecommunications companies – to quickly terminate the mobile lines used by scammers.
The hardest part of intercepting financial crime as they are being committed, according to Mr Chew, is the “cross-border” element of illegal money flows in today’s globalised world. Although the inter-governmental Financial Action Task Force (FATF) has developed global standards to uphold the integrity of the international financial system, not all members are equally effective at implementing the FATF standards. “There are territorial limits to the exercise of police powers, and formal legal assistance between sovereign states is not the most efficient of processes,” he laments.
Nevertheless, CAD is committed to cooperating across jurisdictions at all levels – between police, prosecutors and regulators – to uncover such cases and bring those responsible to justice. “We share intelligence and investigative and prosecution results with other countries, so as to enable swift prosecutions and asset recoveries across national boundaries,” says Mr Chew. For example, thanks to a joint operation by the police from Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Macau, a transnational Internet love scam syndicate based in Malaysia was recently smashed.
GROWING DEMAND FOR FORENSIC ACCOUNTANTS
Given these developments, the launch of ISCA’s Financial Forensic Accounting Qualification in 2017 could not have come at a better time. “The combination of accounting knowledge and legal, technological and investigative skills in the Qualification will allow accountants to take on the role of an investigator as the first line of defence against illicit financial activities across industries and sectors,” says Mr Chew. His interest in this area was piqued while serving a stint as an inhouse Deputy Public Prosecutor (DPP) at CAD from 2007 to 2009. “My role wasn’t just to provide legal input but to also assist Investigation Officers (IOs) in collecting evidence. I liked the challenge of solving the puzzle.”
Mr Chew notes that forensic accountants can collaborate with police investigators in a variety of ways:
- They can, as internal or external auditors of companies, report to the police any findings of irregularities linked to criminal offences, or share pertinent observations or insights, when conducting special audits. They can also hand over the devices (or images of the devices) used by employees, which may contain crucial evidence that may culminate in charges or convictions.
- They can join the police force and work in an inhouse capacity alongside investigators. This approach has helped CAD notch successes in locating and confiscating hidden criminal assets.
- They can contribute their expertise in public-private partnerships to deepen the collective understanding of the risks associated with white-collar crime. The AML/CFT Industry Partnership (ACIP), formed in 2017, has brought together key government and private-sector stakeholders, among them CAD, MAS and practitioners from KPMG, PwC and Deloitte. ACIP has so far issued three practice papers.
In recognition of his significant contributions to the accountancy sector and the wider business community, which have boosted Singapore’s reputation as one of the least corrupt nations worldwide, Mr Chew was conferred an ISCA Honorary Lifetime Membership in 2018. While not a trained accountant, he is well-placed to dispense advice to younger ISCA members, many of whom wonder what it takes to be successful. “As I moved forward in my career, I realised that focusing on professional success – being highly remunerated or getting accolades for a job well done – is inadequate,” says Mr Chew. He urges younger accountants to adopt a “transcendental” outlook to gain more life satisfaction. “Find your calling. Find meaning in a cause greater than yourself. Instead of just counting things, find that which makes your life count for something. And remember that you can’t do it alone; success can only be achieved by journeying together with other people. As ‘iron sharpens iron’, so life is about the friends you make along the way.”
That is precisely why, after joining the Singapore Legal Service in 1992, Mr Chew has remained there ever since. “During my time in the public service, I have rotated between the judicial, prosecutorial and enforcement branches. I’ve built up a strong camaraderie with fellow judges, DPPs and IOs. Some of my CAD colleagues are, like me, avid fishermen, and we often go on fishing trips together. Being posted to the different branches has also improved my proficiency in a variety of legal matters,” he adds.
For those who find their calling in combating financial crime, Mr Chew highlights three essential traits for success. “First, you have to be passionate about what you are doing. This will keep you going during tough times, especially early on in your career when the learning curve is very steep. Second, you have to be adaptable to changes and demonstrate a willingness to learn new things. Because technologies and legal provisions are constantly changing, what you learned in school quickly goes out the window once you enter the real world. Third, you have to be tenacious in staying on the trail and following the evidence to its final conclusion. There will be people who are more seasoned than you and who have experience in beating the system, but you cannot give up.”
“Find your calling. Find meaning in a cause greater than yourself. Instead of just counting things, find that which makes your life count for something. And remember that you can’t do it alone; success can only be achieved by journeying together with other people. As ‘iron sharpens iron’, so life is about the friends you make along the way.”
Magistrate, Subordinate Courts (now called State Courts)
District Judge, Subordinate Courts
Deputy Public Prosecutor, Financial and Technology Crime Division, Attorney-General’s Chambers
Deputy Chief Prosecutor, Financial and Technology Crime Division, Attorney-General’s Chambers
2015 to Present
Director, Commercial Affairs Department, Singapore Police Force