Low Hong Teck, an electronics salesman who is picking out games on the screen, says he bets on matches occasionally, never risking more than 20 to 30 Singapore dollars ($16 to $24). “It’s just for fun,” he says.
Yet the fun is being drained from the sport as Singapore finds itself in an uncomfortable global spotlight in a sprawling match-fixing scandal.
An international police probe, spanning 13 European countries and carried out over almost two years, has exposed the tiny Asian city-state as the center of a match-fixing business with tentacles reaching into locker rooms across the globe.
Last week, Europol, the European Union’s law enforcement agency, revealed that the attempted or successful manipulation of more than 380 professional matches over the past five years had been orchestrated by a Singapore-based network.
The bribing of officials and players “formed part of a sophisticated organized crime operation,” including a cartel allegedly run from Singapore by Dan Tan Seet Eng, a Singaporean who served time in jail in the 1990s for being an illegal bookmaker.
Singapore, a successful Asian financial center known for having one of the lowest crime rates in the world, hardly seems an obvious breeding ground for global match-fixing.
It legalized gambling on local matches in 1999 and on international matches played locally in 2002.
But the Europol investigation has lifted the lid on a shady underworld of match-fixers, financing syndicates and even mafia-style violence that operates alongside legal activity.
That investigation grew out of local cases in a half-dozen countries that national police gradually recognized were all linked through the same betting network.
In Bochum, Germany, where an investigation beginning in 2009 led to 14 convictions, prosecutors initially traced money flows to Singapore via an Asian bookmaker in Britain.
In Cremona, Italy, prosecutors who charged 20 suspects with match-fixing last year found they were linked to some of the same Singapore figures, including Tan and an alleged associate, Wilson Raj Perumal.
Perumal was arrested while trying to fix a match in Finland in 2011, and spent a year in a Finnish jail. He is now in protective custody in Hungary, where he is providing evidence to investigators.
Tracing the flows of cash shows that the bribes, the betting, and the profits are all coordinated and distributed through Singapore, according to Mitja Jager, a Slovenian police inspector. “At the highest level, it all goes back to Singapore,” he said last week.
Experts say an ecosystem around match-fixing and the financing of it has grown quietly in Singapore over at least 25 years since match-fixers based in the city-state first started interfering with games in Malaysia’s leagues.
But it was not until the 1990s that the practice started to globalize as criminals with well-funded connections in the region – mostly China – were able to pull big money into the business.
Much of that money has come from the proliferation of illegal online betting operations in the region. Many of them employ armies of young traders to make bets electronically, using computer algorithms.
Interpol, the global policing body, has said the illegal betting market related to match-fixing may involve “hundreds of billions” of euros a year.
“People were able to fund the internationalization of match-fixing by marrying the funding with the skills learned by these match fixers in Singapore and Malaysia,” said Chris Eaton, a former head of security at Fifa, soccer’s governing body, and now at the International Centre for Sport Security, a non-profit consulting firm based in Qatar.
Eaton said the attraction of Singapore is that English is widely spoken and a Singapore passport “will get you anywhere in the world,” allowing match-fixers to travel unnoticed as they target poorly-financed football clubs for their complex fixing schemes.
Match-fixers are now so entrenched in Singapore that they have even entered the vernacular, where they are known as “kelong kings”. Yet the scale of the activity has overwhelmed the ability of law enforcement and anti-corruption agencies to tackle it, experts say.
Singapore was among the first countries in the world to introduce polygraph tests for players in its S-League, in an attempt to stop match-fixers penetrating the game.
It also has secured some convictions against match-fixers, including two pursued last year by the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau, Singapore’s anti-corruption agency, of players from South Korea. They had paid bribes to fix matches played by Geylang United soccer club.
Yet Singapore drew heat from European enforcement officials last week for what they saw as a slow response to the Europol revelations. Although Italian national police have said that international arrest warrants in connection with match-fixing involving Italian games had been issued for Tan and two others in late 2011, Singapore still has not made an arrest in connection with these cases. The police said they still needed “hard evidence” before acting.
Ronald Noble, Interpol’s secretary general, told Singapore’s Straits Times that the city-state’s reputation “will continue to suffer” until arrests are made and “actual names, dates and specific match-fixing details are given”.
Singapore later pledged to send officers to Interpol to assist with the investigation. “Singapore remains highly committed in the fight against match-fixing and other transnational crimes,” the police said.
But for significant headway to be made better coordination is needed between authorities in the region, Eaton says. The sport is now “under unprecedented attack” from criminals conspiring to manipulate match results, with the “vast majority” of this money being invested in the betting markets of Southeast Asia.
Asked if regulators in the region had taken their eye off the ball in match-fixing, Eaton said: “Absolutely. They do not exercise the necessary duty of care for the global impact of their betting markets, and this is the key area of failed governmental responsibility.”
Additional reporting by Matt Steinglass in Amsterdam and Guy Dinmore and Giulia Segreti in Rome.