Singapore’s squeaky-clean image as one of the world’s least corrupt nations took a hit on Tuesday after revelations that criminals based in the city-state rigged hundreds of football matches in Europe and elsewhere.
While police gave no immediate comment and the country’s pro-government media downplayed the news, some Singaporeans expressed shock, and analysts warned the scandal could harm the wealthy island’s image.
Singapore’s drive against corruption helped transform it into a trusted centre for business and banking, earning accolades from Transparency International and the Hong Kong-based Political and Economic Risk Consultancy.
But in just the latest indication that Singapore is at the heart of a global match-fixing empire, European police said they had smashed a network rigging hundreds of games, including in the Champions League and World Cup qualifiers.
Europol said a five-country probe had identified 380 suspicious matches targeted by a Singapore-based betting cartel, whose illegal activities stretched to players, referees and officials across the world.
A further 300 suspicious matches have been identified outside Europe in Africa, Asia, and South and Central America, in the course of the investigation, Europol said.
Singapore’s role in international match-rigging has long been clear, with Wilson Raj Perumal jailed in Finland in 2011 and another Singaporean, Tan Seet Eng or Dan Tan, wanted in Italy over the “calcioscommesse” scandal.
However, the latest announcement uncovered the huge scale of the activities, and raised potential problems for Singapore’s reputation, as well as questions about how authorities are dealing with the match-fixing syndicates.
“This story has the potential to severely damage the global reputation of Singapore as a safe and ethical financial hub in Asia,” said Jonathan Galaviz, managing director of US-based consultancy Galaviz & Co, who has closely watched Asia’s gaming industry.
“Singapore’s public policy makers need to reassess whether they have enough resources dedicated to monitoring and enforcing laws relating to illegal gambling and sports corruption in the country,” he said.
“Major questions will arise as to what the government authorities in Singapore knew, when did they know it, and why this illegal network running out of Singapore was not caught sooner.”
Galaviz said it was “extremely disturbing” that in the match-fixing case, “Singapore’s status as a financial hub was potentially being used for nefarious purposes”.
The Football Association of Singapore (FAS) said it takes “a serious view of allegations pertaining to match-fixing and football corruption” and vowed to “spare no effort” to crack down on any such activities.
“The problem of match-fixing is not just confined to Asia,” FAS said in a statement.
“It is a global problem and FAS will continue to work closely with the relevant authorities, both at the domestic and international levels, to combat match fixing and football corruption aggressively.”
Zaihan Mohamed Yusof, an investigative reporter with Singapore’s New Paper who is considered a leading authority on match-fixing, admitted he was taken aback by the numbers revealed by Europol.
“This number to me it’s huge, 680,” he told AFP. “Whether Singaporeans were involved in the whole 680, I’m not sure but at least there’s a figure and you can see the scale there.”
And Neil Humphreys, a popular sports columnist and author, asked why “so little is being done to question Singaporean individuals allegedly involved in such a global match-fixing operation”.
“More pertinently, the issue has not received quite the same front-page media attention that it has in other football-popular countries, despite the obvious fact that Singapore is allegedly home to the ringleaders of the world’s biggest match-fixing syndicate,” he told AFP.
The country’s leading daily, the Straits Times, put the story on page three.
Singapore police said they were formulating a response to the European announcement.