THE smoky message is clear against contraband cigarette smugglers: Get set to face the toughest penalty as a Singapore cigarette-smuggler was fined a record S$34million and jailed.
Friday’s court decision on 33-year-old Ng Ghim Hong ranks as the highest in criminal history as the authorities keep a very close worrying watch on smuggling-links with international terrorist activities, too.
The recalcitrant middleman was also sentenced to four years behind bars. If he cannot pay the fine, he will be jailed for another two years and four months, the court ordered.
Police said Ng was part of a Singapore-Malaysia syndicate when he was caught red-handed at a Sungei Kadut warehouse with “an unprecedented quantity” of duty-unpaid cigarettes – some 2,710kg of these were uncovered.
The prosecution said: “It must be emphasised that the quantity involved in the present case is to date the largest that the sentencing courts have had to grapple with.” Deputy Public Prosecutors Thiam Jia Min and Tan Weiming asked for a jail sentence of four years and two months for Ng, along with the mandatory fine of S$33.7 million.
TIP-OFF TO SINGAPORE CUSTOMS
Ng worked with 28-year-old Malaysian Mohd Nor Alif Ramlan, who has been sentenced to three years’ jail for his part in the syndicate. Ng and Alif were recruited by another Malaysian known only as Ah Yang, who in 2014 tasked the men with unloading gunny bags containing contraband cigarettes into a warehouse in Sungei Kadut.
But when the two men set out for the job on Feb 22, 2017, officers from Singapore Customs had already been tipped off and were trailing a container containing the goods. The officers followed the prime mover and container trailer from PSA Tanjong Pagar to 9 Tuas South Avenue 10, where they watched Alif and his accomplices transfer pallets into a building.
They swooped in and nabbed the men, who admitted that they were unloading contraband cigarettes. Ng, who was acting as a lookout, was arrested after being found in a black car nearby.
In total, 14,489 cartons of cigarettes were found, and the amount of evaded duty came up to about S$1.1 million. The seizure was the largest amount that the sentencing courts have dealt with.
Ng worked with others to import and circulate the contraband cigarettes in Singapore in what was a closely-coordinated operation, the prosecutors added.
Police records show Ng was also a repeat offender who did not learn his lesson and was “more audacious” this round. In 2009, he was convicted of a similar offence for dealing in 1,039kg of duty-unpaid tobacco products and jailed 18 months.
But what is more worrying for the authorities is the renowned indirect link between contraband cigarettes with terrorist activities.
Police sources, familiar with investigations, say that “trading in cigarettes is a popular choice for terrorists because they are easy to smuggle, have low barriers of entry, enjoy a huge market and provide high profits”.
That’s why continuous police operations are discreetly on the go and the toughest measures are instituted by the courts to send a very clear smoke-filled message that crime-in-cigarettes doesn’t pay.
Informed police sources say organised crime syndicates, in Asia, Europe and the USA, garner wide reach through diverse distribution channels in the form of small retailers and street vendors. While retailers may be charged in court if found to be in possession of cigarettes, it has been widely assumed that crime syndicates pay these fines in order to maintain cooperation with retailers, and sustain their distribution network.
Beyond these traditional distribution channels, the World Customs Organisation highlights that the resale of tobacco products on the Internet is being actively developed, enabling greater reach, more discretion, and lesser chances of being caught.
Evidence from Interpol suggests tobacco smuggling operations have been linked to terrorist organisations such as Hamas and Hezbollah, which allegedly utilise these profits to finance terrorism around the world. A recent WCO Illicit Trade Report highlights the illicit tobacco trade represents a good opportunity for organised crime groups and/or terrorists to generate large sums of criminal profits.
The IRA (Irish Republican Army), for example, was one of the first groups to begin using cigarettes to fund their activities. Police estimate that the IRA made US$100million in the past five years from trafficking illicit cigarettes.
A Singapore Customs spokesman says: “We take a serious view on the smuggling of duty-unpaid cigarettes, and we collaborate with other local law enforcement agencies, in Singapore and our foreign counterparts, on an ongoing basis to deter and curb the illegal supply of cigarettes into Singapore.”
SERIOUS OFFENCE FOR DUTY-UNPAID STUFF
Possessing or dealing in duty-unpaid goods are serious offences under the Customs Act and the Goods and Services Tax Act.
The composition sum for a first-time offender who has up to one packet of duty-unpaid cigarettes in his possession is $500. Heavier penalties will apply if he is found with more than one packet of duty-unpaid cigarettes and/or if he is a repeat offender.
With a 10 per cent increase in the tobacco tax in February last year, the draw of duty-unpaid cigarettes continues to be its cheaper price, according to smokers.
One offender, who asked not to be named, was fined $500, said a pack of duty-unpaid cigarettes costs $6.50, about half the price of a pack of duty-paid cigarettes. “This is the first time (that I smoked duty-unpaid cigarettes) and I thought they would give a warning,” he said. “I took a gamble but I can’t do that any more.”