Can Singapore get over Formula 1’s controversial past?
Two key F1 players, businessman Ong Beng Seng and Singapore minister Iswaran, probed for graft
By: Toh Han Shih
The corruption investigation of two key figures involved in Formula 1 in Singapore, a Singapore minister and a tycoon, raises questions over the long-term future of the car race in the Lion City. The question is whether Singapore can insulate its squeaky-clean image from the troubled history of Formula 1, which includes allegations of corruption and money laundering.
This question becomes more challenging with the corruption probe of S Iswaran, the Singapore transport minister, and businessman Ong Beng Seng, although the Singapore authorities have not disclosed whether the investigations are related to Formula 1.
On July 12, the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) announced Iswaran, who is also the minister-in-charge of trade relations, is assisting the Singaporean anti-graft agency with the investigation into a case uncovered by CPIB, but gave no details. Iswaran was questioned for about 10 hours by the CPIB at its headquarters on July 18, according to local media reports.
(Related story: Senior Singapore Minister Caught in Scandal)
On July 14, Hotel Properties Limited (HPL), a Singapore-listed company, announced its managing director Ong had been asked by the CPIB to provide information on his interactions with Iswaran. Ong, a Malaysian citizen living in Singapore, has surrendered his passport to the CPIB and posted bail of S$100,000 (US$75,000), HPL added.
The 77-year-old Ong owns the rights to the Singapore Grand Prix. Iswaran, Ong and Bernard Ecclestone, the 92-year-old former chief executive officer (CEO) of Formula 1, were among the key players who brought Formula 1 to Singapore, which held its first grand prix in 2008.
“It took me 28 years to get this race to where it is now with a lot of effort and help from Mr. Ong Beng Seng along with the Minister, Mr. Iswaran, (who was) then the Minister of State at the Ministry of Trade and Industry, and more importantly with the enormous support from Mr. Lee Kuan Yew. Without him, it could have never happened in the first place,” Ecclestone was quoted saying in a Singapore newspaper, Today, on September 15, 2017.
The late Lee, Singapore’s first prime minister, is revered by many Singaporeans as the country’s modern founder.
In March 2007, Iswaran told Parliament that the Singapore Tourism Board (STB), a Singapore government agency, would fund 60 percent of the costs of operating Formula 1 in the republic. In September 2017, Iswaran estimated Formula 1 would cost about S$135 million (US$102 million) per year in Singapore, of which 60 percent would be funded by the Singapore government, Today newspaper reported.
On January 27, 2022, Formula 1 announced that the Formula 1 Singapore Grand Prix would continue to be held in Singapore for another seven years. The multi-year extension between Formula 1, Singapore GP Pte Ltd, a private firm owned by Ong, and the STB will see this car race continue in the Lion City from 2022 to 2028.
This year at least, the Formula 1 race will carry on in Singapore.
“Preparations for the Formula 1 Singapore Airlines Singapore Grand Prix 2023 slated for 15 - 17 September 2023 will continue as planned. We remain committed to work with all partners involved to ensure the success of the event,” an STB spokeswoman told Asia Sentinel.
However, a separate corruption scandal virtually killed the Formula 1 race in another Southeast Asian country, Vietnam. In December 2020, Nguyen Duc Chung, a former mayor of Hanoi and a key backer of Formula 1 in Vietnam, was jailed for five years for stealing state documents. He was also charged for corruption but there has been no news that his corruption was related to Formula 1.
Vietnam signed a 10-year deal with Formula 1 in 2018. Vietnam was scheduled to host its first Formula 1 race in 2020 but the event was canceled due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The race has never taken place, and there is no indication by the Vietnamese government on when it would ever happen.
Even if Iswaran is found guilty of corruption related to Formula 1, it is possible that Formula 1 will continue in Singapore, a consultant told Asia Sentinel.
“I have met Ong Beng Seng about 12 years ago. He is charismatic, runs close to the political edge but is basically a great entrepreneur who has courted political support,” said the consultant, who declined to be named.
“FIFA and F1 are big money events; this has the potential to attract shady characters,” the consultant added.
Formula 1 and its controversial ex-boss
Ecclestone faces trial in the UK for fraud and tax evasion in relation to a trust fund of over £400 million in Singapore. The British tycoon will be tried in the UK High Court on November 16 for allegedly fraudulently hiding the funds in the trust from the British government in the Singapore trust. There is no evidence that this tax evasion case is connected to Formula 1. Ecclestone stepped down as Formula 1 CEO in January 2017.
Italian prosecutors were reportedly investigating reports of financial wrongdoing in relation to the Formula 1 race at the Italian city of Monza, said an article by Azizur Rahman, a senior partner of Rahman Ravelli, UK law firm, on June 5, 2018. Reports in Italy alleged Formula 1 sponsorships involving dozens of companies from Italy and other countries may be part of an 80 million euro money laundering scheme involving falsified sponsorship invoices.
“According to some sources, the investigation began six years ago. This could mean that more than 100 races could be subject to investigation,” Rahman wrote.
On May 24, 2018, the European Parliament said public prosecutor’s offices of various EU countries were looking into money laundering in Formula 1 sponsorship.
In August 2017, the Formula One Group confirmed that the UK Serious Fraud Office (SFO) had launched a preliminary investigation into Formula 1.
The allegations relate to the Concorde Implementation Agreement, the contract signed in 2013 by the car racing’s governing body, the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), and the Formula One Group. All parties involved denied any corruption.
In April 2017, the SFO’s director, David Green, promised to conduct a “thorough examination” into allegations of bribery within Formula 1 after being tipped off by Damian Collins, then chairman of the British government’s Culture, Media, and Sport Select Committee and a British Member of Parliament.
The progress of the investigations of Formula 1 by the authorities of the UK, Italy, and other EU countries is not known.
In April 2014, Ecclestone went on trial in a court in Germany to face accusations that he had bribed a German banker with 33 million euros (S$49 million) to ensure that a company he favored could buy a stake in Formula 1. In August 2014, the German court ended the trial in exchange for a US$100 million payment from him.
The German banker, Gerhard Gribkowsky, was not so lucky. In June 2012, he was sentenced by a court in Munich to eight years and six months in prison after he admitted taking US$44 million in payments from Ecclestone.
Ecclestone, Iswaran, and Ong are presumed innocent unless found guilty. Formula 1 did not reply to Asia Sentinel’s questions.
“Particular care should be taken in any dealings with any public official,” according to Formula 1’s anti-bribery principles.
“All such dealings must be appropriate and legal. Charitable donations and political contributions must never be used as a means of disguising bribery. Any real or perceived conflict of interest between private interests and the performance of duties to the Formula 1 companies must be promptly disclosed,” according to those principles.
Toh Han Shih is chief analyst of Headland Intelligence, a Hong Kong risk consultancy.