Singapore Transport Minister’s Arrest May be Tied to F1 Renewal
F1 tycoon, hotelier said to have hosted transport minister in London
By: Andy Wong Ming Jun
The July 14 arrest of billionaire tycoon Ong Beng Seng, one of Singapore’s richest men and a society fixture who brought Formula One Grand Prix racing to the city in 2008, may have stemmed from the rumored gift of benefits for Transport Minister S Iswaran related to keeping the race going in the city state, according to texts circulating in Singapore.
The Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau announced Iswaran was under investigation for unspecified offenses on July 12. Ong’s flagship company Hotel Properties Ltd in a prepared statement confirmed the 79-year-old magnate’s arrest, saying he had been “requested by the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau to provide information in relation to his interactions with Minister S Iswaran.”
“He will be traveling from 14 July 2023 and will be surrendering his passport to CPIB upon his return to Singapore,” the release added. In contrast, Iswaran is not allowed to leave Singapore while investigations into him are ongoing, said the Prime Minister’s Office.
Ong, who has had close political ties for decades in a city-state jealous of its reputation for political incorruptibility, has posted bail of S$100,000 and “is cooperating fully with CPIB and has provided the information requested,” the release said.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong earlier confirmed the CPIB statement on his social media channels, saying he had been notified of them since July 5 and had instructed Iswaran to take a leave of absence until the investigations are completed.
The affair has been called Singapore’s most serious political graft probe since 1986, when Teh Cheang Wan, then Minister for National Development, killed himself rather than face charges of corruption, which he denied.
It appears that the affair may have originated in the London trial for fraud of former Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone, who in June formally pleaded not guilty to a fraud charge over his alleged failure to declare millions of dollars held in a trust in Singapore to Britain's government. A source said the F1 accounts were adduced in evidence to prove corruption. One of the entries was said to be payment to Ong Beng Seng as his reimbursement for having paid for Iswaran's use of the VIP lounge of F1 in Singapore. A Singaporean is said to have spotted it and emailed the CPIB.
Given Ong’s ties to the island state’s ruling elite, the affair is also inconvenient for the long-ruling People’s Action Party, which is said to be gearing up for national elections well in advance of the November 2025 deadline imposed by parliamentary rules. Iswaran, 62, is a 22-year veteran lawmaker for the ruling People’s Action Party who has served as Transport Minister since 2021 and Minister of trade relations.
Ong, who owns hotels across the world, and his socialite wife. businesswoman Cristina Fu, are listed among Singapore’s 25 richest couples.
News reports said he recently secured an unprecedented seven-year contract for Singapore to continue the 15-year-old F1 race from 2022 to 2028, which blasts through surface streets in mid-September each year at speeds exceeding 325 km per hour. It is one of the major social events of the Singapore year, attracting fans from all over the world along with socialites of all stripes addicted to the glamor of high-speed racing.
According to other reports circulating in Singapore, which have not been confirmed, Ong allegedly organized a trip to the Silverstone track in the UK for Iswaran and a team from the transportation ministry in courting them to renew the annual race, which is a mixed benefit, generating debate on whether there is still value in hosting it.
While it has put the city on the world map and publicized the extravagant gaming and entertainment facilities in Sentosa, it costs S$150 million annually to produce, with the government picking up 60 percent of the cost. The Tourism Board said it draws as many as 350,000 visitors annually and generates hundreds of millions in receipts and sales.
Ong reportedly put the ministry staffers up in one of his London hotels and arranged a dinner in addition to the tickets to the concert by Adele, an English pop-soul singer-songwriter named Entertainer of the Year for 2012. The ministry team were said to be uncomfortable with the blandishments and all but one staffer were said ro begged off.
In Ong’s defense, the viral message alleged that as half of the Singapore side organizing the F1 Singapore Grand Prix, he had paid for the VVIP suite offered to Minister Iswaran, but then unwittingly claimed it as expense from his joint organizing partner, the Singapore Tourism Board (STB).
Further enquiries directed at reliable insider sources who had access to what was described as Ong’s “old boys’ network” also alleged Ong had provided advance notice to business bosses within his network regarding his renewal of the F1 race. His business contacts were then able to prepare in advance for bidding on Formula One-related contracts ranging from hospitality to construction and scaffolding before the tenders were officially announced.
Ong has courted controversy before, particularly in 1996, when his Singapore-listed firm HPL Ltd developed two prestigious condominium projects, one at Nassim Road near foreign embassies and opulent private mansions, called Nassim Jade, and another at Scotts Road in the heart of the Orchard shopping district, called Scotts 28. HPL was officially censured by the Stock Exchange of Singapore for failing to seek timely shareholder approval for the sale of some units in Nassim Jade and Scotts 28.
It later emerged that former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, his brother Lee Suan Yew, his eldest son the current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, and other members of the extended Lee family had been given discounts by HPL for purchasing condos before other HPL shareholders were given sales access. Lee Suan Yew was a member of the board of directors for HPL. At that time, some Singaporeans privately expressed unhappiness over what they perceived was an unfair arrangement.
The ensuing affair embarrassed the Lee family, who said they were unaware they had been given discounts on the properties. It remains one of the most talked about sagas in Singaporean politics and society, and is said to have precipitated an inner political struggle between the Lee family and then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, whose faction lost.
Prime Minister Goh, instead of instructing the officially impartial CPIB, which directly answers to the Prime Minister’s Office, to investigate the discounts, instructed his own Finance Minister and Deputy Director of the Monetary Authority of Singapore to do the investigations instead.
Multiple figures in Singapore’s political and civil service establishment including John Harding, the exiled Francis Seow, and Tang Liang Hong criticized the handling of the affair in the following years. Ong was compelled during the height of the affair to call a press conference and defend the discounted sales, claiming the discounts to the Lee family were “good advertisement” for HPL to be able to say that Lee Kuan Yew was a buyer of their properties. Tang Liang Hong’s criticism earned him a defamation suit and other retributions and he eventually exiled himself to Australia.
In a subsequent interview by the Business Times in Singapore after both Lees were cleared of any wrongdoing in Parliament, Ong lamented that the Nassim Jade scandal fuss was “damn unfair” to himself.