Tasnim Lokman and Ahmad Fairuz Othman find out more about the businessman who is at the centre of a trial in connection with Singapore’s penny stocks crash in 2013
MALAYSIAN businessman Datuk John Soh Chee Wen has been held in Singapore’s Changi Prison for the past two years. He was under country arrest for two years prior to that.
The 60-year-old widower and father of two is awaiting trial, which starts in March.
He was charged with 181 counts of allegedly masterminding the infamous Singapore penny stocks crash in 2013.
It is one of the biggest and most complex fraud cases in the republic in recent years as it caused S$8 billion losses in market value in a span of a few days.
While many are eagerly waiting for the trial to start, some are wondering, “who is John Soh?”
The man has a storied past in commerce and politics in Malaysia.
Born in Batu Pahat, Johor in 1959, Soh is the son of a shopkeeper. He attended Batu Pahat High School, the alma mater of business mogul Tan Sri Vincent Tan, political veteran Lim Kit Siang and former Dewan Rakyat speaker, the late Tun Syed Nasir Ismail.
Soh’s friends described him as a person with integrity, who achieved success due to hard work and tenacity.
Those who knew him during his youth remember him as an overachiever.
Soh was an all-rounder in school. He was president of the English and debating clubs, and active in badminton, softball and athletics.
He enrolled to further his studies in economics in Universiti Malaya in 1979, but quit after three days. Later, he ventured into sales and made his first million at the age of 21 with his first direct sales company.
He was declared a bankrupt in 1984 during a credit crunch a year prior to the Pan-Electric Industries debacle, a case which forced a three-day closure of stock exchanges in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.
Soh eventually found his true calling, taking unprofitable companies and turning them around using unconventional methods.
At his peak, he controlled listed counters, such as Autoways, Promet, Kelanamas, Uniphoenix and Kuantan Flour Mill.
His passion to help people led him to entering politics at a young age.
One of his close friends, who did not want to be named, told the New Sunday Times that Soh became an MCA member at 21.
“He was later elected as Petaling Jaya MCA division chief. Soh was credited with establishing a service centre with its own staff, a first in the party.
“Anyone who knew John will testify to his ‘people-person’ persona. But he sought to be financially independent so that he could stay true to his political agenda,” said this friend.
POLITICS AND BUSINESS
Soh’s work in MCA caught the attention of former party president Tun Dr Ling Liong Sik and he later got into ventures with Dr Ling’s son, Ling Hee Liong.
In 1995, Soh was appointed to the party’s presidential council. He was the only council member back then who did not hold any government position or was not a member of parliament.
At the same time, Soh was assigned by MCA bigwigs to engage Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim during the latter’s stint as deputy prime minister.
MCA wanted the party to forge closer ties with Anwar as he was then prime minister-in-waiting, but the lack of chemistry between Dr Ling and Anwar posed a challenge. That was where Soh’s role came in.
Soh and Anwar ended up becoming good friends.
“When Anwar was sacked as deputy prime minister in 1998, Soh marched alongside Anwar in the Sept 20 rally. He was immediately labelled as pariah (outcast) by MCA.
“His ties with Liong Sik and MCA ended after that incident,” said another friend of Soh.
Another blow came when the Securities Commission launched an investigation into Soh for using nominees to gain control of brokerage firm Omega Securities in 1997.
His action violated Malaysian law that forbids anyone from owning more than one brokerage without government approval. Soh controlled at least one other brokerage firm at the time.
An arrest warrant was issued when he was overseas, but the case only made progress when he returned to Malaysia in 2002.
He was fined RM6 million by the Sessions Court when he pleaded guilty to a charge of abetting former TA Securities executive chairman Datuk Tiah Thee Kian by providing false statements to the Kuala Lumpur Stock Exchange involving shares in Omega Securities.
His association with PKR did not stop with the Reformasi movement in 1998.
Many former PKR leaders described him as a “funding father” as he contributed a lot during the early years of the party’s struggle.
“He was one of those who helped in the organising work in 1998. He was involved when the party was founded. He was also involved in funding,” a source said.
It is common knowledge among political observers that Soh is the alleged owner of the office building in Petaling Jaya that houses the PKR headquarters.
The businessman used to work closely with many former PKR leaders, such as former secretary-general Salehudin Hashim, Datuk Zaid Ibrahim and Aasil Kazi Ahmad.
He was appointed to the PKR political bureau, but later stepped down when Salehudin resigned.
Outside of business and politics, Soh is known to be charitable.
In 1993, the school board at SJK(C) Sin Ming in Puchong, Selangor, approached him for a RM30,000 contribution to replace its bus.
He granted the wish when he saw how dilapidated the school was and after finding out about the heroism of the school board chairman.
The chairman, known only as Goh, operated a small coffee shop. He woke up at 5am and made several trips every school day to ferry students for free.
Goh’s story touched Soh so much that he decided to adopt the school as a “turnaround” project.
A member of the school board, Sia Lian Sem, said Soh’s contributions breathed new life into the school.
“I have never met Soh, but his contributions helped the school for many years. He used to have an assistant who liaised with the school board. His efforts all those years helped maintain enrolment numbers too. There are 2,100 students now.”
To honour his contributions to SJK(C) Sin Ming, names of the three most important women in Soh’s life are etched in the school building.
Its assembly hall, which fits 12 badminton courts, is named after his late wife, Joanne Lau May Foong. Two other buildings in the school are named after Soh’s mother and grandmother.
* Read part one here