Friday, September 30, 2022

Fixing Malaysia’s sports corruption image

Assertions that Malaysia is now Southeast Asia’s epicenter for match fixing didn’t go down well with the country’s authorities. But just how accurate are these claims and why do so many fixes emanate from this part of the continent?     

It was during a forum on match fixing in Singapore that sports integrity consultant Chris Eaton ruffled a few feathers by suggesting Malaysia had supplanted Singapore as the fixing hub in Southeast Asia following a crackdown in the city-state. “Malaysia is the epicenter of trade for Southeast Asia,” the former FIFA security chief remarked, as well as saying that he would be very surprised if match fixers have not moved from Singapore to Malaysia and other neighboring countries. The comments sparked regional and global media coverage and forced the Malaysian football authorities to hit back with calls for him to back up his claims with hard evidence.

Despite a vexed riposte from the Football Association of Malaysia (FAM), there is no escaping the fact Malaysia has been plagued by a catalog of match-fixing scandals down the years. The country’s footballing nadir came back in 1994 when 21 players and coaches were sacked while 58 players were suspended for their roles in rigging matches at the behest of gambling syndicates. In the subsequent years, incidents of match manipulation have persisted while fixers based in the region, including the notorious Dan Tan Seet Eng (imprisoned in Singapore), who operated extensively in Malaysia, and Wilson Raj Perumal expanded their criminal activities across the globe.

“The fixers operating out of Singapore and Malaysia have spread a net of corruption around the world,” says Declan Hill, investigative journalist, academic and author of The Fix: Soccer and Organized Crime. “They have been at every level of major international football for at least 25 years and have targeted numerous leagues in numerous countries.” In a bid to deter betting syndicates from corrupting players and officials involved in the top flight of domestic football in Malaysia – the Malaysia Super League (MSL) – FIFA’s Early Warning System (EWS) was engaged in August. The EWS, which is to be expanded to internationals players in the country, monitors betting trends and flags up suspicious odds movements. But it isn’t a silver bullet.  

Indeed, some question the effort being taken to eradicate match fixing and corruption in Malaysian football in order to restore confidence in ‘the beautiful game’ there. “Having taken only low-level police and prosecution action, Malaysia remains extremely vulnerable itself to fixing and to betting fraud,” states Fred Lord, director of anti-corruption operations at the International Centre for Sport Security (ICSS) based in Doha, Qatar. “Moreover, Malaysian criminals with match fixing experience, and more importantly those with criminal experience in both establishing illegal sport betting operations and then in defrauding gamblers, are now heavily involved in many other Asian countries. Singapore has driven many fixers out of their country; Malaysia needs to do something very similar on match-fixing and illegal sports betting.”

Lord also says that because of no extra-territoriality in Singapore, fixers based themselves there to rig overseas matches and used the city-state as a safe haven, avoiding international prosecution. “Malaysia became their closest and frequently used training ground,” he remarks. Gambling industry consultant Patrick Jay, who was director of trading for the Hong Kong Jockey Club between 2010 and 2015, says the scourge of match fixing certainly hasn’t diminished in this corner of Asia. “The problem is very big,” he suggests. “The Southeast Asia region is a perfect climate for placing large wagers due to the combined forces of economic development, technology advancement and the love of live televised sports all driving a huge marketplace with colossal liquidity. With this liquidity, corrupted bets are easier to hide than they would be in the thinner European markets.”

Indeed, attempts to place big bets via major European operators with their relatively low limits, not to mention know-your-customer (KYC) and anti-money laundering (AML) checks, would set alarm bells ringing. It’s why the syndicates behind fixes tend to place their football wagers with Asia’s loosely regulated online sportsbooks with their colossal liquidity, tight margins and sky-high bet limits. Or they bet via the shadowy world of illegal, underground bookmakers, which leaves virtually no paper trail. Betting with Far East bookmakers means syndicates are able to put down significant sums even on obscure, lower league matches or youth and amateur teams all over the world. And, of course, the fixers know that players, managers and officials towards the foot of football’s pyramid are much more likely to accept a cash bribe to throw a match.

“There are two sections to fixing a game,” says Hill. “The first is getting the players, referees or clubs to fix matches. The second is to hide those fixes on the betting market, [although] the second half of the fix takes as much, if not more, effort than the first.” Nevertheless, criminal gangs have increasingly turned their attention to gambling on rigged sporting events in order to launder their ill-gotten gains accumulated from other illegal activities. And unlike crimes such as drugs, arms or people smuggling, they know that if they are ever apprehended and convicted, they face a considerably leaner sentence in comparison.

Convicted fixer Perumal claimed to have amassed over $5 million from manipulating the outcome of dozens of matches, including World Cup qualifiers and international friendlies. It is the prospect of such large profits that prompted organized criminal syndicates to steadily take over control of highly lucrative match fixing operations – and at a large scale, according to Lord. “In other words, amateur match fixing syndicates, such as that of Wilson Perumal and company, are being replaced by much more serious – and dangerous – organized criminal groups,” he explains.

The global legal and illegal betting industry is estimated by some experts to be worth as much as $2 trillion a year and Asia accounts for the lion’s share of this market. The appetite for football – and betting on matches both pre-game and in play – in the Far East is as insatiable as it has ever been. “Southeast Asia is one of the biggest sports betting markets,” says Lord, “generating incredible liquidity with volumes of trading and a liquidity many times bigger than those generated by professional sports, including football. The money used to corrupt players, referees, agents and football officials comes from sports betting fraud. In fact, we believe that what we see is only the tip of the iceberg.”

Meanwhile, Jay calls for greater co-operation and sharing of intelligence. “I would like to see more bookmakers participating with a central agency to assist with their risk management, sharing information on market moves, players, referees, officials and so on. The bookmakers are in the firing line and they need to co-operate more with each other and also the main stakeholders such as the sporting associations, government, police and media.” He continues: “A central agency could provide global leadership and immense drive to bring these groups together to deliver real tangible coordinated visible concrete results where emphasis needs to be upon both sports integrity and wagering integrity.” Interpol’s secretary general, Ronald Noble, once described match fixing as a “many-headed dragon” that needed to be slayed. But judging by the scale of the problem today in Southeast Asia and far beyond, this dragon isn’t likely to roll over on its back and surrender.   

Asia Gaming Brief is a news and intelligence service providing up to date market information for worldwide executives on relevant gaming issues in Asia.

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