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Taking consolation from a life of regretBy Wong Kim Hoh, Straits TimesThere are not many like him in Changi Prison. His well-heeled background is discernible from his polite demeanour, controlled mannerisms and immaculate English.There is also his obviously formidable intellect, one honed by the rigorous study of law.Some will say that Ivan (not his real name), 43, has no business being locked up in a jail cell - he could have, or should have, been walking along the corridors of power or enjoying the view from the top of the corporate ladder.The slight, mild-mannered man did have it all once: a brilliant law career, an enviable lifestyle, the respect of his peers - and freedom.But he lost it all because of his addiction to gambling. In 2003, he went on the run after cheating several clients of nearly $5 million. For seven years, he lived the life of a fugitive until he was arrested in Germany.He was sentenced to nine years in jail in April this year.Ivan is the younger of two sons of a lawyer and a teacher. His elder brother is a respected law academic. His childhood, he says, was fairly happy, although it is obvious from talking to him that he was highly competitive, and probably grappled with some issues about self-esteem.Growing up, Ivan felt compelled to equal, if not surpass, the scholastic achievements of his brother, who topped law school and became a senior counsel.Ivan’s achievements were no less impressive. He won many prizes as a law student at the National University of Singapore, and was also a champion chess player.Upon graduation in 1991, he joined a prestigious legal firm, doing corporate work.‘I found law interesting but unfulfilling. I found it quite easy. The usual promotions and pay rises came but there was a kind of emptiness. All the while, I thought I’d be happy if I got what I wanted, but when I got it, it wasn’t what I wanted.’He says he broached the idea of switching professions and becoming a social worker or teacher, only to get ‘that look of horror’ from his family.After a couple of years, he left the firm to do litigation work with another.‘For a year or two, I was challenged. But again, I don’t want to sound arrogant or boastful, but success came quite easily. When you do well in litigation, a lot of people would start coming to you for legal advice. When something comes easily, you don’t appreciate it that much,’ says the former legal eagle, who later opened his law firm with two other partners.The money started rolling in.‘I was getting $12,000 in the first two months. After that, work was just coming in and I was getting $20,000 a month, and this was before we distributed profits.’In 1998, he represented a businessman who was having problems with his partners. The two got along and the client started inviting Ivan to join him on trips to the casino at Genting Highlands, Malaysia.‘It was the first time that I’d been in a casino. I saw what went on, and how they could put $50,000 or a couple of months of my salary on a single bet,’ he says.The trips became regular affairs.‘I saw it as a way to gain extra business because the people he took along were quite well-to-do. I got a lot of conveyancing work out of them because they were all buying bungalows and condos.’Ivan made his first bet on his fourth or fifth trip.‘You hear people saying how they won this and won that. Maybe, they must know something.’He was quite lucky on the first few occasions.‘I would say successful in a ‘wow’ way,’ he says, adding that he won several thousand dollars. ‘I found it more interesting than chess after a while.’Soon, he was spending between $5,000 and $20,000 on each gambling trip, often by playing baccarat.‘Eventually, it went up to about $50,000,’ he says wryly.He would go once a month between 1997 and 2000. ‘I was still building up my firm, so if I had a trial, I wouldn’t think of going to the casino.’But in 2000, he started playing big. ‘Because that was when the money was just coming in.’
It was also in 2000 that he started to have a losing streak.‘I lost about a million dollars,’ he says. By then, he had increased the frequency of his visits to the casino from monthly to weekly.Like all gamblers, he wanted to recoup his losses. ‘It was also pride. I couldn’t believe it could be so bad. I think it was a failure to accept reality.’His other investments in the stock market were taking a beating too, especially after the Sept 11 attacks in the United States in 2001.From being flush with cash, he was now in debt.‘I could have asked my parents for help but that would mean an admission of failure. And that would be the first failure in my entire life, not just failure but catastrophe.’That led him to misappropriate $1.5 million belonging to a client’s family. He had been asked to handle the legal work for the money, which his client’s family had lent to a church to buy a piece of land.As the land - on which a church was to be built - had not been tendered for, Ivan advised that the $1.5 million be placed under his trust.Among his reasons for encouraging the pledge was to help his client receive higher returns on the investment as the church did not need the money yet.But unknown to his client, Ivan put the amount in a fixed deposit account and pledged it as security for his personal loan facility instead.He also pocketed about $2 million from a couple of other clients through a series of scams.He says he initially intended to take some of the money to invest over one year in the hope of reaping handsome returns. He also used a chunk of it to fund more trips to the casino.‘So I started investing part of it in the stock market. I also started believing that I could win back what I had lost because everyone seemed to be winning.’His investments did indeed appreciate, but his casino forays resulted only in more losses.‘When you don’t need money, money keeps coming to you. When you need money, everything you touch turns to dust,’ he says.Ivan visited not only the casino in Genting but also those on board cruise ships about three times a week.His world became dark and confusing, and he was caught in a perpetual maelstrom of fear and worry.He recalls: ‘I was worried sick about the hole I was digging but I also believed that I could pick myself out it. I told myself I always succeeded in achieving my goals...’In 2003, he left for Australia, where his parents had a house. He contemplated suicide because he felt he had shamed his family, his friends, and all those he knew.News of his offence broke during his trip to Australia, which he insists was not planned. ‘People started faxing me all the details in the newspapers. That’s why I didn’t come back.’He decided to hightail it to the US on a fake passport with just $400 in his pocket, and signed up for the Californian Bar exam. He did not tell his parents where he was.He landed in San Francisco, where he worked as a dishwasher in a Korean restaurant, earning about US$40 a night. He also got work as a part-time paralegal.It was a lonely existence. ‘You can have all the freedom in the world but still be lonely and always afraid. In San Francisco, where would I go for help if someone stabbed me? If someone robbed me, where could I go?’Ivan adds that he found weekends and holidays very distressing because ‘there was absolutely nothing to do’.‘I didn’t want to make friends because I didn’t want to get attached to people, or make people attached to me.’Five months after he started his part-time paralegal work, a client asked him if he knew anything about English law. When Ivan said he did, he was asked if he was interested in setting up a London office for them.He took the offer despite having some reservations.‘I said to myself: ‘A company that would hire me can’t be a decent company.’ It’s a fact. They did no background checks on me - they just looked at the quality of work and decided they liked it.’
After a couple of years, he found another job in a company dealing in carbon emissions.He smiles and says the Singapore education system really stood him in good stead.‘Having been in the US and Britain, I was more than capable of holding my own. But it wasn’t an easy life. Although the pay was good, the reason why I think my bosses got along with me was that I never complained. I just worked.‘And there was not anything they could not ask me to do,’ he says, adding that at one stage, he was commuting non-stop between Prague, Ireland and London to take care of all sorts of business.In February 2008, he moved to an Internet-related company. One of his first tasks was to help in the acquisition of a Chinese company. When that was done, he says he had to travel to Germany and Sweden, closing offices and offering severance packages to some of the staff.He was to fly back from Germany to Ireland when he was arrested.‘I was at the airport when they swiped my card. And then they said there was a warrant of arrest for me and that they had to put me in a lock-up.’When asked if he had imagined this day happening during all the years that he was on the run, Ivan says: ‘There was always a niggling worry. The sight of a police car always shocked me. I was extorted once and I just let it go. You just didn’t want to draw attention to yourself. So yes, there was always this fear.’He sighs. He says he left Singapore because he wanted to have a shot at making money to pay back what he owed.‘Let’s be realistic. In Singapore, in the legal and banking fields, who would employ me? I did my own calculations and felt that the only way to do it was to go abroad, where nobody knew who I was, start afresh and make money.’What was painful for him was the fact that he was on the verge of succeeding when he was arrested. ‘That was the hardest thing for me to accept. If I tried for seven years and was still washing dishes...’He has been doing a lot of thinking during his time behind bars. For one thing, he wonders what would have happened if he had really managed to pay off his debt.‘I was always using that as a crutch to move forward... But you still can’t come back to your family, you can’t form new relationships because you never know when you might be arrested.’Not surprisingly, he says he has mixed feelings about being in jail. ‘No one wants to be here, but at the same time, when you have finished here, you can do whatever you want to do again, as opposed to always looking behind your back.’Looking back on his life, he is filled with regret.‘Regret because despite all the advantages I had - a good family, education - I did this. Regret because my parents, family and friends were personally disappointed in what happened.’But he also takes some consolation from all that has happened.
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