Singapore. The small man in the baseball cap looks like any other customer as he watches Euro 2012 in the busy coffee shop. It’s not until he turns and offers a wager that his real intention is revealed.
He is a “runner” for an illegal bookmaker, one of hundreds in Singapore, a foot-soldier in a loose criminal network which rakes in millions of dollars a day across Asia — and is at the root of a global epidemic of match-fixing.
“We just sit there and pretend like we’re watching the match. But actually we’re taking bets,” the runner, who does not want to be identified, tells AFP at a quiet, undisclosed location.
For him, big football events like Euro 2012 are lucrative enough to risk Singapore’s strict penalties of jail and the dreaded cane, which flays flesh from the buttocks, and leaves prisoners unable to sit down.
He says there are hundreds of illegal betting operations across Singapore, each employing several runners who persuade punters to place bets and then pay out winnings and chase up debts.
“Many [illegal bookmakers] fly by the night. So they open for a week, after that they close, take a break and then come back again,” he says. “Because it’s really illegal here. You get caught, it’s caning and jail.”
These are the small-time hustlers. But from them, the money trail does not travel far before it is funding match-fixing in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, South America and Europe, including Italy’s “Calcioscommesse” scandal, which has all been linked to Singapore.
“Buy the referee”
When Singapore’s Wilson Raj Perumal, a virtuoso fixer whose schemes extended to organizing, and then rigging international friendlies was arrested last year in Finland, it exposed a web which is still being untangled.
On the eve of Euro 2012, Lazio captain Stefano Mauri was arrested and defender Domenico Criscito was axed from Italy’s squad over “Calcioscommesse” (football betting), which has been tied to Perumal’s alleged boss in Singapore.
Former Italy striker Giuseppe Signori was among those arrested last year. More arrests have been made in Hungary, where Perumal is now being held after his jail term for match-fixing in Finland.
Last year Chris Eaton, then FIFA’s head of security, said Perumal had graduated from an “academy” of match-fixing in Singapore where criminals closely linked to the illegal bookmakers learn their trade locally before spreading further afield.
“Wilson Raj Perumal is not alone. There are others like him [in Singapore]. Singapore seems to feature a great deal in these [match-fixing] allegations,” the former Interpol officer told Singapore’s New Paper.
Fuelled by a boom in online gambling, which means customers anywhere can bet on obscure games all over the world, football match-fixing has now been uncovered in dozens of countries.
For bookmakers, it’s clear when a match is fixed, because of its unusual odds. These games are usually in smaller leagues, where low-paid players and referees are susceptible to bribes.
“The most important thing is to buy the referee. Once you get the referee on your side, you can instruct him what to do, for example with penalties and free-kicks,” the Singaporean runner explains.
“No holds barred”
Match-fixing in Italy is at the top of the illegal betting tree. At its base are Singapore’s runners, who work in groups of two or three, and report by phone to a shadowy bookmaker they never meet.
Every week, after collecting their debts, runners destroy their papers, books and all other evidence, get a new temporary mobile phone number, and start afresh.
“I don’t know who my boss is. I only know his voice, that’s it. The numbers change every day,” says AFP’s source.
Each bookmaker employs five or six runners and reports to a “ringleader,” who controls several bookies and their winnings, and has connections to big-time organized crime across Southeast Asia and China.
“This guy is rich. He gets money from every place, and we’re not the only umbrella, he’s got a lot of umbrellas. This ringleader is involved in a bigger organization,” the runner says.
In one well-known cafe in the city’s west, up to six groups of runners can be working at any one time, taking Sg $12,000-13,000 ($9,400-10,200) per head, for a personal cut of Sg $2,000-3,000 a day.
But this face-to-face operation is nothing compared to the business done by phone and the Internet, favored by a younger, more technologically adept clientele, which is thriving in clandestine call-centers across Asia.
In Singapore these betting sweatshops, featuring computers and people taking calls, are small and temporary, employing only about four people at a time, to make it “easy to run.”
Elsewhere, the operations are more brazen.
Across the border in Malaysia, police in April raided a group of five luxury bungalows guarded by closed-circuit security cameras and arrested more than 100 people. Just days into Euro 2012, three smaller operations were busted.
“In Malaysia it’s no holds barred. Even the government officers can be bribed there, [but] not in Singapore,” the Singaporean runner says.
Scott Ferguson, author of the “Sport is made for betting” blog and former head of education at Betfair, says stories abound of betting kingpins in Indonesia who occupy entire fortified islands complete with girls to entertain guests and accessible only by private boat.
“My family at risk”
With their mobility and flexibility the betting networks are hard to contain and, without extensive cross-border cooperation and witness protection schemes, they’re almost impossible to stamp out, Ferguson says.
“It’s like drugs. They might have taken a couple of kingpins, but I don’t think it’s going to be a huge deterrent,” he says, referring to the demise of Perumal and his associates.
Singapore has stiff penalties for illegal bookmaking and has introduced its own state-run football betting. “But the odds are terrible,” says the runner, who laughs when asked if authorities are getting a grip on the problem.
He can bear the thought of the cane and prison, and the weekly risk of being punched by a reluctant debtor. Of greater concern is getting on the wrong side of the betting underworld.
“If they find out I’m a snitch, I’m putting my family at risk. You won’t see killings or anything, but it’s more like threats,” he says.
“If you’re living in a house and every day you’re being threatened by phone, they’re calling you and saying your son, your whole family’s going to die, it’s psychologically scary.”
And although he is happy to talk, even boastful about his activities, any discussion of Perumal’s alleged Singapore boss is strictly off-limits.
“We can’t talk much about that. Because we know one way or another, there’s definitely a link,” he says.