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The SpeakAsia Story: E-commerce Innovation or Fraud?

Zafar Anjum | Jan. 17, 2014
Has SpeakAsia, a Singapore-registered company, taken the concept of e-commerce and social media too far? The company has run afoul of the Indian government, with its assets frozen, officials arrested on charges of fraud and money laundering in India to the tune of US$ 368 million. In an exclusive interview with Computerworld Singapore, the company’s embattled CEO Manoj Kumar Sharma explains what went wrong with his company in India.

Acting on the complaint, the Indian Police jumped into action. In the last two years, they have arrested most of the office-bearers of SpeakAsia in India on charges of defrauding people of millions of rupees (Rs 2,276 crores or about US$368 million). They have also issued lookout notices for Sharma. As soon as he turns up in India, he will be arrested.

Sharma had contacted me a year ago and we had met at a café in Orchard Road. My nonfiction book, The Resurgence of Satyam, had just been published in India and Sharma wanted me to write a book on the SpeakAsia story.

Sharma is a tall and lanky Mumbai-man who has an oval face with a prominent moustache. Sharma's contention was that while the government had hastily moved in on his company and was in a hurry to declare it an illegal outfit, he wanted to tell his story-explain his business model and prove that it was not a Ponzi scheme. India's people, and especially the 2.4 million of his company's panellists (consumers and supporters), deserved to hear his side of the story as, so far, Indian media had not given him a fair chance, he said.

At that time, I had not heard of SpeakAsia at all. What was his story exactly? And was it worth telling? I was not so sure about it.

A sensational scam?

In our first meeting, Sharma tried to convince me that his story deserved a telling and that more than anything else, he wanted to restore his reputation. His family, he said, did not deserve to live with the ignominy of being related to a swindler.

His wife was in Mumbai and police had impounded her passport. He could not travel to India for fear of getting arrested. All his companies' bank accounts in India had been frozen. And he did not have much longer to live. He was in a limbo, a man on the run, living on borrowed time. It had all the elements of a compelling narrative.

I was hooked to the story. I wanted to hear more about it. However, right after doing the Satyam book, I was not keen to spend a few more months doing another book on another scam in India. The timing also did not seem to be right as the police were still investigating the case.

After the police filed the provisional charge sheet against SpeakAsia on 19 December, Sharma contacted me again to provide an update.

That's when I met him again in a Singapore hospital. When I entered his room, he lay supine on a bed, reading a book. He welcomed me with a smile and sat back. He seemed to have lost more hair and looked thinner.

 

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