The $50 Bribe That Could Cost $73,000: A Traveler’s Crime At Singapore’s Airport

Airlines are responsible for checking the eligibility of their passengers to enter the destination country on an international flight. If they carry someone ineligible for entry, they may have to carry that person back (without compensation) and they may be fined.

There are stories of agents making mistakes and denying boarding to people that are eligible to fly. For instance, an agent might have heard that your passport must be valid for 6 months beyond your date of travel. That’s true for some countries, but not all, and not for all nationalities. For instance, a couple of places I’m headed soon require:

  • 3 months of passport validity
  • Validity merely for the planned duration of the trip

Ultimately though an agent will get in more trouble allowing someone to fly that they shouldn’t than they will denying to travel to someone who should be allowed to fly.

If you’re trying to travel somewhere without the proper authorization you shouldn’t try to do it from Singapore. And you shouldn’t then try to bribe someone in Singapore to let you do it anyway. And that bribe certainly should be just $50. That’s how a Chinese woman wound up in jail.

She and her companion flew from Koh Samui, Thailand to Singapore and planned to connect onward with KLM to Amsterdam on October 16th. But she didn’t have a visa. When the SATS contractor working for KLM checked her documents at the boarding gate, they denied the pair passage.

Zeng and Wu were told by a Mandarin speaker, Certis Cisco officer Ronald Michael Jansen, that they would not be permitted to board and had to contact the airline for more details. But Jansen later noticed that both Zeng and Wu were still near the departure gate, talking to other auxiliary police officers, and decided to approach them again.

When he was near the pair, Zeng put her hand around his shoulder and gave him around US$50, the court heard, asking him to help her speak to the airline to let her board the flight. Jansen repeatedly refused the money and told her that he could not take it.

The story actually gets worse. They didn’t just try low dollar bribery in Singapore. They tried to get an interpreter to do the crime for them. And after he refused the bribe, “she gave him her travel itinerary with a bundle of US dollar notes concealed in it.” He declined again. So she went to the gate agent herself, giving the employee $50 who had identified their lack of visas directly.

Facing a sentence of 5 years and US$73,000 fine, she claimed she was offering the money just for an explanation of why she couldn’t board. She received a sentence of four weeks.

(HT: @crucker)

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Idiot. I know it is a common custom in some areas–when I worked as a health inspector in certain neighborhoods the restaurant owners would worry when I refused any such “gift”–but she really should have known better. Especially there. On the other hand, I’ve seen Americans do things abroad that just make me cringe. Arrogance, yelling and demanding that things be done a certain way, right now, chop-chop. That’s the fastest route to make sure that nothing gets done.

  2. That’s a shame. According to the news article, it was her first time overseas, and she’s obviously clueless about visas and modern-day propriety. Jail time seems rather harsh in this case.

  3. I’ve been in situations in which I wish- in retrospect– I was smart enough to offer a bribe. That would be in India (being refused boarding on a domestic flight one hour before departure since I was told I should have been there two hours in advance) and other such countries but I would never try it in Singapore. It’s also not easy to know how to casually offer a bribe. I was stopped by a cop in Morocco driving to the airport when he said I was speeding (which I knew wasn’t true because I had a rental car that beeped annoyingly when you went over the limit) and I asked him whether I could pay the fine on the spot in cash. He said yes and didn’t say what the fine was but 20 euros turned out to do the trick. If you travel enough, sooner or later you will need to give a bribe even if you haven’t done anything wrong- or waste a whole lot of time and hassle trying to avoid it.

  4. She should have spent a lot more money on a travel agent who would have got her a proper visa to Amsterdam. With enough money, I’m sure it would have been possible.

  5. Yeah, first time overseas, she didn’t realize things don’t work the same in the more law abiding parts of the world. China’s sure not going to be telling people that China is corrupt so it would be easy for their people not to know the difference.

  6. I agrée with Larry. I was recently traveling on Tarom airlines out of Bucharest in business class and the sky priority agent who was checking me in wanted some $ but it was too early and I didn’t get the signals.

    Long story short, I’m elite plus, on a full J ticket, and had one bag at 18kg (allowed up to 32), he checked it in and sent it over the belt but then asked me to put my carryon on the scale! I was surprised but did as I was told, it came up at 10.6kg, he said the limit is 8kg. Im allowed a 2nd free checkin bag but I didn’t want to check this one in… so he sent me back all the way to Lost & Found in arrivals, waited like 40 minutes and the Tarom team wouldn’t answer the call… eventually I gave up and went back and checked my carryon just for the 2 extra kgs.
    Later on, the gate agent told me that guy was the supervisor and he was probably looking for a “gift” and that he called the Lost & found ppl and asked them not to answer my intercom calls.

    Never again!

  7. Singapore is a more by-the-book than many mainland E and SE Asia countries. The woman was either very tone deaf to local customs or plain arrogant and persistent that they didn’t play by the rules she’s accustomed to. Not to mention cheap.

    That behavior of ‘gifting’ is not uncommon in China, but there is a fair amount of ‘depends’ on how you do it, who you do it with and who you are. India is refreshingly more straight forward and when you make a mistake, they let it go easier because it is more common.

    Lesson learned (I hope), is that it pays to know what you are doing.

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