He opens up about sticking to his principles even when down to the wire.
By Aiden Jewelle Gonzales
Having grown up in the era of WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden, for me and many in my generation, whistleblowers are remote figures with a certain celebrity status; famous in some eyes because of their heroic deeds, or infamous in others because of the controversy surrounding said actions. It’s hard to remember that many of them are simply people who wanted to do the right thing, no different to many of us.
When I first met Pav Gill, I wouldn’t have known that the soft-spoken man with the secretly dry sense of humour was the whistleblower for the infamous scandal in Germany involving fintech company Wirecard, one that was called “the country’s largest financial scandal since World War II.” Dressed in a dress shirt, jeans, and white sneakers, he exudes the confidence of a tech space success story, and indeed, Pav is the Chief Legal Officer at Zipmex, one of the biggest digital assets exchange platforms in Thailand.
Nevertheless, he’s far from the trite ‘tech bro’ stereotype, maintaining that his profession is what humbles him: “It’s easy for lawyers to forget that at the end of the day, they are service providers,” he tells me. “This mandates a certain level of humility, and ability to accept that no one party is ever 100 percent correct.” Part of that service mindset is ensuring that no one is above the law, and this is what happened in 2019, when the Financial Times published years’ worth of investigations into Wirecard, sparked by Pav himself, that revealed a scam worth over EUR 1.9 billion. The result was that Wirecard filed for insolvency, the CEO was arrested, and many of the company’s E-suite fled, remaining fugitives to this day.
While the thrilling saga is worthy of a movie – and indeed, was turned into a recent documentary that Pav himself was in – it was a fraught experience for Pav, who had to face intimidation tactics, being forced to resign, and even threats to both himself and his mother, whom he clearly held very dear and who he credits with encouraging him to reveal the truth. “The hardest hurdle was exercising patience and restraint,” he reveals. These days, he’s become one of the faces against corporate corruption, even as he continues to build his career after moving to Thailand a couple of years back. “It’s helped me filter out companies that do not intend to have a strong legal and compliance culture – they would not want to hire me in the first place if so!” he says with a laugh. This ethos, he reveals, is what drew him to Zipmex, along with their “impressive management team, and cosmopolitan and international style.”
He spoke to Masala further about his remarkable journey so far, how practicing law has allowed him to continuously grow in his career, and the new chapter he’s started in Bangkok.
Tell us a little about your background, and how those experiences led to your decision to pursue law, and shaped who you are today.
I was born in Singapore and grew up there, with a large amount of time spent with maternal relatives in the UK. I currently have a LLB from the National University of Singapore, and have been called to the Singapore Bar since May 2009. Being exposed to two very different environments – Western and Asian – has allowed me to view things with a more ‘international mindset,’ for lack of a better term.
My mum is a single parent and I’m the only child. Besides playing the role of a dual parent working multiple jobs in a day, she also studied law. At a very early age, I remember sitting at the back of her evening law lectures with my colouring book and going back home with questions on what certain legal terms I overheard during her lectures meant. I guess that planted the seed of wanting to be a lawyer.
What excites me about practicing it today is its ever-evolving nature and versatility. A law degree arms the holder with the tools to practice in whichever industry that person has an interest in, from fashion to finance. On a personal level, the crypto space is one which remains controversial and unsettled, which makes being part of the industry a uniquely exciting experience compared to other more established industries such as, say, shipping or typical financing.
You’ve worked the length and breadth of some of the most renowned legal practices in the world. Can you walk us through your professional journey and what you’ve taken from it?
My career till date can be split between private practice doing international corporate finance work, at international law firms (Allen & Overy, Clifford Chance; and King & Spalding); and in-house with a focus on fintech companies in the payments space (Wirecard, Wise, BigPay, etc). I am more of a transactional lawyer so sitting behind a desk reading regulations is definitely not my thing. I derive meaning and satisfaction from the work I do by seeing how the products I was involved in from a legal perspective translate into real life use cases for people. One of the most important lessons I have learned from my professional journey is that you are learning all the time – whether from your peers, superiors or subordinates.
What made you join the fintech space, and what opportunities did you see therein?
I have been a bit of an IT geek since I was 10. During the earlier days of my career, IT law was still a developing field and most of the technology companies were focused on hardware and the internet. As a trained finance lawyer specialising in helping governments, multinational corporations, and banks raise funds through bonds, IPOs, etc., when the fintech boom kicked off around 2014, I knew that was something I simply had to be part of – a kind of FOMO if you will. After all tech + finance = fintech.
Tell us a little more about what happened during the Wirecard financial scandal, and what led you to eventually become the whistleblower that revealed their billion-euro cover-up.
Wirecard was historically plagued with allegations of balance sheet manipulation and other accounting fraud. They hired me as their first Head of Legal in Asia, covering all 11 markets in the Asia-Pacific region, and with a direct reporting line to their headquarters in Munich. Within weeks of joining the company, internal employees raised allegations in confidence to me that they were being made to carry out clearly illegal transactions bordering on forgery, money laundering and accounting fraud. I immediately raised those allegations to my supervisor in Munich, and was instructed to engage an external law firm in Singapore to review the matter and produce an independent report of the findings.
Unfortunately, this investigation was leaked to the group’s Board of Directors who, in a combined state of panic and anger, told local management to ensure that the investigation was shut down or converted into a gap-analysis. The Board then rolled out an ‘anonymous’ whistleblowing channel in an effort to gather intel on which other employees could be construed as ‘troublemakers.’ I was then made to endure 3-4 months of intense intimidation by local management and Munich HQ, which culminated in an attempt to send me to Jakarta for a questionable business trip that had no purpose other than to be a one-way ticket. When that failed, I was forced to resign. Wirecard did not make good on their promises to let me go in peace and continued to harass and make life difficult after I left the company. At some point, this left me with little choice but to bring their nonsense to an end.
Even these days, people consider ‘whistleblower’ a pejorative term. How would you address that stigma?
Objectively speaking, viewing someone that exposes illegal activity in a negative light is rather perverse as that implies a preference for criminals to continue with their criminality.
That said, the problem is deeply rooted in cultures and societies that frown upon the notion of ratting or snitching in general, or going against employers, which is construed as “biting the hand that feeds you.” In Wirecard’s case, the hands that fed not only had lots of innocent lives ruined because of them, but they were continually damaging many more.
Sky Studios released a documentary called Wirecard: The Billion Euro Lie (2021), which has gotten rave reviews from those who’ve seen it. What was it like filming the documentary even as you left Singapore, and what do you hope is the key takeaway from those who will see it?
I am a generally private person, so putting my life experience on screen even for a few hours was something that needed getting used to. I hope that the film inspires anyone who watches it to not fear, do what is right, and when in doubt to use their conscience, values and principles as a moral compass.
As a lawyer working in the digital assets space, CryptoLaw is an area that has undergone a lot of transformation over the last few years – from legislation and regulations, to jurisdictional issues. What has it been like to be at the forefront of those changes, and how would you address people’s concerns about the legality of cryptocurrency?
It’s incredibly exciting, and I am privileged to work with regulators and other industry participants. Just three years ago, I was part of the group that thought of the crypto guys as an annoying bunch messing up the finance space, but as irony would have it, I am one of them now. There is a lot of ignorance and disinformation about crypto in general, such as it being a means of facilitating money laundering and other criminal activity. When we actually get into the data and statistics, only a small percentage of crypto transactions in, say, 2021 were used for such purposes.
Fiat money remains the primary means of facilitating similar criminal activity, but we do not hear much about that from the crypto naysayers. That said, the vast majority of people still do not fully comprehend crypto, so like any investment product, I would never recommend dabbling in it without undertaking the necessary research and gaining know-how first.
Specifically, what has CryptoLaw been like in Thailand, which has one of the more proactive approaches to digital assets in the region?
I have continued to remain pleasantly surprised by the forward-thinking mindset displayed by Thai regulators in relation to the digital assets space. Thailand was one of the first few countries in the region to embrace digital assets and implement laws to that effect. Several recent regulatory changes display a strong focus on customer protection, such as the requirement that exchanges keep 90 percent of customer assets in a cold wallet (which is a type of digital wallet that stores cryptocurrency offline in a hardware device such as a USB), of which 80 percent are to be stored with a reputable third-party custodian. Besides always ensuring that you trade only on a reputable and licensed exchange, storing large amounts of your digital assets in these cold wallets would be my legal advice for keeping your assets safe.
You’ve received many accolades over the years, not least for your role in revealing the Wirecard fraud. Which of these accomplishments are you most proud of?
I am humbled to be recipient of the 2022 Cliff Robertson Sentinel Award from the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE), which is one of the ACFE’s highest honours bestowed annually on a person who, without regard to personal or professional consequences, has publicly disclosed wrongdoing in business or government. Otherwise, I’m relatively pleased with my coffee-making skills and being an inspiration for those out there who were, or are, in similar situations as the one I was in with regards to Wirecard.
Aside from these coffee-making skills and bringing down corrupt global corporations, what does a renowned whistleblower do in his down time?
Personally, I find going for a swim therapeutic, and it helps me focus. I take breaks in the form of weekend getaways or hitting the spa in order to unwind and rebalance – make it a point to have a cut-off time for work!