Friday, 25 Sep 2020

More distance themselves from Bellagraph Nova Group following Obama photo controversy

SINGAPORE – More individuals and organisations have distanced themselves from the Bellagraph Nova (BN) Group, which has come under fire for questionable marketing material including doctored images of former US president Barack Obama.

The newly-formed company was thrust into the spotlight when it placed a bid for English Premier League football club Newcastle United on Aug 15.

Actor and host Allan Wu, who was listed as a “health advocate” for Novena Global Lifecare, one of the BN Group’s “31 entities”, told The Straits Times on Thursday (Aug 27) that he has ended his partnership with it.

“I am not an ambassador or involved with Novena Global Lifecare anymore,” he said in a message from China when asked about his links.

He added: “Novena Global Lifecare was planning on going a different direction with BN Group, plus I was just about to start filming The Day I Ran China for Discovery Channel from July in China, so it seemed like the right time.”

Novena Global Lifecare was founded by Mr Nelson Loh and Mr Terence Loh, who are cousins, in 2010. The medical healthcare and aesthetics group states on its website that it is in “250 locations in over 20 cities”.

Since April, Mr Wu has put up several promotional social media posts and videos on Novena Global Lifecare, including the marketing of face masks.

In late June, the BN Group – which was founded by the Loh cousins and business partner Evangeline Shen – had announced Singapore-based race car driver and emcee Claire Jedrek as their global communications and media officer.

But when queries were sent to her last weekend about the group’s publicity material, she replied: “I have not been with the company since mid July, please remove me from this email chain.”

Ms Jedrek is married to Singapore race car driver Yuey Tan, whom the Lohs had reportedly backed from 2012 to 2014 through their Dorr Group.

Questions have been raised about BN Group since Reuters reported last weekend that publicity photos with Mr Obama had been doctored to make it look like he had met the Lohs and Ms Shen in Paris.

Mr Obama had in fact attended a charity gala event in Singapore last December sponsored by Novena Global Lifecare, where the Lohs and Ms Shen were among those present.

Other discrepancies and claims have since surfaced in their press material, some of which have been retracted.

The group’s chief marketing and investor relations officer Nereides de Bourbon told Reuters that there “wasn’t any malicious aim behind” the altered photos.

On Tuesday night, however, BN Group told The Straits Times that “certain errant individuals, possibly with malicious intent” appeared to be behind the material, and that it was getting an independent counsel to investigate the matter.

Since then, former US ambassador to Singapore Kirk Wagar has resigned from his independent director position in Catalist-listed Axington where the Lohs are controlling shareholders and Ms Shen chairman and director.

The Business Times reported on Thursday that the controversy has led “some anxious local and regional investors to step up efforts to pull out millions of dollars invested in entities under the Novena Global Healthcare Group”.

The cousins had on Tuesday also claimed that “errant individuals” were behind the uploading of the Loh Brothers Foundation website, which was taken down after The Straits Times made queries about it.

In a statement, the Lohs said that “while we had intended to set up a charitable foundation and had purchased the said domain name, the entity has yet to be set up. It appears that the content of the website were released prematurely and we are taking steps to address this”.

A Straits Times check on the domain name showed that it was registered on Feb 18 this year and updated on July 30.

One of Novena Global Lifecare’s advertisements for face masks, posted by Mr Wu on Facebook on April 14, noted that “$1 for every box sold donated to the Loh Brothers Foundation Covid Charity Fund”.

The website had listed among its board members Singapore Exchange Regulation chief executive officer Tan Boon Gin, Senior Counsel Sreenivasan Narayanan, and “Megvii Face++ chairman Yi Bao”.

While Mr Sreenivasan is indeed a director at the foundation, The Straits Times understands from sources that Mr Tan is not.

Megvii Technology, a Chinese tech company, reached out to The Straits Times to say that its chairman is Mr Yin Qi, who is not a board member of the foundation. A spokesman added it doesn’t have an employee called Yi Bao and added that its name is not Megvii Face++. Face++ is one of the company’s products.

While it was mentioned on the foundation’s website that the Lohs are patrons of the Hong Kah (Gek Poh) Grassroot Community, the People’s Association has since clarified that the two are “no longer patrons of Gek Poh Ville CCMC”.

However, beneficiaries stated on the site – Singapore Muay Thai Federation, race car driver Tan, Xin Hua Novu Blaze basketball club and St Michael’s Soccer Association (SMSA) – have all confirmed that they received sponsorships via Novu Aesthetics, another entity in the BN Group.

SMSA president Kieren Pereira said: “In addition to match kits, the sponsorship also includes financial assistance for overseas competitions for children who are unable to afford flight and accommodation costs.

“From our understanding, Terence Loh decided to sponsor SMSA as a way of giving back to the children of his old school and contributing to the local sports scene.”

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