The Sustainability “Entrepreneur” and the Lawsuits

Nigel Grier was once thought of as a sustainability entrepreneur who could make people rich while saving the environment. 

The Australia-based businessman persuaded investors to sink millions into a raft of environmentally friendly projects across Southeast Asia, but not one of his ventures has ever come to fruition. Now, Grier and his company have been ordered by a Singapore court to repay out-of-pocket investors. As lawsuits against Grier mount up (with two currently pending, according to a plaintiff in the case), Singapore’s police and corporate regulatory authority have also opened investigations into Grier’s business activities.

Grier talks big, and the initial impression of most people involved in his investments was that he was credible. But as one former business associate said, despite seeming sincere, Grier is “a professional liar”.

Over the course of several months, New Naratif spoke to former investors and employees who had either worked for or alongside Grier. Some were prepared to give their names, while others requested anonymity. Some of the former investors are still involved in legal proceedings against Grier, while some of the employees are still owed money which they hope will be paid. 

The most recent allegations about misleading investors are centred around three projects: Mu Aye Pu, an “eco-city” to employ Karen refugees in Myanmar; a waste transformation and recycling site at a luxury hotel group in Bali; and a micro-scale utility project at an upmarket resort in Lombok, Indonesia. Grier founded three companies, which were responsible for operations in Indonesia, Micro-Utility Partners, IDPM and IMG Lombok.

I asked for the money back from Nigel. It dragged on and on. Nigel asked for receipts which we had already given him, playing for time.

Although contracts were signed, people employed and some waste was sorted at the Alila Hotels and Resorts sites in Bali, virtually nothing else happened and all ventures have now collapsed. According to a former manager, even the physical assets in Bali have now been confiscated by Alila Hotels with whom Grier signed the initial contract in 2016.

But because of a dispute resolution clause in the contract, those investors left red-faced by the Bali and Lombok schemes were initially unable to file a lawsuit against Grier. However, a group of investors who are primarily based in Singapore, are in the process of taking Grier to court after he liquidated the company that runs the Bali and Lombok projects.

Not so with the Myanmar project.

Grier promised to build Mu Aye Pu, a city for Karen refugees,  who are among nearly 100,000 refugees from Myanmar who have been living in cramped camps in Thailand for decades, according to the UNHCR. The ethnic Karen people have been fighting a civil war with the Myanmar military for 60 years and Grier promised to build them new homes and give them jobs.

But after years of broken promises, missed deadlines and missing money, not one brick of the new city has been laid. Grier had collected about US$300,000 in project investments from a total of eight investors, prompting three of the investors to sue.

The court hearing in March 2019 was in Singapore, where Grier used to live. But Grier, who, according to a former colleague, has now moved to Perth in Western Australia, did not attend the hearing and therefore lost the case by default.

The investors filed a claim, which said Grier “created a false element of urgency to pressure the Plaintiffs to invest in Sham Projects” and alleged that Grier had made representations “fraudulently”.

As Grier did not attend the hearing, the court automatically found him liable and a default judgement was issued. The court issued a judgment in favour of the investors and ordered Grier’s company, Karen Enterprises, to pay them US$35,000 plus court costs.

The lawyer who represented the investors tells New Naratif that no money has been received from Grier since this judgment.

Micro-Utility Partners, IDPM and IMG Lombok went into liquidation as of June 2020, according to statements of assets and liabilities, with the companies’ assets listed as located in Singapore and Indonesia. With the COVID-19 pandemic delaying all civil court hearings, it is unclear when or if Grier will be tried. 

However, further legal proceedings are brewing in Singapore as disgruntled investors ready a new bid to retrieve money lost to Grier’s failed investments in Bali and Lombok.

Mu Aye Pu: Mirage for the Dispossessed

Mu Aye Pu is a village deep in the Myanmar jungle where the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) have their headquarters. Major General Nerdah Bo Mya, the de-facto leader of the Karen people, originally came up with the idea of building a new city for Karen refugees on the location of the current Mu Aye Pu village.

Originally Nerdah Bo Mya planned to start with a modest eco-lodge, a sustainable hotel in the jungle, which would also provide employment and training for a small number of Karen people. But in early 2017, with his projects in Bali and Lombok still in play, Grier approached Nerdah Bo Mya and offered to help him realise Mu Aye Pu. Nerdah Bo Mya believed Grier was a successful entrepreneur and businessman who could deliver ambitious projects.

“In the beginning, he said he wanted to develop the Karen State and to build a place for the Karen people. We don’t have a lot of people come and help us here,” Nerdah Bo Mya tells New Naratif.

Over time, according to Nerdah Bo Mya, he retained only nominal control of Karen Enterprises. But, two years later, work on the eco-lodge had not even started.

With Grier at the helm, Nerdah Bo Mya, the eight investors and the Karen people began to hope that the redevelopment of Mu Aye Pu, the so-called “free city” in the jungle, would begin to materialise, even though it was an extremely ambitious project.

But Nerdah Bo Mya tells New Naratif that Grier hijacked the project and put Karen Enterprises under his name.

Nigel Grier, right, with former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, seen in a photograph posted to Grier’s Facebook page.
Nigel Grier, right, with former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, seen in a photograph posted to Grier’s Facebook page.

By June 2018, after several investors had in total put in over US$300,000, some began to get suspicious. Grier told investors that he had already spent half the money raised for Mu Aye Pu, a total of US$150,000, but, according to one of the investors who spoke to New Naratif, all he had to show for that money was an architect’s drawing.

Nerdah Bo Mya believes Grier walked away with investors’ money.

“Grier said he is going to provide jobs for the Karen people but nothing happened. When investors started complaining about the money, I realised the project is a fake and he is not trying to help,” the KNLA commander says.

Guy Harriman, an investor who lost US$130,000 in the project and has declined to take part in any legal action against Grier, tells New Naratif that the investors eventually began to feel that Grier was stringing them along.

“It’s not that he overran expenses or what was going on in Bali drained his resources, those things can happen. But he didn’t own up and admit a fault and now he is still arguing and threatening and fighting against reality. He’s soured all the relationships,” says Harriman.

When he realised that Grier was insincere, Nerdah Bo Mya and the Karen National Defence Organisation (KNDO) issued a press release, which reads: “We wish it to be known that [Grier] does not represent the Karen people in any way. We have been victimised by this person as he used our good name to enrich himself.”

The Hungry Bears

Around the time that Grier appeared on the scene, the Mu Aye Pu community gave refuge to two moon bear cubs, an endangered species native to the Myanmar jungle.

Dr. Sabine Roper, a German medical doctor, who has been living in the Mu Aye Pu community for five years, explains to New Naratif how she became involved with Grier in 2016.

“When I first met him he was hidden in a group of at least 10 people. I dealt with the project manager, the architect and some of the investors. In hindsight I think he was hiding behind these motivated people,” she says.

“One of the investors fell in love with the bears, and to keep him happy Nigel promised to pay for their care and food. They were supposed to become a kind of mascot for the eco-lodge,” she adds.

As the bears grew up, they were soon too big for their small cages and broke out. They were a danger to the community’s livestock and to humans, so Dr. Roper had to look after them herself. She says she paid US$1,600 of her own money for a new enclosure for the bears, and Grier’s project manager, who does not wish to be named because he is still owed a substantial amount of money by Grier, gave US$160 towards their food. Dr. Roper says she asked Grier to pay her back for the costs of the cage and feeding the bears but, despite many promises, no money was forthcoming.

“I asked for the money back from Nigel. It dragged on and on. Nigel asked for receipts which we had already given him, playing for time. In the meantime, we had no money for food. We cooked up spaghetti in a big pot so we could share it with the bears. And at one point we had no money at all and the villagers brought over rice and beans for us and the bears,” recalls Dr. Roper.

Eventually, says Dr. Roper, Grier paid her back 90% of the cost of the cage but gave nothing for the food. Then in December 2018, one of Grier’s managers turned up with a contract for Dr. Roper to sign. He promised to give her a salary of US$160 a month for looking after the bears and another US$160 for their food. But Grier never sent her wages or the money for food.

“He owes me US$3,400. In my view, he should own up, if not to me then to these animals who I continue to feed from my private funds,” says Dr. Roper.

Sustainability Fraud on the Rise?

Scams involving supposed sustainable enterprises are not uncommon, and New Naratif found further examples of green-tech fraud in Asia. In February 2020, Singapore-based sustainability publication Eco-Business reported on a case of an exotic “enzyme” that the inventor claimed could eat plastic.

A supposedly groundbreaking formula developed by Christo Niemandt, a South African scientist, was found to be fraudulent after forensic tests were carried out on the substance by the National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University (NTU).

The compound was billed by Niemandt as an ecological solution that could degrade plastic waste and destroy insects and pests, such as cockroaches, and could also be used to feed livestock. He claimed that his eco-formula was an enzyme that attacked the metabolic systems of insects, and made them “explode” after carbon dioxide was released in their bodies.  

Niemandt’s concoction was well marketed and was covered in a favourable video report by Channel News Asia in May 2017, but due diligence carried out by scientists found that Niemandt’s mixture did not contain a single enzyme and was made of crude glycerine—a by-product of biodiesel production—methanol and potassium hydroxide.

We were looking to invest our money for our children and we were looking for a safe option. The investment was very attractive; it involved sustainability and we’re big on it. It’s a cause we believe in.

Niemandt has managed to persuade at least six different companies in three countries in the region to use his formula, and he is now facing legal action and police investigations. Rama, the Indonesian plant manager at biotech company Citra Harapan Zims, which was planning to manufacture the formula, tells New Naratif that they found out the truth just in time.

“A professor from NTU was able to run forensic tests on it, and we figured out it was just chemical waste from biodiesel production and then everything started to unravel. We made an experimental batch but luckily never went into full production,” he says.

As money floods into sustainability projects in Asia, and green ventures become mainstream, a report released in mid-2020 by KPMG, the multilateral professional services and accounting network, warned that there is a corresponding increase in opportunities for companies and individuals “to step into fraudulent behaviour in order to exploit sustainability efforts for their own advantage”.  

Employing White Privilege

Niemandt is a white South African who lied about his education to appear more credible to investors. His claims to hold a doctorate in biochemistry from the University of South Africa were found to be baseless and he admitted that he did not complete his doctorate.  

In turn, Grier, who is also white, has claimed on his LinkedIn page to have studied at the prestigious Cambridge University in the United Kingdom for an MSt—a Master of Studies in Interdisciplinary Design for the Built Environment (IDBE) between 2015 and 2017.

However, a source at Cambridge University confirmed that Grier registered but never attended the course. 

After New Naratif asked Grier to confirm if he had studied at Cambridge University, his LinkedIn page was changed to state that he was admitted to the course but deferred “due to signing Zero Waste contracts and the arrival of our fourth child in 2016”.

A screenshot of Nigel Grier’s LinkedIn profile.
A screenshot of Nigel Grier’s LinkedIn profile.

Rama explained that in the past it has been easier for white people to get away with sustainability scams in Asia.

“Just having white skin and being Caucasian is just one of the factors. Your education, you have a Ph.D. from Stanford or Harvard, there is this whole list of stuff on your CV and people think ‘Oh my God, this guy knows his stuff’,” he says.

Rama added that while Asian investors are getting wise to sustainability scams pulled by people of any race, white fraudsters can often appear more plausible and there is also a tendency for a lot of green-tech projects in the developing world to be run by white expatriates. 

“A common trait among Westerners is that they are fantastic presenters who can tell a good story,” he says. This is a quality that Grier is said to possess by those who invested in his ideas. “That is probably the only advantage they have,” according to Rama.

But while it may be easy to exploit cracks in the law in less heavily regulated countries such as Myanmar and Indonesia, in Singapore it is becoming increasingly difficult, as the lawsuits against Grier in the latter country show.

From Waste to Wealth?

By the middle of 2019, Grier’s projects in Bali and Lombok had started to unravel.

In Bali, according to investors, Grier signed a contract with the Alila Hotel Group to recycle waste at four luxury hotels on the island and to refit an air-conditioning system at a hotel in Jakarta with more efficient equipment.

Although in the Bali project there was some activity, at Selong Selo Resort & Residences in Lombok, like in Myanmar, there was virtually none. Grier had signed an initial contract to provide sustainable water and solar-powered electricity to a luxury villa complex—but, according to one of the principal investors who requested anonymity because of a pending lawsuit against Grier, despite over US$600,000 being invested, nothing happened.

One of the investors, Rachael Chi Hua Ang, who put US$100,000 into Grier’s Lombok project, explains to New Naratif why it seemed like such an attractive venture at the time.

“We were looking to invest our money for our children and we were looking for a safe option. The investment was very attractive; it involved sustainability and we’re big on it. It’s a cause we believe in. He [Grier] seemed to have everything well thought through,” she says.

In Bali, Grier ended up running three projects at the Alila Seminyak, Alila Uluwatu and Alila Ubud hotels for about a year, investors tell New Naratif.

According to investors and former workers, the plan was to recycle and reuse the waste produced by the hotels. This involved shredding glass and sorting plastic to be recycled, and composting food and garden waste to be reused as fertiliser on organic gardens growing fruit and vegetables. There were between five and 10 Indonesians who were employed as manual labourers to do the majority of the work.

I believe the company was badly managed by Nigel and I felt deceived.

Zaini Binabdul worked for Grier on these three projects as operations manager for under six months—until money for wages was not forthcoming.

“After a few months, people were not getting paid and I could no longer control operations at these sites because the financial management of the company was not fit for purpose,” he says.

“Alila Hotels ended up terminating the contract. Nigel still owed me a month’s pay and told me to sell the physical assets at the three sites and use the proceeds of that to pay myself and the rest of the staff,” adds Binabdul.

Binabdul recalls that Grier told him he had a lot of other projects and the investors had not paid in enough money to keep operations in Bali going.

“I believe the company was badly managed by Nigel and I felt deceived,” he says.

Further enquiries made by New Naratif revealed that around 20 workers employed by Grier, either as engineers, managers or manual labourers, have not been paid. When they were, it was either late or not the full amount.

No one would be upset if it had just failed because of incompetence. We picked the wrong guy, it happens. But [Grier] just pocketed the money and walked away and didn’t even try to deliver the projects.

Joshua Hiras, who was employed on the Bali project by Grier as a professional buyer, tells New Naratif that payment was always an issue.

“There are many former manual labourers who haven’t been paid by Nigel. He also owes money to suppliers. He used to pretend that he had already paid when suppliers delivered material, when in fact he hadn’t,” says Hiras.

Khoirul Hadi, who worked for Grier as a manual labourer at the Alila hotel complexes in Bali sorting rubbish to be recycled, welding, making compost and managing an organic garden, tells New Naratif that he is still owed US$669 by Grier.

An investor who spoke to New Naratif on condition of anonymity said they had put substantial sums of money into the Bali and Lombok projects, and received virtually nothing back, but said this is not their primary concern.

“No one would be upset if it had just failed because of incompetence. We picked the wrong guy, it happens. But [Grier] just pocketed the money and walked away and didn’t even try to deliver the projects,” they say.

Deliberate Deception or Bad Businessman?

At the end of 2018, Rapzo Capital, a small, family-run business in Singapore with a portfolio of green project investments, was introduced to Grier by some of the former investors and liked the sustainability element of the Bali and Lombok projects. But Rapzo Capital raised a fundamental issue. Grier’s companies were registered in Singapore, but yet a quick check with the Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority (ACRA) showed that none of them had been in full compliance. They had not filed annual returns, assets, liabilities, revenue of costs or cash flow statements.

Grier has since put the four companies involved in the Myanmar, Bali and Lombok projects into liquidation. Some of the investors are in the middle of a legal case contesting how these companies have been put into insolvency. They tell New Naratif that their main concern is that the accounts from this period have still not been made available to them.

Public documents, which are available on the ACRA website, show that Grier’s liquidators have sought to destroy all books and papers within three months, whereas clause 199 of the Singapore Companies Act stipulates that they should be retained for five years. The fine for non-compliance is US$2,000.

A History of Deceit

There are now two current lawsuits against Grier relating to the three projects in Myanmar, Bali and Lombok. Investors have lost millions, while employees and stakeholders have been left high and dry. Meanwhile, Grier has been able to move his whole family from Singapore to Perth in Western Australia where he is living a comfortable life, according to his former colleagues.

Research by New Naratif has shown that Grier has a history of deceit stretching back over a decade.

Not long after Grier first arrived in Bali in 2010, he was briefly employed by The GreenAsia Group (TGAG). TGAG is a reputable organisation specialising in implementing sustainability projects, founded and run by Bradley Gardner, who has been working and living in Southeast Asia since 1974.

After Grier tried to renegotiate the terms of his employment and TGAG refused his request, Gardner decided to terminate his consultancy, and then Grier tried to sue TGAG. 

“The Group replaced him. Presumably, when Nigel saw the new clients posted on our website, he felt he could claim fees for previous efforts. I went to a tribunal 2 or 3 times and refused any settlement as TGAG was without blame. I believe Nigel realised he could not claim from TGAG and agreed to drop the case against the Group,” Gardner explains in an email to New Naratif.

There is one more victim in this story: the sustainability sector. One of Grier’s former employees, who did not wish to be named, tells New Naratif that Grier’s behaviour undermines the credibility of investments in sustainable development at a time when it is needed more than ever.

New Naratif tried unsuccessfully to contact Grier by phone and email to put these allegations to him. Grier’s representative, management consultancy firm Duncan Morgan based in Adelaide, Australia, declined to answer questions. When asked where the US$2.4 million that investors had raised for the Myanmar, Bali and Lombok projects had gone, they replied, “It is not possible to respond to unnamed sources and broad statements.” 

Duncan Morgan repeatedly stated that “Mr. Grier is a respected family man and entrepreneur and action will be taken on any statement regarding him, his businesses or his family found to be outside that required by the law”. 

Clarification: The article has been updated to provide additional information on the details of the court case in Singapore.

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