Different strokes of justice

The  recent spate of court sentences has got Singaporeans wondering whether judicial
decisions favour the elite.
  Star, Malaysia
June 23, 2012

LIKE its economy, Singapore’s judiciary, left behind by the British, has been a strong
national asset.

Now people who wish the city well are hoping that society’s widening “elite vs
commoner” divide will not be allowed to creep into the courtrooms.

Their concerns stem from society’s growing wealth inequality and several recent court
sentences that they saw as favouring the rich and prominent.

“These may be early days, but unless the Government acts decisively it may affect the
court’s integrity,” one lawyer commented.

“Don’t forget, justice lies very much in the hands of judges and prosecutors, who
mostly hail from the elite class.”

If that happens, it would cast a dark shadow across one of the least corrupt countries
in the world, shaped largely by its strict anti-corruption laws and judiciary.

The British left more than 50 years ago, but the legal system and the civil service they created still largely remains.

Singapore’s legal system has been ranked along with Hong Kong’s for its “all are
equal” reputation. This refers particularly to criminal and commercial cases, as well as most non-political ones.

Politics, however, is a different proposition in Singapore since there are special laws that crack down on the opposition. One is the Internal Security Act allowing imprisonment without trial, which is still in operation. And Singapore’s defamation laws are notorious for bankrupting political rivals.

In recent years, as elitism reared its head, several controversial verdicts or sentences meted out on the prominent and the rich had many people confused.

The most recent were two cases – one against a prominent doctor and the other a
salesman – involving a similar offence, getting someone to take the rap for speeding offences.

The salesman, Charlie Lim was sentenced to six weeks’ jail for having “intentionally
perverted the course of justice”.

However, well-known plastic surgeon Woffles Wu Tze Liang was charged under a different Act when he got his 75-year-old employee to take the rap for speeding – twice in two years. He drew only a fine.

The major difference was that Wu, one of the top cosmetic surgeons in Singapore, was
charged with “abetting” his employee to provide misleading information to the police –
a less serious act.

Law Minister K. Shanmugam denied that Wu was spared a jail sentence “because he’s

He said at the time when Wu committed the offence, the Act that sent Charlie Lim to
jail had not come into force yet.

Many Singaporeans, including lawyers, loudly complained of double standards and dismissed the official explanations.

The Attorney-General’s Chamber, said one lawyer, could have charged Wu under the
alternative Section 182 which provides for imprisonment for his offence, said a lawyer.

Among those who questioned the court’s decision was government backbencher Hri Humar Nair. He said he hoped the judge would explain his reasons and reconcile it with other cases where jail terms were imposed.

“That will promote transparency and confidence in our legal system, and deal with
allegations of unfair treatment, which have already appeared on the Net,” he added.

Another recent incident – outside the court – showed how a doctor can get softer treatment when he breaks the law.

A staff nurse at a hospital who reported that a foreign doctor had touched her buttocks was reportedly “advised” not to lodge a police report.

At the same hospital last year, another foreign doctor was charged with molesting a woman in the toilet but was cleared of the charge after he paid S$5000 (RM12,500) to
the victim. He continues to work there.

Two high-profile women – a newspaper editor and a TV personality – who enjoyed the public limelight were also lightly treated when they appeared before the court.

Three years ago, Shin Min Daily executive editor Lim Hong Eng, was sentenced to a jail
term of a year and a half by a lower court for negligently driving while using her handphone, subsequently running a red light and hitting a motorcyclist and his passenger. The passenger died, while the motorcyclist suffered serious injuries.

She appealed and the High Court upheld the conviction, but changed the sentence to one
day’s jail and a S$12,000 (RM29,900) fine.

Taiwan-born TV star Quan Yi Feng, who is known to flare up into violence, was angry
with a taxi-driver last year because he did not help her to load her luggage.

She allegedly alighted, hit the car door, then kicked the taxi driver in the groin.

She subsequently locked herself in the taxi. For all these, she was sentenced to 15
months’ probation.

However, not all agree that the legal skies have darkened. Some say that the larger
part of the legal system is still functioning well. An accountant observed: “Consider the recent arrest and prosecution of the two top security chiefs in Singapore for corruption.”

He was referring to the action against Singapore Civil Defence Force chief Peter Lim Sin Pang and former Central Narcotics Bureau director Ng Boon Gay.

The men are facing corruption charges of obtaining sexual gratification from women in
exchange for favouring their companies during IT-related tenders. They have denied

More recently the authorities arrested some 80 men for sex with an under-age prostitute, including top level businessmen, civil servants and uniformed officers.

There was no cover-up.

o Seah Chiang Nee is a veteran journalist and editor of the information website littlespeck.com