Friday, June 24, 2005

Justice For All

When narcotics agents arrested 23 members of a drug syndicate in October 2004, it was more than just another routine bust. It was the first report of cocaine, a "high society" drug potentially more dangerous than heroin, having penetrated Singapore's wealthy youths and expatriate community.

The list of those arrested - 16 Singaporeans, five foreigners and two permanent residents, read like a who's who of the elite high earning upper class, and included brokers, businessmen and executives, an award-winning French chef, a show personality and a TV journalist. They zoom around town in flashy cars, eat at expensive restaurants and hang out at Boat Quay pubs popular with expatriates.

One of them was Briton Andrew Vale, a top financial broker on the Structured Credit Desk with British based finance firm Credittrade, who used to drive a Rolls Royce around town.

Nigel Bruce Simmonds, 40-year old editor of high society rag Singapore Tatler, was sentenced to two years jail for the consumption and possession of drugs.

Petrus Van Wanrooij, 56 year-old managing director of an oil firm, sentenced to 11 months' jail for consuming Ecstasy. His lawyer claimed in mitigation it was consumed in an attempt to alleviate his erectile dysfunction condition.

Of the arrests, the most spectacular was that of a former High Court judge's son, 34-year old Dinesh Singh Bhatia, winner of The Young Professional of the Year Award in 2001.

Dinesh's mother is the former Nominated Member of Parliament and orthopaedic surgeon Dr Kanwaljit Soin. His father is Amarjeet Singh, a former judicial commissioner and also a senior counsel, who was instrumental in expediating the arrest and caning of U.S. citizen Michael Fay for spray painting his wife's car.

His parthian shot when Michael was sentenced:
You know, once you loosen up or the laws become lax, everything comes in. The floodgates are opened. It doesn't pay to mess around with the system."

For consuming Class A controlled drugs like cocaine, Dinesh faced a sentence of up to 10 years' jail, a S$20,000 fine or both. He was sentenced to one year's jail for consuming cocaine.

A subsequent appeal reduced the jail term to 8 months.

In meting out the reduced sentence, High Court Judge VK Rajah said Dinesh did not seek out the drugs he took, his consumption was not planned but taken on the spur of the moment. The amount of drugs he took was also not substantial, added the judge.

However he ruled out a fine, saying that this should be imposed "sparingly" and only in "purely exceptional circumstance".

This ruling, a group of lawyers are now claiming, has thrown up several questions:

What is a "purely exceptional" case? What does the judge mean by imposing a fine "sparingly"?

Finally, the Chief Justice Yong Pung How has himself overturned jail sentences in favour of fines, notwithstanding his "benchmark minimum" 12 months' jail for drug consumption.

Writing in the June 2005 first issue of the Association of Lawyers of Singapore's newsletter, "Pro Bono", Mr Subhas Anandan cited three cases in which the Chief Justice overturned jail sentences and handed down fines instead:

>> Insurance manager Ng Kheng Tiak had his 12-month jail term set aside, and fined $20,000;

>> Footballer Muhammed Razali Ishak's 1-year sentence was replaced by 2 years' probation, a $5,000 bond and 100 hours of community service;

>> Polytechnic student Pillis Nikiforos escaped a 8-month jail term and got off with a $5,000 fine instead.

The Chief Justice did not provide written grounds to explain why he made these exceptions.

Mr Anandan's article also highlighted the discrepancy thrown up by Bhatia's 8-month sentence: It went against the 1977 ruling by the Chief Justice in which he indicated that the minimum sentence for first-time drug offenders should be one year. That led Mr Anandan to suggest that judges do not attempt to establish guidelines in sentencing. He said Parliament should be left to legislate minimum jail-term guidelines, rather than leaving judges to do this to "fetter their own discretionary sentencing powers".

[Side note: Chief Justice Yong Pung How once said that he would ignore any cases submitted by lawyers based on British case law involving sentencing because Britain is a permissive legal culture and even enhanced the sentence in that particular case, just to make a point.
Banker friendThe close relationship between Lee Kuan Yew and Yong Pung How is well known. Then Prime Minister Lee himself appointed his banker-friend to that position, who had not practised law for 20 years. Lee waxed lyrical about Yong for an hour in televised parliament proceedings, reminiscing about their student days at Cambridge University, the way Yong kept meticulous lecture notes enabling Lee, a late arrival at Cambridge, to catch up with his law studies. CJ Yong, who has held the post for 14 years, was re-appointed for another 2 years on April 2004. This was the second time that the Chief Justice had his term of office extended, after he crossed the retirement age. Effectively, he is now serving at the discretion of the executive, since it is the Prime Minister who decides on re-appointment.