Singapore’s Legal Secrecy Fueling Complaints Of One Law for the Rich, Another for the Poor
Paul Karl Lukacs
A plastic surgeon with the unlikely name of Woffles Wu has sparked an online row about whether Singapore’s justice system is biased in favor of the wealthy. To many of the island nation’s increasingly feisty citizens, the government’s denials have been less than convincing.
The curious case of Woffles Wu Tze Liang began with two speeding tickets. In September 2005, a motor vehicle registered to Wu was caught on a speed camera to be driving at 95 kilometers per hour on Lornie Road, which had a posted speed of 70. In November 2006, a Wu vehicle was clocked at 91 kilometers per hour on Adam Road, which had the same speed limit.
Per the nation’s automated ticketing program, the authorities sent a letter to Wu demanding to know who was driving on those occasions. Unlike the jurisdictions which protect a person’s right to remain silent in the face of criminal accusations, Section 81 of the Singapore Road Traffic Act requires people to disclose evidence in response to official requests for information about moving violations. Failure to disclose information is itself a criminal offense.
In response, Wu allegedly concocted a cover-up. In an attempt to avoid paying a fine and having demerit points charged to his driver’s license, Wu convinced an elderly maintenance technician on his payroll, the then-76-year-old Kuan Kit Wah, to falsely take the rap and claim that he was driving the vehicle at the time.
Wu was eventually caught in the lie and charged with abetting a violation of the disclosure provisions of the Road Traffic Act, a crime with a maximum penalty of S$1,000 ($780) or six months in prison or both. Wu was not charged with making false statements to a government official, a violation of Penal Code section 182 that carries a maximum sentence of S$5,000 or a year in prison or both. At a hearing in the Subordinate Courts on June 12, Wu was sentenced to a S$1,000 fine.
The Internet quickly lit up with bloggers and commenters questioning the level of the charge and criticizing the leniency of the sentence. It has been a sensitive subject in Singapore since Alan Shadrake, the British author of a book called “Once a Jolly Hangman,” alleged that racial and class disparities existed in the application of Singapore’s death penalty and was given six weeks in jail for “scandalizing the judiciary.”
“S$1,000? This is a joke! This is like we peasants paying $10 fine to get someone to take the rap for us,” one commenter wrote. “Nice to know that if you are successful and rich, you will be punished lightly,” wrote another. Even a member of parliament questioned the outcome.
The Temasek Times online tabloid reported that Wu, according to previous reports in the state-controlled media, was a nephew of former Singaporean President Ong Teng Cheong. Many Singaporeans wondered if Wu’s plastic surgery patients included members of the ruling People’s Action Party or their spouses. Internet traffic spiked to Wu’s website, where he offers “Inject for Firma breasts” and “Large Scale Liposuction.”
In an unusual move, the Attorney General’s Chambers issued a statement on June 17 supporting the lenient charge and sentence. “On the facts of this case, as there was no major accident or injury, it was considered appropriate to proceed under section 81(3) of the Road Safety Act rather than invoke the general provisions of the Penal Code, such as section 182,” the agency said. As a general principle, prosecutors attempt to secure heavier charges and appeal unduly lenient sentences, so it was incongruous for the Attorney General’s Chambers to issue a statement in support of a small fine.
In any event, local attorney and blogger Choo Zheng Xi quickly poked holes in the government’s argument, citing at least four recent cases in which defendants were imprisoned for making false statements in the context of vehicle violations that did not result in accident or injury.
Moreover, the plain language of Penal Code section 182 appears to comfortably fit the facts of this case. The statute makes it a crime to provide false information to a public employee if the defendant knows that the official will “use the lawful power of such public servant to the injury or annoyance of any person.” Here, Wu caused false information to be given to the government knowing that it would redound to the detriment of his employee.
Prosecutors have not responded to public requests for more information about their charging decision, and the presiding judge has not issued a written judgment explaining the rationale behind the sentence.
A further explanation may not be forthcoming. Earlier this year, the Attorney General’s Chambers publicly took the position that it had a near-absolute right to determine what charges to bring and that it had no obligation to explain or justify its actions. “A wide range of factors are carefully weighed by the Attorney General in determining the charges to prefer,” the AGC said in a statement on Jan. 20.
“These include all the facts surrounding each accused person’s offending behavior in each case, the strength of evidence against each accused person, the level of cooperation provided by accused persons to the investigation authorities as well as the existence of personal mitigating circumstances.”
While the government maintains internal prosecution guidelines, they are not published on the grounds that their dissemination may aid criminals and that prosecutors must “retain flexibility to depart from the guidelines when the interests of justice call for this in any given case,” the AGC’s statement read. The office also refused to explain the reasons behind charging decisions in individual cases on the grounds that such disclosures would lead to additional litigation, delay and prosecutorial ineffectiveness.
In other words, the Singaporean government can bring whatever criminal charges it wants according to a secret set of guidelines from which it can depart at will — and defendants are not entitled to know about or challenge the decision. The system has certainly worked to the benefit of Woffles Wu.
Paul Karl Lukacs is Asia Sentinel’s legal affairs correspondent.