Jail, $500k fine for S'porean boss in $70m rosewood case

The rosewood logs seized in March 2014 were worth $70 million. The logs were imported by Singaporean Wong Wee Keong and his firm Kong Hoo from Madagascar without a permit.
The rosewood logs seized in March 2014 were worth $70 million. The logs were imported by Singaporean Wong Wee Keong and his firm Kong Hoo from Madagascar without a permit.PHOTO: AVA

Businessman's firm also fined $500k for illegal import of logs

A Singaporean businessman, whose company imported US$50 million (S$69.8 million) worth of rosewood logs from Madagascar without a permit, was yesterday sentenced to three months' jail and the maximum fine of $500,000 by the High Court.

Wong Wee Keong's firm, Kong Hoo, was also fined $500,000.

The 29,434 logs, weighing 3,235 tonnes, were seized from a vessel berthed at Jurong Port in March 2014 by the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA).

It was the "largest seizure of rosewood ever made", said a report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

Rosewood is a controlled species under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, to which Singapore is a signatory.

Under the Endangered Species (Import and Export) Act, rosewood cannot be imported without a permit from the AVA.

The prosecution had sought at least 18 months' jail for Wong.

However, Justice See Kee Oon disagreed, saying this was not a case of transnational organised wildlife smuggling - there was no deliberate concealment, bogus documentation or illicit dealings.

The judge said Wong should be jailed due to the vast quantity involved but the term has to be carefully calibrated. "While the rosewood had been illegally brought into Singapore, the evidence does not go so far as to show that it had been illegally sourced and 'smuggled' in the ordinary sense that most would have understood the word," said Justice See.

He ordered the logs to be forfeited and for Wong and his firm to bear the expenses incurred by the AVA, from the confiscation to the disposal of the rosewood.

Lawyer Murali Pillai, representing Wong and the firm, asked for the sentences to be stayed as they intend to seek approval to file a criminal reference referring two questions of law of public interest to the Court of Appeal.

The request was approved and Wong's bail was extended.

The two questions relate to the standard of proof for such offences.

In 2015, Wong and his firm were acquitted midway through trial when a district judge threw out the prosecution's case without calling for their defence. She ruled the logs were in transit, rather than being imported, as they were bound for Hong Kong.

The prosecution appealed to the High Court, which sent the case back for the trial to continue.

The district judge again acquitted Wong and his firm. Again, the prosecution appealed.

The second set of acquittals was overturned by Justice See last month, when he convicted Wong.

He ruled that for a specimen to be considered "in transit", there must be proof that it is definitely to leave Singapore at some specified date.

But in this case, there was no concrete departure date, he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 29, 2017, with the headline 'Jail, $500k fine for S'porean boss in $70m rosewood case'. Print Edition | Subscribe