MFA scholar jailed for forging e-mail to bring in pet birds

Quek had kept the four birds while he was studying in Tokyo on a government scholarship. His service with MFA has been terminated and he has to pay close to $133,000 for terminating his bond early.
Quek had kept the four birds while he was studying in Tokyo on a government scholarship. His service with MFA has been terminated and he has to pay close to $133,000 for terminating his bond early.ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

28-year-old also loses his job after ruse to avoid quarantine for feathered friends from Japan

He was a promising government overseas scholarship holder, who hoped to serve the country as a diplomat one day. But Jonathan Quek Zuo En lost his job, had to pay close to $133,000 for terminating his bond early, and yesterday was jailed for three weeks.

All due to his love of four feathered friends, and his attempt to bring the birds in from Japan, where he studied, without going through the hassle of paperwork and quarantine. The 28-year-old had doctored documents to trick Japanese Customs, but everything unravelled when officers here saw something amiss and contacted their Japanese counterparts.

As the bespectacled Quek stood in the dock, District Judge Lim Tse Haw made it clear that offences which could affect public health warrant a stiff sentence. He explained that a deterrent message needed to be sent - that people cannot resort to forgery to circumvent Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) requirements, and as a result, expose Singapore to potentially very serious public health risk.

While in Japan, Quek kept a cockatiel, a green-cheeked conure, a barred parakeet and a Bourke's parakeet.

In August 2014, after graduating with an economics degree at the University of Tokyo, he e-mailed the AVA and was told that his pets had to be quarantined for 21 days before being taken out of Japan to ensure they were free from avian flu.

District Judge Lim Tse Haw made it clear that offences which could affect public health warrant a stiff sentence. He explained that a deterrent message needed to be sent - that people cannot resort to forgery to circumvent Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority requirements, and as a result, expose Singapore to potentially very serious public health risk.

Quek replied that Japan did not have a quarantine service for pet birds, and asked if a certification from a veterinarian would do. AVA veterinarian Grace Sum Chi-En said no, insisting that a 21-day pre-export quarantine was needed.

Quek was aware that Japan would follow the requirements of the importing country. So he took Dr Sum's e-mail and doctored it. He made it seem that Singapore needed only a seven-day quarantine, and this, along with bird flu test, could be done in AVA facilities after the birds arrived.

On Sept 15, 2014, he e-mailed the doctored document to Japan's Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF).

Deputy Public Prosecutor Eugene Sng said Quek admitted to making the alterations "out of convenience" and that he wanted to bring the birds to Singapore "without any hassle". But that was not the end of Quek's duplicity.

When he went to collect the birds at Changi Animal and Plant Quarantine Station, he was told he did not have the right documents. He was told to ask the Japanese authorities for another set of certificates.

The station's manager Mercado Paulo Bien Lantican also asked Quek for the name and e-mail address of his MAFF contact so that AVA could write directly.

On Oct 8, Mr Mercado received an e-mail purportedly from MAFF quarantine officer Tatsuya Iwanaga, explaining the paperwork. But this was another fake cooked up by Quek. "The accused did this by searching online for methods of sending 'spoof' e-mail,'' said the DPP.

When Mr Mercado wrote to MAFF, the Japanese quarantine officer said he did not send the e-mail. The jig was up for Quek.

His lawyers, Mr Sunil Sudheesan and Ms Diana Ngiam, said their client had served in the Americas Directorate and the Diplomatic Academy at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) after his return. He had high hopes of being able to contribute to Singapore as a diplomat.

An MFA spokesman told The Straits Times that Quek's offences happened when he was preparing to return to Singapore after his studies, adding that his service with MFA was "terminated on Oct 13 during his probation period".

As for the birds, they were quarantined for seven days and released to Quek after being found to be healthy.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 22, 2016, with the headline 'MFA scholar jailed for forging e-mail to bring in pet birds'. Print Edition | Subscribe