SINGAPORE - The Government believes the sentences in the City Harvest Church case were too low, and will ask Parliament to amend the law soon to ensure that legislation provides for higher penalties for directors and other senior officers who commit criminal breach of trust (CBT), said Minister for Home Affairs and Law K. Shanmugam.
"We hope to make the amendment together with the other wide-ranging amendments to the Penal Code," he told Parliament on Monday (Feb 5), in the wake of a court ruling which resulted in lower sentences in the high-profile case.
Last Thursday, the Court of Appeal upheld a ruling made by the High Court in April last year that Section 409 of the Penal Code, which provides for heavier punishments for certain classes of people who commit CBT, cannot be applied to City Harvest founder Kong Hee and five others who misused millions of church funds.
On Monday, Mr Shanmugam told the House that the apex court's ruling was contrary to the legal position that has been applied by the courts in Singapore for the past 40 years, following a 1976 High Court decision that company directors are liable for aggravated liability under Section 409.
There are at least 16 reported court decisions, and many other unreported decisions, reflecting this principle, said Mr Shanmugam.
The apex court's decision means that there is now a lacuna, or a gap, in the law, he added.
As the law now stands, company directors or key officers of charities can no longer be charged under Section 409, which carries the maximum of life imprisonment.
They can only be charged under Section 406, which is punishable by up to seven years' jail.
However, ordinary employees are covered under Section 408, which provides for up to 15 years' jail.
Mr Shanmugam highlighted that the Court of Appeal acknowledged this gap in the law in its judgment, saying that there was no "good policy reason" to ignore the "heightened culpability" of directors and key officers of charities and societies.
"If you're a senior officer, director in the organisation you're in a position of greater trust, you've considerable authority to make decisions in relation to the organisation's assets. If you abuse that trust, you should be more culpable and you should be liable for more severe punishments compared to an ordinary employee. That's really common sense and there can be no question about that," he said.
Mr Shanmugam added that the court's decision should be respected and that judges should not be personally attacked.
The minister stressed he was aware that many have expressed their dissatisfaction with the outcome. Netizens have said that the judges let off the rich, or that some judges were lenient because they were Christians.
He said comments should not "sink to the level of abuse, insult and contempt".
"That is not right. Judges should not be personally attacked... just because people do not agree with their decisions," he said.