Engineer's 'unfair' penalty reduced on appeal

A professional engineer, whose registration was cancelled after he lied to the immigration authorities to help his Chinese national girlfriend get a visit pass, has had his punishment reduced to a suspension by the High Court.

Justice Lee Seiu Kin said the punishment was "unfair" as the offence had nothing to do with Fong Chee Keong's work as an engineer, unlike previous cases cited by the Professional Engineers Board (PEB).

"Fong had not, in committing the offence, transgressed the bounds of professional duty," he said in judgment grounds released earlier this month.

"It would therefore be unfair to punish Fong with the cancellation of his registration in circumstances where even cases involving direct breaches of professional duty by corruptly receiving gratification do not necessarily attract this punishment."

In July 2013, Fong, then 41, was convicted of making false statements to the immigration authorities in a bid to obtain a visit pass for his girlfriend, Tang Qiuxia, 36, and sentenced to four weeks' jail. Three other charges were also taken into consideration.

The PEB subsequently took disciplinary action against him in relation to the criminal conviction, which breached the board's professional and ethical conduct rules.

He was found guilty last June and the PEB cancelled his registration as a professional engineer and ordered him to pay $10,000 in costs.

Fong appealed against the decision to the High Court, arguing among other things that the offence was not one which made him unfit for his profession.

Fong, who represented himself, further said the PEB's sentence was manifestly excessive.

Justice Lee found the charge was justified, given that he was convicted of an offence that involved fraud , dishonesty or moral turpitude.

Lawyers Ian Lim and Gordon Lim, representing the PEB, argued that cancellation of registration was the benchmark sentence in such cases, pointing out that the offence was a serious one which led to a jail term instead of a mere fine.

They pointed out that nine out of 11 past cases of engineers who had been convicted on disciplinary charges had their registrations cancelled.

Justice Lee found that all the cases cited by the PEB involved offences directly related to the carrying out of the engineer's professional duties, "and the PEB rightly took a stern line in imposing a sufficiently heavy punishment to reflect the gravity of the offence".

But Fong's "transgressions" were not related to the carrying out of his professional duties as an engineer, said Justice Lee.

"It was a moral shortcoming driven by emotional forces in his personal life that may or may not have affected his professional life."

The judge said the maximum suspension of two years was appropriate given the serious nature of the offence.

He added that Fong's conduct in trying to delay the disciplinary proceedings was a serious aggravating factor, noting he not only sought multiple adjournments "at short notice and on tenuous bases", but also "falsified an excuse for his non-attendance at one point".

"The PEB is entitled to expect professional engineers to comply dutifully with all respects of the Professional Engineers Act and to cooperate fully with the PEB particularly in the areas of discipline," he added.

"Any dishonest manipulation of the process by an engineer would be taken seriously and I am of the view that Fong's conduct in this regard is highly aggravating."

Fong was ordered to pay a further $9,000 in costs to the PEB.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 18, 2016, with the headline 'Engineer's 'unfair' penalty reduced on appeal'. Subscribe