Shanmugam: Gap in CBT law to be plugged soon

Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam told Parliament that the Government believes the sentences in the City Harvest case are "too low".
Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam told Parliament that the Government believes the sentences in the City Harvest case are "too low". PHOTO: YOUTUBE/GOV.SG

City Harvest sentences 'too low'; need to ensure higher CBT penalties for directors, key officers

The law will be changed soon to provide 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 yesterday, after a court ruling on the City Harvest Church case resulted in reduced sentences.

He said the Government believes the sentences in that high-profile case were too low, and that it is now up to Parliament to amend the law.

"We hope to make the amendment together with other wide-ranging amendments to the Penal Code," he told the House.

Any changes to the law will apply only to future cases.

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 in church funds.

Yesterday, 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 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.

He 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 of the case. 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, their integrity impugned, just because people do not agree with their decision."

Mr Shanmugam also emphasised that every defendant - even a child rapist - has a right to choose a lawyer to defend him, and lawyers should not be made to feel that they will be hounded online if they take up cases that "the mob disapproves of".

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 06, 2018, with the headline 'Shanmugam: Gap in CBT law to be plugged soon'. Print Edition | Subscribe