Lawyers divided over police statement on past offence of man who drove PM Lee’s son

FILE PHOTO: Getty Images
FILE PHOTO: Getty Images

Lawyers in Singapore are divided over a police statement on the past offence of a man who circulated videos of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s eldest son.

On Sunday (17 March), a 31-year-old man came to the attention of the police after he gave Li Yipeng, 36, a lift in his car and circulated several videos of their encounter. They were shared widely on WhatsApp and also uploaded to Facebook.

In a media statement on the same day, the police noted that the videos were taken without Li’s knowledge or permission and that the nature of the man’s questions to Li – about his identity, residential address and security arrangements – raised “serious security concerns, given Mr Li’s background”.

In a second statement on the incident, the police revealed that the man had previously been convicted of taking a vehicle without the owner’s consent in 2014. Yahoo News Singapore understands that the man was also previously given a warning for theft and had a police report lodged against him for criminal intimidation at some point.

An alleged offender’s antecedents, if any, are typically not revealed to the public by authorities until the sentencing stage.

Yahoo News Singapore has reached out to the police for comment.

Was it appropriate?

Seasoned lawyers whom Yahoo News Singapore spoke to were divided over the second statement, with some concerned that the revelation of the man’s past offence might prejudice him even though the incident has yet to result in any criminal charge against him.

Sunil Sudheesan, a director at Quahe Woo & Palmer LLC, pointed out that even trial judges do not get access to a defendant’s criminal records until guilt is proven as it would be prejudicial.

“Whoever made the decision to release this person’s records should really start thinking about whether it’s correct or not to begin with. Whether you have a previous record may be relevant to the police investigation, but from the information disclosed, it does not seem relevant to the current matter,” said Sudheesan, who is also president of Association of Criminal Lawyers of Singapore but was speaking in his private capacity.

When asked about the police calling the man a security concern, Sudheesan said, “Certainly, there are concerns to be raised, considering that this is the PM’s son and that there are security risks. But those investigations should be kept confidential at least until the matter goes to trial, if at all.”

He added, “Some people think that when you are charged or investigated, you are guilty, but in Singapore we still believe in the presumption of innocence.”

Remy Choo, a director at Peter Low & Choo LLC, was concerned that the statement might set an “unhealthy precedent”.

Noting that the man has not been charged, let alone convicted, Choo added, “The driver’s prior criminal record should not have been released…in such circumstances, his previous records are personal to him and should not be released. Releasing these records is unfairly prejudicial to him in both the court of public opinion and any court of law he may have to appear before.”

Some lawyers support second statement

Conversely, Suang Wijaya, a partner at Eugene Thuraisingam LLC, noted that the man’s previous offences are already a matter of public record. And while revealing this background to the media was “unusual” and seemed “quite premature” given that the man has not been charged yet, the law does not prevent the police from doing so.

Wijaya noted that there is usually an “expectation of privacy” under European laws, even when it comes to the publication of criminal offences. “But in Singapore, we don’t have such laws that say your privacy must be protected, except the PDPA (Personal Data Protection Act) and the normal laws of confidentiality, both of which do not apply here.”

And while criminal lawyer Eugene Thuraisingam concurred that the statement was unusual, he noted, “It’s in the context of his questioning of the PM’s son in relation to security arrangements. So I think it is special here, because based on the person’s questions, he could be a threat.”

“Bearing in mind that they form the view that he may pose a security threat, I don’t think it was inappropriate. I don’t think he is someone who can complain about reputational damage, when in the first place, he has put up the videos himself.”

Asked if the statement might set a precedent for revealing past offences, Thuraisingam felt it was unlikely. “I think this case must be seen in the light of special circumstances, and I don’t think he will set a precedent.”

But Sudheesan felt that the statement might have been an over-reaction on the part of the police.

“This is unnecessary when all that may have happened is someone offering another person a lift home because of that person’s semi-celebrity status.”

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