Man unlawfully cashes in $140,000 cheque wrongly made out to late brother's estate

Amir Hussain
Senior Reporter
Singapore's State Courts (Yahoo News Singapore file photo)

SINGAPORE — A 59-year-old man who was mistakenly given a cheque of over $140,000 by a unit of financial services firm Aviva refused to repay the amount after encashing it, a court heard.

Syed Abdul Rahman Syed Mohsin, a Singaporean who worked as an assistant cook at Lau Pa Sat, was sentenced to nine months’ jail last Monday (10 June).

He was found guilty of one charge of dishonest misappropriation of property after a trial.

Syed Abdul Rahman is currently on bail pending an appeal against his conviction and sentence.

Cheque made out to late brother’s estate

On 30 November 2010, Syed Salleh Syed Mohsin, the older brother of Syed Abdul Rahman, died.

Syed Abdul Rahman was appointed as the administrator of his brother’s estate valued at $196,652.50. It comprised an NTUC Dependents’ Protection Scheme worth $53,850 and an Aviva investment plan utilising CPF Ordinary Account funds valued at $142,802.50.

Navigator Investment Services, a subsidiary of Aviva, later received the certified true copies of Syed Salleh’s death certificate, Syed Abdul Rahman’s NRIC, and the Grant of Letters of Administration.

On 27 April 2011, it mailed to Syed Abdul Rahman a cheque worth $140,159.54 made payable to Syed Salleh’s estate, after deducting for quarterly fees payable until the fund’s withdrawal.

Syed Abdul Rahman deposited the cheque into the estate account, withdrew the money and closed the account the next month.

Navigator issued second cheque wrongly

On 12 May 2011, Navigator received a returned cover letter dated 27 April 2011. The letter had accompanied the cheque sent to Syed Abdul Rahman.

Navigator’s finance team made checks on the cheque and wrongly concluded it had not been encashed.

On 5 October 2011, Syed Abdul Rahman was told by a Navigator staff to collect another cheque for the same amount from Navigator’s office in person. He collected the cheque five days later, opened another estate account and deposited the cheque the same day.

Syed Abdul Rahman withdrew most of the cash - $110,000 - the next day, using part of it to open a food business and giving the rest to his two sisters. He closed the estate account the next month.

Navigator later realised its error. On 23 January 2013, its service team’s head called Syed Abdul Rahman to inform him of the mistake.

However, he refused to repay the amount and said that he had spent all the money.

Later that month, Navigator’s general counsel sent Syed Abdul Rahman a letter demanding repayment. Navigator’s legal counsel made a police report on 19 March 2013.

Accused claimed no dishonest intention

At the trial, the prosecution argued that Syed Abdul Rahman had dishonestly converted the second cheque, which was made out in error by Navigator.

Deputy Public Prosecutor (DPP) Muhammad Zulhafni Haji Zulkeflee argued that Syed Abdul Rahman knew or was wilfully blind to the fact that the cheque had been issued in error. Retaining or encashing the cheque would result in wrongful gain to himself and wrongful loss to Navigator, the DPP added.

Defence lawyer Anil Narain Balchandani contended that Syed Abdul Rahman did not know of the over-payment and did not have any dishonest intention.

In her grounds of decision made available on Tuesday (18 June), District Judge (DJ) Kamala Ponnampalam said, “Syed Abdul Rahman actively knew or at the very least, had turned a blind eye to the fact that Navigator had made a mistake in believing that the first cheque had not been encashed. He ignored all the indicators and blinded himself to the obvious.”

She added, “Instead of correcting their mistaken belief, Syed Abdul Rahman proceeded to capitalise on that mistake.”

‘Finders are not always keepers’

In a telephone conversation with a Navigator staff on 5 October 2011, before he collected the second cheque, Syed Abdul Rahman was told that the earlier “cheque wasn’t presented to the bank”, that Navigator had raised a request to stop or cancel the cheque, and that it “will be issuing a new cheque”.

Several documents - including policy documents, correspondence from Navigator regarding Syed Salleh’s estate, and the Grant of the Letters of Administration with the Schedule of Assets attached - also clearly showed the amount that Syed Abdul Rahman could expect to receive.

“The probate papers alone should have sounded alarm bells for Syed Abdul Rahman and alerted him that there was something odd about the payments paid to him. He clearly chose to ignore all of them,” said DJ Kamala.

There is an implied obligation under the law to restore a lost item or property to its rightful owner, DJ Kamala wrote, quoting from a Supreme Court ruling, “Finders are not always keepers, and a finder who dishonestly keeps his find may instead find himself in violation of the law.”

DPP Muhammad Zulhafni asked for nine months’ jail in line with previous cases, while Syed Abdul Rahman’s lawyer Balchandani asked for six months’ jail.

Syed Abdul Rahman, who has several previous convictions for drug and property related crimes, was last jailed for six years with three strokes of the cane for drug use in 2003.

The maximum punishment for dishonest misappropriation of property is up to two years’ jail along with a fine.

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