UPDATE: This story has been updated to include a response from HCI.
SINGAPORE — A Hwa Chong Institution (HCI) teacher turned to drugs after developing adjustment disorder in the wake of a car accident that caused his father’s death, said the man’s lawyer in court on Thursday (27 August).
It was Christopher David Burge’s mental condition that contributed to his eventual drug consumption, said his lawyer Chenthil Kumarasingam, while pleading for a probation suitability report. The prosecution objected to the defence’s request, and called for a jail term of one year and two months.
Chenthil said that the 67-year-old Briton, who had taught humanities for some 30 years, has since recovered from his condition and saw no reason why he should be punished. Burge has been suspended from teaching since September 2018.
“In this case there is a psychiatric illness which was brought on by traumatic events which were temporally proximate to commission of offences,” said Chenthil. “(There was) a substantial marked difference in my client’s conduct following the car incident in which his father passed away, which was noted by a number of people.”
District Judge Ong Luan Tze, however, rejected the defence’s plea and sentenced Burge to nine months’ jail. Burge had earlier pleaded guilty to one count of each of consuming methamphetamine as well as possessing 5-fluoroMDMB-PINACA – a form of synthetic cannabis – and utensils for consuming drugs at his home.
All the offences were dated back to 20 September 2018. Another charge of attempting to possess five packets containing methamphetamine between 14 and 19 September 2018 was taken into consideration for Burge’s sentencing.
In passing the sentence, Ong said she “did not find the facts of this case so exceptional as to displace the sentencing principle of deterrence”.
She added that Burge had made a conscious decision to consume drugs, which he admitted was wrong but also accepted that he had a psychiatric condition that may have had a causal link to the offences.
Ong said a probation order to was “wholly inappropriate” but found that some leniency could be afforded due to Burge’s clean record and other mitigating factors.
Chenthil said that his client will be appealing against the sentence.
Arrested in September 2018
Acting on information received, officers from the Central Narcotics Bureau visited Burge’s residence on the night of 20 September 2018. Officers seized drug utensils and drugs from the unit.
A urine sample taken from Burge also tested positive for methamphetamine.
Burge admitted during investigations that had he consumed methamphetamine on 13 and 16 September 2018 as well. He confessed to obtaining the drug from a person serving National Service whom he first met on 12 September 2018.
According to the prosecution, he also told investigators that he enjoyed consuming methamphetamine and would have continued doing so if not for his arrest.
Tragedy leading up to offences
In December 2017, Burge visited his father in England following the dissolution of the former’s marriage. At the time, Burge had not seen his father in a long time, according to Chenthil.
While driving with his 95-year-old father, Burge claimed he fell asleep at the wheel, leading to a collision that put both men in the hospital.
Soon after Burge returned to Singapore, his father developed an infection and his condition turned critical. Burge returned to England in March 2018 but missed his father’s passing by 20 minutes, said Chenthil.
A coroner’s inquest later found the father’s cause of death to be linked to the accident. The accident resulted in Burge having to face the UK courts, although he was found culpable to only to a lesser degree.
“The finding that he had escaped serious criminal liability for father death in a perverse way added to my client’s guilt,” added Chenthil, who said that Burge suffered from persistent insomnia.
After his arrest, Burge sought help from professionals and an extensive network of former students who had submitted testimonials in support of him.
Chenthil cited psychiatric reports stating that Burge’s circumstances may have resulted in a greater impulsivity and poorer judgement, contributing to greater risk-taking behaviour.
Deputy Public Prosecutor Rebecca Wong, said the same reports showed that Burge understood the legal and moral wrongness of his actions.
One report even stated that Burge’s offending arose from a failure to promptly consider consequences, despite his own disappointment and grief over his daughter being jailed as a drug mule, said Wong. His daughter’s incarceration had led to Burge and his then-wife being left to care for their granddaughter.
In response to a query from Yahoo News Singapore, a HCI spokesperson said that the school was “ disappointed with Christopher Burge’s transgressions”.
“We expect all teachers to uphold high standards of conduct and to be good role models in both their professional and personal capacities,” she added, without elaborating if Burge will be terminated from service.
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