Year in Review 2020: 10 court cases that got Singapore's attention

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·Senior Reporter
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From left: Terry Xu, Parti Liyani, Chan Jia Xing, Lee Suet Fern (PHOTO: Yahoo News Singapore file photos)
From left: Terry Xu, Parti Liyani, Chan Jia Xing, Lee Suet Fern (PHOTO: Yahoo News Singapore file photos)

SINGAPORE — From a maid who won her appeal against a prominent family over theft charges, to a large group at Robertson Quay fined for breaching COVID-19 safe distancing rules during the circuit breaker period, here are 10 court cases in Singapore that caught the public attention:

1. Parti Liyani vs Liew Mun Leong and family

The 46-year-old former maid of prominent businessman Liew Mun Leong first captured the nation’s attention when the Indonesian was accused of stealing more than $50,000 worth of items from her employer’s family.

Parti claimed trial to the charges in April 2018 and was convicted of stealing more than $30,000 worth of the items. After she was sentenced to 26 months’ jail by the State Courts, the Indonesian appealed against the conviction in the High Court and won the case.

The High Court’s decision to acquit Parti thrusted her pro-bono lawyer Anil Balchandani into the spotlight. The Liews also came under scrutiny after the High Court said there was a possibly “improper motive” on the family’s part in filing a police report against their maid.

Amid the intense public interest in the case, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam delivered a ministerial statement in Parliament to clarify that Liew’s standing in the business community had no say over how the case was handled by the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) and the Singapore Police Force.

The two deputy public prosecutors who handled Parti’s case at trial are currently under investigation for possible mishandling of the case, while Liew himself has resigned from his public service and business roles, including as chairman at Changi Airport Group. His son, Karl Liew, has since been charged with lying under oath and giving false statements regarding the evidence in the case.

Meanwhile, Parti is not likely returning to her family in Indonesia anytime soon, given her latest application against the AGC for a compensation order. She had earlier decided not to seek compensation from Liew Mun Leong.

2. Lee Suet Fern disciplined over LKY’s final will

Lee Suet Fern, the daughter-in-law of the late first prime minister of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew, was investigated by a Disciplinary Tribunal in January last year over the mishandling of his final will in 2013.

The wife of Lee Hsien Yang and partner at law firm Morgan Lewis was suspended from practising law for 15 months by a Court of Three Judges in November, after it found the 61-year-old guilty of misconduct.

The Law Society had charged that Lee Suet Fern failed to advance the late Lee’s interests unaffected by her and/or her husband’s interest, and that she had failed to advise him to be independently advised in respect of a significant gift that he planned to give to Hsien Yang.

3. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s libel suits

Financial advisor and blogger Leong Sze Hian and chief editor of socio-political website The Online Citizen (TOC) Terry Xu were separately sued by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong over allegations of defamation. Both cases, heard over the second half of this year, are awaiting verdicts in the High Court.

Leong was taken to court after he made a Facebook post on 7 November 2018 containing a link to an article which alleged Lee had corruptly used his position as prime minister to help former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak launder billions from insolvent Malaysian sovereign wealth fund 1MDB.

Xu was sued by Lee for an article published on TOC on 15 August last year, titled “PM Lee’s wife, Ho Ching weirdly shares article on cutting ties with family members”. The article repeated allegations first publicised by Lee’s siblings Dr Lee Wei Ling and Lee Hsien Yang in 2017, about their late father’s property on 38 Oxley Road. The siblings took to Facebook to accuse their brother of – among other things – misleading their father into believing that the property had been gazetted, even though it had never been.

4. Woodlands double murder

Property agent Teo Ghim Heng was handed the death penalty on 12 November for murdering his heavily-pregnant wife and their four-year-old daughter in 2017.

Teo, 45, had strangled his wife Choong Pei Shan – who was nearing the third trimester of her pregnancy – with a towel, then his bare hands, as his daughter watched TV in the next room of their flat at Woodlands.

He then looped the same towel around his daughter’s neck before using his bare hands to strangle her. Teo then slept next to the victims’ bodies for a week and set them on fire before policemen came knocking on his door.

A High Court judge rejected the defence that Teo had been suffering from depression and that he had been provoked and lost control after his wife called him "useless" in front of their daughter. He noted that Teo’s actions before and after the murder, including visiting pornographic websites, did not match his claims that he had lost interest in sex.

The judge found Teo guilty of murder, which carries the mandatory death penalty. Teo will be appealing the conviction.

5. SMU undergraduate molest trial

A Singapore Management University (SMU) undergraduate claimed trial after he was accused of rubbing his genitals on a 22-year-old woman’s chest while the two studied overnight in a study room at SMU in January last year.

Lee Yan Ru, 24, had met the woman through Instagram and invited her to study on campus before the alleged incident arose. Lee then allegedly made a string of sexual advances on the victim, leading to the incident that he was charged for.

During his trial in September, Lee’s lawyer alleged that the woman had participated in consensual physical banter with the Lee through the night. The victim claimed she had rebuffed Lee’s advances but had not taken further action for fear of offending or embarrassing him. She also claimed that it had not crossed her mind that Lee was trying to engage in sexual activity with her.

The case will enter its second tranche of hearing in April next year.

6. Three plead guilty in Orchard Towers fatal attack

Three of the seven individuals who were initially charged with murder over the Orchard Towers attack in 2019 pleaded guilty to their charges.

The three are: Natalie Siow, 24, Chan Jia Xing, 27, and Loh Boon Chong, 27, who were each charged for the 4 July 2019 incident which resulted in the death of 31-year-old Satheesh Noel Gobidass.

The trio later had their charges reduced, with Siow accused of causing hurt, Chan accused of consorting with a man who had a weapon in his possession, and Loh accused of dumping the alleged murderer’s stained shirt.

Siow was sentenced to five months’ jail. A week after Siow was jailed, another member of the same group, Chan Jia Xing, was given a 12-month conditional warning. Chan had tried to stop the attack on Satheesh, and cooperated with police investigations.

Following Chan’s case, online users alleged that the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) showed preferential treatment based on race. AGC rebutted the allegations in a statement, adding that it had flagged the social media posts to the police for possible contempt of court.

The allegations were baseless and could disrupt racial harmony in Singapore, the AGC said. It later issued another statement clarifying the different charges faced by the seven accused.

Loh will be sentenced in January next year, leaving only two more men - Tan Sen Yang and Tan Hong Sheng - who have yet to be dealt with. Tan Sen Yang still faces the charge of murder.

7. Drug mule who was spared the noose

Originally given 15 years’ jail and 10 strokes of the cane in 2017 on a reduced charged of attempted importation of a Class C drug, Malaysian drug mule Gobi Avedian, 32, was sentenced to death in 2018 upon appeal by the prosecution, after a three-judge apex court found that he had failed to rebut the presumption of knowledge, under the Misuse of Drugs Act.

Following a judgement from another 2019 drugs case, Gobi’s lawyer M Ravi applied to have the court review its decision to convict him on the capital charge. A five-judge Court of Appeal finally reinstated Gobi’s original jail term on 19 October after considering the legal position of the 2019 case.

Subsequently, Ravi filed a civil suit against the Attorney-General, two Deputy Attorneys-General and five prosecutors on behalf of Gobi, arguing that they had abused their powers and acted in bad faith by improperly performing a legal act harmful to Gobi.

The AGC issued Ravi a letter demanding that he apologise and retract allegations he made after the Court of Appeal’s decision on Gobi’s case. Ravi had suggested in an interview to The Online Citizen that the public prosecutor had been “overzealous” in the prosecution of Gobi, and that it had “led to the death sentence" for Gobi. He had also called for the public prosecutor to apologise to Gobi for the suffering he went through.

8. Man who guessed “888888” PIN

A man who found a lost debit card within an ATM decided to give a shot at guessing its PIN Number. On Yap Yi San’s first two tries, he keyed in “000000” and “999999”, but failed. He was lucky on his third attempt with “888888”.

He gained access to the bank account and withdrew $8,000, intending to pay off some debts. The victim discovered the unauthorised transactions and made a police report the next day.

Yap later restituted the full sum to the victim. He was nonetheless jailed for nine weeks for dishonest misappropriation of the bank card and theft.

9. Nine fined over COVID-19 breaches at Robertson Quay

Nine individuals were fined over safe distancing breaches at Robertson Quay on 16 May while Singapore was in the midst of a partial lockdown.

They were charged after photos of crowds gathering outside several popular bars and restaurants went viral on social media, sparking investigations by the authorities.

Four of the nine – Neil Gordon Buchan, 30; James Titus Beatt, 33; Joseph William Poynter, 35; and Perry Scott Blair, 38 – were each fined $9,000. Another four – Michael Czerny, 45; Jeffrey George Brown, 52; Bao Nguyen Brown, 40; and Alfred Jon Veloso Waring, 34 – were each fined $8,000.

The last accused, Daniel Olalekan Olasunkanmi Olagunju, was fined $8,500.

Eight of them are work pass holders while Czerny is a Singapore permanent resident. The eight had their work passes revoked by the Ministry of Manpower and were permanently banned from working in Singapore.

10. Woman who sued PUB for $5 million after falling into manhole

After falling into an open manhole in 2015, Chan Hui Peng, 47, took the Public Utilities Board (PUB) to court for lasting physical and psychiatric injuries including schizophrenia, allegedly arising from the incident.

Chan initially provided documents that value her damages at $20 million. Before her civil suit could conclude, she settled for an undisclosed sum with PUB, saving another seven days of trial and cross-examination of expert witnesses on schizophrenia.

Chan was ordered to pay PUB $35,000 in costs for legal proceedings after the agency labelled her conduct as “blameworthy”. Amongst other points, PUB’s lawyers stated that Chan had failed to give proper and full disclosure of relevant documents, only choosing to disclose those favourable to her, and had deliberately concealed the fact that she controlled the company she was employed with.

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