SINGAPORE: There was “no pressure or influence exerted" by ex-Changi Airport Group chairman Liew Mun Leong or anyone acting on his behalf in the Parti Liyani case, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam told Parliament on Wednesday (Nov 3).
“There was no influence by Liew Mun Leong,” he said in a ministerial statement on the case. “It was treated as any other theft case and handled accordingly. We have checked with the investigating officer (IO), his senior officer and the Deputy Public Prosecutors (DPP).”
Mr Shanmugam added that was no attempt by anyone to influence the police and Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) in connection with the case.
Ms Parti, an Indonesian former maid, had been convicted in March last year by a lower court of stealing S$34,000 from Mr Liew and his family, but the conviction was overturned by the High Court on Sep 4.
In Justice Chan Seng Onn's judgment, the judge outlined several issues with the conviction findings and how the case was handled.
Mr Shanmugam said on Wednesday there has been “much attention” on this case, noting that apart from questions on how the police and AGC handled the case, “there is a broader, more fundamental question”.
“Did a powerful man, Mr Liew Mun Leong, work the system to his advantage?” Mr Shanmugam said. “Did the police and the AGC unfairly prosecute Ms Liyani, because Liew Mun Leong was the complainant?
“Did Ms Liyani get a fair trial in the State Courts? Do we have one law for the wealthy, socially connected, and another for the rest of society?”
Mr Shanmugam said this question is of “central importance” to Singapore, adding that the credibility of its system and the foundation of its society depend on ensuring there is rule of law that applies equally to all.
“If that principle is compromised, then Singapore is compromised,” he added. “It is a basic duty of the Government to ensure that that principle is upheld. I take it very seriously.”
Mr Shanmugam said the case was dealt with by police IOs, who made decisions together with their immediate supervisor. The case did not come to the attention of senior management either at the police or the Ministry of Home Affairs, he said.
“No one senior has spoken with or been influenced by Liew Mun Leong or any of the Liews on this case,” he added.
“It was dealt with by the IOs and their immediate supervisor, and no one beyond that. No one lobbied or exerted pressure either on the IOs or on the supervisor, or anyone in a position to influence the investigations.”
In her clarifications to the ministerial statement, the Workers' Party Member of Parliament (MP) Sylvia Lim said she accepted that Mr Liew did not exert pressure on the police officers.
"But I am just wondering whether it crossed minister's mind that the officer himself may have felt that he was dealing with somebody who was very prominent and therefore he needed to take extra care," said Ms Lim, who is also MP for Aljunied.
Mr Shanmugam said this was an obvious question that had struck him, saying: "Did the officer think to himself: 'This is such a big man, I better do certain things?'"
If that is the theory, Mr Shanmugam said, then why did the officer wait five weeks to visit the scene? "Do we think that if he was so concerned - 'Hey I better do this properly' - then would we have waited for five weeks?" he asked.
"I'm not suggesting that this has been specifically the case, but actually the way the matter was handled (negated) the suggestion of any implicit, extra attention," he added.
As for the AGC, Mr Shanmugam said the matter was dealt with by DPPs and cleared at the director level.
Cases are typically cleared at the director level and are not usually brought to higher management, such as the Deputy Chief Prosecutor, Chief Prosecutor, Deputy Attorney-General or Attorney-General (AG), Mr Shanmugam said.
That is “unless they involve more serious or sensitive crimes, or where the AG’s consent to prosecute is expressly required”, he explained.
Likewise, Mr Shanmugam said neither Mr Liew, his family or anyone acting for them approached AGC or had any contact with AGC on this case, adding that AGC dealt with the police.
Mr Shanmugam noted that there had been some questions asked about the time when the current AG Lucien Wong was on the board of directors at CapitaLand between November 2000 and January 2006, when Mr Liew was its president and CEO.
“As a result, did AG in any way influence the proceedings? The answer is no,” he said. "AG didn’t know of these investigations or proceedings until the case went for trial.”
Mr Shanmugam highlighted that Mr Wong resigned from the CapitaLand board with effect from Jan 2, 2006 because he had a “difference of viewpoints” with Mr Liew on some issues.
“When AGC conducted its internal review on this matter, AG recused himself,” Mr Shanmugam added. “AG felt given the history of differences between him and Liew Mun Leong, the perception of fairness may be affected if AG oversaw the review.
“Thus, AG had nothing to do with this case at any stage.”
If the AG had been a close friend of Mr Liew, Mr Shanmugam said the AG would also be expected to recuse himself from any decision making.
ALL EQUAL BEFORE LAW
Mr Shanmugam said this case illustrated how the rule of law applies in Singapore, where the High Court acquitted a maid in a case where the complainant is a “wealthy, powerful person”.
“But all are equal before the law,” he said. “It doesn’t matter who the parties are. Justice, according to the facts, and the law as the courts see it.”
Mr Shanmugam said people might agree or disagree with the court’s conclusions, but that is a different matter.
“The rule of law is central to our idea of fairness, equality and justice,” he said.
While Mr Shanmugam said societies around the world are grappling with debates on inequality, and a sense that the elite are “bending the rules and systems to their advantage”, Singapore is “not in the same situation”.
“Our active intervention in socio-economic issues has helped most people to benefit,” he said. “But our people know we must jealously guard the availability of equal opportunities.
“We must ensure that everyone has a fair shake. We must be alert, guard against the wealthy and the powerful taking unfair advantages.”
If a “significant section” of people feel the system favours some or is unfairly stacked against them, “then Singapore will lose its cohesion and it can’t succeed”, Mr Shanmugam said.
“Thus it is essential that we have a fair system, that we have a clean system, that we have a system that gives opportunities to all,” he added. “If Liew Mun Leong did unfairly influence the proceedings, then it will be a hit to our foundations.”
Despite that, Mr Shanmugam said it does not mean there will be no abuse of power or corruption, adding that swift and decisive action must be taken when it happens.
One example is the case of former National Development Minister Teh Cheang Wan, who held the portfolio between 1979 and 1986 when corruption allegations against him surfaced.
Mr Teh was also one of the most senior members in then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s Cabinet.
“When corruption allegations surfaced, Mr Lee directed the CPIB (Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau) to conduct investigations,” Mr Shanmugam said.
“Mr Teh was placed on leave of absence. He ultimately chose to end his life rather than face trial or corruption charges, which the AGC had then yet to settle.”
Mr Shanmugam also highlighted how in 2012, then-Singapore Civil Defence Force commissioner (SCDF) Peter Lim was jailed for six months on corruption charges after he had received sexual favours with three different women.
In 2013, then-CPIB assistant director Edwin Yeo was jailed for 10 years for criminal breach of trust as a public servant and forgery after he had misappropriated S$1.76 million.
“In most countries, commissioners of SCDF, assistant directors of CPIB are pretty much untouchable,” Mr Shanmugam said. “But not in Singapore.”
Beyond tackling corruption, Mr Shanmugam said Singapore must also guard against soft corruption and influence peddling.
“We have to be very careful to try and stamp it out wherever it happens,” he said. “And make no mistake: It will keep appearing in big and small ways.”
Mr Shanmugam highlighted that the Prime Minister sends out a letter to MPs at the start of each new term of Government, reminding them that they must not exploit their public position for personal interest.
“If we feel there is some conduct that requires a closer look, we do take a closer look,” Mr Shanmugam said, referring to conduct that is not criminal but should be avoided.
“When we sense that, I usually have a chat with the relevant MP. They come, have a cup of coffee with me. When they leave, the issue is usually resolved. And if it is not resolved, then they don’t remain as MPs.”
CONNECTIONS ARE INEVITABLE
Nevertheless, Mr Shanmugam said Singapore has a more challenging environment as it is a small place where “a lot of people know each other”.
“We try and look for people on the basis of merit. And they will often, because of their careers, have deep connection with many others whom they interact with,” he said.
“The way we handle this is to make sure the persons appointed are men and women of character who have the moral fibre to do the right thing.”
For example, Mr Shanmugam said when Professor S Jayakumar was Law Minister, the succeeding Commissioner of Police, AG and himself were law students of Prof Jayakumar.
“Our small size means these connections and interactions are inevitable,” he said. “And so we will always have to be very careful.”
Mr Shanmugam said Singapore ranks highly on credible international indices for the absence of corruption, rule of law and for the way its system “functions cleanly”.
He said the system stays clean through a media that highlights these issues, a well-educated and aware population that holds those in power accountable, and a Parliament where the issues can be openly discussed and debated.
“But these factors are also present in many countries where influence peddling is nevertheless a cancer,” he added.
“We have avoided the slippery path because in addition to the above, we have had in our three Prime Ministers the strong will to ensure a clean system, and the decisiveness to act when something was wrong.”