SINGAPORE: Lawyer Jeffrey Ong Su Aun, who was initially accused of making off with S$33 million and now faces more charges, was denied bail on Monday (Apr 12).
District Judge Terence Tay rejected Ong's application for bail after hearings spanning a few days.
Ong, the former managing partner of JLC Advisors LLP, has been remanded for about one-and-a-half years after allegedly fleeing to Malaysia. He now faces 76 charges including cheating, forgery and criminal breach of trust as an attorney involving a total sum of more than S$75 million.
The bulk of Ong's charges are non-bailable offences, Judge Tay said, referring to a previous judgment by the Chief Justice that said the burden for such non-bailable offences is on the accused, to prove that bail should be extended to him.
The defence's application for bail was based on some key grounds including Ong's "impeccable" professional and social background including a wide social circle of friends, his respectable family and positive character references from various friends, said Judge Tay.
Lawyer Tan Hee Joek had also argued that Ong was not a flight risk and had a good reason to go to Malaysia, but the judge said Ong had offered "little substantiation" to the assertions he made in his accounts.
"There was nothing to support what was submitted by the defence that the accused had to travel there on request of the state of Selangor," said Judge Tay.
The case first surfaced after engineering firm Allied Technologies filed a police report over a movement of S$33 million from its escrow account – an account where funds are held while two or more parties complete a transaction.
Allied Technologies' executive director Kenneth Low Si Ren was named as a co-accused in Ong's charge sheets last week.
READ: Lawyer linked to missing S$33m gets 13 more charges, court hears details of his escape to Malaysia
The prosecution claimed that Ong had left Singapore via Tuas Checkpoint after he was questioned about the missing money, and had on him a stolen Malaysian passport.
He purportedly stayed in an office and hotel in Malaysia, threw away his phone and used a new mobile phone, but was arrested by Malaysian police and taken back to Singapore.
Prosecutors applied for him to be denied bail when he was first charged in June 2019 and were successful. Since then, Ong has been in and out of court under remand to receive batches of different charges, ranging from cheating to forgery and criminal breach of trust as an attorney.
READ: Defence for lawyer who allegedly absconded to Malaysia in missing millions case argues for bail
Defence lawyer Tan Hee Joek argued for his client to be allowed bail, giving various explanations for why Ong was in Malaysia and why he had another person's passport on him.
He claimed Ong did not flee Singapore but went to Malaysia to settle work projects. He added that "most Singaporeans" would know that Malaysia "is the worst place to abscond to" as both countries have extradition arrangements.
He also claimed the passport found on Ong had been inadvertently handed to him by a business associate in a stack of documents.
Mr Tan argued that the passport had been procured by a Calvin Lim, whom he claims lied about how he got it. Mr Lim first told the police that he found someone selling passports on the black market in China, and later said he obtained the passport from the cousin of the passport holder.
Mr Lim claims that Ong asked him for the passport, while Ong claims he was given the passport "unsolicited". Mr Tan said this shows that Mr Lim is "a liar", and the passport issue should not be taken against Ong in considering whether he is a flight risk.
In his application for bail, Mr Tan said Ong is a "born and bred true blue Singaporean" with firm roots in the country, and has no prior convictions.
He was educated in Raffles Institution, Raffles Junior College and the National University of Singapore before qualifying as a member of the Bar in 2003, and comes from a "respectable family" with no prior brushes with the law, said his lawyer.
"His parents are retired civil servants and his only elder sibling holds a senior position in the public service," said Mr Tan.
The prosecution objected to the application for bail for Ong, calling him a high flight risk and saying the case is believed to involve the largest sum of money ever misappropriated by a lawyer in Singapore.
Deputy Public Prosecutor Nicholas Khoo called the defence's arguments "a misdirection".
"Even taking its case at its highest, which reasonable person would accept a passport of unknown origin not belonging to him, much less a legally trained person like the accused?" he said.
Judge Tay said the defence's arguments on the passport were a "red herring".
He said that even if Ong's version of how he came to possess a Malaysian passport were to be believed, there was no reasonable explanation as for why he continued to have it.
The prosecution is ready to proceed to trial, the court heard, and a pre-trial conference has been scheduled for May.