SINGAPORE: A social service officer in charge of disbursing public funds to help low-income families effectively “stole from the poor” when he pocketed S$343,780 meant for the needy, a District Court heard on Friday (Dec 9).
Chia Kwang Hwee, 33, was generous with his ill-gotten gains, paying off his family’s debts and giving cash gifts to relatives. He also funded an extravagant lifestyle, splurging on fine dining, airline tickets and purchases from high-end boutiques. When he was arrested, S$30,000 worth of luxury goods were seized from his home.
Chia pleaded guilty to 19 of 126 charges - two for criminal misappropriation, 15 for misusing an online system to commit criminal breach of trust and two for transferring the benefits of criminal conduct.
The offences took place over three years, from November 2011 until August 2014, when Chia was a social service officer, first with the South East Community Development Council under the umbrella of People’s Association, and later on with the Social Service Office @ Geylang Serai under the Ministry of Social and Family Development from July 2013 after the ministries were restructured.
He had lined his pockets by cashing cheques issued by the SSO to low-income families in need of financial help.
In 2012, Chia collected 95 cheques amounting to S$59,420 and deposited the money into his own bank account after he cashed them. The next year, he did the same with 219 cheques amounting to S$137,640.
In December 2013, when the ministry moved away from handing out cheques to disbursing the money straight into needy families’ bank accounts, Chia came up with a plan to “continue to enrich himself at public expense”, Deputy Public Prosecutor Chong Yonghui said.
By this time, he had been promoted to team leader, and given access to an online system used to approve payments to families in need. Instead of entering the bank account details of the intended recipients, Chia entered his own.
He also accessed his colleagues’ accounts in the system to approve these payments, “thereby surreptitiously ensuring that monies paid out for these cases would be paid into his own bank accounts”, DPP Chong said.
Chia had also moved S$13,250 of his ill-gotten gains between his personal bank accounts and in April 2014 withdrew S$11,137 in cash.
Transferring the benefits of criminal conduct is an offence under the Corruption, Drug Trafficking and Other Serious Crimes (Confiscation of Benefits) Act.
The misappropriation of funds came to light in August 2014, when the SSO was alerted by a family who had not received its financial assistance payment. An internal investigation found suspicious transactions and the ministry lodged a police report next day. Chia has not made any restitution.
DPP Chong urged the court to impose a jail term of six years. “The accused was in effect stealing from the poor … diverting funds from the very needy persons whom it was his duty to serve,” the prosecutor said.
He added that a stiff sentence is necessary to make it clear that public servants who misappropriate public funds will be severely dealt with.
Defence lawyer Irving Choh argued that his client had committed the offences out of desperation when his family could not pay off their mounting debts. He sought a jail term of 30 months, saying Chia is “totally remorseful” and a “crushing sentence” is not necessary.
Chia will be sentenced on Dec 22.
The ministry has since tightened controls at all SSOs.