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CHC ruling: Govt considering further steps, given 'serious implications for anti-graft stance'

SINGAPORE - The High Court's landmark split decision on the City Harvest Church (CHC) case, which resulted in the jail terms of six former CHC leaders reduced significantly, has "serious implications" for other cases - including those involving corruption - against directors. And the Government is seeking the advice of the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) as it considers whether to take any further steps, said Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam on Saturday (April 8).

CHC ruling: Govt considering further steps, given 'serious implications for anti-graft stance'

City Harvest Church's founder-pastor Kong Hee leaves the supreme court on April 7, 2017. Photo: Jason Quah/TODAY

SINGAPORE — The High Court's landmark split decision on the City Harvest Church (CHC) case, which resulted in the jail terms of six former CHC leaders reduced significantly, has "serious implications" for other cases - including those involving corruption - against directors. And the Government is seeking the advice of the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) as it considers whether to take any further steps, said Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam on Saturday (April 8).

"The matter is not over yet.... The AGC will decide by early next week," said Mr Shanmugam, who was speaking on the sidelines at a racial harmony dialogue with youths. In fact, the AGC - as well as the Government - had believed that the original sentence of eight years' jail meted for CHC founder Kong Hee was "too low ", which was why AGC had appealed against it. 

In a judgement delivered on Friday, two of the three judges who presided over the appeal by the former CHC leaders arrived at a different reading of the law on criminal breach of trust (CBT) when it comes to offenders holding appointments in a company or an organisation, departing from the prevailing interpretation which has been in place for some four decades.

In their written judgement, Judge of Appeal Chao Hick Tin and Justice Woo Bih Li found that the interpretation that Section 409 - which the former CHC leaders were originally charged under - “refers to professional agents rather than casual agents is borne out by the language of the section”. The judges pointed out that the former CHC leaders were not liable under Section 409 as they were not considered professional agents even though some were directors or members of the CHC management board. Instead, the judges found them guilty of a CBT simpliciter - or the charge in a simple degree - under Section 406 of the Penal Code, which carries lower maximum sentences. 

The third judge, Justice Chan Seng Onn, held a different view: When directors are entrusted with the property, it is done so in accordance with their role and office. He said that he did not see how a director’s dealings with the entrusted property could be considered a “casual role”, as opposed to a professional agent.

Mr Shanmugam said: "From the Government's point of view, this legal reasoning has serious implications (for) other cases, including corruption cases, (and) our zero-tolerance approach for the future."

He added that as "a matter of policy", the Government would have to consider what further steps to take. "We cannot relax our stand on that... We have to make sure our position is as strict as we have always maintained it," he said. 

Mr Shanmugam said he could understand the public's differing views on the judgement, but he warned against abusing the judges personally or suggesting "improper or ulterior motives for judgements". "The reasoning is there, they've set it out. (People) can agree or disagree and from the Government's point of view, if we disagree, we can always consider (doing something). If necessary, we can always legislate through Parliament," he said.

Mr Shanmugam said he has also noted the Court's comments on the way the Prosecution conducted the case. For example, the judges said in their oral judgement that they noted that the prosecution "had not focused on any gain to third parties for its case on conviction and sentence, even though this may have been suggested in the charges".

"While the Prosecution did, in its oral submissions before us, attempt to make the point that a benefit had accrued to Kong Hee’s wife, Sun Ho, this point was not raised in its written submissions for the appeal and was also not raised before the Judge," said Judge of Appeal Chao Hick Tin.  "In the circumstances, we approach the sentencing in this case as one without any element of wrongful gain or personal financial benefit, either direct or indirect."

Mr Shanmugam said he has asked Attorney-General Lucien Wong and his deputies, Mr Hri Kumar and Mr Lionel Yee, to look into this. "It may take time, but we have good people at the top, and they should be able to deal with it," he added. 

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