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Yong Pung How struck fear in criminals and their lawyers who appealed their sentences before him. Here’s why

SINGAPORE — He was credited with transforming the legal system in Singapore into a world-class one. And for some lawyers and former convicts, they would remember former chief justice Yong Pung How as someone who would make them think hard before appealing their sentences.

Yong Pung How struck fear in criminals and their lawyers who appealed their sentences before him. Here’s why
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SINGAPORE — He was credited with transforming the legal system in Singapore into a world-class one. 

And for some lawyers and former convicts, they would remember former chief justice Yong Pung How as someone who would make them think hard before appealing their sentences. 

The reason: He had on several occasions increased the original sentences upon appeal.

In 2003, a teenager who was sentenced to nine-and-a-half years in prison, on charges ranging from robbery to causing hurt with a dangerous weapon, had his jail term increased to 19 years. 

When the prosecutor pointed out that this went beyond the maximum allowed, Yong gave him 14 years — the highest sentence possible.

In 2005, commandos Pandiaraj Mayandi and S Balakrishnan’s jail terms were quadrupled and tripled respectively, for a dunking incident that killed a full-time national serviceman (NSF) and left another seriously injured.

The late lawyer Subhas Anandan was quoted in a 2002 TODAY report as saying that there was a “fear among some accused persons to appeal”.

But Mr R Palakrishnan, then president of the Law Society of Singapore, said: “The sentences may appear harsh but (the chief justice) has been largely instrumental in bringing the crime rate down and making Singapore a safe place.”

Some in the legal fraternity had also felt that Mr Yong was often misunderstood for being the Chief Justice who “doubles your sentence if you appeal”. More often than not, he had reduced sentences on appeal, said Ms Serene Wee, chief executive officer of the Singapore Academy of Law. “Unfortunately, enhanced sentences are more interesting stories for the media,” Ms Wee wrote in 2006 in a commemorative issue of Inter Se — a magazine published by the academy — to mark Mr Yong’s retirement as Chief Justice. 

Yong was appointed chief justice in September 1990, succeeding Wee Chong Jin who served for 27 years.

Twelve years after Yong’s appointment, Subhas said that the then chief justice’s most important achievement was decreasing the waiting period before cases were heard. 

Previously, an accused person used to languish in jail for four or five years after his arrest before his case was heard. Yong reduced this to a matter of three or four months.

Former magistrate David Gerald said in the 2002 TODAY report that Yong “discouraged frivolous appeals by enhancing sentences”.

“He had a point because he reduced the number of appeals, especially those that had no merit,” said Mr Gerald, who is now the president and chief executive officer of the Securities Investors’ Association of Singapore.

“However, the question remains: Where would a citizen go to seek remedy if his sentence is enhanced...”

The answer came the following year.

In 2003, Yong’s decision to increase a convict’s sentence was overturned by a court of appeal.

He had meted out a sentence that was higher than the maximum allowed.

The following are five notable cases that Yong presided over.

July 2005: Jail terms of commandos raised

The careers of commandos Pandiaraj Mayandi and S Balakrishnan came to an end when Chief Justice Yong dismissed their appeals and increased their jail terms for their part in a dunking incident that killed an NSF and left another seriously injured.

Pandiaraj’s sentence was raised from three months to 12 months, while Balakrishnan’s went up to six months instead of two. 

Pandiaraj and Balakrishnan were among a group of four commandos who were convicted in a civilian court for playing a part in the death of Second Sergeant Hu Enhuai, 19.

Hu drowned after he was repeatedly dunked in a tub of seawater during the water treatment phase of the Combat Survival Training Course at Pulau Tekong in August 2003.

Pandiaraj and Balakrishnan had appealed in the hopes of getting a fine instead of a custodial sentence — so that they could remain in the army.

Singapore Armed Forces regulars jailed by a civilian court are discharged from service, while those who have been fined more than S$1,000 are considered for discharge.

Pandiaraj, a captain and the course’s supervising officer, was found guilty of instigating the dunkings while Balakrishnan, a warrant officer and the course’s commander, failed to stop them.

Chief Justice Yong had harsh words for the two men, calling them “'a disgrace to any army”, and that their acts were “absolutely brutish and sadistic”.

June 2004: Acquitted cashier gets two years’ jail after prosecution appeals

A cashier who was acquitted of stealing nearly S$200,000 was packed off to jail for two years on appeal.

The prosecution tried to argue during the appeal that the trial judge had failed to consider properly the “cumulative effect” of the circumstantial evidence against Selvakumar Pillai, when he was found not guilty of stealing S$199,575.78 from a Housing and Development Board (HDB) office safe on June 30, 2003.

Selvakumar, 35, had gone to the HDB office in Bukit Merah to help his colleagues count the day’s cash collection, even though it was his day off.

He was missing when his colleagues left the office together for a dinner party, but turned up later. That night, he deposited S$1,200 into his bank account and deposited another S$400 the next day.

He also paid more than S$21,000 in cash to redeem jewellery from two pawnshops.

At one shop, he paid for the valuables with about S$11,000 worth of S$10 notes. He claimed that his wife was in the habit of saving cash in that denomination in a piggy bank.

To this, Chief Justice Yong remarked: “I was not born yesterday.”

He convicted Selvakumar and sentenced him to two years in jail.

April 2003: Teenager’s sentence doubled

Chief Justice Yong gave a young hooligan a nasty fright when he doubled his sentence — only to be told by the deputy public prosecutor (DPP) that this went beyond the maximum allowed.

The case was also memorable for the choice words that Yong had for the defence lawyer during mitigation.

Jerrick Chen, 17, had been sentenced to nine-and-a-half years in jail and 24 strokes of the cane by the Subordinate Courts on seven charges ranging from robbery to causing hurt with a dangerous weapon.

When his lawyer suggested that the teenager was remorseful, Chief Justice Yong said: “Can he say he has been cleaning wards at Tan Tock Seng Hospital? That would mean he was remorseful.”

And when the lawyer said that the youth had written to all his victims to apologise, the judge replied: “In these American bookshops, you can buy books on how to write letters — ‘I’m so sorry, I shot your husband’.”

Jerrick was being counselled at the Sembawang Family Services Centre when he committed the 44 offences he was later charged with. When the chief justice heard that it had been a matter of “six brief telephone conversations”, he said: “Is that the normal length of counselling? I’m shocked. I think they’d better close this counselling centre.”

When Jerrick’s lawyer later suggested that the youth was suitable for reformative training, he replied: “What do we do now? Send him for probation? Follow the British and send him on a fishing holiday to show compassion? One offender was sent on safari instead of jail and the day after he got back, he stole a Rolls Royce.”

He raised Jerrick’s sentence to 19 years, but DPP Edwin San pointed out that this went beyond the maximum allowed sentence. So Jerrick got 14 years — the maximum possible.

August 2003: Court of Appeal overturns chief justice’s ruling

In a landmark decision, the Court of Appeal overturned a ruling by Chief Justice Yong Pung How in the case of lawyer-basher Gilbert Louis.

Louis, 51, was sentenced to six years’ jail for punching his former wife’s lawyer, Ms Halijah Mohamad, in court — just short of the maximum of seven years for causing grievous hurt.

Then, during his appeal, his term was increased to 10 years by the chief justice, using an obscure legal provision that could be applied if the accused had past convictions and the facts of the case were aggravating.

In increasing the sentence, the chief justice said that he needed to send out a strong message — that disrespecting law practitioners will not be tolerated.

The decision rocked the legal fraternity. In an unusual turn of events, both the prosecution and Louis’ lawyer joined forces to challenge Chief Justice Yong’s decision. 

The common concern: That the ruling might open the door for judges to exceed maximum sentences in similar circumstances.

“Where do you stop? There would be no purpose in saying the maximum is one year, two years, three years,” criminal lawyer Subhas Anandan said then.

In 2002, when TODAY ran a feature on the chief justice’s ruling, legal eagles noted that his actions — as well as his reputation for raising sentences — had caused some disquiet in the legal fraternity.

The Court of Appeal’s decision underlined the integrity of the legal system, Subhas said. 

“Though most of the time the chief justice is the president of the Court of Appeal, the fact remains that the chief justice can be corrected,” he added. 

“That is a great feeling of confidence for the people and the investors because you have a system with checks and counter-checks.”

March 2002: S$2.55m award for semi-paralysed woman rejected

In 2001, Judge GP Selvam awarded a 41-year-old semi-paralysed woman a record S$2.55 million in damages, after she sued two doctors for medical negligence.

The next year, Madam Gunapathy had the money taken away from her.

The Court of Appeal overturned Judge Selvam’s finding that Mdm Gunapathy’s two doctors were negligent in their treatment of her brain condition.

In 1997, neurologist James Khoo noticed a small growth in her brain. This was about a year after she underwent brain surgery and radiation therapy. 

Dr Khoo gave her three options then: To undergo brain surgery again, opt for a half-day radiation surgery, or to “wait and see”.

Mdm Gunapathy chose radiation surgery after seeking a second opinion, and was treated by Dr Khor Tong Hong. 

She later became paralysed on her right side, and doctors found that the growth she had was scar tissue left from the previous surgery.

In delivering his judgement, Chief Justice Yong said that he disagreed with Judge Selvam’s consideration of whether the growth was indeed a tumour.

He said: “We’re not going to decide which of the doctors were right and which were wrong.

“It would be very wrong for us (judges) at this late stage in life…  to try to become experts. 

“I’m not criticising the trial judge because I think he’s the best doctor who never graduated.”

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