Recent developments in corruption law in Singapore
April 2015 | PROFESSIONAL INSIGHT | FRAUD & CORRUPTION
Financier Worldwide Magazine
Singapore has always enjoyed a sterling reputation as one of the least corrupt countries in the world. In 2014, Singapore was ranked seventh in Transparency International’s annual Corruption Perceptions Index, which ranks countries and territories based on how corrupt their public sector is perceived to be. This put Singapore in the esteemed company of ‘clean government’ stalwarts such as first placed Denmark, and Norway and Switzerland, both of which were ranked fifth. Singapore was ranked considerably ahead of other Asian countries, with Japan being the next closest at 15th place.
It thus may have appeared strange to some observers that the Singapore government treated its 2014 ranking in the Index as a problem to be dealt with, rather than an achievement to be celebrated.
On 13 January 2015, Singapore’s Prime Minister Mr Lee Hsien Loong announced at the country’s inaugural Public Service Values Conference that Singapore’s anti-corruption laws would be reviewed, and that its anti-corruption enforcement agency, the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB), would have its manpower increased by over 20 percent. In explaining the need to enhance Singapore’s anti-corruption regime, one of the points that the Prime Minister specifically raised was that Singapore had dropped two ranks to seventh in the Index in 2014.
In his speech, the Prime Minister noted that Singapore’s lowered ranking in the Index could have been due to several high-profile corruption cases that had emerged in the last few years. This article focuses on the most prominent of these high-profile corruption cases, and provides some understanding on how this case has impacted Singapore’s anti-corruption landscape.
Public Prosecutor vs. Ng Boon Gay: Former director of the Central Narcotics Bureau
The Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) is Singapore’s primary drug enforcement agency, and is responsible for coordinating all matters pertaining to drug eradication. Singapore has adopted a zero-tolerance approach toward illegal drugs, and vigorously pursues this goal with harsh punishments (including the death penalty) for convicted drug traffickers. As such, the CNB is justifiably seen as one of Singapore’s most important enforcement agencies.
It was thus significant news in 2012 that the Director of the CNB, Mr Ng Boon Gay, had been arrested and charged with four corruption charges by the CPIB. It was alleged that Ng had corruptly obtained oral sex from a former IT sales manager on four occasions, in exchange for furthering the business interests of the sales manager’s then employers who were marketing an IT-product to the CNB.
The fact that the CPIB had proceeded to investigate and charge Ng underscores the anti-corruption agency’s fearless and robust commitment to take firm action against the corrupt regardless of their status and background. Ng denied the charges, and his five-month trial captivated the public and the legal community until its conclusion in 2013.
In Public Prosecutor vs. Ng Boon Gay  SGDC 132, Ng’s defence was that he was in an intimate relationship with the IT sales manager, and that the four acts of fellatio were received in the context of that relationship. He denied that there was an ulterior motive to further the IT sales manager’s business interests as a result of having received the four acts of fellatio. By contrast, the IT sales manager testified in court that she was never in a consensual sexual relationship with Ng, and that she had been compelled to perform the acts by Ng.
Ng was ultimately acquitted of all of the corruption charges. On the evidence, the District Judge held that the IT sales manager was not a credible witness for the prosecution as her testimony in Court was contradicted by the contents of her earlier statements to the CPIB, where she had acknowledged having a sexual relationship with Ng since 2009. The District Judge also noted that there were contemporaneous text messages sent between Ng and the IT sales manager that supported Ng’s defence that they were in a consensual sexual relationship.
On the law, the District Judge found that Ng was in a conflict of interest situation because he had approved the IT-project that the sales manager had been marketing to the CNB. However, the District Judge emphasised that not every conflict of interest permits the inference of corruption. Crucially, the District Judge held that the existence of an intimate relationship between Ng and the IT sales manager negated the presence of any corrupt element. It was within the context of this intimate relationship that the District Judge held that Ng’s acting in conflict would not equate to satisfying any of the elements of the offence of corruption.
Impact of Ng’s case and subsequent developments
Following Ng’s case, the Singapore Court took pains to clarify the two legal issues that featured prominently in Ng’s acquittal: conflict of interest and pre-existing relationship.
Conflict of interest. In Public Prosecutor vs. Leng Kah Poh  4 SLR 1264, the Court of Appeal emphasised that there can be a corrupt element in a conflict of interest situation. As such, even if a conflict of interest does not automatically equate to corruption, an agent’s actions can be considered as being corrupt if the nature of the gift or a promise received by the agent is such that it seeks to influence the agent to act improperly, i.e., for the benefit of that third party who gave the gift or the promise of it, at the expense of the principal’s interests.
Pre-existing relationship. In Tey Tsun Hang vs. Public Prosecutor  2 SLR 1189, the High Court clarified that the existence of an intimate relationship does not automatically negate the presence of any corrupt element. The High Court held that the existence of an intimate relationship is merely a factor to be considered in the assessment of the overall evidence. If the act of gratification was made in the course of that relationship, the relationship would ordinarily be strong evidence negating any corrupt intention on the part of the giver or the recipient. Nevertheless, it remains possible that an act of gratification is made or received with a corrupt intention even if done in the course of an intimate relationship.
The recent steps to enhance Singapore’s anti-corruption enforcement landscape may be viewed as part of the Singapore government’s continuing efforts to reinforce its anti-corruption message to the public. As the Prime Minister stated in his speech on 13 January 2015, “the public has to be confident that public officers are acting fairly and impartially, dealing with everyone, as the term goes, without fear or favour, affection or ill will”.
Jason Chan is a partner at Allen & Gledhill LLP. He can be contacted on +65 6890 7872 or by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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