~ By Choo Zheng Xi ~
If you ask the wrong question to the wrong person, you will get an unsatisfactory answer.
Take the case of Woffles Wu.
Several bloggers have highlighted news clippings of similar cases where jail terms have been meted out to people jailed for asking others to take the rap.
One case highlighted is that of Ang Kim Hong, who was reported to have been jailed for paying $500 to two others to take the rap for running an illegal internet gambling business. This is used to illustrate the markedly different sentence meted out by the courts.
This is, unfortunately, barking up the wrong tree.
Ang Kim Hong, from the news clipping provided, was charged for graft. This is different from what appears to be the charge against Woffles of abetting the provision of “false information, with intent to cause a public servant to use his lawful power to the injury of another person”.
To the conscientious critic, this matters because it’s no use going after the Courts regarding the disparity in charges that were preferred against Woffles and Ang Kim Hong: Judges have nothing to do with framing charges.
The correct public body to direct your ire towards would be the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC), who decides on what charges to proceed on.
This article will set out some of the questions the public needs to ask and who to ask these questions to.
What Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) needs to explain
It helps, when directing our ire towards the AGC, to be aware of several of the possible charges that could have been brought against Woffles.
From reports in the Straits Times (which, unfortunately, have not been particularly clear about the precise charge that was brought), it seems that Woffles was charged with abetting the giving of "False information, with intent to cause a public servant to use his lawful power to the injury of another person" under Section 182 of the Penal Code. Under Section 182, the possible range of sentences is:
"imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year, or with fine which may extend to $5,000, or with both."
A possible charge for an offence with a similar fact situation could also be giving false information respecting an offence committed under Section 203 of the Penal Code:
"Whoever, knowing or having reason to believe that an offence has been committed, gives any information respecting that offence which he knows or believes to be false, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to 2 years, or with fine, or with both."
Alternatively (and this is the clearest alternative charge in the case of Woffles), AGC could proceed on the charge of obstructing, preventing, perverting or defeating course of justice under Section 204A of the Penal Code.
"Whoever intentionally obstructs, prevents, perverts or defeats the course of justice shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to 7 years, or with fine, or with both."
From the above, it is clear that Section 182 is the lowest order offence.
When deciding which charge to bring, AGC weighs the evidence and gravity of the facts in the alleged offence as well as representations by Defence Counsel.
The correct question for the public to put to AGC then is this: what were the factors that led you to decide on a section 182 charge?
And why on earth was Woffles charged with abetting an offence when he was in the driver’s seat (metaphorically and literally), having asked his employee to take the rap?
These questions need to be answered by the AGC with due regard to public anger at the spectacle of a very well known man asking his elderly employee to take the rap getting charged with a lower order crime than others in a similar situation.
In particular, the public is now comparing the case of Woffles with that of sales executive Charlie Lim, who was charged with perverting the course of justice under Section 204A of the Penal Code and sentenced to 6 months imprisonment for paying one Lim Ah Hwa to take a speeding rap for him.
For assuming criminal liability for Charlie, Lim Ah Hwa was sentenced to 4 weeks imprisonment.
What the Judge needs to explain
While I earlier pointed out that the most important questions in this case need to be answered by AGC, it is clear that the Judge who heard Woffles’ case has some explaining to do.
Member of Parliament Hri Kumar S.C. has very sensibly said that he hopes there will be an opportunity for the Court to explain its’ reasons.
As the legal maxim goes, justice should not only be done, but should manifestly and undoubtedly be seen to be done.
From sentencing precedent, there have actually been cases where a Section 182 charge results in a $1,000 fine. So the case of Woffles is not exactly extraordinary.
However, at least one reported case suggests that the going rate is 2 weeks in jail.
In the 2008 case of Public Prosecutor v Feng Meizhen, where the primary offence was committed under the Immigration Act but which included a charge under Section 182, District Judge Shaiffudin Saruwan sentenced the accused to 2 weeks imprisonment and described this as “the usual sentencing norm for Section 182 cases”.
The Judge who heard Woffles’ case needs to explain why he felt it necessary to depart from this sentencing norm.
Woffles hasn’t done himself any favours by his statement to the press that he made a “silly mistake” and that he believes “many people similarly did not know that this is an offence”. More contrition from him could have made the Judge’s decision easier for the public to live with.
What the Police needs to explain
Most puzzling in this entire incident is the question of why the case of Woffles took at least 6 years to come to a conclusion.
The offences took place in 2005 and 2006.
There are complex murder cases that don’t take 6 years to come to a conclusion.
To use another oft-quoted maxim, justice delayed is justice denied.
What can be done?
At the end of all this, all the explaining in the world is unlikely to satisfy a sceptical public’s distress at a set of very extraordinary circumstances.
The theme of rich vs poor is once again forming the backdrop for what promises to be a very public spectacle.
This is not ideal, as justice should be blind.
But the discharge of the public functions of the criminal law requires due regard to be paid to public conceptions of justice.
At present, one way in which AGC can show due regard to public conceptions of justice is to consider appealing the sentence.
Zheng Xi is a Consultant Editor of TOC and a lawyer in private practice, but nothing in this article is to be taken as or relied upon as legal advice.