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Jail for MFA director-general who lied to public servant over use of diplomatic bag service

Jail for MFA director-general who lied to public servant over use of diplomatic bag service

Source: Straits Times
Article Date: 21 May 2024
Author: Shaffiq Alkhatib

Fine inappropriate, says judge, citing serious potential impact to public service, ministry.

A director-general at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) has been sentenced to a week in jail for giving false information to a public servant over the use of diplomatic bags, after a judge disagreed with recommendations from the prosecution and defence for a fine.

Gilbert Oh Hin Kwan, 45, had sought to use the diplomatic bag service to deliver a sealed package that contained luxury watches from China to Singapore for a friend, who is a Chinese national. After the package was found by immigration officers, Oh lied to MFA that the watches belonged to his father.

The prosecution had urged the court to sentence Oh to a fine of between $6,000 and $9,000, saying his lies did not appear to have wasted investigative resources since he came clean to the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) within 24 hours.

In her judgment, District Judge Sharmila Sripathy-Shanaz said a fine was inappropriate, as “the serious potential consequences to the integrity of the public service and the MFA domestically – in so far as its internal investigative process was undermined – and internationally, justify a custodial sentence as a starting point”.

She said that while she accepted that no actual harm has resulted from Oh’s false statement, the court must proceed to consider if the statement had the potential to cause harm.

“The unchecked misuse of the diplomatic bag service on a false pretence, without knowing the full contents of what was being transported for a third-party foreign national… would have the potential to impinge on trust in Singapore’s international relationships and cause embarrassment to the MFA, if there were no redress,” the judge said.

A diplomatic bag is used for sending official correspondence and items to and from the ministry and its overseas offices, such as embassies or consulates.

It is sealed and protected by diplomatic immunity and cannot be opened, searched or seized by Customs officials.

Oh, who pleaded guilty to giving false information to a public servant in April, will be appealing against his sentence. His bail was set at $15,000.

MFA said in November 2023 that Oh had been on no-pay leave while investigations were ongoing.

On May 20, the judge noted that under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, the provisions of which are stated in Singapore’s Diplomatic and Consular Relations Act, diplomatic bags – which should “only contain diplomatic documents or articles intended for official use” and “shall not be opened or detained” – are a protected means of communication between a state’s foreign missions and consulates.

The judge said it was immediately apparent that Oh’s requested use of the diplomatic bag service to convey luxury watches from China to Singapore, without disclosing to MFA the true owner and recipient of the package, “was not just a gross violation of the diplomatic bag service, but impermissible”.

She also stressed that the falsehood was made to thwart MFA’s internal investigations. The deception was “conscious and deliberate”, and Oh’s offence was motivated by pure self-interest, she added.

Oh’s two cheating charges linked to the use of the diplomatic bag service were considered during sentencing.

His lawyers, Shashi Nathan and Harjeet Kaur from Withers KhattarWong, had asked for a fine of less than $5,000, stressing that he had “no ill intentions or personal benefit to gain”.

Oh’s troubles with the law started when he wanted to do a personal favour for a female friend by helping her send her watches from China to Singapore.

The prosecution said the friend, identified in court documents as Ms Jiang Si, was not a diplomat.

On Jan 12, 2023, Oh contacted his colleague, Mr Dion Loke Cheng Wang, who was then attached to the Singapore Embassy in Beijing, and lied to the latter, claiming that the parents of his friend – a Chinese diplomat – wanted to have “something in a package” delivered to Oh in Singapore.

Oh asked for Mr Loke’s help to send it from Beijing to Singapore via the diplomatic bag service, and Mr Loke agreed to the request.

Oh also provided Mr Loke’s residential address in Beijing to Ms Jiang, and she arranged for a sealed package to be delivered to Mr Loke.

It contained 21 luxury watches, a ring and seven children’s books, which belonged to Ms Jiang and her partner, one Liu Liang. The prosecution did not disclose the value of the items.

At the time, Oh was not aware of the number of watches in the package or its exact contents.

In earlier proceedings, Deputy Public Prosecutor Tan Pei Wei told the court: “Dion did not arrange to have the package dispatched to Singapore in the diplomatic bag service, as it was suspended at the time. On Jan 17, 2023, Dion took a flight from China to Singapore. He carried the sealed package in his personal luggage.”

The offences came to light when officers from the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority stopped Mr Loke for a bag screening shortly before midnight and the package was found. MFA was alerted, and on the morning of Jan 19, 2023, Mr Ong Eng Chuan, then MFA deputy secretary (management), told Oh to provide a written account of the circumstances that led to Mr Loke bringing the package and watches into Singapore.

Oh became concerned about disciplinary action being taken against him as it may impact his career progression. He decided to tell MFA that the watches belonged to his father, as he believed that the ministry was more likely to be lenient with this. He then spoke to his father about this incident.

In an e-mail to Mr Ong at around 6.30pm that day, Oh lied that the watches belonged to his father and that his father had requested that Oh assist him in bringing these watches here.

The CPIB also started an investigation into the case on Jan 19, 2023, and Oh initially stuck to his lies in his first statement to the agency.

He revealed the truth in his second statement to the CPIB shortly before 10.30am the following day.

Source: Straits Times © SPH Media Limited. Permission required for reproduction.

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