Ex-transport minister Iswaran wins bid for joint trial of both sets of criminal charges

Ex-transport minister S. Iswaran leaving the Supreme Court in Singapore with his team of lawyers. - The Straits Times/ANN

SINGAPORE: Former transport minister S. Iswaran, who faces criminal charges involving more than S$400,000 worth of items, succeeded in his High Court bid for a joint trial of the two sets of charges that he faces, following a full-day hearing.

Iswaran currently faces 27 charges relating to hotel and property tycoon Ong Beng Seng, and eight charges relating to David Lum Kok Seng, the managing director of mainboard-listed Lum Chang Holdings.

On May 8, his lawyer, Senior Counsel Davinder Singh, questioned the prosecution’s decision to have separate trials, and for pushing back the charges involving Ong, when trial dates had initially been fixed for this set of charges.

Trial dates are currently slated for August and September 2024.

He argued that both sets of charges should be heard together because they share similar features.

Davinder, arguing before Justice Vincent Hoong, said: “My client is saying, come at me with both sets please, I am ready to take you on.”

The prosecution, represented by Deputy Attorney-General Tai Wei Shyong, is asking for the charges in relation to Lum to be tried first, then the charges in relation to Ong.

Of the charges relating to Ong, 24 are under Section 165 of the Penal Code, two are for corruption and one for obstructing the course of justice.

Section 165 makes it an offence for a public servant to accept or obtain any valuable thing, for free or for inadequate payment, from any person connected with his official duties.

Iswaran was first handed 27 charges on Jan 18, 2024, involving items with a total value of $384,340.98 he allegedly obtained from Ong.

On March 25, 2024, he was handed eight more charges under Section 165.

This second set of charges relates to items with a total value of $18,956.94 that Iswaran allegedly obtained from Lum.

Davinder noted that this would be the first time that the Singapore courts are dealing with Section 165 offences.

He argued that Iswaran’s state of mind was the same for both sets of charges.

“He was dealing with very, very dear and close friends,” said Davinder, adding that his client did not suspect that the gifts were offered as “veiled gratification”.

Davinder added that the code of conduct for ministers was also operating on Iswaran’s mind.

Under the code, ministers or their family member are not prevented from accepting gifts from family or personal friends “in a genuinely personal capacity”.

He said the defence will be contending that Section 165 does not “catch” cases where gifts are given because of friendship.

Davinder also argued that with separate trials, Iswaran would have to live with a potentially long period of stress after the end of the trial involving the charges relating to Lum, until the conclusion of the trial of the charges relating to Ong.

The lawyer suggested that the prosecution wanted the charges involving Lum to go first, so that they can get an idea of his defence for the charges involving Ong.

Deputy Attorney-General Tai refuted Davinder’s suggestion that the reason for having two trials was so that the prosecution can have a “preview” of Iswaran’s defence.

Tai argued that the charges must be split because the legal criteria for a joint trial have not been met.

He said that consecutive trials take place all the time and that it is common practice for the prosecution to proceed on some charges at trial.

He argued that there was no factual connection between the two sets of charges, which are independent of each other and involve separate dealings.

The charges involving Lum related to acceptance of items such as whisky and wine, while the charges involving Ong related to entirely different items, he said.

Moreover, one set of charges related to a construction contract between Lum Chang and the Land Transport Authority, while the other set was largely in the context of Formula 1 contracts between race promoter Singapore GP and the Singapore Tourism Board.

“Not only are the facts in issue for the Ong Beng Seng charges entirely irrelevant for the David Lum charges, the background facts and witnesses of fact for the two sets of charges are distinct,” he said in written submissions.

After considering the arguments, Justice Hoong allowed Iswaran’s application for a joint trial.

The judge said the Section 165 charges for both Ong and Lum are legally identical, and allegedly arose out of Iswaran’s duties public servant.

The fact that the charges concern different givers, different items and different witness do not indicate that they are factually dissimilar, said Justice Hoong.

The judge said the legal requirement for the charges to be “a series of offences of the same or a similar character” was satisfied.

When approached by reporters after the hearing, Iswaran said: “Thank you for coming everyone. Sorry, it’s been a very long day.”

He declined to comment on the outcome of his application.

The charges involving Ong include 24 counts of Iswaran allegedly obtaining items with a total value of $218,058.95 from him between November 2015 and December 2021.

These items include tickets to the Singapore Formula One (F1) Grand Prix, as well as to football matches and musical shows in Britain.

Ong, who is chairman of race promoter Singapore GP, is credited with bringing the F1 race to Singapore.

The first set of charges also includes two counts of corruption for allegedly obtaining bribes amounting to $166,282.03 from Ong, as inducement for advancing the billionaire’s business interests in relation to agreements between Singapore GP and the Singapore Tourism Board.

The items include Singapore F1 Grand Prix tickets, and a flight on Ong’s private plane.

A charge of obstructing the course of justice rounded off the first set of charges.

After he was charged, he issued a statement saying that he was innocent, adding that he will focus on clearing his name.

Iswaran also resigned from the People’s Action Party and stepped down as transport minister and West Coast GRC MP.

The second set of charges relates to items with a total value of $18,956.94 that Iswaran allegedly obtained from Lum.

Lum Chang Holdings is a property management, interior design and construction company.

The items include bottles of whisky, golf clubs and a Brompton bicycle that cost $7,907.50.

They were allegedly obtained between November 2021 and November 2022, when Lum Chang’s subsidiary, Lum Chang Building Contractors, was dealing in the “addition and alteration works to existing Tanah Merah station and existing viaducts” with the Land Transport Authority (LTA).

LTA has said that it had not awarded any contract to Lum Chang Building Contractors since 2019.

The Attorney-General’s Chambers has said it will take a decision in respect of the investigations against Ong and Lum after the case against Iswaran has been completed. - The Straits Times/ANN

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