Singapore's highest court yesterday refused to rule that public servants who lie during a probe into procurement improprieties should be jailed.
And with that, it brought an end to the nearly two-year-old criminal case stemming from the purchase of Brompton bicycles in which a former National Parks Board (NParks) assistant director was fined $5,000 for lying to auditors.
The prosecution had asked the Court of Appeal to give a ruling on whether jail terms should be imposed for public servants who give false information to other public servants in the context of a probe into procurement improprieties.
But the apex court said sentencing depends on the facts of each case and that it was not appropriate to adopt a "blanket approach" in the manner raised by the prosecution. It was "neither safe nor sound", said the court, to set a benchmark which would effectively mean jailing all public servants who lie in a wide range of scenarios, without taking into account other sentencing factors.
The criminal case arose out of intense public scrutiny in June 2012 over NParks' purchase of 26 Brompton foldable bicycles at $2,200 apiece.
An internal investigation was launched into the procurement process, during which then NParks assistant director Bernard Lim Yong Soon was asked if he knew the boss of bike supplier Bikehop.
Lim lied that he met the boss only after the tender was awarded, when in fact they were in the same cycling group and he had tipped the other man off about the tender. Bikehop was the only bidder in the process.
Last June, Lim was given the maximum $5,000 fine for lying to internal auditors. The district judge said jail was not appropriate as Lim had not lied to evade prosecution for other offences and there was no waste of public funds as the bikes were retailing at a higher price of $2,510 apiece.
The fine was upheld in November by the High Court, which dismissed the prosecution's appeal for a jail term. The matter would typically have ended as there was no further avenue of appeal.
However, the prosecution invoked a procedure, known as a criminal reference, to refer a question of law of public interest to the Court of Appeal.
Yesterday, in a judgment delivered by Judge of Appeal Chao Hick Tin, the court said the question submitted was not a question of law of public interest; the prosecution was essentially seeking a ruling on a benchmark sentence.
The court said the premise of the question was too narrow, because it failed to account for a host of sentencing factors, and yet also too broad, as it could cover a wide range of scenarios with varying degrees of severity.
"The truth of the matter is that a question concerning sentence, which is necessarily fact-sensitive, cannot be camouflaged as a question of law," said the court.
Describing the current application as "the thin end of the wedge", the court stressed that the criminal reference procedure should not be invoked as a backdoor appeal.
A spokesman for the Attorney-General's Chambers said it would study the grounds of decision very carefully.
This article was first published on April 11, 2015.
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