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1 week's jail for MFA director-general who lied to public servant over use of diplomatic bag service

1 week's jail for MFA director-general who lied to public servant over use of diplomatic bag service
In April, Gilbert Oh Hin Kwan admitted that he had lied to an MFA deputy secretary (management), on Jan 19, 2023.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

SINGAPORE — A director-general at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) who gave false information to a public servant over the use of diplomatic bags was sentenced to a week in jail on May 20.

In April, Gilbert Oh Hin Kwan, 45, admitted that he had lied to Ong Eng Chuan, then MFA deputy secretary (management), on Jan 19, 2023.

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

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.

In her judgment, District Judge Sharmila Sripathy-Shanaz said: "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."

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

Oh was represented by lawyers Shashi Nathan and Harjeet Kaur from Withers KhattarWong, who asked for their client to be given a fine of less than $5,000, stressing that their client had "no ill-intentions or personal benefit to gain".

But on May 20, the judge 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.

She added that under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations 1961, which provisions are stated in Singapore in the Diplomatic and Consular Relations Act 2005, 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 the 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.

Oh's troubles with the law started when he wanted to do a personal favour for a female friend, who is a Chinese national, by helping her send her watches from China to Singapore.

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

On Jan 12, 2023, Oh contacted his colleague, 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 Loke's help to send it from Beijing to Singapore via the diplomatic bag service, and Loke agreed to the request.

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

It contained 21 luxury watches, a ring, and seven children's books, which belonged to 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 or the exact contents of the package.

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 Loke for a bag screening shortly before midnight and the package was found.

"Dion told the officers that he had not known what the package contained (and that) he had received it from a Chinese diplomat and was carrying it back for (Oh)," said DPP Tan.

The matter was then referred to the Singapore Police Force and Loke was interviewed at the scene. He was released at around 4am.

MFA was alerted and in the morning on Jan 19, 2023, Ong told Oh to provide a written account of the circumstances that led to 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.

Oh told his father that he intended to tell MFA that the watches belonged to the latter, and that the older man was the one who had asked for help to have them brought to Singapore.

In an e-mail to 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.

ALSO READ: MFA director-general who was charged for using diplomatic bags allowed to visit Tokyo for leisure

This article was first published in The Straits Times. Permission required for reproduction.

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