Friday, April 3, 2009

One law for all?

By Darth Vader, Guest Columnist at
March 22, 2009

Recently, prominent criminal defense attorney Subhash Anandan created a stir with his comment that “There’s one law for the rich, and one law for ordinary people.” Predictably, the authorities criticized his comments, with Law Minister K. Shanmugam declaring that “There is no truth in his comments.” He then cited a couple of cases where rich people were punished for their crimes. So is there any truth to Mr. Anandan’s remarks then? Or was he just making wild allegations out of sheer frustration at losing several cases? After all, he is well-known for his pro-bono work in representing defendants in some very high profile cases, including Took Leng How, the man who was eventually convicted and executed for the murder of 8 year old Huang Na. Perhaps an analysis of several prominent cases over the past few years would shed better light on this.

Organ Trading:

Recently, Health Minister Khaw Boon Wan announced that he would be pushing of the legalization of organ trading, specifically of kidneys. This was prompted by the arrest of Tang Wee Sung, Chairman of C. K. Tang, for attempting to buy a kidney, and for falsifying his affidavit. Mr. Tang had been undergoing dialysis for kidney failure for the past few years, and had recently been removed from the list of potential transplant recipients due to his age and poor health. In desperation, he sought to buy a kidney from an Indonesian peasant. Mr. Tang, his prospective donor, and the broker who arranged the sale were all arrested and jailed for their part in the crime.

Following Mr. Tang’s conviction, Mr. Khaw commented that that it was sad that Mr. Tang had been driven to resort to an illegal act like organ trading out of sheer desperation, and said that it made absolutely no sense that he should be denied a kidney and a fresh start in life. He added that in his (Mr. Khaw’s) opinion, this should not have been a crime since it would have resulted in a win-win situation for all parties involved: Mr. Tang would have his new lease on life, while the Indonesian farmer would have money to take care of his family. Mr. Khaw’s sympathy and understanding for Mr. Tang’s plight would have been most admirable, except for one thing; his was not the first case of a dying person attempting to get a new lease on life through organ trading. There had been another case several years earlier, and Mr. Khaw’s reaction back then had been very different.

In 2002, Ms. Selvarani Raja suffered liver failure as a result of taking Slim 10, a supposedly 100% all natural herbal remedy using traditional Chinese herbs for weight loss. In reality, it contained two lethal poisons, Fenfluramin, and N-Nitroso-Fenfluramin, or Fen-Fen for short. Ms. Raja’s condition deteriorated rapidly while she was in hospital and doctors told her family that her only chance at survival would be a liver transplant. Unfortunately for her, her closest living relatives all proved unsuitable for one reason or another. Unexpectedly though, her family did find a suitable donor, whom they claimed was a distant relative from India. A background check of the donor however showed that he was actually a construction worker working here and that the family had actually wanted to buy the liver from him. The family’s application for the transplant was rejected, and Ms. Raja died of liver failure as a result.

Following her death, Mr. Khaw said that the reason why the transplant could not be approved was because organ trading exploited the poor, and that there should be no place for it in Singapore. He also added that organ donations should be acts of compassion, not commerce. Now contrast what he said about organ trading back then with what he said about it following Tang Wee Sung’s arrest and conviction. In both instances, there was a dying person who needed a transplant, a donor who was willing to sell his organ and a family willing to pay for the sale. So why the change of heart? After all, if attempting to buy a liver from an Indian construction worker constitutes exploitation of the worker, then logically speaking wouldn’t attempting to buy a kidney from an Indonesian farmer also constitute exploiting the farmer? So what exactly is the difference between Tang Wee Sung’s case and Selvarani Raja’s then, that it should elicit sympathy and action to legalize organ trading from the Minister in the former and not in the latter? If anything, Ms. Raja had a much stronger case for it: Mr. Tang had kidney failure, and his life was being sustained through regular dialysis. On the other hand, there was nothing more that doctors could have done to save Ms Raja’s life except for a transplant, and that had been denied to her.

Still, all’s well that ends well, for Mr. Tang at least; he received a donated kidney from convicted murderer, Tan “One-eyed Tiger” Chor Jin, whose kidney was miraculously compatible to his. He can now look forward to a new lease in life. The same cannot be said of Selvarani Raja, whose life could have been saved had organ trading been legal back then. Kidney patients can at least have their lives prolonged through dialysis: with liver failure, being unable to receive a transplant meant certain death. It is ironic then that in announcing plans to legalize organ trading, Mr. Khaw declared that only kidney sales would be allowed; liver sales still remained banned. Was his decision due to the fact that Tang Wee Sung needed a kidney while Selvarani Raja needed a liver? The true answer will only be known should a wealthy person try to buy a liver some day.

Slim 10:

Selvarani Raja was not the only victim of Slim 10. Local actress and compere Andrea de Cruz was its first local victim. She became critically ill, and only an emergency liver transplant from her then-fiancé (and now husband), actor Pierre Png, had saved her life. Fortunately for her, she has since made a full recovery, even though she would still have to take anti-rejection drugs for the rest of her life.

Following her discharge from hospital and subsequent recovery, she sued Slim 10’s importer Health Biz and its CEO Semon Liu for damages. Other defendants named in the suit were Slim 10 distributor TV Media and her fellow actor Rayson Tan, who had supplied her with the capsules. In his affidavit, Mr. Liu, the nephew of prominent local architect Liu Thai Ker, had declared that he was not aware that Slim 10 contained Fen-Fen, and that immediately following her admission to hospital in a coma, he had sent a sample to Australia for testing. According to his affidavit, he only knew that the pills contained Fen-Fen after the Australian chemist had warned him of it, and that was after he had received the import license. He also added that before importing the capsules, he sent them to the Health Science Authority (HSA) for testing, and the HSA had reported that the capsules were safe for human consumption. He naturally received a lot of sympathy from the public for this, at least initially. After all, caveat emptor (buyer beware), right? If Andrea de Cruz was so vain as to take slimming pills if she wasn’t sure if they were safe, then wasn’t it her own fault for not taking precautions in the first place? And besides, how could it possibly be Semon Liu’s fault if his business partners in mainland China had screwed him by adulterating the capsules with Fen-Fen without his knowledge? There were even people who called Ms. de Cruz a “vindictive bitch” for suing him instead of accepting responsibility for her own actions in taking the pills. At least, that was the case until the trial actually unfolded.

During the trial, the Australian chemist who analyzed the pills unleashed a bombshell revelation: Semon Liu had asked him to test Slim 10 before he received the import permit from the HSA, and not after Ms. de Cruz became ill as he originally declared in his affidavit. The chemist had also warned him that Slim 10 contained Fen-Fen, a lethal poison, and that under no circumstances should it ever be allowed for human consumption, even before he had sent his samples to the HSA for testing. In other words, Semon Liu knew that Slim 10 was a lethal poison even before he submitted his samples to the HSA for approval. But did that stop him from going ahead to import Slim 10? No, not when there’s big money to be made from its sale, obviously.

The chemist also testified that he prepared a report for Semon Liu to submit to the HSA. In it, he warned the HSA’s analytical chemists that Slim 10 contained Fen-Fen, and that under no circumstances should it ever be approved for sale. Under cross-examination from Ms. de Cruz’s attorneys, Mr. Liu admitted that he told the HSA that Slim 10 was a 100% natural herbal capsule made from herbs used for weight loss in traditional Chinese medicine. When queried about the Australian chemist’s report, he said that he told the HSA that it was the test result from Australia, without notifying them of the report’s true contents. Or in other words, he had confessed that he had suppressed the fact that the report was actually a warning to the HSA not to legalize Slim 10.

Under cross-examination from Mr. Liu’s attorneys, the two HSA analytical chemists that tested the pills admitted that they had never read the Australian chemist’s report; in fact, they had never even unsealed it, let alone opened and read it. They added that they had taken Mr. Liu’s word that Slim 10 was a 100% natural herbal capsule made from herbs used for weight loss in traditional Chinese medicine, and they had only tested for mercury and arsenic as is required by law for the testing of traditional Chinese herbs because of it. In short, Mr. Liu had lied to the two chemists about the true nature of Slim 10, and they had bought into his lies. And one woman died, and another very nearly lost her life because of it.

So in summary, these are Semon Liu’s crimes in importing Slim 10:

  • Knowingly importing and selling a banned toxic substance (Fen-Fen)
  • Importing a poison without an official NEA-issued Poisons License
  • Suppressing an official report warning local authorities of the danger that Slim 10 posed to human lives
  • Lying in his statement to the HSA about the nature of Slim 10 and its ingredients
  • Lying in his affidavit when he said that he was not aware of the true nature of his product when he had in fact been informed of it even before he sought an import permit for it
  • Recklessly endangering human lives by importing and selling a banned toxic substance by passing it off as safe
  • Causing the death of one woman (Selvarani Raja), and endangering the life of another (Andrea de Cruz) by importing and selling a banned toxic substance

In view of the above, it was no surprise that Andrea de Cruz won the case. What was a true shocker though was the response of the police to the outcome of the case. When pressed to take action against Semon Liu for his crimes, the police informed Ms. Raja’s family that if they wanted justice for her, they should sue him for it, just like how Andrea de Cruz did, as the police had absolutely no plans to press criminal charges against him. Exactly why they refuse to do so remains a mystery to this day, as they have never explained the rationale for it. It certainly cannot be because they were unsure of being able to obtain a conviction; after all, the very fact that Ms. de Cruz won her suit against him proved that he was guilty.

The police have demonstrated a truly curious view of justice here: the Raja family, a lower-middle class family, suing Semon Liu, a millionaire from a prominent family, in court. Despite the evidence against him, Mr. Liu will still eventually prevail against them, not because he had done no wrong, but simply because he has the resources for a prolonged courtroom battle whereas the Raja family do not. Andrea de Cruz could sue him and win because her employers Mediacorp, who had paid for her medical bills, including her transplant, and who now demanded restitution from the people responsible for bringing about her illness, had backed her. Had a giant government-link multinational company not backed her, it would be highly unlikely that she would have even sued him, let alone win the case.

It would be truly interesting to see how the police would have responded should another similar case were to appear before the courts. Only this time, the person who imported the banned toxic substance and passed it off as safe is not the millionaire nephew of a prominent local figure but an ordinary working-class man, and the woman who died from consuming it came from a wealthy elite family.

Regan Lee and Christopher Lee:

While Semon Liu remained a free man despite his crimes, at least Andrea de Cruz and her loved ones still received justice in a way, as Health Biz was forced to close down as a result of the lawsuit. The same cannot be said of the parents of Angelia He Xue Li, whose life was tragically cut short at the tender age of 22 as a result of the reckless driving of Regan Lee Da Wen. In October 2005, Lee had walked into the showroom where Ms. He worked, saying that he wanted to test drive a Mazda MX-5 sports car. Ms. He agreed to attend to him even though she was already off duty and planning to meet up with friends after work. Despite his unfamiliarity with the Paya Lebar area and extensive road works there, Lee still drove at speeds in excess of 90km/hr. He lost control of the car, causing it to cross a road divider and crash into a BMW approaching from the opposite direction. The impact then caused the car to flip over and crash onto the roof of an oncoming van. Ms. He died of her injuries an hour later in hospital, while both the occupants of the BMW were seriously injured.

Despite killing a young woman who was “a very nice helpful girl” according to everyone who knew her and seriously injuring two others, Lee remained free while the police “investigated” the case. That would have been the end of the matter, except that Lee showed absolutely no remorse over causing the death of Ms. He and the injuries to the occupants of the BMW. Instead, he went on an online forum for car owners and buyers and bragged about how he may end up having to but two different sports cars if he couldn’t decide how to choose between them. On of the forum members who went by the handle of “Legendkiller” recognized Lee as the driver whose reckless stupidity killed his friend, Ms. He. Angered by the fact that Lee was still free and driving, and showing absolutely no remorse for killing Ms. He, as seen by his shopping for sports cars, Legendkiller paid $1,000/- of his own money to hire a private investigator to obtain evidence that Lee was the driver of the MX-5. The PI found the evidence, and Legendkiller presented it to the Traffic Police. Incredibly, the TP said that they don’t have sufficient evidence to prosecute Lee. They even said that as the road where the accident had occurred had been resurface, they might not be able to obtain evidence that Lee had been speeding.

Outraged by the attitude of the police, Legendkiller publicly unmasked Lee as the man who caused Angelia He’s death. It didn’t take long for mounting public anger to result in Lee receiving threats of physical violence and even death. At this point, 18 months after killing Ms. He, the police finally charged Lee. Incredibly, he was allowed to plea bargain from a reckless act, which would have earned him several years in prison, to a rash act, which earned him only a fine and seven months in prison and a 10 year ban from driving. Following sentencing, Ms. He’s father, and odd-job laborer, lamented that he wondered who would now look after him and his homemaker wife since their only child had died.

Contrast the unbelievable leniency shown to Lee with the unnecessary harshness shown towards actor Christopher Lee, who showed genuine remorse for committing drunk driving and hit and run. He paid for the medical bills of the two Indian construction workers, and pleaded guilty to all charges and chose not to appeal them, saying that he should pay the price for his folly. Despite this, the Traffic Police appealed against his conviction for drunk driving, resulting in him having to serve extra time in prison after pleading guilty and paying a fine for it. After his sentence was increase, his fine was refunded, which was scarcely a consolation for a clear-cut case of double jeopardy.

Now contrast the treatment meted out to the two Lees. Christopher Lee, a poor man’s son made good, pleaded guilty to hit and run and drunk driving. He demonstrated genuine remorse by first surrendering himself to the police when he heard that they were looking for him, and then by paying for the medical bills of the two injured men, and finally by pleading guilty and stoically accepting the sentences meted out to him without appeal, even the case of double jeopardy. On the other hand, Regan Lee, a rich man’s son, showed no remorse, even bragging about the possibility of having to buy two sports cars, until he was finally charged in court. Moreover, Christopher Lee’s case was that of a clear-cut rash act, as he did stop to check on the condition of the two men, and left the scene only after he received assurances from them that they were fine and had paid them to compensate them for knocking them down. By contrast, Regan Lee demonstrated clear-cut recklessness by speeding despite his unfamiliarity with the area and the presence of road works. Finally, Christopher Lee never killed anyone: at worst, one of the two workers had his toe amputated. In stark contrast, Regan Lee killed Angelia He and seriously injured two others. So why then was he allowed to plea bargain whereas Christopher Lee was dealt with harshly? And why did the traffic police originally say that they did not have sufficient evidence to charge him when a private detective could find the evidence? The implication of their statement is that with all their forensic laboratories and training, the police can’t even find evidence to charge someone who had committed a crime when a private detective lacking such facilities can. It really makes one truly wonder about the quality of police detectives.

Physical assault:

Under the law, this is classified as a non-seizable offence i.e. the police cannot arrest the culprit. Instead, the victim must sue the perpetrator. This sounds fine on paper: in reality, it would result in a rich man getting away scott-free for assaulting a poor man, but the poor man would go to prison if he assaulted the rich man. So what’s the logic behind this argument? Simply put, the poor man cannot afford to sue the rich man, so he’s forced to simply accept that the rich man gets away with it. Of course, he could retaliate by beating up the rich man later, but then the rich can afford to, and will sue him for it. And because the poor man cannot afford to pay the damages, he will go to prison for it. True, there is no case of one law for the rich and one law for others here since both rich and poor are subjected to the same law; nonetheless, the law is still skewed in favor of the rich as can be seen in the scenario above.

In conclusion:

So, was Subhash Anandan making wild allegations, or is there any truth in his accusations? It is true that both the rich and the common man are subjected to the same laws. Still, as can be seen in the cases outlined above, there seems to be a wide discrepancy in how the rich are treated by the law. An old adage states that “Justice must not only be done, it must be seen to be done”. What can be seen from the case studies outlined above though is that justice appears to favor the rich at the expense of the common man. So while it is true that there are differences between laws imposed on rich and poor alike, the impression is that double standards exist in the enforcement of the law.

Also read a fellow blogger's review of Subash Anandan's recent book here.


sgcynic said...

Makes my blood boil, to live in such a country. Get the judges, prosecutors and law enforcers to take the pledge every day, just like they did while in school. They must have forgotten: "...based on justice and equality...".

Ganga said...

What he meant to say was 'there are 2 sides to every law'...

Anonymous said...

Well in 2009, the Slim10 I take does not have fen-fen and it works great! I sleep like a baby - no jitters - no heart racing either. best thing is - no food cravings! This stuff is the BOMB! I love it and I'm losing weight - 8 pounds in the first week.