Singapore: When Professional And Personal Lives Collide - Parity Among Professions?

A case study of Fong Chee Keong v Professional Engineers Board, Singapore [2016] 3 SLR 221

Are all professions held to the same standard of honesty? In particular, if a professional is dishonest in his personal life, what is the impact on his professional life?

Professional Engineers Board

A professional engineer, Fong, was convicted for making false statements to the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority. He did so in an attempt to obtain a visit pass for a female Chinese national, with whom he was in an intimate relationship. He was sentenced to four weeks' imprisonment for this and three other criminal charges taken into consideration.

Subsequently, the Professional Engineers Board (PEB) received a complaint pertaining to his conviction and instituted disciplinary proceedings against him. The Disciplinary Committee (DC) heard the complaint and ordered Fong's registration as a professional engineer to be cancelled. Fong appealed to the Court.

The PEB cited past cases where the majority of engineers who had been convicted of offences involving dishonesty had their registration cancelled. The Court held that Fong's misconduct was not related to the carrying out of his professional duties as an engineer but a moral shortcoming driven by emotional forces in his personal life that may or may not have affected his professional duties. In the Court's view, Fong had not, in committing the offence, transgressed the bounds of professional duty unlike the past cases where the offences were directly related to the engineers' professional duties. Therefore, the Court reduced the sentence to a two-year suspension.

This distinction between the professional and personal lives of an engineer is in stark contrast to that of lawyers. The Court views lawyers' professional and personal lives as one and the same; the sentence meted out to lawyers for dishonesty is also harsher.

Law Society of Singapore

In Law Society of Singapore v Amdad Hussein Lawrence [2000] 3 SLR(R) 23, the Court was of the view that although the offence of shoplifting at a supermarket committed by Amdad was not in his capacity as a solicitor, this was wholly irrelevant and not a mitigating factor. Amad was ordered to be struck off.

In Law Society of Singapore v Choy Chee Yean [2010] 3 SLR 560, Choy was convicted of burglary in Hong Kong. The Court reiterated that the legal profession cannot be seen to be tolerant of any act of dishonesty on the part of a lawyer, even if the dishonesty had been of a technical nature (Choy had a severe mental condition). Thus, a lawyer would almost invariably be ordered to be struck off and it was so ordered.

As for healthcare professionals, the issue whether such a distinction is drawn has not been directly addressed by a court. However, a review of the sentences imposed for dishonesty in the personal lives of healthcare professionals suggests that such a distinction is drawn by the respective professional bodies.

Singapore Nursing Board

Nurses were convicted of theft or criminal breach of trust; they were suspended between six and 12 months. A nurse forged her timesheet for her employment with a hospital and was convicted; she was suspended for three months.

Singapore Pharmacy Council

A pharmacist was convicted of theft and sentenced to five days' imprisonment. She was suspended for 12 months as she had two previous convictions for theft. This suggests that had there been no prior convictions, the punishment meted out would have been less severe.

Traditional Chinese Medicine Practitioners Board

An acupuncturist was convicted of cheating the Workforce Development Agency of training subsidies and imprisoned for seven months. He was suspended for six months.

Singapore Medical Council

Dr Currie Chiang was convicted for tax evasion; she was suspended for four months. Two doctors who were convicted of forgery of payment vouchers submitted to the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) for reservist make-up pay claims were suspended for five and six months respectively.

Dr Tay-Tze Hsin Marc was convicted for dishonestly misappropriating sums of money from his employer; he was suspended for three months. The Disciplinary Tribunal noted that the offences were serious and were committed in the course of the doctor's practice as a medical practitioner; suggesting that if it were otherwise, it may have been more lenient. For example, Dr Ho Mien who made claims for monetary compensation for night duties that he did not actually perform was merely censured.

This leniency streak can also be observed in the newly regulated estate agent profession.

Council of Estate Agents

An estate agent who falsely represented to the Housing & Development Board in the discharge of her professional duties that she was the niece of the seller was only suspended for one month and fined $1,000.

Fong's suspension of two years for a false declaration to the Immigration & Checkpoints Authority appears to be excessively harsh compared to this case.

Conclusion

Will standards among the professions converge in the future? In Singapore Medical Council v Kwan Kah Yee [2015] 5 SLR 201, the Court suggested that the punishment of dishonest offences by medical practitioners be brought in line with the legal profession. Perhaps this rising tide will lift all boats but for the moment, the different professions impose clearly differing standards of honesty in the personal lives of their members.

Dentons is the world's first polycentric global law firm. A top 20 firm on the Acritas 2015 Global Elite Brand Index, the Firm is committed to challenging the status quo in delivering consistent and uncompromising quality and value in new and inventive ways. Driven to provide clients a competitive edge, and connected to the communities where its clients want to do business, Dentons knows that understanding local cultures is crucial to successfully completing a deal, resolving a dispute or solving a business challenge. Now the world's largest law firm, Dentons' global team builds agile, tailored solutions to meet the local, national and global needs of private and public clients of any size in more than 125 locations serving 50-plus countries. www.dentons.com.

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