Missing S$33m case: Singapore lawyer Jeffrey Ong ‘inadvertently’ had a stolen passport when nabbed abroad, defence says

Jeffrey Ong Su Aun was arrested in Kuala Lumpur in 2019 with a stolen Malaysian passport but it was inadvertently brought to him, his lawyer said. — iStock picture via TODAY
Jeffrey Ong Su Aun was arrested in Kuala Lumpur in 2019 with a stolen Malaysian passport but it was inadvertently brought to him, his lawyer said. — iStock picture via TODAY

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SINGAPORE, April 9 — The defence counsel for a lawyer accused of misappropriating millions of dollars from his clients has disputed arguments by prosecutors that he absconded to Malaysia before being arrested there with a stolen Malaysian passport.

Jeffrey Ong Su Aun, 43, the former managing partner of law firm JLC Advisors, appeared in a district court today for further arguments on whether he should be released on bail.

His lawyer Tan Hee Joek told the court that according to an affidavit Ong’s friend gave to the Singapore police’s Commercial Affairs Department (CAD), the friend had bought the passport on the black market in China and given it to Ong over drinks in Singapore.

The defence’s case, however, is that the friend obtained it through an employee of a spa he runs with his wife.

Ong then left the passport in a stack of documents. It was inadvertently handed to him when he asked his business associate to get him the documents while they were in Malaysia, Tan said.

He also argued that Ong had not fled Singapore, but instead went to Malaysia to settle two work projects.

After close to three hours of hearing, District Judge Terence Tay adjourned the matter to next Tuesday (April 13) for the prosecution to file another affidavit on the matter.

Ong has been in remand since June 2019 following his arrest in a Kuala Lumpur hotel. He faces 76 charges including cheating, forgery and criminal breach of trust as an attorney, in a case involving more than S$75 million.

Prosecutors said today that they believe it is “the largest amount of money ever misappropriated by a lawyer in Singapore”, and that Ong has admitted to his offences in statements given to the Singapore police.

The case was first thrust into the spotlight when his client, precision engineering firm Allied Technologies, filed a police report over S$33.4 million having gone missing from its escrow account.

An escrow account is used predominantly by solicitors here to control the flow of funds during various stages of the transaction for a project, for instance, the sale of a property.

Five of Ong’s charges were amended today to name Allied Technologies’ executive director Kenneth Low Si Ren as a co-accused.

Allegedly got rid of mobile phone

Tan had argued a month ago that Ong has strong roots in Singapore, having lived here all his life and being from a “respectable family”.

When he was charged and denied bail, the prosecution said that he got a friend to take him to Malaysia and made arrangements to stay in two locations, an office and a hotel, which he did not pay for with credit cards.

They also alleged that he asked for a stolen Malaysian passport from his friend, belonging to a person very close to him in age, and held onto it. He also allegedly disposed of his mobile phone and got a new one with a China SIM card before leaving Singapore.

The Immigration and Checkpoints Authority of Singapore previously clarified that Ong did not use the passport when leaving Singapore.

‘Friend lied about passport’

Today, Tan continued with his arguments for bail before the prosecution got its turn to respond.

One of Ong’s closest friends — a former overseas Singapore Armed Forces scholar who “holds a highly respected occupation” — has stepped forward to be his bailor, his lawyer said.

Tan also said that his client would abide by all bail conditions, including electronic tagging and reporting to the authorities daily.

As for how Ong ended up in Malaysia in 2019, Tan put it to the court that “objective and contemporaneous documents” supported the argument that he was there to work on two projects.

It was “baseless” for the CAD to assert that there was a “sinister” motive for Ong leaving Singapore for Malaysia at night, given that many travellers do the same to save time.

Tan said that Ong had not driven his family car at the time because a business associate had arranged for another car to pick him up and take him over the Causeway.

Ong also did not try to hide himself, because his business contacts knew exactly where he was staying. One of them later led Malaysian police to the hotel where he was arrested.

As for the stolen Malaysian passport, Tan told District Judge Terence Tay that the photograph in it — of a Chinese man — bore no resemblance to Ong.

“The person in the passport is shorter, 170cm tall, than his height of 180cm.”

He also argued that Ong’s friend, identified as Calvin Lim, lied about Ong actively seeking the passport.

Lim previously told the CAD that he procured the passport on the black market in China and gave it to Ong in February 2019. But it was issued only in late April 2019, shortly before Ong went to Malaysia

In his court affidavit, Ong said that he did not take the passport with him over the Causeway. He had inadvertently left it in a bundle of documents that he got his business associate to bring over to him at the Kuala Lumpur hotel.

Ong also asserted that he did not know it was stolen.

‘A flight risk’

In response, Deputy Public Prosecutor (DPP) Nicholas Khoo said that Ong being found with a stolen passport “is enough, when coupled with the rest of his behaviour, to show why he is such a flight risk”.

“The question is, what would a reasonable man do — not just any man, but a legally trained person — if he was handed a passport that does not belong to him and later turned out to be stolen?

“Anyone would immediately reject it and say, ‘What are you doing?’... What he did was he chose to keep it on him,” DPP Khoo added.

These were among five reasons that the prosecution gave to deny Ong bail.

There are also reasonable grounds to believe that Ong is guilty, DPP Khoo said, because Ong had admitted to his offences and they were “corroborated by other involved parties and objective evidence such as documentary records”.

“He remained in Malaysia for more than two weeks and crucially remained uncontactable during this period He did not voluntarily surrender to the authorities and, I think, as stated in his own affidavit, he knew Allied was already chasing for the return of the S$33 million even prior to him leaving.

“When news broke (of the missing monies) and he still remained uncontactable, there is only one inference that can be drawn — he was not planning to return,” DPP Khoo added.

Ong remains in remand in the meantime. — TODAY

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