Landmark case in Singapore
SINGAPORE––Convicted of defrauding the Animal Concerns Research & Education Society (ACRES) of $26.5 million in Singapore dollars, former building contractor Tan Boon Kwee was on October 15, 2015 jailed for 14 months. Tan Boon Kwee was to have paid the sum, worth $19.4 million U.S. dollars, in damages for environmental contamination.
Tan Boon Kwee, 52, received eight months less than the maximum jail term he could have received. Tan Boon Kwee pleaded guilty in September 2015 to four counts of fraudulently transferring money, and one count each of fraudulent transfer of property and removing criminal benefits from Singapore.
This was Tan Boon Kwee’s second set of criminal convictions in connection with the long-running case.
The actions for which Tan Boon Kwee was convicted nearly bankrupted ACRES, the most prominent Singaporan animal advocacy and wildlife rehabilitation charity, with an annual budget of just under $500,000 U.S.
Elected to parliament
But the case was also instrumental in raising public awareness of environmental issues in Singapore, and helped to push longtime ACRES executive director Louis Ng, 37, into politics.
Ng, a retired commando, is now a member of the Singaporan parliament, serving the Nee Soon GRC district.
Tan Boon Kwee, doing business as A.N.A Contractor (ANAC), nearly a decade ago took on the job of building the ACRES wildlife rehabilitation center on a swampy tract in Choa Chu Kang, leased from the Singapore Land Authority (a branch of the Singapore government). The new facilities, designed to accommodate wildlife impounded by law enforcement, primarily from illegal traffickers, were originally to open in March 2007.
Contaminated wood chips
ANAC subcontracted the job of filling and leveling the site to another firm, Lok Sheng Enterprises. Lok Shang Enterprises dumped in a footing of woodchips, which turned out to be contaminated with toxic materials believed to be residue from sandblasting––probably, Ng told ANIMALS 24-7, from preparing ships to be repainted. Among the toxic materials were heavy metals and industrial solvents.
“Shortly after the land was filled, the area was plagued by a foul stench and brackish water started to seep through the surface,” recounted K.C. Vijayan of the Straits Times. Toxic leachate also polluted the nearby Kranji Reservoir, and appeared to menace a commercial fish farm.
“I cried,” admitted Louis Ng to Esther Ng of Singapore Today. “It meant demolishing the kitchen, primate sanctuary, turtle sanctuary, and all the cages that were built-to-order. They were welded to structures and could not be salvaged.”
Already delayed for six months by financial problems, the repeatedly rescheduled ACRES wildlife rehabilitation center opening in October 2007 was indefinitely postponed. A reptile quarantine station that can house about 50 animals at a time and a humane education center debuted in time to host tours by Asia for Animals conference delegates in January 2010.
Justice came slowly
ACRES sued Tan Boon Kwee and ANAC in September 2008, but a semblance of justice came slowly.
ACRES in March 2010 won an order from Singapore High Court Justice Kan Ting Chiu that ANAC was liable for damages, but the amount of $26.5 million was not set until May 27, 2013.
“This is only in theory. I doubt we will ever see the money,” said Louis Ng at the time.
ACRES got no money
Tan Boon Kwee had in June 2011 pleaded guilty to multiple related criminal charges, but had already begun rearranging his affairs to try to ensure he would not have to pay ACRES a cent, deputy public prosecutor Nathaniel Khng testified before Tan Boon Kwee was jailed.
Summarized Straits Times court correspondent Elena Chong, “Between January and March 2011, Tan was quietly liquidating his assets. Throughout 2011 to 2012, he gave away money to his workers at ANAC, and relatives in China, and repaid unrecorded loans to friends. On April 2, 2012, he traveled with his family to China, taking along $75,000 which he claimed was for gifts to his relatives, with whom he had little contact previously.
“In June 2012 ACRES petitioned for Tan’s bankruptcy after he failed to pay the charity its litigation costs of $205,807,” Chong continued. “Rather than pay the damages, Tan Boon Kwee sold his property for $1.8 million and pocketed $500,000 as his share. He sold his car and surrendered six insurance policies, keeping the total amount received of $608,569 in cash.”
Made best of bad situation
ACRES, during the years it has sought justice in the case, three times hosted the Asia for Animals conference, becoming the only organization to host the conference more than once in the same city.
Founded in 2000, Asia for Animals is the oldest and largest animal welfare conference serving the Asia/Pacific region.
In addition, ACRES in 2012 collaborated with the Lao Zoo in Vientiane to found the first wildlife rehabilitation center in Laos, operated under ACRES management.