SINGAPORE (April 1): The trial of John Soh Chee Wen and Quah Su-Ling kicked off on March 25 on an acrimonious note, with their lawyers complaining about procedural unfairness. Among other things, they seemed outraged that prosecutors gave them four statements made by one Gwee Yow Pin only on the Friday evening (March 22) before the trial.

Senior Counsel N Sreenivasan, who is acting for Soh, said that he had asked for Gwee’s statements on June 29, 2018. “The prosecution holds on to it right up to Friday evening, 7.55pm, when we asked for it in June 2018. That demands an answer,” he said. Sreenivasan added that prosecutors had not provided all the statements made by Gwee, and that there seemed to be gaps in some of the statements provided. According to Sreenivasan, the four statements by Gwee were dated April 14, 2014; April 15, 2014; April 16, 2014 and May 20, 2015. He pointed out that the statement dated April 16, 2014 began with a different series of question numbers than the previous day’s statement. “It refers to certain things in ‘yesterday’s statement’ that were not in the statement given to me,” he said. “Which means there were two statements recorded on April 15. They gave us the first one, skipped one, and then gave us [the one] on April 16.”

Philip Fong, who is acting for Quah, said that there also appeared to be a gap between the first and second statement by Gwee, evident from the disjointed series of question numbers. “So, that’s one gap already between the first and second statement. And, between the second and third statement,” he said.

So, who is Gwee? And, what exactly does he have to do with the trial of Soh and Quah? Reporters for The Edge Singapore who were present in court on the first day of the trial tell me that the mention of Gwee’s name did not create a stir. And, the mainstream media reports on the proceedings that day make no mention of him. In fact, Sreenivasan had to literally spell out Gwee’s name for the judge. (Strangely, he spelt it out as Gwee Yeow Pin, instead of Gwee Yow Pin, according to a transcript of the court proceedings.)

I have never met Gwee myself, but I immediately recognised his name. Better known as Dick Gwee, he was mentioned in a story The Edge Singapore ran more than four years ago under the headline, “Hunting for the truth” (Issue 641, Sept 1, 2014). As I said in this column only last week, the story is one I will probably never forget — partly for the strong interest views it garnered, but also because of the threats of legal action we received from a number of companies and individuals.

Legal threats from Gwee

Gwee was among the parties who threatened us. In a letter dated Sept 4, 2014, addressed to The Edge Singapore and our sister publication The Edge Malaysia, the law firm WongPartnership, acting for Gwee, said our story “bears the defamatory meaning that our client had conspired with and/ or acted at the behest of John Soh Chee Wen to manipulate the shares of Asiasons Capital, Blumont Group and LionGold Corp, and that he has been engaged in criminal and/or illegal activities”.

WongPartnership even took issue with the headline as well as a reference in our story to Gwee having been convicted in 2002 for manipulating shares in Mid-Continent Equipment Group, an oil industry equipment supplier. “We note that both your choice of the title ‘Hunting for the truth’, and the deliberate mention of our client’s previous conviction, were carried out to portray our client as having a propensity towards share manipulation.”

WongPartnership went on to demand that we publish a clarification stating that Gwee “was not involved with John Soh Chee Wen or the crash in the manner reported” in our story. We did not comply. Gwee did not take the matter further. The big question now is what exactly Gwee revealed in the four statements that were given to the lawyers for Soh and Quah. Why do prosecutors believe the statements are relevant to the trial? What prompted Soh’s lawyers to ask for those statements in June last year? Will the statements help or harm Soh and Quah’s defence? Prosecutors said on the first day of trial that Gwee was not among the witnesses they have lined up so far. Prosecutors raised an issue

Meanwhile, prosecutors brought up some issues of their own. In court on March 27, after a day’s adjournment on March 26, they expressed concern about the presence of Quah Su-Yin and her husband Ronald Menon, both of whom were reported to be sitting in the public gallery. Deputy public prosecutor Peter Koy wanted to know if the defence was going to call them as witnesses.

Su-Yin is the sister of Quah. She was also executive director of ISR Capital, a company that had threatened The Edge Singapore with legal action in the wake of our “Hunting for the truth” story in 2014. She resigned on Dec 31, 2016, just over a month after Soh was arrested and shares in ISR collapsed.

Koy also noted in court that Su-Yin was a director of Infiniti Asset Management, and a person authorised to give trading instructions to some of the accounts used in the alleged manipulation of Asiasons, Blumont and LionGold. Her husband Menon, on the other hand, is among the dozens of individuals whose brokerage accounts were alleged to have been used by Soh and Quah. Soh’s defence counsel Sreenivasan and Quah’s defence counsel Fong said that they have “no intention” of calling Su-Yin and Menon as witnesses, unless there are “further developments”. For his part, Sreenivasan asked if statements had been taken from Su-Yin and Menon. Koy revealed that there were indeed statements taken from them. He also said that the prosecution had disclosed some statements from Menon to the defence counsel in May 2018, as part of the prosecution’s disclosure obligations.

Hostile witnesses?

The seeming wariness on both sides as to who will eventually be called as witnesses could mean that there will be some interesting twists and turns in the trial in the weeks and months ahead.

For Soh and his alleged co-conspirator Quah, it is already clear that many of the people who were involved in their scheme are no longer in their corner. Not least among them is Goh Hin Calm, who was charged along with Soh and Quah in November 2016. By his own account, he had such a close working relationship with Quah that she entrusted her chequebook to him to make payments on her behalf while she was travelling. Yet, just days before their trial was due to begin, Goh decided to plead guilty to two charges. He has since been sentenced to concurrent three-year jail terms for each of those charges.

Then, there are brokers who once profited from their association with Soh and Quah, but suffered losses when the penny stocks crashed. Among them is Ng Kit Kiat of OCBC Securities, who was the first witness to be called in the trial. Ng described how he began taking instructions from Quah and later Soh for a number of trading accounts, without the proper authorisation forms being signed. He also described a meeting with Soh at LionGold’s offices after the crash, where he told Soh of the losses in some of the accounts and Soh had promised to “settle everything”. Ng said he eventually had to pay some $300,000 out his own pocket to cover some of the losses.

Other brokers expected to spill the beans on Soh and Quah include Tai Chee Ming, also known as Ken Tai, who managed 32 trading accounts at Interactive Brokers and Saxo Bank in the name of 26 holders. Another is Wong Xue Yu, who was the remisier for 29 accounts at AmFraser Securities in the name of 19 holders. Yet, another is Husein, alias Tjoa Sang Hi. He was remisier for 27 controlled accounts at Phillip Securities in the name of 17 holders. On the other hand, the prosecution could face risks in relying too heavily on witnesses who were directly involved in the stock manipulation scheme, especially if they have close very personal relationships or familial ties with Soh and Quah.

While responding to issues of procedural unfairness brought up by defence counsel, deputy public prosecutor Koy noted some witnesses might be “uncooperative” when they appear in court. “So, when they testify, we are going to be in a position where we may have to apply to cross-examine them as hostile witnesses,” he said. Clearly, such hostile witnesses could make the outcome of the unfolding trial more uncertain, even if they do make the proceedings more exciting.

This story appears in The Edge Singapore (Issue 875, week of Apr 1) which is on sale now. Subscribe here