A district judge has acquitted a 38-year-old male Malaysian national accused of cheating his 70-year-old landlady.
The landlady’s daughter reported the man to the police in 2020 after realising that her mother had passed him S$39,000 to invest in his supposed bird’s nest business.
While the man testified that the S$39,000 was indeed for his bird’s nest business, he claimed that the landlady gave it to him as a loan rather than as an investment, which he would have to repay her with S$11,000 interest.
However, the landlady repeatedly denied that the sum was a loan to the man.
Tenant from 2012 to 2015
According to court documents, the man rented an HDB unit in Tampines from the landlady in 2012.
The landlady claimed that the man defaulted on his monthly rental payments shortly after moving in and would sporadically pay off the rent he owed her.
She also claimed that he had, in several instances, threatened to set her house on fire if she persisted in asking for the payment.
The landlady claimed the man owed over S$20,000 in rent after he moved out in 2015.
On the other hand, the man claimed he always paid the landlady promptly, except for the one time when he was overseas.
He added that the landlady often visited the Tampines unit to collect the rental payments and that he did not owe her any rent after moving out.
The man and the landlady remained in contact after he moved out.
Apparent bird’s nest business
The man approached the landlady on Aug. 8, 2020 and told her about his bird’s nest business.
However, both parties’ accounts of what was discussed that day varied.
The landlady claimed that the man approached her with a proposal to invest in his bird’s nest business.
The landlady, who worked as a cleaner, claimed that the man promised her that she would no longer need to work as he would share the profits with her if she invested.
She claimed that she did not ask about the amount of capital required or the timeline for receiving returns as the man discouraged her from asking too many questions.
She added that she trusted him to repay her investment, just like how he repaid her for the rental he owed.
The man claimed otherwise and said he contacted the landlady to ask for a S$20,000 loan with an interest of S$6,000.
He also claimed that the landlady asked him the purpose of the loan and that he had explained to her that it was going towards his bird’s nest business.
He denied asking her to invest the money in his bird’s nest business and asserted that it was always meant to be a loan with interest.
Aug. 11, 2020 — S$19,000 loan
On Aug. 11, 2020, the landlady withdrew S$19,000 cash from her bank account and handed it to the man.
She firmly denied that it was a loan to the man and explained that he apparently promised to repay the amount within 10 to 14 days, along with an additional interest or commission of S$5,000.
The man clarified that the landlady handed him S$19,000 instead of the requested S$20,000 as she had apparently deducted S$1,000 as interest.
He went to RWS Casino almost immediately after to supposedly meet the bird’s nest supplier.
He claimed that he could not resist his urge to gamble when he was at the casino and used the money from the landlady, as well as an additional S$6,300 from his personal funds, to gamble a total of S$25,300.
Aug. 12, 2020 — S$20,000 loan
The next day, on Aug. 12, 2020 the man claimed he asked the landlady for another loan of S$20,000 with S$5,000 interest, which he would repay within two weeks for his bird’s nest business.
He maintained that it was never his intention for her to invest in his bird’s nest business and denied ever discussing subjects related to his bird’s nest business when he asked the landlady for loans.
He claimed that the landlady did not ask him for the purpose of the Aug. 12 loan.
The landlady’s account differed in this regard as she claimed that he told her that the S$19,000 from Aug. 11 was insufficient.
She withdrew and handed the S$20,000 to him without inquiring further and claimed that she felt prohibited from asking the man any questions.
She also refuted the man’s claim that the S$20,000 was a loan with an interest or commission of S$5,000.
Similar to Aug. 11, the man promptly returned to the casino and gambled away the S$20,000, along with the S$1,000 he had on his person.
Aug. 13, 2020 — daughter discovers
He claimed that he asked the landlady for another S$15,000 on Aug. 13, 2020.
He added that they did not discuss his bird’s nest business before the landlady agreed.
She attempted to withdraw the amount but could not as she realised she only had S$115.03 left in her account.
The man claimed that she then suggested that he request the S$15,000 from her daughter, adding that she was persistent even though he was hesitant to do so.
He claimed that the landlady called to inform her daughter, who then told him to meet her near her office at Boat Quay.
The man claimed that he waited for two hours, but the landlady’s daughter ultimately did not meet him due to her busy schedule.
On the other hand, the landlady claimed that the man threatened to lose the S$39,000 if she did not produce the additional S$15,000.
She claimed that she asked him to approach her daughter after he instructed her to find alternative means to produce the money.
She later revised this to claim that the man had asked her to ask her daughter for the S$15,000.
After the call, the landlady’s daughter confronted her mother and learnt that the older woman had apparently given S$39,000 to the man for his bird’s nest business.
Both women claimed that the man had instructed the landlady not to tell anyone about the investment.
The landlady also claimed that the man threatened to set her house on fire if she did not invest in his bird’s nest business.
Suspecting that the man had scammed her mother and would flee with the S$39,000, the landlady’s daughter reported the man to the police on Aug. 15.
Aug. 16, 2020 — arrested
The man was arrested on Aug. 16 and charged on Aug. 18.
He was handed one charge each of cheating his landlady by deceiving her into giving him S$19,000 and S$$20,000 for a bird’s nest investment opportunity on Aug. 11, 2020 and Aug. 12, 2020 respectively.
He maintained that the S$39,000 was a loan and refuted the landlady’s claims that the money was an investment in his bird’s nest business.
When asked why he chose to borrow money from the landlady at such exorbitant interest rates, the man said he preferred to borrow from her due to their longstanding relationship as opposed to borrowing from strangers and/ or financial institutions.
He added that he had borrowed money from the landlady several times and that she had always recorded these loans and their repayments in a notebook.
Aug. 28, 2020 — returned landlady S$39,000
He returned the S$39,000 to the landlady on Aug. 28, 2020.
Both women claimed that they had not requested for him to return the money.
Despite receiving the S$39,000, the landlady maintained that the man had deceived her out of that money.
Landlady’s testimony “riddled” with inconsistencies
Senior District Judge Bala Reddy stated that he found the landlady’s testimony “riddled with both internal and external inconsistencies”.
Noting that the prosecution’s case against the man hinged on the landlady’s testimony, the judge stated that the inconsistencies “severely compromised” her credibility and rendered her account “utterly implausible and lacking in reliability”.
While the judge noted that the prosecution had attributed the landlady’s inconsistencies in her evidence to her fallible memory, he believed that a “systematic and widespread pattern of many inconsistencies coming together” would “destroy the credibility” of the witness.
Doubted landlady’s claim that she invested as trusted the man to repay
He referred to the landlady’s claims, who said she trusted the man to repay her the S$39,000 investment as he had repaid her the rental he owed.
She also said the man still owed her around S$2,000 in rent as of 2020.
This meant that the debt would have stretched out “an astonishing” five years after the man moved out in 2015 and, thus, cast doubt on the credibility of the landlady’s claim that she had faith in his repayment.
Questioned why landlady invested in a business when she fears losing money
The judge also found that the landlady struggled to provide a valid explanation for her decision to invest in the man’s bird nest business when confronted with evidential inconsistencies.
The judge also noted that the lady had claimed that she did not lend money to people as she was afraid of being unable to recoup the money.
He said this contradicted her willingness to invest in the man’s business, which is risky and susceptible to losses.
Found landlady contradicting herself
The judge also noted that the landlady had given two “diametrically opposite reasons” to explain her investment into the man’s business.
She initially explained that she did so as the man had promised her high profitability and financial security before claiming that the man had threatened to burn her house if she did not invest.
The judge also refuted the landlady’s claim of not giving out loans, based on a document the man adduced as evidence of a loan the landlady had given him in 2015.
The landlady identified the document as the man’s supposed rental repayment records during investigations but later denied all knowledge of the document when confronted with it.
Man was truthful with “generally cogent” evidence
On the other hand, the judge found that the man “came across as a forthright and truthful witness, whose evidence was generally cogent”.
He stated that the man was “largely consistent” throughout his accounts and that objective evidence generally supported his testimony.
He stated that the man relied heavily on an established pattern of borrowing money from the landlady with interest, where he claimed to have borrowed money from her in 2015, January 2017, November 2017, and in various other instances.
Handwriting in 2015 document matched landlady’s
The man adduced the 2015 loan document to substantiate his claim.
The document contained hand-written annotations detailing the dates of his repayments, which the man claimed were written by the landlady.
Referring to this document, the judge stated that the handwriting largely matched the landlady’s.
The man claimed that the landlady had similarly recorded his other loans with her in two small notebooks with “555” on their covers.
However, the investigations officer-in-charge could not recover the alleged notebooks after the landlady and her daughter denied their existence.
With regard to this, the judge stated: “I note that it was regrettable that this court was not assisted by other objective evidence, in the form of … the remaining ‘555’ notebooks.”
“No attempt had been made by the investigating officer to secure these pieces of evidence. Such documents would have shed further light on the dealings between parties and the credibility of the key witnesses touched on above.”
Despite this, the judge found that the man was coherent and consistent in establishing and explaining his long-standing lender-borrower relationship with the landlady, which thus fortified his credibility.
Man’s failure to prove business not necessary in the face of deficiencies in prosecution’s case
The judge also rejected the prosecution’s arguments, including one where the prosecution doubted the existence of the man’s supposed bird nest business as he did not provide evidence proving otherwise.
“However, this line of argument does not in any way strengthen the prosecution’s case, especially considering the deficiencies exposed in its own case earlier.”
“Nevertheless, considering the broader context of the longstanding lender-borrower relationship between the parties, I did not perceive it as necessary for the [man] to present additional evidence to substantiate the existence of his bird’s nest business.”
“The objective evidence presented during the trial already conveys a coherent and unmistakable picture that the S$39,000 was consistently intended to be a personal loan.”
The judge stated that the landlady’s lack of credibility cast doubt on the “entirety” of the prosecution’s case, which he found that the prosecution had not been able to prove beyond reasonable doubt and, in turn, meet its “requisite legal burden”.
As such, he found it appropriate to acquit the man of both charges in September 2023.
Top image by Mothership