Civil servant Ng Han Yuan was fined $2,000 yesterday for breaching the Official Secrets Act (OSA) by giving confidential information to a Straits Times journalist.
Ng, 25, a Housing Board officer who works as an estate manager in the resale operations section, gave information to journalist Janice Tai Jia Ling between May 31 and July 16 this year, the court heard.
Ng had told Ms Tai about a project involving a new HDB portal that had not been made public at the time of the offence.
Those convicted of an offence under the OSA can be jailed for up to two years and fined up to $2,000. Ng had been suspended by HDB pending the outcome of the case.
After the verdict, HDB said Ng was still suspended. It added that it took a serious view of any unauthorised disclosure of information and would take appropriate disciplinary action against him.
Outside the court, before the hearing began, Ng was seen huddled in prayer with around 10 people, including his parents and church members.
Court documents showed that Ng and Ms Tai, 29, met through a dating app called Coffee Meets Bagel in March this year and subsequently communicated over WhatsApp.
COMMITTED TO DELIVERING GOOD JOURNALISM
This is a difficult day for all of us in the media.
The OSA is a wide, sweeping law, covering all manner of government information. Like it or not, our journalists have had to navigate this difficult terrain, and we give our full support to all of them in doing their jobs on behalf of the paper.
In the same way, we stand by our colleague, Janice Tai, who was pursuing information for a story with the knowledge and backing of her supervisors. So, we take collective responsibility. As journalists, we understand the laws of the land, and strive to work within them.
We will, of course, take some time to review what happened in this case and draw lessons on how best to ensure we continue to play our role, while safeguarding both our journalists and sources. Thankfully, we have done this for years without any major issues.
We remain committed to delivering good journalism that meets our readers' needs.
MR WARREN FERNANDEZ, Straits Times editor and editor-in-chief of Singapore Press Holdings' English/Malay/Tamil Media Group.
They met as friends every fortnight or so and Ng was aware that Ms Tai was a journalist and wrote articles for The Straits Times.
On May 31, they went out for drinks to celebrate Ng's birthday. He then mentioned to her some aspects of an HDB project that was still in the works. It would cut resale transaction time from 16 weeks to eight and reduce face-to-face appointments from two to one.
He also shared that there would be changes to the valuation process, and an online portal for services such as the checking of grants, loans and eligibility.
"These were all material aspects of the project which were confidential information," the court heard.
"Janice asked the accused whether she could run a story about the project. However, (Ng) told her that the information was confidential and that she should not publish any article about the project."
Six weeks later, on July 16, Ms Tai messaged Ng on WhatsApp to ask more about the project and he shared information with her about a new resale portal.
The next day, HDB was notified by the Singapore Institute of Surveyors and Valuers that it had received an e-mail from Ms Tai that "posed very specific questions" about the project.
The following day, HDB received a similar e-mail from Ms Tai containing "specific information about the project which was not yet in the public domain".
HDB suspected that there had been an information leak and made a police report about this on July 27.
The court heard that Ng was assigned to the project team in April this year. He came into possession of information relating to the project "which he knew to be confidential".
HDB officially announced changes to its resale portal on Oct 19. The portal will go online on Jan 1 and make it easier for users to file applications and conduct eligibility checks.
Deputy Public Prosecutor Kumaresan Gohulabalan asked the court to impose the maximum fine of $2,000, and said Ng had caused "significant inconvenience" to HDB, which had to bring forward its timeline for the announcement of the project from January.
DPP Kumaresan said that despite Ms Tai alerting him to her intention to publish the story, Ng continued to give her information.
He added that while Ng pleaded guilty at the first instance, he had concealed his involvement in the case when HDB inquired into it. He was caught only through extensive forensic investigations.
Ng's lawyer, Mr Kevin Cheng from Goodwins Law, said in mitigation that the information divulged was on the less serious side of the spectrum of state secrets.
He also said Ng had harboured hopes of a relationship with Ms Tai and divulged more than he had intended to. He also did not personally benefit from releasing the information, and may have been naive in this instance.
Outside the courtroom, Ng told reporters that he had let his guard down with someone he considered a personal friend.
He seemed to be holding back tears and was only able to nod when asked if he thought that he might have to go to jail for the charge.
On Nov 10, Ms Tai was issued a stern warning by the police for approaching several parties with inquiries relating to the confidential information that she received.