SINGAPORE - Civil servant Ng Han Yuan was fined $2,000 on Wednesday (Dec 20) for breaching the Official Secrets Act 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 conveyed to Ms Tai information about a HDB project titled Streamlining of Resale Transactions. The project revolved around a new HDB portal which was being worked on and 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.
Ng, who wore a jacket, white shirt and black pants, was seen huddled in prayer with several people outside the court before the hearing. About 11 people were there with him, 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 mobile app WhatsApp.
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, Ng and Ms Tai went out for drinks to celebrate Ng's birthday. Over the course of the conversation, Ng told her about his work, in particular, aspects of the Streamlining of Resale Transactions project.
Among other things, he told her that there would be a reduction of resale transaction time from 16 weeks to eight weeks and a reduction in the frequency of face-to-face appointments, from two to one.
He also shared that there would be changes to the valuation process, an online portal for services such as the checking of grants, loans and eligibility, and the possibility of a flat listing service on that portal.
Ng also spoke about how there was the possibility of a flat listing service on the online portal, a certificate of eligibility of resale flats, and key timelines for the roll-out of phases of the project.
“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.”
What is the Official Secrets Act
The Official Secrets Act or OSA is a law to prevent the disclosure of official documents and information. Many countries have such legislation in one form or other.
The Singapore law sets out penalties for spying, wrongful communication of classified information, unauthorised use of uniforms, interference with police officers or armed forces members near a prohibited place, among other offences.
Section 5(1) of the Act deals with information leaks, by making it an offence for anyone who has access to information owing to his position in Government, to communicate such information to anyone unless he is authorised to do so.
The person who receives classified information from a public servant not authorised to give it, is also guilty of an offence.
During police investigations of offences or suspected offences under the Act, it is an offence for anyone to refuse to give information sought by investigating officers.
Six weeks later, on July 16, Ms Tai messaged Ng on WhatsApp to ask more about the project.
She asked if the online directory was for resale flats only, to which Ng replied that while the project was for resale flats only, the new portal would also cater to new and rental flats.
“(Ng) further revealed that as part of the project, HDB would be creating a new resale portal which would streamline the resale transaction process by integrating all the eligibility checks on a single platform.”
The next day, HDB was notified by the Singapore Institute of Surveyors & Valuers that it had received an e-mail from Ms Tai asking for comments on the project. The e-mail from Ms Tai “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".
As the two e-mails contained confidential information which had not been made public, HDB suspected that there had been an information leak.
On July 27, HDB’s group director of the Estate Administration & Property Group Tan Chew Ling made a police report about a leak of confidential information.
The court heard that Ng was assigned to the project team in April 2017. He came into possession of information relating to the project which was classified confidential “and which he knew to be confidential information”.
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 said a deterrent message needed to be sent to public servants and asked the court to impose the maximum fine of $2,000.
He 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 being alerted to Ms Tai’s intentions, 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, in terms of content and subject matter, on the less serious side of the spectrum of state secrets.
He also said that Ng had developed romantic feelings towards Ms Tai and divulged more than he had intended to. He also did not personally benefit from releasing the information, but may have been naive in this instance.
Later, outside the courtroom, Ng 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.
He told reporters that he had made an honest mistake for which he was remorseful. He said that he had let his guard down with someone he considered a personal friend.
He added that he hoped to be given a chance to learn from this episode and to continue to work for HDB in the future.
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.
The last known case of an OSA case involving a journalist was in 1992. This arose after The Business Times published a report citing the official flash estimate of Singapore's economic growth in the second quarter of the year, before such data was officially released. The then-editor of The Business Times, Mr Patrick Daniel, and BT journalist Kenneth James were convicted along with three other men for breaching the OSA. Mr Daniel was fined $4,000 while Mr James was fined $3,500.
Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, who was then director of the Monetary Authority of Singapore's economics department, was among the other three men who were fined for breaching the OSA. He was fined $1,500.
Commenting on the case on Wednesday, Mr Warren Fernandez, ST editor and editor-in-chief of Singapore Press Holdings' English/Malay/Tamil Media Group, said: "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."