A 25-year-old Housing Development Board (HDB) officer was sentenced to a $2000 fine in court today under the Official Secrets Act (OSA) for “wrongfully communicating confidential information” to a Straits Times reporter.
The court heard that the officer, Ng Han Yuan, had met the Straits Times reporter, Janice Tai, through a dating app called Coffee Meets Bagel. Having exchanged numbers, the pair met every fortnight. During one such meeting on May 31, Ng disclosed confidential information regarding a resale portal project HDB was undertaking.
Ng, who works as an estate manager from the resale operations section of the HDB, did not have the authorisation to disclose this information and chose to do so, despite knowing that Tai was a reporter with Singapore Press Holdings.
Tai asked Ng whether she could publish a story about the HDB portal and Ng reportedly said that she should not since the information was confidential.
Despite this, Ng still continued to answer Tai’s questions about the portal project over the next two months. In response to Tai’s questions over from late June to mid July, Ng revealed that the portal was for resale flats only but would also cater to new and rental flats. Ng further confirmed HDB’s plans to create a new resale portal which would integrate all the eligibility checks for the purchase or transfer of a resale flat on one platform.
HDB is the body that first flagged a suspected leak of confidential information after it received queries from Tai regarding the upcoming initiative that had not been made public at the time.
HDB decided to report the suspected leak of information to the police on 27 July this year. Investigations revealed that Tai had approached several parties with questions relating to the confidential information about a project titled “Streamlining of Resale Transactions.”
Ng “got carried away” due to romantic feelings for Tai
In seeking a $1,000 fine for the offence, Ng’s lawyer Kevin Cheng asserted that Ng had developed romantic feelings for Ms Tai and “got carried away”. Mr Cheng added that Ng only disclosed the information to “placate” Tai, hoping that she would release the information only after HDB did.
Stressing that Ng did not benefit from the disclosure of the information, Mr Cheng added that Ng made “numerous attempts” to discourage Tai from running the story when he found out that she was about to do so.
While Mr Cheng argued that the information on the portal was not “state secrets per se” and that the consequences fell on the “less serious end of the spectrum,” Deputy Public Prosecutor Kumaresan Gohubalan took a different view and noted that although Ng had cooperated, he was “caught red-handed” and that it was only through police investigations that his involvement was revealed.
Seeking the maximum fine of S$2,000 to serve as a deterrent, Mr Gohubalan added that Ng concealed his role in the disclosure during HDB’s internal investigations and that Ng had caused “significant inconvenience” to his employer who had to prepone the resale portal’s launch to October instead of the previously scheduled January 2018.
Despite being sentenced to the maximum fine by the court, Ng appeared relieved. He was spotted huddled outside in prayer with five other individuals, believed to be family members, just before court had started.
Ng, who seemed relaxed during the court proceedings, later told reporters outside court that he was remorseful for his honest mistake:
“I let my guard down and inadvertently gave information to someone I considered a personal friend.
“So I’m grateful the court recognises the particular circumstances under which the disclosure of information was made and has ordered a fine without a custodial sentence.
“I hope to be given a chance to learn from this episode and to continue to work for HDB in the future because I never intended for the information to be used as a story or cause my organisation any harm.”
HDB revealed last month that Ng had been suspended from duties temporarily pending the outcome of the court case:
“We will assess the situation and take appropriate disciplinary action based on the outcome of the court proceedings. HDB takes a serious view of any unauthorised disclosure of information.”
As for Tai, she was given a stern warning by the police. Editor-in-chief of Singapore Press Holdings’ English/Malay/Tamil Media Group, Mr Warren Fernandez, later said that the paper will take “collective responsibility” and that the paper will review the case:
“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,” Mr Fernandez said.
“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.”