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HDB officer fined S$2,000 for breaching OSA

[SINGAPORE] CIVIL servant Ng Han Yuan was fined S$2,000 on Wednesday 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 an 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 S$2,000. Ng had been suspended by HDB pending the outcome of the case.

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.

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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.

"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," the court heard.

Six weeks later, on July 16, Ms Tai messaged Ng on WhatsApp to ask more about the project.

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 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 S$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 when HDB inquired into it. He was caught only through forensic investigations.

Ng's lawyer, 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 Ng had developed feelings towards Ms Tai and divulged more than he had intended to. He also did not personally benefit from the leak.

Later, outside the courtroom, Ng told reporters he was remorseful for the "honest mistake". He said he had let his guard down with someone he considered a personal friend. He hoped to be given a chance to learn from this episode and to continue to work for HDB.

On Nov 10, Ms Tai was issued a stern warning by the police for asking several parties about the confidential information she received.

Commenting on the case on Wednesday, 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."


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