HDB classified info leak: ST reporter locked up overnight during police investigation
But she wasn't charged in the end.
What’s the price of a leak? Apparently, S$2,000.
A 25-year-old Housing and Development Board (HDB) officer Ng Han Yuan was fined that amount for “wrongfully communicating confidential information” to a mainstream media reporter.
He was found to have breached the Official Secrets Act (OSA).
He was charged on Nov. 10, 2017 for leaking confidential information on a new initiative, the HDB Resale Portal.
Ng was facing the prospect of a fine not exceeding S$2,000, and a jail term not exceeding two years, if convicted for the offence of wrongfully communicating confidential information.
The recipient of the info was Janice Tai, 29, a reporter with The Straits Times.
She was not charged.
Sequence of events
This was the sequence of events based on details from court documents and reports by ST:
- March 2017:
Ng and Tai were acquainted through a dating app, Coffee Meets Bagel, and subsequently kept in touch over WhatsApp.
They met about six times over several months.
- May 31:
They went out for drinks to celebrate Ng’s birthday.
Ng told Tai about his work, in particular, aspects of the Streamlining of Resale Transactions project, which he was privy to as a result of his role as an estate manager.
When Tai asked if she could run a story about the project, Ng told her that the information was confidential and that she should not publish any article about the project.
- July 16:
Tai messaged Ng to ask more about the project.
- July 17:
Singapore Institute of Surveyors & Valuers notified HDB that it had received an e-mail containing “very specific information” about the project from Tai asking for comments.
- July 18:
HDB received a similar e-mail from Tai containing “specific information about the project which was not yet in the public domain”.
The two emails prompted HDB to suspect that there had been an information leak.
- July 27:
HDB’s Group Director of the Estate Administration & Property Group Tan Chew Ling made a police report
- Aug 7:
Police officers showed up at the Singapore Press Holdings in Toa Payoh North asking to speak to two journalists, one of was Tai.
- Aug 10:
Tai and the other unnamed ST reporter went to the Police Cantonment Complex for questioning.
The second reporter, who had been asked by editors to help Tai verify some information, was released after about two hours.
Tai was questioned from 9.30am to 12.30pm. She was asked to name her source but did not do so.
She returned at 5pm for further questioning. By then, the police had identified Ng from her phone which was seized from her. He was taken to the interview room where she was held.
She was then asked again to name her source but did not do so, citing her professional and ethical duty towards her sources.
At about 6pm, she was placed in a single cell, where she remained overnight.
- Aug 11:
Tai spoke to Ng, whom she knew was in custody at the Police Cantonment Complex, if she could release his name as her source since the police had already identified him from the information on her mobile phone. He agreed.
She gave a statement naming Ng as her source and was released from lock up at about 3pm.
- Oct 19:
HDB announced changes to its resale portal, which will go online on Jan. 1, 2018 and make it easier for users to file applications and conduct eligibility checks.
Deputy Public Prosecutor Kumaresan Gohulabalan said Ng had caused significant inconvenience to HDB, which had to bring forward its timeline for the announcement of the project from January.
ST editors had decided to hold off on the story till an official announcement was made “when the sensitive nature of the information became clearer”.
- Nov 10:
Ng was charged in court. Tai was issued a stern warning by the police.
First time in 25 years
Using the OSA against civil servants who communicated information to the press is rare. This is the first known case in 25 years.
In 1992, five individuals, including then-director of the Monetary Authority of Singapore Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Patrick Daniel, who was then-editor of The Business Times (BT) and then BT reporter Kenneth James, were fined after they were found guilty of breaching the OSA.
Tharman was reported to have negligently revealed information pertaining to the growth rate for Singapore’s economy in the second quarter of that year. It was published in the newspaper before it was revealed officially.