SINGAPORE, Sept 2 — A doctor at the heart of a massive leak of confidential data on patients with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) has been struck off the register of medical professionals.
This comes after the authorities found that Ler Teck Siang’s acts resulted in “severe harm or potential harm” to public confidence in the medical profession as well as to public safety and health.
The Singapore Medical Council’s (SMC) disciplinary tribunal reached this decision on July 28 and released its grounds of decision on its website yesterday.
The tribunal noted that Ler, 39, does not presently hold a practising certificate — it expired at the end of 2018 — but he could apply for a new one at any time if his name was not removed from the register.
Ler is the former partner of American fraudster Mikhy K Farrera Brochez, who last year leaked the records of 14,200 HIV patients from the Ministry of Health’s (MOH) HIV Registry. He had obtained the data through Ler, who headed MOH’s National Public Health Unit.
Ler had also been convicted of helping Brochez cheat on a blood test, and providing false information to the police and MOH.
On two occasions in 2008 and 2013, Ler attempted to pass his own blood off as Brochez’s, so that Brochez would test negative for HIV. On both occasions, Brochez used the blood test report to get an Employment Pass from the Ministry of Manpower.
In an unrelated case, Ler was also convicted of two drug-related charges last year, after he administered methamphetamine to a customer and was found with utensils intended for drug use in 2018.
He was sentenced to 15 months’ jail for these drug-related offences. He will serve the sentence on top of the two years’ jail he received for helping Brochez cheat on the blood test and for giving false information to the authorities.
For his part, Brochez was sentenced to two years’ jail in the United States last year for extorting and threatening the Singapore Government with wider publication of the stolen information on patients with HIV.
Flagrant deception of authorities
SMC’s disciplinary tribunal found that Ler’s “carefully planned, deliberate and flagrant deception of governmental authorities and undermining of the safeguards put in place by them for selfish personal purposes” clearly showed a “defect in character rendering him unfit for his profession”.
The prosecution had argued that an offence involving fraud and dishonesty also implied a character defect, and that it was “difficult to envision” a case in which this was not the case.
It also argued that Ler had demonstrated “reprehensible conduct” at his criminal trial, and this served to “strengthen the implication that (Ler) possesses a defect in character making (him) unfit for his profession”.
In response, Ler argued that not every dishonest act implied a character defect and that he had committed the acts “out of love, passion and compassion”.
There was no personal, financial or material gain from his offences, he added.
Ler said: “It was all done in order for us (Ler and Brochez) to stay together It was done so that I could continue to provide him with the care and support.”
He also drew an analogy between his offences and “spousal cheating”. In both cheating on a spouse and cheating a government agency, there is a betrayal of obligations, he said.
The only difference between the two is that in one case, the victim is a civilian. In the other, the victim is a government agency. “Because of that, it’s a criminal offence, and because of that, I was convicted,” Ler argued.
“As far as I am aware (for) somebody who is found to have committed spousal cheating, a medical practitioner would not have incurred any form of censure from the Medical Council,” he said.
SMC’s disciplinary tribunal said Ler’s analogy to spousal cheating was “misplaced” because spousal cheating is not a criminal offence.
“In fact, we found (Ler’s) attempts to trivialise his repeated deceptions of government agencies, which are responsible for the safeguarding of public interests, as being akin to spousal cheating deeply disturbing and worrying,” it added.
Agreeing with the prosecution, the tribunal concluded that it was hard to envisage a case where a fraudulent and dishonest act did not imply a character defect.
The tribunal said Ler’s claim that he had made no personal, financial or material gain was “incorrect”. Ler had committed the offences so that he could continue staying with Brochez and that was “entirely a personal gain”, it said.
Ler also undermined the safeguards put in place by the authorities for the maintenance of public health, the tribunal added.
It also said that Ler’s conduct during the disciplinary proceedings in “attempting to make light of his offences has only served to further illustrate his recalcitrant and unremorseful attitude in failing to appreciate the gravity of his criminal conduct and thus the severity of the defect in character on (his) part”.
This indicated that a severe sentence was warranted, said the tribunal.
Apart from removing Ler from the register of medical practitioners, it ordered him to pay the costs and expenses of the disciplinary proceedings. — TODAY