SINGAPORE, July 26 — After repeatedly meeting his friends to smoke in Woodlands during the circuit breaker period last year, Leon Chua Yi Yan developed acute respiratory infection symptoms and was ordered to stay home.

However, he met one of them again shortly before testing positive for Covid-19. 

Desperate to put contact tracers off his scent, he asked them to delete text messages they had exchanged on WhatsApp when they got together.

When his guilt eventually got the better of him, he wrote a letter to then Health Minister Gan Kim Yong confessing what he had done.

Chua, now aged 27, was sentenced to six weeks’ jail and a fine of S$15,000 on Monday (July 26) after pleading guilty to four charges of leaving his residence for a social purpose.

Two other similar charges were taken into consideration for sentencing, while the prosecution withdrew eight charges against him.

He told the court that he just graduated from Nanyang Technological University earlier this year and was meant to begin working next week. He started serving his jail sentence immediately.

The three others whom he met have been dealt with in court, getting fines of between S$3,500 and S$10,000. Chua knew them from their secondary school days.

What happened

The court heard that Chua lives with his parents, both aged 62 — who suffer from health complications — and two sisters in a flat along Woodlands Avenue 9.

On May 14 last year, he met Jarren Ng Yong Jie, 26, at the Koufu branch at Woodlands Mart to buy drinks.

Circuit breaker regulations to restrict movement and activities were then in force to limit the spread of Covid-19, with people allowed to leave their homes only for essential purposes such as buying groceries.

Ng then arranged to meet Phan Chang Rong, 27, at a stairwell near Phan’s Housing and Development Board flat. 

Court documents showed that Phan also asked for a “teh bing” (iced tea) before they headed over at about 9.30pm. The trio smoked cigarettes and chatted for about half an hour, removing their face masks to do so. 

Three days later, they met again to do the same thing.

On May 27, Chua invited Phan to smoke near the residence of another friend, Shu Shao Qiang, 26. 

When Phan turned him down, he sent text messages to Shu telling him he would “come find u smoke”. The pair then met for about 45 minutes.

Three days later, Chua went to Raffles Medical Clinic and was given a five-day medical certificate for acute respiratory infection symptoms. 

He was not allowed to leave home for that period but in the wee hours of June 8, he asked Shu to smoke and chat near Shu’s home again.

He then discovered later in the day that he had tested positive for Covid-19. 

During the initial contact tracing process, he did not tell the contact tracing officer about meeting the three others.

At about 11am, he called Shu to tell him about his diagnosis and told him to delete their WhatsApp chat log as it would serve as evidence against them.

They discussed how they would both be in trouble if they were found to be linked, before finally deciding to lie that they had bumped into each other at a food court and chatted.

Chua also called Ng and similarly told him to delete their WhatsApp chat records, which Ng agreed to.

Ng then told Phan to do the same but Phan did not. When Chua called him, Phan asked him why he had to delete the messages and brushed him off when he replied that the messages would be evidence.

On July 20, more than a month after testing positive for Covid-19, Chua wrote a letter to the health minister confessing that he had met his friends on multiple occasions during the circuit breaker.

He admitted to obstructing contact tracing efforts by saying he met them to smoke, under the pretext of buying groceries, before he was given the medical certificate.

He also admitted to endangering the lives of fellow Singaporeans and planning a coordinated response with his friends in case the authorities had closed-circuit television footage of them gathering.

Shu was fined S$3,500, Ng was fined S$10,000 and Phan was fined S$8,000.

‘Blatant disregard for public safety’

Deputy Public Prosecutor Joshua Lim sought six to eight weeks’ jail and a S$17,000 fine. Chua, who was unrepresented by a lawyer, asked if he could “convert imprisonment to an extra fine”.

In mitigation, he told the court that he was “utterly remorseful for my past personal conduct” and had cooperated with the Ministry of Health during investigations, as well as “made a conscious call to confess to the authorities”.

He said that his ignorance had made him “naive of the severity of my mistakes” and that he has been following the rules since recovering from the coronavirus.

He told District Judge Kamala Ponnampalam: “I’m deeply shocked to know the prosecution is seeking an imprisonment term. 

“I understand it’s important to apply some form of deterrence to ensure the public adheres to the law, but in these trying economic times, I hope Your Honour will be able to grant me a fine-only sentence which I will dutifully pay if given the opportunity to pay in instalments.”

Being in jail would affect his long-term employability and cause him to default on his current tuition loan debt obligations, and financially affect his parents who are both retirees, he added.

Nevertheless, District Judge Ponnampalam said he had crossed the custodial threshold after exhibiting “blatant disregard for public safety and nationwide efforts to contain Covid-19”.

“You disregarded many sacrifices by Singaporeans to comply with restrictions placed for the greater good,” she added.

For each charge of breaching Covid-19 laws, he could have been jailed for up to six months or fined up to S$10,000, or punished with both. — TODAY