SINGAPORE, June 29 — Even though he could have withdrawn from a research study at any time without a reason, Paul Chan Kin Nang lied in an email to the researchers from Nanyang Technological University (NTU) that he had tested positive for Covid-19 and was quarantined in hospital.

This was during the height of the pandemic in September 2020. When Chan then realised that government authorities would be involved, he lied again that someone had hacked his email.

The university had to place two staff members on leave of absence and suspend their work for a day, among other measures, until the health ministry confirmed that Chan did not have the coronavirus.

For communicating a false message, Chan was fined S$5,000 (RM15,854) today (June 29).

The 42-year-old Singaporean, who works as a civil servant, pleaded guilty to the offence which falls under the Miscellaneous Offences (Public Order and Nuisance) Act.

What happened

The court heard that he had signed up for the NTU research study titled “Studying the Mental Processes in Decision Making”. Participants would be remunerated based on the stages of task completion.

On September 1, 2020, he completed the first session of the study.

He was told that any participant could withdraw at any point without incurring a penalty, and there was “no need for participants to provide any convincing reason to withdraw as this was a voluntary study”, Deputy Public Prosecutor (DPP) R Arvindren said.

The day before the second session on September 7, one of the researchers emailed him a reminder.

A few hours later, Chan replied to say: “Hi, I am unable to attend the session tomorrow as I am tested positive for Covid-19 and is now quarantine in hospital.” In reality, he did not have the coronavirus. He also asked NTU to pay him for attending the first session.

The researcher then replied to wish him a speedy recovery, before asking when he had first started experiencing symptoms and when he had gone for testing. This was because the research team had to report it to the university.

Chan did not respond. The researcher then alerted other NTU staff members.

The following day, an NTU administration manager emailed Chan to ask for more information on his Covid-19 case number and whether he was symptomatic.

The manager added that they had to check with the Ministry of Education on what follow-up actions their research personnel, who were in contact with Chan the week before, had to take.

When Chan saw this email, he realised that government authorities would be involved.

He then replied to say: “My email address was hacked and I believe someone have unauthorised [sic] used my email address to email NTU that I was tested positive for Covid-19. Please be assured that I am perfectly fine.” Later that same day, the Ministry of Health (MoH) told NTU that he was not in its records of positive Covid-19 cases.

The NTU administration manager lodged a police report and Chan was called down for questioning by the police.

He admitted to sending the false email because he did not want to go for the second session but also did not want to formally reject NTU’s reminder.

The university placed two staff members on leave of absence until MoH clarified Chan was not a confirmed case. The staff “experienced worry and distress”, DPP Arvindren told the court.

Research activities and data collection on the university campus were also temporarily suspended for a day, research activities were disrupted for that week and the week after, and NTU had to reschedule and contact all affected participants before confirming it was a false alarm.

DPP: Did not benefit anybody

DPP Arvindren sought the fine imposed, arguing that Chan’s actions were “plainly irresponsible” and did not benefit anybody, even Chan himself.

Nevertheless, he noted that this was not like typical bomb hoaxes or police prank call cases that attract significant public disquiet.

The harm caused was low because Chan had sent the false message to a small team in NTU and did not post it on social media, the prosecutor added.

In mitigation, Chan’s lawyer Josiah Zee from Invictus Law Corporation said the case was “unique” and his client had demonstrated his remorse by being willing to compensate NTU with S$349 due to the logistical changes they had had to go through.

Zee added: “He was worried researchers would form a poor impression of him. I think that’s foolish but it also shows an absence of malice behind what he did.” Chan also cooperated with the police which led to swift investigations and his early plea of guilt, the lawyer said.

Those who transmit a false message can be jailed for up to three years or fined up to S$10,000, or punished with both. ― TODAY