SINGAPORE: A man became the first to be sentenced for a coronavirus-related offence on Thursday (Apr 23), receiving six weeks' jail for exposing others to the risk of infection by breaching his stay-home notice.
The judge called Alan Tham Xiang Sheng's conduct "socially reprehensible" in rejecting the defence's proposed sentence of a mere fine, but gave a term shorter than the 10 to 12 weeks asked for by the prosecution.
Tham, 34, admitted last week to appearing several times in public when ordered to stay at home.
He had returned to Singapore from Myanmar on Mar 23 and was issued at the airport a 14-day stay-home notice.
However, he met his girlfriend at the airport for a meal before they took a private-hire car to Peninsula Plaza, where he changed his leftover Myanmar currency.
They then went to Tham's place and left again for dinner as Tham had a craving for bak kut teh.
The couple took a bus to Kampung Admiralty, where Tham ate bak kut teh and uploaded pictures of it to social media. He quickly drew flak from friends.
Following his meal, he went to a supermarket to buy groceries and returned home after spending about one-and-a-half hours outside.
The prosecution asked for 10 to 12 weeks' jail at the previous hearing, while the defence asked for not more than the maximum S$10,000 fine.
WHY THAM WAS NOT TESTED FOR COVID-19
However, the judge adjourned the sentencing as he wanted both sides to address issues, including why Tham was not tested for COVID-19 and their position on an advisory letter Tham had been issued by the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) on Mar 25.
On Thursday, Deputy Public Prosecutors Kenneth Chin and Norman Yew explained that Tham had not been tested for COVID-19 as routine testing of asymptomatic individuals under a stay-home notice was "not necessary under prevailing Ministry of Health policies".
"It is not possible to test everyone in Singapore for COVID-19," said Mr Chin. "MOH adopts a considered and targeted approach to test individuals where necessary."
He added that those on stay-home notices will be tested only if they develop a fever or respiratory symptoms, and that routine testing of asymptomatic individuals "is not encouraged as a negative test result does not imply the absence of COVID-19 infection".
"A negative test may arise in an infected person if the test was conducted early during the incubation period of his illness and he may become symptomatic later, despite an earlier negative test," said Mr Chin.
"The risk of community spread of COVID-19 from infected overseas travellers is controlled through the isolation of these individuals under the stay-home notice, even if they had not undergone any routine testing."
ICA'S LETTER TO THAM
The second issue was on an advisory issued by ICA to Tham on Mar 25.
The advisory read: "You are hereby advised to comply with the requirements of the stay-home notice. If you are found to be in non-compliance with the stay-home notice again, the same leniency may not be shown towards you, and enforcement action may be taken against you under Section 21A of the Infectious Diseases Act."
Defence lawyers Josephus Tan and Cory Wong of Invictus Law said the advisory meant that enforcement agencies had administered Tham with a warning, and that they were prepared to grant Tham leniency for his breaches of the stay-home notice on Mar 23.
"The reasonable inference that flows from this is the enforcement agency's own assessment of Alan's case to be of sufficiently low culpability or harm on day zero for him to be let off with a warning in lieu of prosecution, save in the event of re-offending," said Mr Tan.
He said that Tham's prosecution in court shows a significant "operational disconnect" in the chain of command.
In response, the prosecution said that ICA's advisory "merely 'advised' the accused against non-compliance with the stay-home notice again".
They said that the phrase "failing which the same leniency may not be shown" did not contain any express and unequivocal statement that Tham would not be prosecuted.
On top of this, the advisory did not state that the Attorney-General's Chambers would not prosecute Tham for breaching the stay-home notice on Mar 23.
"In this instance, the advisory letter ... was issued by ICA," said Mr Chin.
"It cannot fetter the public prosecutor’s discretion to prosecute if there is evidential basis to do so, and if such a prosecution is in the public interest."
He added that "whether the prosecution ultimately chooses to prosecute for the warned offence is something entirely within its power".
The prosecutor said that there is "clearly no abuse of process in this case and there is no reason why the advisory letter would render the accused’s prosecution wrong in law".
Defence lawyer Mr Tan said several others have been charged with similar offences, and that his client was the only one who breached his stay-home notice on Day 0 of his 14-day notice.
He asked for two weeks' jail if the judge did not want to impose a fine.
The prosecutor said Tham has demonstrated a lack of remorse, with attempts to "cast shade" on the efforts to combat COVID-19.
"(The defence) is saying that the accused is justified in not going home immediately because the Government didn't do enough to provide him with an escort, to provide him to his doorstep, or even better, a designated hotel," said Mr Chin.
"The accused makes himself sound like a victim of an administrative mishap when it was in fact him who committed an offence of exposing others to the risk of infection."
District Judge Ong Hian Sun said it is incumbent on people served with stay-home notices to adhere with them. He granted Tham a deferment of his sentence to Apr 30.
For exposing others to the risk of infection of COVID-19 by breaching his stay-home notice, Tham could have been jailed for up to six months, fined a maximum S$10,000 or both.