Man who dined out on bak kut teh while on stay-home notice pleads guilty in first such case
SINGAPORE: A man who breached his stay-home notice to go out to run errands and eat bak kut teh pleaded guilty on Thursday (Apr 16) to exposing others to the risk of infection in the first case of its kind.
Alan Tham Xiang Sheng, 34, did not go home immediately when he landed in Singapore from Myanmar and when he did go home, he did not remain there. Instead, he appeared in public several times over a four-hour period in behaviour labelled “blatantly irresponsible” by the prosecutors.
This is the first prosecution for a person exposing others to the risk of infection by breaching a stay-home notice, the court heard.
Singapore has been fighting the spread of COVID-19 since early this year, and the World Health Organization declared the escalating situation a worldwide pandemic on Mar 12.
From Mar 16, all travellers entering Singapore with recent travel history to certain countries were issued a 14-day stay-home notice upon arrival in the country.
Tham arrived at Changi Airport Terminal 3 from Myanmar on SQ997 on Mar 23. He cleared customs and proceeded to a hall, where an Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) officer asked him about his travel history.
He issued Tham a stay-home notice, which indicated that Tham was required to stay at home for 14 days, a precautionary measure to minimise the risk of additional imported COVID-19 cases.
The notice said he had to remain in his place of residence at all times during the two-week period and could not leave even to purchase food and essentials.
It added that Tham should minimise contact with others and avoid having visitors at his residence.
Tham signed an acknowledgement slip confirming he had received the notice and understood that he could be prosecuted for non-compliance.
"At no point in time did (the ICA officer) make any representation to the accused that the stay-home notice commenced on Day 1 of his arrival, which is Mar 24," said Deputy Public Prosecutors Kenneth Chin and Norman Yew.
WHERE THAM WENT THAT SAME DAY
Tham placed the notice in his bag and left. He met his girlfriend, 36-year-old Hooi Yin Jia, and went to Kopitiam at Terminal 3 for a meal.
After eating, Ms Hooi booked a private-hire car and both of them went to Peninsula Plaza where Tham changed his leftover Myanmar currency to Singapore currency.
After this, Ms Hooi booked another car and they went to Tham's place, arriving in the evening.
Two hours later, the couple went out for dinner as Tham had a craving for bak kut teh.
They boarded a bus and went to Kampung Admiralty at Block 676, Woodlands Drive 71.
Tham took photos of his bak kut teh meal and posted them on social media, but was quickly chastised by his friends.
They reminded him that he should not be out in public during his stay-home notice period, leaving comments like "very upsetting to see someone I know do such a thing!", "Dude dude dude DUDE. Not a responsible move" and "please stay at home and be socially responsible. It doesn't matter what day the stay-home notice starts, the virus waits for no one."
DID NOT GO HOME DESPITE BACKLASH, WENT TO FAIRPRICE
Despite receiving such comments, Tham did not go home immediately. He spent about 45 minutes at the hawker centre, responding to his friends online and finishing his meal.
He then went to a FairPrice supermarket to buy groceries with his girlfriend before returning home at about 10pm.
He did not wear a face mask or take any measures to reduce his exposure to members of the public, court documents said.
The photos of Tham's bak kut teh meal went viral on social media and were reported on various platforms.
A team of ICA officers checked on Tham at his home on Mar 25 and Tham told them that he had left his home two days earlier to have dinner with his girlfriend, prompting investigations.
Tham pleaded guilty to one charge of exposing the public to the risk of being infected by the coronavirus.
PROSECUTION PUSHES FOR JAIL
The prosecution asked for 10 to 12 weeks' jail, saying that lives are at stake and a clear deterrent message must be sent out "to those who would put the health and safety of others at risk for the sake of their convenience or whims and fancies".
They said Tham was in at least six public places at peak periods, travelling by public transport and without taking any precautions to reduce the risk of infection to others.
"There was no necessity or urgency for the accused to have visited the six public places and spent hours outside his place of residence," said Deputy Public Prosecutor Mr Chin.
He added that his offence caused alarm to others, evident from the negative comments posted on his social media page.
"It is also conceivable that others who have watched the news regarding this case would feel alarmed at having been at the same place at the same time as the accused on the day of the offence."
Calling the COVID-19 pandemic a disease that has “plunged the world into an unprecedented crisis”, claiming 10 lives in Singapore and dealing “a heavy blow to Singapore’s economy and way of life”, Mr Chin underscored the importance of compliance with stay-home notices.
“Every case of non-compliance with the stay-home notice increases the risks of infection to members of the public and every case of non-compliance which results in an infection places undue strain on the healthcare resources of Singapore during these uncertain times,” said Mr Chin.
“Highly publicised acts of non-compliance of the stay-home notice also generate public fear of being infected through the irresponsible and inconsiderate acts of those like the present accused.”
DEFENCE POINT TO WORDING OF NOTICE, UNPRECEDENTED MEASURES
Defence lawyers Josephus Tan and Cory Wong of Invictus Law asked for not more than the maximum S$10,000 fine, saying that the stay-home notice was "not clear" and did not state that their client had to go home immediately.
"What he did wasn't out of the ordinary, having a quick meal within the terminal itself and changing money before going home," said Mr Tan. "He wasn't gallivanting, for sure."
He added that the notice also did not "impose any express movement-restrictions on Alan before he reached home".
The notice stated that Tham had to "remain in your place of residence at all times for a 14-day period" and "not leave your residence".
Mr Tan said Tham "faithfully remained at home for the rest of the 14-day period", and has a "generally pliant disposition and clean past records".
He added that the offence was a one-time event "against the backdrop of very uncertain times, especially with an unprecedented virus and unprecedented governmental control measures in response".
Mr Tan said there were no protocols put in place by authorities on Mar 23 to isolate recipients of stay-home notices and escort them directly to their homes.
"Instead, the recipient is left to his own devices and the onus is on him to travel home himself by whatever means he pleases," said Mr Tan.
"And if going home immediately to isolate oneself was such a critical aspect of the stay-home notice, it is astonishingly dumbfounding that the stay-home notice was completely silent about how the recipient should even go about making his own way home or if there were any movement-restrictions before reaching home."
He added that wearing masks in public became mandatory only a few days ago and that the public was previously advised not to wear a mask unless they were feeling unwell.
"Alan wasn't feeling unwell," said Mr Tan.
Tham has lost his full-time CISCO Secure Logistics job because of this case and has not been able to find a job, but runs his own online sales business.
The trip to Myanmar was his virgin flight out of Singapore, said the defence counsel. He decided to stop putting off his photography dreams to travel the world and booked a solo trip to Myanmar from Mar 20 to Mar 24.
However, while he was there, his return flight was brought forward due to the evolving coronavirus situation, and Tham returned home and cancelled a trip to Vietnam in April that he had originally planned.
Responding to the defence, Mr Chin said the offence was not one of breaching the stay-home notice per se, but of him exposing others to the risk of infection when he had reason to suspect that he is a contact of COVID-19.
“The stay-home notice forms the basis of his reason to suspect,” said Mr Chin. “The offence is not one which criminalises actual transmission of infectious diseases, but the fact of exposing others to the risk of infection.”
He added: “He does not stop being a contact of COVID-19 the moment he arrives so in the period he arrives from airport to home, he does not stop being infectious so it’s utterly illogical that sentencing weight should only be given to times he left his house.”
Mr Chin said the stay-home notice was clear that Tham was not to leave his home even if it was to purchase food and essentials, but he chose to go out to eat and change his currency, “which are all non-essential activities”.
District Judge Ong Hian Sun adjourned the case to a later date after asking the prosecution to clarify certain matters including why Tham has not been tested for COVID-19.
Tham could be jailed for up to six months, fined a maximum S$10,000 or both.