Parliamentary Question, 4 Feb 2020
Ms Anthea Ong asked the Prime Minister with regard to CPFB’s clarification on the case of Ms Sua Li Li (a) why was it not possible for “public interest” to be protected through the continued use of the pseudonym “Ms Soo”; (b) what was the definition of “public interest” adopted in this case; © what was the process that led to the decision made for personal data disclosure without consent; (d) whether a correction order under POFMA was considered given the claim that the article ‘contained misleading statements’; and (e) whether the Government will consider for all future personal data disclosures without consent to be mandatorily accompanied by justification from the agency on why disclosure is warranted and reasonable, as similarly prescribed by the Personal Data Protection Commission for non-exempted organisations.
The Senior Minister of State for Communications and Information and Transport (Dr Janil Puthucheary) (for the Prime Minister): Mr Deputy Speaker, Sir, I addressed a related query from Assoc Prof Walter Theseira yesterday on 3 February, on the Government’s policy on public disclosure of specific personal data on public interest grounds.
To recap, Government agencies may disclose personal data to counter inaccuracies about the Government’s processes or policies contained in publicised complaints or petitions. It is the duty of Government agencies to do so in order to maintain the public’s trust and to serve citizens effectively. If citizens are misled about the Government’s processes or policies, they may make decisions that are detrimental to themselves. It is therefore fully in the public interest to dispel such doubts and clarify the facts.
In Ms Sua’s case, a public clarification was issued by the CPFB, HDB, MOE, MOH and MSF to provide key facts that had been omitted from, and to correct misleading statements in the article first published by The Online Citizen (TOC) on 17 December 2019. The clarification included Ms Sua’s full name, her interactions with various agencies, and the support that she and her daughter were receiving from multiple public agencies. Such data was included in order to convey verifiable facts and provide the public with the full picture. This is necessary to ensure the public is not misinformed and public’s trust in the Government is maintained. It also allowed Ms Sua to challenge the Government’s account of the case, if need be. The type of personal data that was disclosed was discussed at length by the various agencies before a final decision was made.
Continued use of the pseudonym, “Ms Soo”, could have done more harm than good if the public had associated other individuals with the case, resulting in more confusion.
In any case, the continued use of a pseudonym would not have been meaningful to protect Ms Sua’s identity as she had already divulged her identity by forwarding her email to the President containing her full name and NRIC to several Government agencies, media outlets and TOC. In addition, TOC had initially published a letter from the Associate Consultant at Khoo Teck Puat Hospital to the Social Service Office at Yishun. This contained Ms Sua’s full name, date of birth, age and gender. Ms Sua’s name was subsequently removed by TOC.
On the matter of how the Government makes such factual clarifications, the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) is only one of several means available to us to set the record straight. The Government’s response depends on a sensitive reading of the situation, calibrated according to what is necessary and appropriate in the circumstances. In Ms Sua’s case, the agencies assessed that issuing a public clarification was the appropriate response. Regardless of the action taken, online publishers should not make use of pseudonyms in order to hide behind the veil of anonymity, so that they can publish unverified facts or misleading statements. This is not in the best interest of sound public debate.
Ms Ong also asked whether the Government will consider, for all future personal data disclosures without consent, to be mandatorily accompanied by justification on why disclosure is warranted and reasonable. Ms Ong claimed in her Parliamentary Question that this was required by the Personal Data Protection Commission (PDPC) for private sector organisations. I would like to clarify that Ms Ong has misunderstood and that the PDPC does not impose such a requirement on private sector organisations. In any case, both public and private sector organisations have to be ready to state the reasons and considerations behind the personal data disclosure, when required to do so.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Ms Anthea Ong.
Ms Anthea Ong (Nominated Member): Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I thank the Senior Minister of State for the response. The Government’s press release states that the law permits such disclosure including the identity of the individual and the public interest. Can the Senior Minister of State also just share how is the public interest defined in this case? And also, could the Minister share which law this disclosure is permissible under? And would the Minister consider making the Government’s Instruction Manuals publicly accessible as practised in other countries and recommended also by the Public Sector Data Review Committee?
Dr Janil Puthucheary: The second half of Ms Ong’s question, Mr Deputy Speaker, has already been addressed in a number of Parliamentary Questions that I have personally answered and we have brought a discussion to this House. I do not think there is anything extra in her question nor in any answer that I can give to that, between the Government’s Instruction Manuals and the fact that these laws do exist under the PDPA. I am sorry, what was the first point that you wanted to ask?
Ms Anthea Ong: Because the press release stated that the law —
Dr Janil Puthucheary: Oh, public interest, you asked me about public interest. Well, I would put it to Ms Ong that there is no public interest served by protecting a falsehood about Government processes and policies when it comes to social welfare and medical care. If she can persuade me that that is so, I would be very surprised; and I do not think she can persuade many people that there is some benefit to be gained about perpetuating disinformation and falsehoods about medical care, welfare benefits, social services, processes. Public interest served here is for the public to be well informed about what is actually happening in our Government’s processes and policies.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Yes, Ms Anthea Ong.
Ms Anthea Ong: I understand that one of the disclosure made about Ms Sua was that she was suicidal. I am wondering why is that a piece of information that was necessary to be disclosed in this case.
Dr Janil Puthucheary: Ms Ong may be asking about a particular fact. If I understand the timeline correctly, that disclosure was made initially by Ms Sua and TOC. So, I think the question is misdirected to me. So, would Ms Ong like to rephrase her question?
Ms Anthea Ong: I am actually asking, I understand, and I do stand corrected if I am wrong, but I understand that one of the pieces of information that was publicly disclosed by the Government was that Ms Sua is suicidal or was suicidal.
Dr Janil Puthucheary: I think on this matter, as several that I have highlighted, I think Ms Ong needs to establish what the facts are and what the timeline of those facts are. The articulation of those issues, the explanation and the clarification that were provided by the Government agencies, after quite a significant period of consultation, establish the facts, the timeline and the chronology quite robustly. I do not think we should add to any confusion in this debate. The facts that Ms Ong is referring to were already in the public domain at the time that the clarification was issued.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~Anthea Ong is a Nominated Member of Parliament. (A Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) is a Member of the Parliament of Singapore who is appointed by the President. They are not affiliated to any political party and do not represent any constituency. There are currently nine NMPs in Parliament.)
The multi-sector perspective that comes from her ground immersion of 12 years in different capacities helps her translate single-sector issues and ideas across boundaries without alienating any particular community/group. As an entrepreneur and with many years in business leadership, it is innate in her to discuss social issues with the intent of finding solutions, or at least of exploring possibilities. She champions mental health, diversity and inclusion — and climate change in Parliament.
She is also an impact entrepreneur/investor and a passionate mental health advocate, especially in workplace wellbeing. She started WorkWell Leaders Workgroup in May 2018 to bring together top leaders (CXOs, Heads of HR/CSR/D&I) of top employers in Singapore (both public and private) to share, discuss and co-create inclusive practices to promote workplace wellbeing. Anthea is also the founder of Hush TeaBar, Singapore’s 1st silent teabar and a social movement that aims to bring silence, self care and social inclusion into every workplace, every community — with a cup of tea. The Hush Experience is completely led by lovingly-trained Deaf facilitators, supported by a team of Persons with Mental Health Issues (PMHIs).
Follow Anthea Ong on her public page at www.facebook.com/antheaonglaytheng