Explained: Singapore’s Official Secrets Act
If there is one “secret” that you should uncover for yourself, then that is Singapore’s Official Secrets Act (OSA).
Enacted to prevent the disclosure of official documents and information, the 19 sections in the OSA describe what such disclosure involves and what can happen if you commit an offence under the OSA.
Key Offences under the Official Secrets Act
Some key offences under the OSA are:
- Wrongful communication of confidential material
- Receiving confidential material
Wrongful communication of confidential information
Wrongful communication by people working for the Singapore Government
Under section 5(1)(e)(i) of the OSA, persons who have obtained confidential information while working for the Singapore Government can only communicate such information to authorised persons. They will be guilty of an offence if they communicate the information to persons whom they are not authorised to do so.
Such confidential information can be in the form of photographs, documents, notes and drawings. Acts such as passing, using and retaining of the communication material can also constitute “communication” for the purposes of this offence.
For the offence to be established, the accused must have intended to communicate the confidential information, while knowing that the information is secret and confidential and that he has no authority to communicate it.
The court will look at the surrounding circumstances to establish whether it is reasonable to believe that the information is secret official information. These circumstances can include the accused’s position in the Government and the nature of the information.
Also, if a similar piece of information had been made to the public, but not the particular one that was allegedly wrongfully communicated, this could show that the communicated information is confidential.
Persons convicted before the District Court for wrongfully communicating confidential information can be fined up to $2,000 and jailed for up to 2 years.
In 2017, a Housing Development Board (HDB) officer was charged with giving confidential information relating to an upcoming HDB portal to a Straits Times reporter. He was fined the maximum fine of $2,000.
Wrongful communication by people not working for the Singapore Government
It is also possible for people who are not working for the Singapore Government to be found in breach of section 5(1)(d)(i) the OSA if they communicate confidential information, that was obtained from a government source, with persons they were not authorised to communicate such information with. The same penalty of up to a $2,000 fine and up to 2 years’ jail will apply.
For example, if someone shares information that was leaked online, while knowing or having reason to believe that such information was from a government source, that person can be found guilty of an offence under this section.
In 2019, a former Singapore Airlines pilot was fined $3,000 for sharing with a WhatsApp group 2 photos of a dead maid, which he had received from his paramedic girlfriend. Even though he himself did not work for the Singapore Government, his girlfriend had obtained the photos as part of her work for a private ambulance company hired by a government organisation, namely the Singapore Civil Defence Force.
Receiving confidential information is also an offence
Quite apart from the person communicating the confidential information, persons who receive such confidential information will also be guilty of an offence under section 5(2) of the OSA if they know or have reason to believe that the information is secret and confidential. This is unless the recipient is able to prove that the communication of the information to him was “contrary to his desire”.
Persons convicted before the District Court for receiving confidential information can be fined up to $2,000 and jailed for up to 2 years.
In 1992, a Business Times report cited official flash estimates for Singapore’s 1992 second-quarter economic growth rate before such information had been officially released. Investigations and proceedings later led to 2 journalists and 2 economists being found guilty under the OSA for not just wrongfully communicating the confidential information, but also wrongfully receiving it. They were slapped with fines between $1,500 to $2,000 as a result.
A person caught spying could be found guilty under section 3 of the OSA.
“Spying” includes acts such as:
- Approaching, inspecting or entering a “prohibited place”. Under section 2(1) of the OSA, most “prohibited places” are related to Singapore’s armed forces. They could be things (e.g. telephones, ships) or locations (e.g. camps, offices) belonging to or occupied by Singapore’s armed forces, or a place used for storage of war munitions. Any areas declared and published in the Gazette as being, or specified in any notice under any law to be, “prohibited places” under section 2(1) of the OSA, are also included.
- Making photographs, drawings, plans, or notes that might be, or are intended to be, useful to a foreign Power or enemy.
- Obtaining, collecting, recording, or communicating confidential information that might be, or is intended to be, useful to a foreign Power or enemy.
The accused person must have also carried out these acts with a purpose prejudicial to Singapore’s safety and interests in order to be guilty of spying.
Persons found guilty of spying can be fined up to $20,000 and jailed up to 14 years.
Requirement to Give Information about Any Official Secrets Act Offence
Persons are legally obliged to provide information relating to offences under the OSA to the authorities, such as a police officer above the rank of sergeant or any armed forces officer on duty, on demand.
If a person is required to attend any meetings for the purpose of providing such information, he will have any reasonable expenses incurred reimbursed.
Persons who fail to give such information will be guilty of an offence under section 10 of the OSA.
What Happens if a Person is Suspected of Breaching the Official Secrets Act?
As long as it can be reasonably suspected that a person has committed any offence under the OSA, that person may be arrested without a warrant.
The court can then issue a search warrant to authorise the authorities to enter certain premises – using force if necessary – to seize any evidence which may prove that an offence under the OSA has been or is about to be committed.
The accused can only be prosecuted by or with the Public Prosecutor’s consent. Before such consent has been obtained, the accused cannot plead and the regular criminal trial procedure will not apply.
Time and again, it has been stressed that the Government will take action to establish the principle that confidential information should not be leaked.
While some have criticised the OSA for its wide-ranging, “catch-all” nature, such a harsh stance against the offences is tied to the need to safeguard national security by ensuring that confidential information does not fall into the wrong hands.
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