SINGAPORE — A taxi driver was jailed for four months on Wednesday (27 May) for posting a false message urging fellow drivers to “stock up”, and claiming that food centres would close and supermarkets will only open twice a week.
Kenneth Lai Yong Hui, 40, admitted to one count of transmitting a false message, an offence under the Miscellaneous Offences (Public Order and Nuisance) Act.
Lai, a Singaporean, had claimed during investigations that between 15 and 16 April – about a week into Singapore’s circuit breaker period – he saw a text message in his WhatsApp chat group stating that “disposable food container can transmit the virus” and “hawker centre and coffeeshop will be closed”.
He was unable to identify who had sent the text and it was not recovered from his phone.
Without verifying the information, Lai then posted a false message on the “Taxiuncle” private Facebook group, which had 7,478 members.
He stated in his message, “Got intel say sg (Singapore) will proceed with more measures in place come this Saturday. Food courts coffee shop all to close. Supermarkets will only open two days a week. Better go stock up your stuff for the next month or so. Govt officials in meeting yesterday and will finalise measures tomorrow.”
Lai did not know whether food courts and coffeeshops would in fact be closed, and had concocted the lie.
Deleted post after 15 minutes
Moments after putting up the Facebook post, Lai observed that a few people commented on his post, advising him not to spread rumours. He deleted the post after about 15 minutes.
However a person known only as James made a police report about the post on 20 April, providing the contents of Lai’s post.
“I know Kenneth is using the handphone number – as I used to book his taxi service. Hope you will take up this case as his posting is irresponsible will cause panic to fellow Singaporeans,” James said in his police report.
Singapore saw its first wave of mass panic buying when the government raised its disease outbreak level from Yellow to Orange on 7 February, before Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong reassured the public the next day that there was sufficient supplies.
The panic buying prompted supermarket chain NTUC FairPrice to limit the purchase of daily household goods such as toilet paper, rice and instant noodles.
A second wave of panic buying was triggered when the Malaysian government announced a nationwide lockdown on 16 March.
Lai’s words presented real risk of panic buying: DPP
Deputy Public Prosecutor Deborah Lee said that Lai’s post sought to undermine the government’s continuous effort to reassure the public of the sufficiency of supplies and resulted in a real risk of panic buying. Lai’s rumour could have triggered a self-feeding frenzy and stockpiling, she added.
Lai, who was unrepresented, said he was “very sorry and regretful” for his action.
“I know I’ve spread something which is false. I think that’s not right, so I make a promise I would never never do such a thing again,” he said in court.
District Judge Seah Chi-Ling, however, found that the matter was “very serious in light of the current health crises” and that a deterrent message needed to be sent. He agreed with the prosecution on the sentence of four months’ jail.
When Lai asked if the sentence could be lighter, DJ Seah responded, “(This is a) serious offence. (We are) in the middle of health crises, the message you sent is false and will lead to panic buying and is serious given current circumstances.”
For transmitting a false message under the Miscellaneous Offences (Public Order and Nuisance) Act, Lai could have been jailed up to three years and/or fined up to $10,000.
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