Couple fined for harassing Sengkang hospital nurse and family during Covid-19 circuit breaker
SINGAPORE — A married couple who went viral in 2020 for harassing their next-door neighbours, including a nurse from Sengkang General Hospital, have been fined in a district court on Tuesday (Feb 6).
- Cheang Eng Hock and Lim Sok Lay were fined S$1,200 and S$4,000 respectively
- The couple had pleaded guilty to harassing their neighbour, among other charges
- The couple’s lawyer said in defence that they did not harass their neighbour because he was a nurse
- Rather, it was because the victim’s wife had invited foreign workers to stay in their home during the Covid-19 circuit breaker period
SINGAPORE — A married couple who were caught on video harassing their next-door neighbours, including a nurse from Sengkang General Hospital during the Covid-19 circuit breaker period, were fined in a district court on Tuesday (Feb 8).
Cheang Eng Hock, 57, pleaded guilty to a single charge of committing an offence under the Protection from Harassment Act and was fined S$1,200.
A second similar charge was taken into consideration for the cleaning supervisor’s sentencing.
Cheang's 49-year-old wife, Lim Sok Lay, also pleaded guilty to three charges under the same Act, and a fourth charge of causing public annoyance during an unrelated incident.
For her offences, the unemployed woman was fined S$4,000.
Four other similar charges were taken into consideration for her sentencing.
The couple both asked to pay their fines in instalments.
The court heard from Deputy Public Prosecutor (DPP) Joseph Gwee that the incident between the couple and their neighbour, Mr Muhammad Najib Ngasewan, happened around the middle of May 2020.
The incident caught the attention of the public when Mr Najib, who was working as a nurse at Sengkang General Hospital at the time, took to Instagram that month to talk about how the couple were insulting him and his family because of his profession.
Singapore was then in the midst of a circuit breaker period that restricted movement and activities to stem the spread of the coronavirus.
DPP Gwee said investigations revealed that the couple had gotten into a verbal dispute with Mr Najib and his family between May 13 and 15 that year.
In the course of the dispute, the couple had shouted the words "Covid", "Covid spreader", "Virus" and "Virus family" at the victim and his family.
The prosecutor added that Lim had also sprayed disinfectant in the direction of Mr Najib’s family at one point.
DPP Gwee said that the couple made their remarks "during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic in Singapore" and they were clearly targeted at the victim because of his occupation as a nurse.
“Such remarks are thoroughly uncalled for, especially against frontline medical staff who continue to play a role in combating Covid-19 today,” DPP Gwee said as he sought a fine of between S$2,000 and S$2,500 each for Cheang and Lim.
However, the couple’s lawyer, Ms NK Anitha of the Anitha & Asoka law firm, replied that this was not the case.
Ms Anitha, who represented the couple pro bono, said that the two families had been neighbours for more than five years at that time and had had a "cordial relationship" all along.
It was known that Mr Najib was a nurse and her clients found no issue with Mr Najib’s family up until May, she added.
The incident that triggered the dispute between the two parties was when Mr Najib’s wife, Madam Habibah Sakri, began inviting foreign workers to stay in their home around May 2020.
Ms Anitha said that there would be different foreign workers each time, and Cheang decided to take it upon himself to obtain video evidence so that he could "alert the authorities".
This caused Mdm Habibah to accuse him of "being kaypoh" (Hokkien for being a busybody), and she then claimed that she had gotten the relevant approval for the workers, who were temporarily under job placement, to stay at her home.
The defence lawyer said that at the time, there was a "heightened fear" that foreign workers living in dormitories have a greater risk of spreading Covid-19.
During that period, a bulk of the reported coronavirus infections in Singapore came from foreign worker dormitories.
That was why the "frequent sighting of foreign workers triggered fear" in her clients, Ms Anitha explained.
District Judge Soh Tze Bian then asked Ms Anitha if she wanted to call for a Newton hearing, which is held to resolve matters that can affect sentencing, as there appeared to be a dispute in the facts of the case.
Some time was spent discussing the matter before the parties decided to forgo the Newton hearing.
DPP Gwee said that at the end of the day, what was relevant for sentencing was the choice of words used by Ms Anitha’s clients, and their overall behaviour, and not whether Mr Najib was a nurse or not.
District Judge Soh noted that the prosecutor was no longer relying on the fact that the couple’s actions were based on Mr Najib’s occupation as a nurse, and said that the sentence DPP Gwee was seeking was "way above the benchmark" for similar cases.
Separately, the court also heard of another incident that took place on Feb 21 last year at the Ngee Ann City mall.
DPP Gwee said that Lim’s daughter had been working at the Kim Robinson hair salon at the mall when she was dismissed over a complaint made by a customer.
That afternoon, Cheang, Lim and their daughter were at the mall when they happened to spot that same customer, and Lim wanted that customer to apologise to her daughter for causing the younger woman to lose her job.
However, Lim was denied entry to the hair salon, which resulted in her causing a scene by slamming the door and raising her voice.
The police eventually arrived and they advised Cheang and his daughter to calm Lim down, but the woman failed to comply, which led to her arrest.
The punishment for committing an offence under the Protection from Harassment Act is a fine of up to S$5,000 and a jail term of up to six months.
The punishment for committing public nuisance is a fine of up to S$2,000.