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Covid-19: Taxi driver jailed 4 months for posting false information about closure of supermarkets, food outlets

SINGAPORE — After circuit breaker measures to stem the spread of Covid-19 had kicked in for a week, a taxi driver posted false information around April 16 in a private Facebook group saying he had “intel” that more stringent measures would take effect soon.

Kenneth Lai Yong Hui, 40, wrote in the Taxiuncle Facebook group, which had 7,478 members at the time, that he had “intel” from the Government that “more measures” will be enforced.

Kenneth Lai Yong Hui, 40, wrote in the Taxiuncle Facebook group, which had 7,478 members at the time, that he had “intel” from the Government that “more measures” will be enforced.

SINGAPORE — After circuit breaker measures to stem the spread of Covid-19 had kicked in for a week, a taxi driver posted false information around April 16 in a private Facebook group saying he had “intel” that more stringent measures would take effect soon.

Several people advised Kenneth Lai Yong Hui, 40, not to spread rumours and he deleted the post 15 minutes after it went up. 

For his actions, Lai was sentenced in a district court to four months’ jail on Wednesday (May 27).

He pleaded guilty to transmitting a false message under the Miscellaneous Offences (Public Order and Nuisance) Act. 

He could have been jailed for up to three years or fined up to S$10,000, or both.

Deputy Principal District Judge Seah Chi-Ling told Lai: “Spreading false messages like that, which will lead to panic-buying, is a very serious matter in light of the current health crisis we’re all going through. A deterrent message should be sent to like-minded members of the public to tell them not to engage in similar conduct.”

The court heard that between April 15 and 16, Lai saw a text message in one of his WhatsApp group chats which said that “disposable food container can transmit the virus” and “hawker centre and coffeeshop will be closed”.

Even though he could not identify the sender and did not verify the information, he posted the information in the Taxiuncle Facebook group, which had 7,478 members at the time. He added that he had “intel” from the Government that “more measures” will be enforced that weekend.

“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 finalize measures tomorrow,” Lai wrote.

On April 20, an individual only identified as James in court documents called the police and said he had come across Lai’s message.

“I know Kenneth is using the hp number... as I used to book his taxi service. Hope you will take up the case as his posting is irresponsible, will cause panic to fellow Singaporeans,” James added.

AT LEAST THREE WAVES OF PANIC BUYING

Deputy Public Prosecutor (DPP) Deborah Lee, who sought the sentence imposed, noted that mass panic buying of food and essential daily goods in Singapore began as early as Feb 7 when the Disease Outbreak Response System Condition (Dorscon) level was raised to orange.

A second wave of panic buying happened after Malaysia announced a nationwide lockdown on March 16. 

Most recently, “throngs of people and snaking queues” were again seen at supermarkets hours after the circuit breaker was announced on April 3, DPP Lee said. 

All supermarkets, however, have remained open since the circuit breaker period began on April 7, while restaurants, hawker centres, coffee shops, food courts and other food and beverage outlets have stayed open for takeaway or delivery.

When these panic buying sprees broke out, Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing tried to quell concerns and cautioned about how these could severely disrupt the Government’s stockpiling efforts.

DPP Lee added that Lai’s post sought to “undermine the Government’s continuous effort to reassure the public of the sufficiency of supplies” and posed a real risk of more panic buying.

In mitigation, Lai — who did not have a lawyer — said he was “sorry and regretful for what I have done”.

“I know I spread something which is false. After thinking, it’s just not right. I made a promise that I will never ever do such a thing again,” he added.

After District Judge Seah passed the sentence, Lai said: “Give me a chance.” 

The judge repeated that he had committed a “very serious offence”.

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court Covid-19 coronavirus false information

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