On Monday (2 December), three former full-time national servicemen (NSF) from the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) were fined under the Official Secrets Act for sharing images of the fatal Bionix accident that claimed the life of NSF Liu Kai in 2018.
22-year-old Muhammad Arif Azman was fined S$3,000 for capturing and disseminating two photos of the accident involving a Bionix and a Land Rover on 3 November last year.
As for 21-year-old Brandon Tan Jien Jet and 24-year-old Muhammad Zaki Haji Mokhtar, they were each fined S$1,500 for circulating the photos.
Corporal First Class Liu Kai died on 3 November 2018 at the Jalan Murai training grounds after a Bionix Infantry Fighting Vehicle that was moving away from stimulated enemy reversed into the Land Rover that the full-time national serviceman was driving.
Arif, who is a corporal, was part of the rota dispatched to the training accident at 10.20am on the fateful day.
All the three NSFs were attached to the Jurong Fire Station at the time of the incident.
Taking pictures of the accident
Deputy Public Prosecutor (DPP) Zhou Yihong revealed to the court on Monday that Arif, along with his co-accused Thng Yu Xuan and Mohamad Haikal Mohamad Zainal Abiddin, were dispatched to the scene to help extricate CFC Liu.
Upon arriving at the scene, the trio noticed that the Land Rover was crushed beneath the Bionix.
Prior to helping his colleagues to bring put CFC Liu, Arif captured two images of the scene using his mobile phone. Both the photos showed that the Bionix and the crushed Land Rover underneath it.
On the other hand, Haikal, a section commander at Jurong Fire Station, snapped five photos with three showing the two vehicles involved, while the other two capturing the licence plates.
Once they came back to the fire station, the two men sent the photos to a WhatApp chat group that had 24 current and former SCDF individuals at Jurong Fire Station.
Although Tan was not present at the scene that time because he was not part of the rota sent out to extricate CFC Liu , he however forwarded two of the photos he received from the WhatsApp chat to another chat group that had six friends from the SCDF and Singapore Armed Forces (SAF).
DPP Zhou and Angela Ang said that Tan did so because his friends from the other chat group were worried about what had happened.
They added that he was aware of the sensitivity involving the issue and that he was not authorised to send them to his friends.
As for Zaki, he was not serving SCDF when the accident occurred. However, he was still part of the chat group and he forwarded two of the images to his brother, as the latter “was curious about the accident”.
Arif kept two photos despite order to delete them
At around 4.10pm on the incident day, the commander of Jurong Fire Station Captain Dinesh K Verlachamy was informed by an SCDF public affairs officer that an image of the accident site had been making rounds on WhatsApp.
“The said photograph captured the back view of the Bionix partially on top of and crushing the Land Rover and was obviously taken through the front windscreen of an SCDF vehicle,” DPP Zhou told the court.
Upon knowing this, Captain Dinesh immediately issued an order for everyone involved in the rota to gather at the fire station for investigations, before finding out that Arif and Haikal were the ones who had taken the photos and initially shared them.
Despite being ordered by Captain Dinesh to immediately delete the photos of the accident, Arif did not comply. He still kept two of the photos and it was found out after his phone was seized a few days later.
Arif, Tan and Zaki pleaded guilty for their respective offences in the accident, while Arif faces another charge of not complying with the instructions to delete all the photos.
Prosecution asks for S$1,500 fine
DPP Zhou argued that emergency personnel should know how to maintain the confidentiality of sensitive material. The prosecution asked for a S$1,500 fine per charge for each of them, stating that the pictures taken were “patently highly sensitive in nature”.
However, Tan’s lawyer, Muralli Raja Rajaram, asked for a S$1,000 fine since his client was not present at the scene and deleted the photos shortly after the incident.
He explained that Tan shared the image at the spur of the moment, and only forwarded the images to his friends as they were “concerned” on what had happened exactly.
Although Arif did not say anything in his defence, Zaki asked for a lighter sentence as he has to take care of his ailing mother.
The judge pointed out that the fines asked by the prosecution were “reasonable and justified”.
Besides these three men fined on Monday, three other individuals were also charged earlier.
Captain Ong Lin Jie, 28, was charged with one count of doing a rash act causing death. Ong, who was the officer commanding the Land Rover, had apparently failed to maintain a safe distance of 30m between the vehicle and the Bionix. Due to this, the Bionix continued reversing and mounted the driver’s side of the Land Rover, causing the death of CFC Liu, court documents revealed.
If Ong is found guilty, he could be jailed for up to five years or fined, or both. He will return to court on 23 December for a pre-trial conference.
Haikal and Thng have their cases pending. If they are found guilty of sending the photos to others under the Official Secrets Act, they could be jailed up to two years, fined a maximum of S$2,000, or both.
Upon reading this news, many netizens voiced their disagreement with the verdict as they felt that without the photos, no one will know the truth. Writing on the Facebook pages of Channel News Asia, TODAY and The Straits Times, they said that these men “should be celebrated” and thanked them because without their pictures, the whole incident could have “been a cover-up”.
Some said that without those photos, the entire incident would most probably be sweep “under the carpet”. Willis C. Wil said that the SAF is afraid that the leaks photos will hinder them from “cover up n fabricate a made-believed story”. He asked for SAF to be “transparent” and reveal the truth as it is only “fair for the deceased and his family”.
However, a number of online users felt that the three men should be fined as their act was “wrong” and they showed “no respect for their fellow colleague”.
Marcus Chua said, “Leaking photos for curiosity is plain irresponsible. None of them had any real intent of the public good, or they would have made a public statement of their stance by now”.