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To what extent is the abuse of powers in data misuse tolerated in public service?

The Singapore Medical Council (SMC) has decided to suspend the licence of a 44-year-old cosmetic surgeon for three months for misusing a public hospital’s database to obtain particulars for his personal agenda.

Leo Kah Woon, who now works in private practice, was found guilty by a disciplinary tribunal in Dec last year after the Council had forwarded his case to said tribunal, The Straits Times reported.

However, the decision was only released this week.

In Feb 2017, Dr Leo was sentenced to a S$13,000 fine by the courts for abusing his position as a doctor at the Singapore General Hospital (SGH) seven years ago to find information on a man who he had suspected of having an affair with his wife and subsequently informing the man’s wife of the alleged affair.

Previously, the council handed a letter of advice to the surgeon in 2014 following the man’s complaint to the SMC regarding Dr Leo’s misuse of SGH’s database.

In light of the latest decision made against Dr Leo, however, SMC had asked for a longer period of suspension, citing at least six to eight months, as “the breach is even more egregious”, given that “it relates to a restructured hospital containing millions of patient medical records.”

The tribunal disagreed and maintained that the suspension period suggested by SMC is too lengthy, given that “no actual medical records were accessed” and “there was no profit motive”.

The tribunal added that while the lack of integrity was demonstrated “to a somewhat appalling extent” by Dr Leo, there was “no clear evidence of dishonesty” on his part.

“While we do not expect all doctors to be the epitome of virtue, we should expect the conduct of doctors, professionally and privately, to exceed the standards expected of ordinary citizens,” said the tribunal.

Examining the threshold of what constitutes abuse of power in public service

While the three-month suspension of Dr Leo’s licence is deemed appropriate by the tribunal despite the gravity of the cybersecurity risks posed by his offence, given the consequences of other breaches involving public healthcare databases in recent months such as the SingHealth cyber attack and the HIV registry leak, the penalties imposed against the cosmetic surgeon also brings into question as to what constitutes abuse of power in public service.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s brother Lee Hsien Yang illustrated this predicament two years ago when he posted a list of personal items of belonging to their father, the late Lee Kuan Yew, who was in critical condition and placed in an Intensive Care Unit (ICU) in early Feb 2015.

As executors and trustees of the late Mr Lee’s estate, Mr Lee Hsien Yang and Dr Lee Wei Ling had signed the NHB Deed of Gift, and had made formal arrangements to donate some furniture and personal items belonging to their father from his 38 Oxley Road home to the NHB the same year.

However, Mr Lee Hsien Yang revealed that the items were handed to the National Heritage Board (NHB) on loan “under the auspices of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO)” a day after Mr Lee Kuan Yew was hospitalised, and noted that the the point of contact listed on behalf of PMO was PM Lee’s wife, Ho Ching.

“She had no business doing this when LKY was in ICU and it is deeply troubling that someone can represent the PMO despite holding no official position,” wrote Mr Lee Hsien Yang.

As Mr Lee Hsien Yang had highlighted, Ms Ho does not hold any position in the PMO as a civil servant, and is officially known as PM Lee’s wife and the CEO of Temasek Holdings.

Yet, as revealed in the document uploaded by Mr Lee Hsien Yang via Facebook, Ms Ho had allegedly directed the collection – and subsequent loan – of Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s personal items to NHB under the capacity of the PMO.

On 19 June the same year he revealed the list of items collected by Mdm Ho, Mr Lee Hsien Yang announced that Lucien Wong – the personal lawyer of PM Lee, who is also Singapore’s Attorney-General – had written to him and his sister Lee Wei Ling to demand the NHB Deed of Gift, which would grant PM Lee the rights to Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s personal items without incurring any payment in return.

“Only hours later, he wrote a second letter (attached) saying ‘Our client has since received a copy of the Deed of Gift dated 8 June 2015 from NHB”, he added.

This led Mr Lee Hsien Yang to question: “Did LHL acquire the Deed of Gift in his public capacity, or his private capacity? If in his public capacity, to use this in his personal legal disputes is a clear abuse of authority.

“If in his private capacity, how can other private citizens go about acquiring confidential deeds of gift from the NHB?” wrote Mr Lee Hsien Yang.

Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong, in response, stated on 23 Jun the same year that PM Lee was given the Deed of Gift for Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s belongings in his official capacity, as a major public exhibition on Singapore’s founding fathers such as the memorial exhibition of the late Mr Lee “is a matter of deliberation by the Government”.

“It would therefore be normal and in order, that the Prime Minister be kept informed about the contents and presentation of the exhibition,” Mr Lawrence Wong wrote in a Facebook post.

He added that PM Lee would have the rights to access information from the estate if the demand for the Deed of Gift was made in his private capacity, given his position as the eldest son of Mr Lee Kuan Yew and a beneficiary of the estate.

Nonetheless, the nature of the letter from Mr Lucien Wong raises the question of whether PM Lee, via PMO and Ms Ho, had used his position as Prime Minister to obtain confidential documents not for official use, but for his personal use.

Subsequently, should the assertion that PM Lee had used his position to obtain such documents for personal use be true, it would then raise the question as to whether the Prime Minister’s case is any different from that of Dr Leo.