Government said it disclosed personal data of sick woman to preserve the public trust of public agencies

“Public agencies have a duty to preserve the public trust reposed in them and to ensure that citizens are not misled.”

The Smart Nation and Digital Government Office (SNDGO) under the Prime Minister’s Office, said in a statement on Friday (27 Dec) that it decided to disclose the personal data of a sick woman who made multiple suicide attempts to obtain her Central Provident Fund (CPF) savings for her family because it wanted to provide the public with correct and relevant facts in the case.

TOC had earlier reported on the case of Ms Soo (not her real name), a 45-year-old Singaporean and a single parent, who is suffering from Systemic Lupus Erythemathosus (SLE), or also known as lupus since 2011 and out of job since June 2016 due to her health problems.

Ms Soo had sought President Halimah’s help to release her CPF Funds from Medisave and Special Accounts so that it can be used to help her financially. This is because she had exhausted all her savings as she was unemployed for the last three years. When asked for her CPF monies, CPF Board requested for a medical certificate from her doctor to say that she is permanently unfit to work but her doctor only gave her a temporary notice for 6 months. She also attempted to seek help from various agencies but was unsuccessful.

She shared, “I am very depressed and suicidal due to my illness and also due to financial stress. I attempted suicide in July but obviously I failed and ended up at A&E at Khoo Teck Puat Hospital. The reason is simple. I want my family to get my CPF monies and insurance payout. I have also attempted suicide on many other occasions but to no avail”

Following TOC’s report on 17 Dec, the government publicly named Ms Soo’s real name on CPF Board’s Facebook page in a joint statement of various ministries on 19 Dec and disclosed additional personal details of her family. It also included Ms Soo’s admission to the National University Hospital in 2011 for her lupus condition, her recent visits to Khoo Teck Puat Hospital, as well as her application for financial aid.

CPF also said that the woman could reapply to access her CPF savings on medical grounds, once her doctors had certified that she met the medical criteria.

TOC understands from Ms Soo that various agencies followed up with her after the report of her case was published on 17 Dec. Her Member of Parliament representative, Minister Ong Ye Kung also wrote in to her personally asking about her situation in response after she wrote him an email on 18 Dec.

Personal details disclosed to preserve the public trust

When asked regarding the government’s policy on disclosing someone’s personal data in certain cases of public interest, SNDGO said: “The Online Citizen first published an article on (Ms Soo) on 17 Dec 2019 which omitted key facts and contained misleading statements. The relevant public agencies jointly issued a clarification to provide the full picture to the public. Some specific personal information was disclosed in order to convey verifiable facts and to enable the individual to challenge the Government’s account of the case, if need be.”

It added: “Public agencies have a duty to preserve the public trust reposed in them and to ensure that citizens are not misled.”

It likened the approach to that followed by the Personal Data Protection Commission, which permits companies to disclose relevant personal information about an individual in a public forum, in order to counter false or misleading allegations from that individual. “This gives the companies an opportunity to clear the air for themselves, and convey the facts of the case to the public.”

It further noted that such lawful disclosures of information should not be conflated with unauthorised breaches of citizens’ data, which all public agencies including the CPF Board are committed to guard against.

“Public agencies abide by the data protection regulations under the Public Sector (Governance) Act and in the Government Instruction Manuals,” said the SNDGO spokesman.

“These are no less stringent than the requirements of the Personal Data Protection Act (PDPA) which apply to the private sector.”

How higher are standards of data protection practised by public sector agencies?

However, this episode will raises the question of whether the answer provided by Minister for Communications and Information S. Iswaran in Parliament in earlier April this year, can be considered as misleading.

Minister Iswaran noted that the government is not governed by PDPA because there are fundamental differences in how the public sector operates compared to the private sector.

He noted that public sector agencies have to comply with Government Instruction Manuals and the Public Sector (Governance) Act (PSGA).

He argued that collectively, these provide comparable, if not higher, standards of data protection compared to the PDPA.

This was in response to Nominated MP Irene Quay’s question about whether it is justifiable for public agencies to be exempted from the PDPA.

While it would have seen as a reasonable answer by the Minister back in April, the response would have elicit a follow up question as to how the standards for public sector agencies are higher especially since agencies will not slapped with fines or warning and they can decide whether they violated the guidelines as in the case of Ms Soo.

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