Judge to decide if distributing flyers is illegal

December 18, 2009
Singapore Democrats

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Singapore Democrats

The verdict in the case against Mr Gandhi Ambalam, Dr Chee Soon Juan and Ms Chee Siok Chin will be delivered this morning in the Subordinate Courts by District Judge Chng Lye Beng.

The three SDP leaders are charged with illegal assembly because they (together with three others) had distributed flyers critical of the PAP in September 2006. In its closing submissions, Deputy Public Prosecutor Anandan Bala insisted that the three had demonstrated “opposition to the actions of the Government” and were therefore in violation of the law.

If you are confused, you are probably among the majority. After all, how can criticising the Government’s actions be a crime especially if the PAP touts Singapore as a democracy? If opposition members cannot demonstrate opposition to the Government, what are they expected to do?
Below is a summary of both sides of the arguments:

Prosecution’s case

The defendants are accused of distributing the flyers whose “contents criticize the policies of the Singapore government” outside the Raffles City Shopping Centre on 10 Sep 06 just before the World Bank-International Monetary Fund Meeting.

In particular, the DPP took issue with the fact that the pamphlet made the following statements:

“Tired of being a voiceless 2nd class citizen in your own country without any rights? Sick of the Mnisters paying themselves millions of dollars while they tell you to keep making sacrifices for Singapore?”

At the material time, the defendants did not have a police permit for the activity. They “ought reasonably to have known” that a permit was needed. The police state that permits are not required for distribution of flyers by 5 or more persons only if the assembly is for “commercial causes”.

The Defence’s case

The police are making up the law to specifically target the political opposition. The subsidiary legislation of the  Miscellaneous Offences Act (MOA) under which the Defendants have been charged does not in any way specify that gatherings for commercial causes are exempt from police permission while political ones are not.

All the obscure piece of subsidiary legislation says is that an assembly “intended to demonstrate support or opposition to the view of any person” requires a permit. It does not say anything about opposition to government policies nor does it make any distinction between commercial and political causes.

The action of the police is therefore ultra vires of the MOA and, this being the case, the Defendants cannot be convicted as Article 4 of the Constitution says that any law (or in this case administrative act) which is “inconsistent with this Constitution shall, to the extent of the inconsistency, be void.”

Furthermore, can the Defendants be reasonably expected to know that a permit for distributing flyers is needed when the officers who had been instructed to stop the activity on the day in question testified that they did not know what the offence was. In fact, they said that distributing flyers was a normal and common activity.

One of the police witnesses Inspector Patrick Lim even said, when he was asked by the DPP whether the Defendants had committed a crime: “Based on my personal opinion, they are not committing an offence.”

The Defendants also argue that under the rule of law, ruling parties cannot pass laws or enact legislation to prevent citizens from criticising its policies and actions. As pointed out above, this is strictly prohibited by Article 4 of the Constitution which clearly guarantees Singapore citizens the right of freedom of speech and assembly.

The Constitution only says that Parliament may impose restrictions on these freedoms under certain dire conditions such as when national security or public order is threatened.

In this case the police witnesses repeatedly testified that when the Defendants were distributing the flyers, they were orderly and did not threaten public order.

Judge Chng Lye beng will deliver his decision this morning.