Judge acquits SDP four over walking case

As reported on the website of the Singapore Democratic Party today, District Judge John Ng acquitted four members of the party over a walking event they staged on 16 September 2007. Gandhi Ambalan, John Tan, Chee Siok Chin and Chong Kai Xiong walked from Hong Lim Green to Parliament, the Istana, finally reaching Queenstown Remand Prison where party leader Chee Soon Juan was then incarcerated. They wore T-shirts with the words “Democracy Now” and “Freedom Now”.  There were more than these four persons at various times along the route, but it was these four, together with Yap Keng Ho, who were charged with holding a procession without a permit, under the Miscellaneous Offices (Public Order and Nuisance) Act. Yap Keng Ho was also acquitted.

Section 5 of this law says that the Minister may make bylaws regulating assemblies and processions but the judge found that there was no definition in the Act as to what could constitute and assembly or procession. According to the report on the party’s website,

Judge Ng wrote in his judgment that in the absence of the definition of what constituted a “procession” under the law, it was important to consider the “natural and ordinary” meaning of the word.

Citing definitions in the Oxford and Collins English dictionaries, the Judge said that he could not accept the Prosecution’s “simplistic” interpretation that “so long as a group of 5 or more people walk[ing] from one point to another point in a public place to commemorate an event” constitutes a procession.

He noted that the group had walked mainly on the pedestrian pathways, using the pavements and sidewalks. They had walked casually and stops were made for pamphlet distribution and toilet breaks.

He concluded: “I am fortified in my views when I consider that the principal [Miscellaneous Offences] Act and the Rules were meant to relate to offences against public order, nuisance and property. The walk which had taken place did not impede or cause any disruption to the flow of vehicular traffic or the movement of pedestrians.”

This is an unexpected decision. Singaporeans have come to expect the ruling party to use the law liberally to box in their political opponents. Does this signal a reversal of an old habit? It’s too early to say. One swallow does not make a summer.

Apparently, the prosecutor can appeal the verdict. So we shall have to wait and see.

One is also reminded of the case of Senior District Judge Michael Khoo who acquitted the late J B Jeyaretnam of nearly all charges when in 1986, he was accused of mis-stating his Worker’s Party accounts. Jeyaretnam was an indefatigable opponent of the ruling party. Not only was Jeyaretnam’s case retried under a different judge (with the usual result), but Khoo himself was transferred out of his job into the Attorney-General’s Chambers. This move was widely seen as punishment for deciding the case the way he did.

In Singapore, District Judges are considered part of the executive and can be transferred at will.

Another thing to watch out for is whether the government will now amend the law to write in a definition for “assembly” and procession” that will catch all future walkabouts with a political message. It’s known as killing Singapore with a thousand cuts.

10 Responses to “Judge acquits SDP four over walking case”

  1. 1 Anonymous 6 October 2009 at 23:02

    Yup, don’t be too happy first. It may just be a candy tossed out to sweeten the crowd for elections, as history has shown.

  2. 2 Alan Wong 7 October 2009 at 00:27

    When was the judgement passed ? How come it was never reported by the mainstream media ? Does it mean they don’t even have the courage to report it ?

    It must have been a real hard slap for the old man.

  3. 3 Really 7 October 2009 at 02:59

    The judge seems to have a conscience in this judgement. But whether this came out of himself or induced by “other factors” we do not know.

  4. 4 Francis 7 October 2009 at 09:29

    Clearly this is a move to blunt the opposition charge that the courts are unfair and always rule for the government.

    Now no one can accuse the judiciary of being compliant.

    The case itself is insignificant and therefore has very little effect on how the government uses other means to weaken the opposition.

    Now it is going to be hard for both the opposition or the foreign media to continue to press their stance that the courts are compliant and or that the government has a hold over the judiciary.

  5. 5 Teck Soon 7 October 2009 at 10:59

    It may simply be that some judges in Singapore are actually honourable, and want to be remembered as being on the right side of history. There is more to life than one’s career as a judge. I don’t think I could live with myself if I were a judge and I had to convict an innocent man.

  6. 6 The Eye 7 October 2009 at 14:34

    Everyone has ambition and aspiration of what they wanted to be.

    If you want to be a teacher, than teach with passion.
    If you want to be a doctor, than cure all patients
    If you want to join the army, put your people above the govt
    If you want to be a judge, than be fair in your judgement.

    The above must not be affected by political parties and regardless of people financial means to engage you.

    Whether you will be remembered in good light is not as important as to leave with a clear conscience in this life. That made us human.

  7. 7 Desmond 7 October 2009 at 21:39

    I don’t trust our courts when it comes to cases that deal with the gahmen and/or opposition. The courts will always side with the gahmen regardless. As you did say, we have to wait and see what happens. I would expect this judge to be transferred out or placed in a position where he cannot do more “harm”.

  8. 8 Paul 7 October 2009 at 22:57

    Simple thing to do is now to use this as a precedent.

    Lets gather in groups of 4 and start walking to HDB and pass out flyers about the ridiculous price of flats, walk to Singapore Power to ask about why electricity prices are rising etc etc

  9. 9 Ah Cow 7 October 2009 at 23:48

    Excuse the mish-mash, but one non-kangaroo
    judgment does not a summer make, if you get
    the drift.

  10. 10 Francis 9 October 2009 at 18:54

    I believe I am right regarding my first comment that this is just a ploy to take the wind out of the sails of the opposition and the foreign media.

    It is now more difficult to accuse the judiciary of being compliant.

    Today’s case regarding the Far Eastern Economic Review supports my argument. The appeal court threw out FEER’s appeal regarding the the case of defamation against PM and MM Lee. Our first reaction is “see, the courts are compliant; no one wins a case against the government”

    But that is not true. The opposition had a case ruled in their favour just last week.

    Looking at the two cases together, we can see how “clever” the government is. Too clever.

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