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.