The procession that wasn’t, or was it?

The Straits Times reported  (Straits Times, 21 April 2010, SDP group fined for illegal procession) that five persons affiliated to the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) were fined $500 to $600 each by District Judge John Ng for holding an illegal procession.

This came after the prosecution had succeeded in its appeal against the acquittal that the same judge gave them back in October last year. Yawning Bread wrote about it More thoughts on the ‘Not a procession’ judgement.

The High Court (Justice Choo Han Teck) granted the appeal and sent the case back to the District Court for sentencing.

I have had a quick look at Choo’s written judgement. Whereas the District Judge had relied on a dictionary definition of procession, saying judicial precedents were unclear on this matter, Choo rejected a dictionary definition even while accepting that precedents were unclear. He seemed to have offered no definition of his own.

Instead he appeared to rely on “whether the organisers and participants intended to attract public attention, not whether they had succeeded or not. Rule 5 being preemptive leaves the assessment of risks to the permit issuer,” and therefore the five men should have obtained a permit in advance of the event, even if in the end, the walk neither attracted public attention nor posed any threat to public order.

He gave an example that on the surface seemed reasonable: Referring to how the participants did not walk in any fixed or structured way, but quite often separately, obeying traffic lights, etc, findings of fact made by the District Court, Choo wrote: “that did not make the activity less of a procession because it could have taken the front walkers a moment to slow down and the back formation to speed up to have the groups coalesce into one.”

Yet, such reasoning hinges acutely on the “it could have” even if it didn’t. Applying law so broadly, based on all manner of possibilities, is highly prejudicial to civil liberties.

For example, let’s say three persons walked together singing a merry song. Being three, under the law’s threshold of five persons, they would not need a permit to hold a “procession”. But using the same reasoning as Choo, one could argue that more passers-by, attracted by their good cheer and hearty voices “could have” possibly joined in, making a number larger than five, and therefore the original three were guilty of not applying for a permit in the first place – even if nobody joined in.

It’s rather disturbing.

I shall read the 11-page judgement more fully when I have time, and if I have more points to add, I shall write a longer piece.

2 Responses to “The procession that wasn’t, or was it?”

  1. 1 George 23 April 2010 at 13:56


    Don’t you think there is some similarity between this sort of reasoning with the case where some ministers were found in a polling station during a GE which is prohibited under the law?

    The law is interpreted according to who you are. How’s that for personalisation and customisation?

  2. 2 Robert L 26 April 2010 at 06:54

    Dear YB, thank you for writing about this.

    Choo wrote: “that did not make the activity less of a procession because it could have taken the front walkers a moment to slow down and the back formation to speed up to have the groups coalesce into one.”

    I cannot begin to express how perturbed I am to read this statement written by a Judge.

    Let me begin by stating a fact. F.A.C.T.

    The 5 accused were known to be determined not to march in a group. Stress on NOT. No person of sound mind would dispute this widely known fact.

    How then is it possible for anybody to imagine that they could have forgotten to do so in the course of quickening or slowing their paces during their walk?

    Five persons walking at random pace could have coalesce or dispersed as described, but could the same thing be expected for a group who have planned (and schemed, some may say) not to do that very thing?

    Let me put up a simple thought experiment. Suppose you employ 5 persons to walk the same distance, with the instructions to keep apart from each other. Do you seriously expect them to fail in carrying out that instruction?

    For a Judge to put that into his reasoning is beyond my understanding (presumably a High Court judge, too). To say any more on that would lead me to Contempt Of Court in Singapore’s delightful Legal system.

    Alex, may I request that you help us find that 11-page judgement for ourselves, since that would be a historic document well worth keeping safe. (Thank you in advance.)

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