On Dec 24, the Workers’ Party will know how much of a fine it has to pay for not getting a permit to hold its Lunar New Year community event (WP’s definition) or trade fair (National Environment Agency’s definition). The maximum is just $1,000; the prosecution stated archly that the low quantum was probably why the WP decided to fight the case in court. For those wondering about who will pay the legal fees, the WP MPs said they would be paying out of their own pocket, and not through its controversial (my word) town council funds.
The whole exercise has been very enlightening for the way the WP tried to bring up issues surrounding the offence of not getting a permit, and for the way the prosecution tried so hard to get it to stick to the law. In fact, it had seemed obvious to me from the start that WP will lose (not because I am conspiracy-minded and think it would be “done in’’ in any case) but simply because it was required to get a permit, and it didn’t. It went ahead to hold the fair for three straight weeks although it had been warned several times to shut down. So it really looked like it was “asking for it’’.
Then I think/guess/speculate that what happened next is that WP thought it would be good to use the occasion to test the G on what sort of powers town councils really have and whether they have to comply with conditions attached by G agencies. After all, town councils have the mandate of the people to run the place – so why should so many other agencies intervene? Didn’t the G itself say as much when the town councils were proposed in 1988? Just check Hansard. The trouble is, there are laws of the land (regardless of political colouring) you have to abide by, like environmental laws, and specific laws on the power of town councils. So what does a town council’s mandate to “manage’’ the area mean? It cannot be completely unfettered, but how fettered is the question.
In any case, here’s a condensed version of what happened:
The WP wants to hold a Lunar New Year event in Hougang, organised by the town council. Then it thinks it had maybe better get some kind of permission from whoever/whatever agency. Better to steer out of trouble, it thinks. NEA obliges and gives a form that says “trade fair’’. But it’s not a “trade fair’’. WP thinks. We’re not organising a pasar malam! It’s only five stalls and there’s no cooked food and it’s going to be in an area that is managed by the town council! So it cancels the word “trade fair’’ and sticks “community event’’ and sends back the form.
Then the reply came: “Your forms are incomplete. Where is the “consensus from neighbourhood shopkeepers’’ and “letter of support from the Citizens’ Consultative Committee’’? The WP thinks: what the &&(%^$##! Why must we get the CCC to say okay? The CCC belongs to the PAP, which already lost to us in so many elections. And what is this “consensus’’ from shopkeepers. Yet another PAP satellite? Rubbish! Ignore it.
It holds the trade fair/community event and the NEA sends another letter and yet another and so forth, but the fair/event carries on for three weeks. By now the NEA is fedup that it has been so blithely ignored. Words are exchanged and the WP says “see you in court’’.
In fact, the WP thinks it’s good to go to court because you can bring up all sorts of issues and hopefully get them into the media. It is “open’’ court, after all. Plus, the maximum penalty is $1,000. For $1,000 and whatever legal fees, you can talk about how the G is over-stepping its limits, point to past legislative speeches which give town councils more powers than what the Act says and complain again about how the CCCs have too much say and should have NO say in places run by the opposition. That is, get out of my kingdom and let me run it for the people who elected me. It’s an alluring argument, except that it runs against the hard letters of the law. So the NEA sticks to its guns and said: You know you needed a permit, you didn’t get it and you still went ahead with it despite us telling you “Cannot’’. Other issues are irrelevant. Case closed.
The judge agreed with the prosecution. He thinks the WP went to trial really as an “afterthought’’ (It could have just paid a composition fine but didn’t want to.) I really do think it’s an open and shut case although there were reams and reams of precedents and all sorts of points of law espoused on both sides. Did the WP achieve its aim of getting a public airing? Well, only if you followed the case closely and bothered to get through all the arguments and submissions in their original form.
The WP has bigger problems on its hands and this has to do with its town council funds. It has told MOS Desmond Lee to clam up because the Auditor-General is doing the work of looking over its accounts. It will definitely say something in due course. Methinks this is a far bigger issue than whether a town council should have the ability to hold its own trade fair. When the WP is “ready’’, I hope it will be as open over its arears, deficits and handover issues as it was with its complaints about the red tape of the G. And it doesn’t have to go to court to get its side out. I think plenty of people want to hear from it.