Dr Chee Soon Juan asked for clear guidelines from the courts as to what constitutes a speech. The SDP leader made this call in his closing submissions today to District Judge Jill Tan.
Dr Chee was convicted of giving an address in April 2006 without a permit. He was fined $5,000 with 5-weeks imprisonment in default. He was selling The New Democrat at bangkit Road in Bukit Panjang and was accused of giving a speech. The police recorded him addressing passers-by for about four minutes asking them to purchase a copy of the newspaper.
The Public Entertainment and Meetings Act (PEMA) under which Dr Chee was charged does not specify or define what a speech is.
“Anyone speaking in a public place to members of the public can be said to be giving a speech,” he said. “Should all these folks be charged? Surely that is not the intent of the Act.” There are questions that need to be answered. For example:
* How long would speaking to a group of people have to be before that act would be considered an address?
* How many people would have to been listening before a speech is considered to have been given?
* What is the content before someone talking to others is considered to have given a speech?
“Absent clear guidelines and definitions, it is difficult to determine if my actions and words that morning can be said to constitute an address,” the SDP secretary-general stated.
For example, if one is fined for speeding, the police must be able to determine at what speed the driver was travelling and compare that to a clearly spelt out speed limit. The police cannot just accuse the driver of simply driving too fast.
Making decisions in such ill-defined offences such as what constitutes a speech under PEMA would necessitate the judge making an arbitrary decision rather than a considered and studied one premised on a set of clearly laid out criteria. Such subjectivity, which leaves matters open to abuse, should have little role to play in criminal prosecution.
The criteria of what constitutes a speech notwithstanding, Dr Chee insisted that even if he had given a speech, it was constitutionally his right to do so. What kind of a democracy is it when politicians cannot even speak to the public and reach out to voters during an election period?
The PAP has always been able to “win” elections simply because it has prevented the opposition from making public speeches and effectively reaching out to the voters. In democratic states, like in the UK, the opposition is able to freely speak to voters. As a result the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats were able to run effective campaigns and beat the Labour Party in the recent elections.
The prevention of the opposition and the tight control of the media by the PAP ensures that while the people are more than exposed to the PAP’s propaganda, the public hears and reads little of the opposition. This is why the Singapore Democrats fight so hard for the right of Singaporeans to speak freely
Besides, the question of not having a permit is all a wayang because Home Affairs Minister Wong Kan Seng has repeatedly stated that no permit will be given for outdoor political activities.
Judge Jill Tan rejected all these arguments and found Dr Chee guilty as charged.
This is the last of a series of eight charges, five of which ended in guilty verdicts. The AG dropped the other three charges. Each conviction carried a $5,000 fine. Dr Chee has served a five-week jail term for the first charge. The remaining four are pending appeal.
Mr Yap Keng Ho, who was helping the SDP to sell the newspaper in 2006, was also convicted and fined $2,000.
On 27 June, officers from the National Environment Agency (NEA) gave verbal warnings to members of the opposition National Solidarity Party (NSP) to stop the sale of their party newspaper, The North Star. The NSP had been doing what opposition parties have been doing for years – reaching out to residents in HDB estates and going about selling their party newspapers. This time however it seems the authorities are going by the book. The NSP members were told that what they were doing was “illegal hawking”.
After that incident, which took place in Bendemeer, the party sought clarification from the Chief Executive of the NEA. Besides wanting to know if selling its party newspaper by going about hawker centres, markets, shops and coffeeshops, was illegal, the party also asked, if it was indeed illegal, where the party could apply for the relevant permit. It also asked NEA if any political party had been issued with such a licence or permit in the past.
“An officer called me up and told me that there is only licence for individuals who are from the low income group to do mobile hawking,” NSP secretary-general, Mr Goh Meng Seng, told The Online Citizen. “Apparently there isn’t any license for political party like ours to conduct our political outreach. However, our activity is deemed as ‘illegal hawking’. I told him to write to me officially to state his stand. I have not received his official letter so far.”
On Sunday 4 July, while going about the sale of its newspaper at Tampines, the NSP’s vice-president, Mr Christopher Neo, was issued with a summon for S$300 by NEA officers. The reason? “Illegal hawking”.
“Sebastian and Steve offered to be summoned as well but [the NEA officers] did not want to act on that. Sebastian also wanted them to summon each and every one of us, but they declined also,” Mr Goh explained. Mr Sebastian Teo is the party’s president while Mr Steve Chia is a former Non-constituency Member of Parliament and the party’s treasurer.
“Apparently, this is just an exercise of intimidation,” Mr Goh says. “If our activity is really “illegal hawking”, they will have to either summon all of us or arrest all of us if we refuse to be summoned. They did neither of these.”
Mr Goh asks if this means that all opposition parties are legally banned from carrying out their weekly political outreach by selling their newspapers.
TOC understands that a first-time offender can be fined up to S$1,000 for illegal hawking. Repeat offenders can be fined up to S$4,000 plus jail terms.