Saturday, 23 September 2023

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The Tak Boleh Tahan protest case

Ng Yi Sheng / Guest Writer

Considering the importance of this case, it’s a scandal that almost no reporting has been done on it since it began. 19 people have been charged for illegal gathering – the largest number of people ever in such a trial – over the SDP-led Tak Boleh Tahan protest about poverty and government-initiated price hikes held outside Parliament House on 15 March this year.

Though I’ve zero experience in reporting trial proceedings, I figure the least I can do is give readers a basic update of what’s been happening. More info can be gathered off the SDP website. But here goes:

The trial has labeled as “PP vs. Chee Soon Juan and 18 ors”, and it began on Thursday 23 October, with the defendants charged on two counts:

i. under Section 5(4)(b) Chapter 184 of the Miscellaneous Offences (Public and Nuisance Act) for participating in an assembly outside Parliament House on 15 Mar 08,

ii. under Section 5(4)(b) Chapter 184 of the Miscellaneous Offences (Public and Nuisance Act) for participating in a procession outside Funan Centre on 15 Mar 08.

The prosecution is represented by Deputy Public Prosecutor Mr Isaac Tan, and the case is presided over by District Judge Chia Wee Kiat. Despite the title of the case, there are at present, only 17 defendants:

1. Mr Gandhi Ambalam
2. Mr Chia Ti Lik
3. Mr Chong Kai Xiong
4. Mrs Jaslyn Go
5. Ms Chee Siok Chin
6. Mr Govindan Rajan
7. Dr Chee Soon Juan
8. Mr Jufrie Mahmood
9. Mr Jufri Salim
10. Mr Seelan Palay
11. Mrs Surayah Akbar
12. Mr Shaffie
13. Mr Carl Lang
14. Mr John Tan
15. Mr Francis Yong
16. Mr Sylvester Lim.
17. Mr Yap Keng Ho

Two defendants, Mr Ng E-Jay and Mr Jeffrey George, pleaded guilty on the first day because of time pressures: being present for the trial would have badly disrupted their work schedules. They were fined $600 and $1,200 respectively.

Proceedings for the case are slow, and are set to last for several weeks, partly because of the large number of defendants (reading the charges alone took half a day). There is still a strong spirit of camaraderie between them: they began the trial wearing red shirts together and now continue to share picnic lunches at Hong Lim Park every day.

The defendants have also raised a number of arguments regarding the charges and the court proceedings, including:

1. That the charges are unconstitutional. The Constitution of Singapore espouses the right to free assembly and speech. Thus, the laws against assembly and procession are invalid, and the Licensing Authority from which SDP sought a permit for the protest has no right to selectively approve and deny licences.

The Constitution also guarantees equality under the law. Given that so many people gather at Parliament House, the choice to prosecute 19 out of the thousands may be viewed as discriminatory. Dr Chee’s full argument may be read here.

The DPP has countered that there are High Court cases where constitutitonality has been ruled out as a factor to be considered in cases. Judge Chia has accordingly dismissed the claims as irrelevant. Dr Chee later brought up Subordinate Courts Act Section 56, which states that a Subordinate Court encountering constitutional issues that it cannot deal with should submit the case to the High Court. Judge Chia says he is not inclined to do this.

2. That the area gazzetted as being off-limits to assemblies is undefinable. The law books state that rallies of more than two people are illegal in the area around Parliament House. However, the terminology defining this area is problematic: one border is Parliament Lane, which no longer exists, and Stamford Road is now known as Raffles Avenue. The Prosecution’s second witness, Licensing Officer Yeo Kok Leong, was unable to draw a complete boundary defining the off-limits area.

More may be read here and here.

There have also been some procedural objections:

1. That the trial has been illegally joined. According to CPC section 168, trials must be carried out separately for individuals unless they have been officially joined. However, the trial began without such one until the late afternoon of the first day. This is especially problematic as by that time one defendant had already pleaded guilty, thus prejudicing the judgment of all the others. This objection, however, was ignored.

See here.

2. That the Attorney-General’s Chambers has been tardy and inconsistent in making video evidence available to the defendants. This is further explained here.

I haven’t been to every day of the proceedings, so most of this information comes from the defendants’ accounts and thus may be biased. I requested to interview the DPP, but was declined.

One thing I have noticed, however, is the extreme difficulty that a witness may have saying something favourable to the defendants’ case, as in a recent cross-examination of Licensing Officer Yeo Kok Leong by Dr Chee. Mr Yeo was presented with two contrasting print-outs of the licence application, one from his own side and one from the defendants’ side. When asked if they were the same, Mr Yeo found it impossible to simply answer, “No”, replying instead that they were substantially the same, even after repeated questioning for a yes-no answer.

The trial has stood down since last Friday so that two of the defendants, Mr Shaffie and Mr John Tan, may be tried in a separate case. Together with Mr Isrizal bin Mohamed, the three are being charged for contempt of court for wearing kangaroo T-shirts at a defamation trial. (There’s an article on the background of this here. Theirs is a three-day trial, from Tuesday to Thursday, at High Court 6B.

The trial for the Tak Boleh Tahan protest will resume on Friday at Subordinate Court 25. Proceedings are held during office hours. I encourage readers to attend if they can.


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