By Howard Lee
The third day of the trial between the National Environment Agency (NEA) and Aljunied Hougang Punggol East Town Council (AHPETC) saw the town council’s chairman, Ms Sylvia Lim take the stand to answer queries on whether AHPETC did indeed believe that a permit was required to run its Lunar New Year event in January this year.
In the course of the first two hours, DPP Isaac Tan repeatedly questioned Ms Lim based on the correspondence between AHPETC and NEA, saying that because AHPETC did not explicitly indicate to NEA that a permit was not needed, AHPETC did not exercise due care to avoid contravening the law as stipulated in the Environmental Public Health Act (EPHA).
Not saying “no” means “yes”: Prosecution
Referring to the exchanges in emails and letters, Mr Tan said that AHPETC did not indicate specifically to NEA that the event in question was not a “trade fair” or “temporary fair”, nor did they indicate specifically to NEA that it was a “mini-fair” or “community event” as AHPETC has claimed.
Mr Tan pointed out that instead, on 29 December, AHPETC has opted to submit the forms that NEA sent them two days before, for the application for a permit to organise a trade fair. Mr Tan said that AHPETC’s action indicated that they recognise a permit was needed, because they have tried to apply for one.
Mr Tan also added that in the application form, signed by AHPETC’s representative, the town council did not specifically indicate in the declaration section that the event was not a trade fair, and also provided the documentation as required by NEA to support the application, thus confirm that AHPETC conceded a permit was needed, and recognised NEA as the approving authority for the conduct of the fair.
As such, their decision to proceed with the fair, despite NEA’s notifications to them that they did not have a permit to do so, contravenes Section 35 of the EPHA.
Mr Tan surmised that the town council was aware of the need for a permit, did not specifically object to NEA’s request to submit forms for the permit, did not heed NEA’s advice that no permit was granted, and instead continued with the fair to persistently flout the law.
Prosecution “not being fair”: Sylvia Lim
Ms Lim, while agreeing with many of the yes-no questions asked by Mr Tan, disagreed to the submissions made by the prosecution.
“I disagree with the prosecution’s attempt to paint us (AHPETC) as foolhardy”, she said, to the effect that they were seen as deliberately trying to make trouble in the registration process.
At one point, she even said that Mr Tan was “not being fair” in his cross-examination, presumably because he did not allow her to explain the town council’s action, repeatedly asking for yes-no answers.
She said that AHPETC did not quibble with NEA about whether a permit was needed, because a town council is in no position to judge on that.
“Whether a permit is required should be decided by a court of law, rather than between us and NEA,” she said.
She also said that AHPETC approached NEA asking about the necessity for a permit, because they understood that “NEA has expressed an interest in such fairs”.
While maintaining that the forms from NEA were “not suitable”, Ms Lim said AHPETC continued with the submission process to avoid problems at the event and to prevent any enforcement action NEA might take.
Ms Lim indicated that the town council did not believe NEA would change their minds – presumably, to waive the need for submission – and AHPETC was really “taking the practical approach to resolve the matter”.
She added that AHPETC could have opted not to submit the forms as a matter of principle, which would then lead to accusations that they were not acting in good faith.
As to why AHPETC did not specifically indicate to NEA that they did not think the event was a “trade fair”, Ms Lim said that the nature of the event was already made known to NEA, including in a supporting letter from Workers’ Party secretary-general Mr Low Thia Khiang stating the same.
She also disagreed with Mr Tan that AHPETC has conceded that the event was a trade fair in the declaration part of the form, pointing out that they have identified this by replacing the words “trade fair” at the top of the form with “event”.
“On hindsight, perhaps we should also have amended the (parts of the) declaration (that mentions “trade fair”), since we were not organising a trade fair,” she said.
She also added that the email sent to NEA clearly indicated that the event will be conducted on a space managed by AHPETC, in which they have duties to discharge under the Town Council Act.
Former events “irrelevant”: Prosecution
In re-examination, the defence led by Mr Peter Low wanted to ask Ms Lim to clarify on earlier correspondences between AHPETC and NEA, particularly on the point Ms Lim made about NEA being interested in such events.
This was immediately objected by Mr Tan, who claimed that he “knew this was coming”. He said that the defence did not raise any objections to his questioning and had allowed Ms Lim to “go into irrelevant areas” and then for Mr Low to claim that he is “entitled to expand” on these areas.
He beseeched District Judge Victor Yeo to strictly maintain the “rule of relevancy” in court and disallow “matters that breached the threshold”, citing former cases such as those involving politicians Chee Soon Juan where irrelevant material has been disallowed.
Mr Low then took objection to what he believed was Mr Tan’s attempt to accuse him of hatching a “devilish plan” to open up the case, and Mr Tan clarified that he meant no such thing.
Judge Yeo ruled that the DPP’s objection was sustained, and Mr Low did not continue with his questioning.
The court went for a short recess at 11.30am, and returned to verify the accounts of town council staff, who testified that the writings and signatures on the submitted documents were theirs.
Mr Low said that in view of the development of the hearing, the defence has decided against putting Mr Png Eng Huat on the witness stand.
The hearing ended at 12.40pm. The parties will submit their written submission to the court within the next three weeks and judgement is tentatively set to be passed on 25 November.
By Howard Lee