Peter Low & Sylvia Lim [Photo: Straits Times]

Nub of the issue – terms used and questionable conditions

Peter Low & Sylvia Lim [Photo: Straits Times]
Peter Low & Sylvia Lim [Photo: Straits Times]
By Andrew Loh

The dispute between the opposition Workers’ Party Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council (AHPETC) and the National Environment Agency (NEA) seems to all boil down to two issues – what constitutes a “trade fair”, and the need for a “letter of support” from a grassroots chairman.

The meaning or understanding of the term “trade fair” would determine whether the application forms and the information it requires are suitable; and clarity on why elected members of parliament must seek “support” from unelected and volunteer grassroots leaders will go a long way to shed light on the current case.

These seems to be the nub of the issue in the court case which has arisen from the WP town council (TC) going ahead in holding what it calls a “mini-fair” in Hougang central during the Chinese Lunar New Year period this year.

The NEA is accusing the town council of contravening Section 35 of the Environmental Public Health Act which states that a permit is required for “any temporary fair, stage show or other such function or activity”.

Sylvia Lim, chairman of the WP town council, told the court on Wednesday that she viewed the term “trade fair” as referring to a “pasar malam”, the colloquial term for night market.

These, she said, were usually organised by the Citizens’ Consultative Committees, which are grassroots organisations.

The WP event, on the other hand, was a “community event held in a common area managed by the town council”, Ms Lim said.

The WP community event consisted of five stalls which sold the following items:

  • Chinese New Year (CNY) decorative items
  • Prepacked CNY sweets and candies
  • Mandarin oranges
  • Prepacked CNY cookies and goodies (2 stalls)

In addition there would also be several benches for CNY flowers and potted plants at the event.

However, the NEA application forms sent to the town council upon the latter’s request in December last year were for a “trade fair permit” and a “trade fair foodstall licence”, Ms Lim said.

As such, the WP town council found the forms sent to it by the NEA “unsuitable’, given that it was a community event, and not a trade fair, and that there were no “foodstall” at the fair it was organising.

After the town council asked the NEA for the relevant forms, the NEA sent it the same forms again.

Nonetheless, the WP town council proceeded to submit the form but not before striking out the words “trade fair” on the form and replacing it with “event”.

As for the requirement to also submit a “letter of support” from the area’s CCC chairman, Ms Lim questioned why this was necessary.

She said that firstly, the town council is empowered under the Town Councils Act to manage common areas, where the mini-fair would take place.

Secondly, she said she did not see why the town council, which is run by elected members of parliament, should seek the support of the chairman of a grassroots organisation.

The chairman of the CCC concerned in this case is Victor Lye, who is also a People’s Action Party branch chairman in the area.

“Since my colleagues and I were elected to manage the town council under the Town Councils Act, we do not see how the town council should be required to get a supporting letter from the CCC for something held in the common area under our charge,” Ms Lim said.

Mr Tan objected to Mr Low raising the question on Tuesday, which the judge also deemed to be irrelevant and said that “the issue surrounding the conditions for a permit should not be argued in the present trial but at a judicial review.”

Also on Tuesday, during the hearing, Mr Low had sought to question the executive director of environmental health, Tai Ji Choong, on why the term “town councils” was removed from the application form.

Mr Low showed the court a copy of the same form from 2008.

It had included the “town councils” as organisations authorised to conduct fairs.

However, in the set of forms sent to it by the NEA in December last year, the term “town councils” was no longer included.

The judge decided on Wednesday that the question was irrelevant and ordered Mr Low not to proceed along that line of questioning.

Also at the heart of the issue is why exactly did the NEA not grant the permit, and why it told the WP town council that the forms were “incomplete”.

Mr Tan, when commenting on this on Tuesday, said “since AHPETC did not appeal against its rejected application, it should not use the court to find out why it was not given the permit.”

Another issue which has come to light is whether town councils are in fact permitted to hold such events at all.

In its letter to AHPETC last year, the Ministry of National Development (MND) had said that town councils are prohibited from engaging in “commercial activities’.

However, the fact that the NEA had asked the WP town council to submit an application to hold such an event seems to contradict what the MND said, and that town councils are in fact allowed to hold such events as long as it fulfilled the requirements or conditions, one of which is to get the “letter of support” from the chairman of the CCC.

It would thus seem that the case is one of unclear rules, regulations, terms used and questionable conditions. And it does not seem that the fault, if any, would lie entirely with the WP town council alone.

But the main issue here is what are the reasons for the NEA to reject AHPETC’s application, besides the forms being “incomplete”.

Why, exactly, were they “incomplete”?

Perhaps Thursday’s hearing will shed light on this.