By Terry Xu
The hearing on summons issued by the National Environment Agency (NEA) to Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council (AHPETC) has ended last week with the ruling of the hearing scheduled to be out by end of November.
While the final decision is now with the courts, what is of greater concern to the public, other town councils and those wishing to hold similar events is the nature of the charge. Specifically, how did AHPETC fail NEA's criteria for a permit?
While an understanding of the background of the case was consistently contested by the prosecution and subsequently ruled as "irrelevant" by the judge, knowledge for the public would prevent future such run-ins with NEA.
The case in black and white
AHPETC was summoned by NEA in January this year due the town council's conduct of the event, “Lunar New year Flora and Community Fair 2014” which was carried out from 10 January to 30 January at the Hougang Central Hub without obtaining a license from NEA.
NEA’s prosecutor, Isaac Tan had said that given the fair consisted of five stalls selling festive decorations, cookies and sweets, fruits such as pomelo, flowers and assorted potted plants, the event amounted to a “temporary fair”. As such, it required a licence under Section 35 of the Environmental Public Health Act (EPHA).
The prosecution witness, Mr Tai Ji Choong, director of the Environmental Health Department, said the town council event constituted a breach of Section 35 of the EPHA.
During the hearing, the defence of AHPETC had on several occasions tried to ask NEA for the rationale behind the agency's decision not to grant a permit for the event. However, this was consistently and successfully blocked by the prosecution, to the extent that the NEA representative was never required to explain this point.
The defence lawyer, Mr Peter Low attempted to ask Mr Tai about the conditions of the application process but was persistently prevented from doing, as the prosecution made objection after objection.
Throughout the whole hearing, the prosecutor maintained that Mr Low's questions on the conditions of the rejection were irrelevant to the case.
AHPETC on its part has consistently maintained that it did not agree with the use of forms provided by NEA for the event organised by the town council. Right from the beginning, the wordings of "Trade Fair" was struck off from the Trade Fair application form submitted to NEA,and replaced with the word, "Event".
Chairman of AHPETC, Ms Sylvia Lim said that she approved the replacement of the words because it was consistent with what they wrote in the cover letter that they do not believe they were organising a trade fair.
Ms Lim explained that the town council had asked NEA whether the event to be held by the town council required any permit from the authorities and to ask for the forms which the town council had to submit, if any.
In the cover letter accompanying AHPETC's application submission to NEA, the town council highlighted that the form was used at the request of the NEA and that AHPETC felt that the form does not represent the town council's agreement.
After AHPETC submitted the application form to NEA. NEA requested for documents required for the application form to be processed. In the reply by NEA to AHPETC's submitted documents, NEA did not specify what documents were missing. The government agency merely indicated that the application is incomplete.
Because of the constant blocks by the prosecution on questions relating to rationale, followers of the case might be left wondering about NEA's criteria that led to the forms being "incomplete" and the subsequent denial of a permit to AHPETC.
But a closer look at the application submitted by the AHPETC might reveal potential reasons. In the form, AHPETC had marked out the documents they have obtained, and indicated as such those which they deemed not applicable.
Checking off the boxes, but one?
The potential areas where AHPETC could have failed the application would be where NEA deemed the application "incomplete" - presumably, where AHPETC has indicated as "NIL" or "not applicable" where supporting documents were required.
- Energy Market Authority - The event did not utilise any power generators.
- Land Transport Authority (Road Management Department) - The event was organised in a multi-purpose hall.
- National Parks Board (for use of grass verge/roadside tables) - The event was organised on hard ground only.
- Consensus from neighbourhood shopkeepers - The event had stalls which sold festive decorations, cookies and sweets, fruits such as pomelo, flowers and assorted potted plants - items that are seasonal and unlikely be the core trade items of the neighbourhood stores, and unlikely to affect the operation of stores in the vicinity.
- Letter of support from relevant Citizens' Consultative Committee (CCC) - The event was held in the common area under their charge, not an area managed by the CCC. Instead, the Town Council got Workers' Party's secretary-general, Mr Low Thia Khiang to write a letter of approval to NEA.
- List of stall holders and their details - The event was organised by AHPETC, hence there were no stall owners.
- Copy of agreement with licensed General Waste Collected if fair is not held on common property maintained by the Town Council - The event was held on common space managed by AHPETC.
AHPETC had sought permission from the relevant government agencies and departments where needed, and has indicated to NEA where such supporting documents are "not applicable". A logical run-through of the fail points would suggest that a possible make-or-break document that AHPETC did not submit to NEA was the letter of approval from the CCC.
To begin with, given that the Bedok Reservoir-Punggol CCC did not manage the space where the event was held, why does NEA deem it relevant for AHPETC to seek its support?
It is also odd that CCCs, chaired by individuals who are not elected as representatives of the people but are merely appointed by the respective grassroot advisers, who are also not necessarily elected representatives of the people but appointed by the ruling party, should have a place in the approval processes of government agencies.
As Singapore's political climate becomes more diverse, with the likelihood of more opposition parties managing more town councils, it is important to understand the influence and relationships at work, particularly the questionable powers bestowed upon the CCCs.
If a town council has to seek the support of its CCC for a government permit, is it not necessary to ask why CCCs, comprising unelected members, are given such powers to supersede the authority of town councils in areas where they have jurisdiction to manage as elected representatives of the people?
Why then should CCCs be included in the approval process for a permit, in particular for an event conducted in an area outside of its purview? For a start, did NEA ask AHPETC to submit the correct application forms?
TOC is seeking clarification from NEA to better understand the approval processes that town councils have to go through for obtaining a permit under the EPHA, and why CCC's are involved in this process. We will include NEA's official response once we receive it.
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