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AHPETC found guilty of holding a trade fair without permit from NEA

AHPETC ruling
MP for Hougang, Mr Png Eng Huat and Vice-chairman for AHPETC, Mr Pritam Singh in the foreground (Image - Terry Xu)

The Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council (AHPETC) was found guilty for holding a festive trade fair without approval from the National Environment Agency (NEA), the courts decided on today, 28 November.

AHPETC, which is currently run by the Workers' Party, was summoned by NEA under Section 35 of the Environmental Public Health Act (EPHA) for organising a Lunar New Year Fair from 10 January to 30 January this year without a valid permit from the environment agency.

District Judge Victor Yeo said that the "mini-fair", which consisted of stalls selling festive decorations, cookies and sweets, fruits such as pomelo, flowers and assorted potted plants, falls within the ordinary definition of a fair and the duration of the event amounted to a “temporary fair”. As such, it required a licence under Section 35 of the EPHA.

The first prosecution witness, Mr Tai Ji Choong, director of the Environmental Health Department had earlier testified that the town council event constituted a breach of Section 35 of the EPHA.

Mr Tai stated that the reason for requiring permits to hold temporary events such as trade fairs is to prevent disamenities to the community, including shopkeepers operating in that community. He said the disamenities include noise nuisance, pest infestation, food hygiene issues and disruption to pedestrian flow.

The judge added that he is convinced AHPETC's actions was a strict liability offence, which means the prosecution does not need to prove beyond reasonable doubt that AHPETC deliberately intended to hold the fair without a permit.

The judge said the town council's objection was related to the suitability of the application form and not the fact that a permit was required. He said the court is not an appropriate forum to examine the conditions related to the permit application form.

Throughout the course of the trial, the legal defence for AHPETC, represented by lawyer Peter Low, faced great difficulty contesting the charge by NEA, as Mr Low's attempts to question NEA on the forms were repeatedly ruled irrelevant by the presiding judge.

Mr Low had on several occasions tried to ask NEA for the rationale behind the agency’s decision not to grant a permit for the event during the first hearing. However, this was consistently and successfully blocked by the prosecution, to the extent that the NEA representative was never required to explain.

From documents submitted by the defence, the only document which seems to have prevented AHPETC from obtaining the permit was the letter of approval from the Citizens’ Consultative Committee (CCC) run by a representative from the People's Action Party.

Mr Low had also argued that the town council did not require a permit to hold events such as "mini-fairs" in the common space of the town council according to the Town Council Act.

The judge however said that he is not convinced of the defence's argument that AHPETC can hold events without a permit in common areas that it manages according to Section 18 of the Town Council Act. He noted that AHPETC did not raise this up as an issue in the corresponding emails leading up to the event held in January this year.

He also noted that the town council had the option of not holding the event before it obtain the relevant permit from NEA and it is an undisputed fact that the town council held the fair despite not obtaining the permit.

AHPETC Vice Chairman Pritam Singh said, "We're disappointed with the verdict. We will take advice from our lawyers as to the next course of action going forward."

On the question of footing the bill for the legal fees, Mr Singh added that no town council funds were used for this case. "The MPs are contributing to the lawyers' fees," Mr Png Eng Huat added.

The court has been adjourned to 24 December for mitigation with submissions from both parties, before sentencing is to be passed.