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Photo of Seelan Palay holding his artpiece in front of the Parliament House.

Artist Seelan Palay sentenced to 2 weeks imprisonment in lieu of $2500 fine for conducting a “procession without permit”

Artist Seelan Palay, who performed an art piece called "32 Years: The Interrogation of a Mirror" at Hong Lim Park about a year ago, was sentenced to a S$2500 fine after being found guilty of conducting a procession without a permit under the Public Order Act (POA). He was then sentenced to serve 2 weeks of imprisonment yesterday (3 Oct) after he refused to pay the imposed fine.

Civil rights activist and social worker Jolovan Wham wrote in a Facebook post that "the judge has rejected the constitutional argument" that suggests that Mr Seelan has "the right to freedom of expression and assembly," on the grounds that "the constitution allows Parliament to circumscribe such expression through law."

Mr Seelan declared in his testimony in court last Thursday (27 Sep) that he "did not address anyone, nor instruct anyone to follow" him to the National Gallery and the Parliament House.

He insisted that contrary to the charge that was being held against him – the alleged participation in a public procession without a permit under the POA – his performance art piece was "peaceful at all times" and "a work of art that is open to interpretation".

However, the judge reasoned yesterday during the sentencing that "there is no need for the prosecution to prove that public disorder had occurred as long as the prosecutor can show that the procession had happened without a permit," according to Mr Wham.

In this particular case, Mr Wham added, the POA "criminalises a one-person procession, even if it is peaceful."

Right to freedom of speech "not absolute," Parliament has the right to curtail such expressions in the name of "public order": Judge

In her sentencing, the judge said that "in the present case, the facts were undisputed," in that Mr Seelan "had submitted application for use on NParks website" with an "estimated crowd size" of "50 people," and that he was "aware that the application was limited to the use of Speakers' Corner [Hong Lim Park]."

The judge also stated that Mr Seelan had "publicised the event on this Facebook page, and had used Dr Chia Thye Poh’s photograph" in his announcement of the event, which appears to be linked to s.2(1)(c) of the POA, of which the definition encompasses the marking or commemoration of "any event."

Additionally, the judge maintained that Mr Seelan's use of the phrase “liberated mind” clearly referred to Dr Chia, and being in the "state-sanctioned space of Speakers' Corner."

She added that "there were 3 parts to the accused’s performance as well as 3 locations for the planned performance," of which "there was no permit issued under the Public Order Act and Public Entertainment Licensing Unit" for the subsequent parts after the performance at Hong Lim Park. 

Citing s.2 of the POA, the judge "agreed with the Prosecution" that "in the present case, deliberate action of walking for one place to another [...] did amount to a march by a civil person," adding that it was "clear" that "2 out of 3 purposes" behind Mr Seelan's "actions" were "to commemorate the detention of Dr Chia Thye Poh, and to demonstrate opposition to the government's decision."

s.3, however, lays down the law with regards to the definitions of "organising" and "taking part in." While s.3(2) "does not include a person carrying on a demonstration by himself or marching alone" within the scope of "organising," s.3(3) states that the definition of "taking part in" shall include, "as the case may be, a person carrying on a demonstration by himself, or a march by a person alone".

The judge rejected the argument that "the right of freedom of speech" should support Mr Seelan's actions on the day of his performance, and insisted that "these fundamental rights are however not absolute and are circumscribed" by limitations set in Article 12(2) of the Singapore Constitution, which states that "Parliament, may, by law, impose" restrictions of such rights "in the interest of the security of Singapore or any part thereof or public order."

Mr Seelan, however, reiterated that his "right to freedom of expression under the constitution of Singapore is still valid," as he "did not threaten Singapore's public order, national security, international relations with other countries, or commit any immoral act," as testified by Assistant Superintendent Lionel Lee, one of the police officers who had arrested him.

Additionally, Mr Seelan made a request for the objects used in his performance – the banner, the book, and the mirror– to be returned to him "if possible."

The prosecution, however, argued that "the mitigation of the accused shows his lack of remorse over his actions," and that there was "no interference" in the expression of Mr Seelan's views online, adding that consequently, Mr Seelan's expression of his views "have never been curtailed," and that the offence under which he was convicted only revolved around his decision to continue to perform outside of Hong Lim Park.

On top of the fine levied against Mr Seelan, the prosecution sought the forfeiture of the aforementioned three objects used in the artist's performance to the police for disposal, to which the judge agreed.