02 October 2005

Three Small, Brave Noise-Makers

Here's the background, in case you didn't already know it. Following the NKF saga, four persons had staged a peaceful demonstration in the heart of the Central Business District, calling for greater transparency in organisations such as the CPF, GIC and HDB. A big squad of riot police promptly arrived at the scene armed with dangerous weapons, and broke up the 4-man demonstration.

Mr Wang, in an earlier post, had provided a legal analysis of this factual scenario. Mr Wang's conclusion was that the 4 protestors had carefully planned their demonstration such that they had probably broken no law in Singapore (and therefore the police should not have taken action against them) . In another post, Mr Wang even went on to talk about creative ways to legally hold a public protest in Singapore.

But what about our four little protestors - what have they been up to lately? Well, they dwindled to three (I don't know why) and are now taking legal action against the Home Affairs Minister. Check it out.
      Oct 2, 2005
      Protesters seek legal action against minister, police chief

      THREE people who were among four protesters told to disperse outside the Central Provident Fund Building in August have filed a motion in the High Court against the Home Affairs Minister and Commissioner of Police.

      Ms Chee Siok Chin, Ms N. Gogelavany and Mr Yap Keng Ho said in their affidavit that they were standing peacefully with a fourth person, Mr Tan Teck Wee, outside the CPF Building in Robinson Road on Aug 11 when police asked them to leave.

      Each was wearing a white T-shirt emblazoned with words and acronyms in red.

      Ms Chee, 39, sister of Singapore Democratic Party chief Chee Soon Juan, said then that their protest had nothing to do with the party.

      Her T-shirt had 'National Reserves' printed on the front and 'HDB GIC' on the back. Ms Gogelavany's T-shirt had 'Be Transparent Now' on the front and 'NKF CPF' on the back.

      Mr Yap was holding a placard above his head which read: 'Singaporeans spend on HDB; whole earnings on CPF; life savings - but cannot withdraw when they need.'

      Police came and dispersed them, saying they were causing a 'public nuisance'. Their T-shirts and placards were seized later.

And what is it that the three protestors are now seeking in court?
      The two women and Mr Yap, who are represented by Mr M. Ravi, want a declaration that the Minister and the Commissioner of Police acted 'in an unlawful and unconstitutional manner' when they ordered them to disperse.


      A motion is an application made to a judge in open court to obtain an order or rule, directing some act to be done in favour of the applicant.

      The case will be heard on Oct 21.
Mr Wang is fairly confident that the police had no legal right to put an end to the protest on 11 August. However, Mr Wang is also fairly confident that the three protestors will not win their case in court and obtain the court's declaration that the authorities had acted "in an unlawful and unconstitutional manner" in commanding them in court.

The reason is more technical than anything else. You see, as the law stands, the courts generally do not make bare declarations. If you have suffered some losses, then you come to court and prove your case and if you succeed, the courts will say, "I order X to pay you $50,000" or something like that. However, if you cannot demonstrate any such losses, then the court generally will not declare "X was wrong", just for the sake of making you feel better.

In the present case, the police had told the protestors to end their protest, and the protestors had voluntarily obeyed. Thus it will be difficult for them to demonstrate that they had suffered any losses. If they had not obeyed the police, and had been forcibly arrested, then ironically that would actually put them in a better position to sue for wrongful confinement or false imprisonment (an action in the law of torts).

Of course, winning the battle in court may not really be the main purpose of these protestors. In fact they may be happy to lose, provided that they get publicity anyway for their cause. That's probably what this whole thing is about, isn't it?

Mr Wang also has a feeling that the three protestors deliberately picked this time to inititate this legal action. It probably has to do with certain recent mumblings from Second Minister for Finance and Foreign Affairs Mr Raymond Lim. Apparently, Mr Lim told the media that unlike Singaporeans, foreigners are perfectly welcome to stage large protests and demonstrations in Singapore. I am rather amazed to hear such strange noises from Raymond Lim - I would really like to believe that I have misunderstood him - so perhaps it's best that you click here and read and judge for yourself.

Anyway, the Singapore government is now in a potentially embarrassing position. This is what may yet transpire -

Four little Singaporeans staging a peaceful (and legal) protest are illegally stopped by a big squad of riot police, but the Singapore courts won't declare that the police acted wrongly; meanwhile, 2nd Minister Raymond Lim makes special arrangements for dozens, perhaps hundreds of foreigners, to stage loud, noisy, traffic-obstructing protests in Singapore. Another credibility issue for the PAP government to manage.

Police officers use pepper spray on protestors at a World Bank / IMF meeting in Washington DC, in April, 2000. Nearly 1,300 protestors were arrested in total, and there were baton blows in several confrontations. Why does Minister Raymond Lim want to run the risk of this happening in Singapore? Mr Wang is baffled.


tscd said...

I wonder why the fourth person decided not to press charges.

Anonymous said...

not in Singapore bah...

at82 said...

Boy I didn't know that the anti-imf ang mo are so violent.

What the hell is our govt thinking, in regard to this blatant double standard, is beyond me.

Recruit Ong said...

The 4th person is out of the country lah.

One Country Two System, you all dunno meh.

Anonymous said...

Can ask court to say the Police order was unconstitutional base so many reasons lar..

1) can say the order not consitutional becoz serving the minister (eh?) but not the law..

2) can say the Police fellow acting out of his "legal" permissible limit - acting out of bounds of the laws - unconstitutional

3) can say that Minister order was unconstitutional because not serving the law...

The idea is probably not only to get T-Shirt Back - but that is important symbol - but to declare that the police/minister order is unconstitutional so their act will have legal sanction - and the public will not treat them with so much askance..

2 cents worth bah

Anthony said...

It may be a stretch to sue for constitutional protection - Singapore's freedom of assembly constitutional rights are expressly subject to acts passed by Parliament.

Having said that, a question to Mr Wang, is it possible to sue for a negative declaration negating possible criminal/civil liability for the actions? It's an indirect way of doing things but it's within the court's powers to grant.

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

Not so sure about that, Anthony.
Old problem -

courts are extremely reluctant to give negative declarations; in many cases, it would be doubtful whether they have the power to give declarations.

Courts want to hear disputes that have actually arisen - they are not willing/able to give declarations in relation to potential future events which may never occur.

For example, if the three protestors were prosecuted under the law, then of course the court has to hear the matter -

however, if in fact the police and prosecution are not going to go any further in the matter, then the court does not want to make a ruling that Things That Never Happened and declare, "You are not guilty of any offence under the Penal Code."

There would be many problems with such declarations, firstly because the courts may become inundated with people seeking what in effect is a legal opinion with binding effect. Imagine:

"Can you declare that it would be illegal for my company to sack me just because I became pregnant? I'm planning to get pregnant next year."

"Can you declare that if I did divorce my husband, then based on the facts of my case, I deserve at least 60% of the assets?"

Or ...

"Can you declare that if I conducted a public protest in such and such a way, that would actually be legal in Singapore?"

Etc. What courts want to hear are actual cases that have arisen, because you have an actual dispute, actual losses, and very importantly, you also have actual facts - which will be adduced according to laws of evidence.

Unknown said...

Sometimes I wonder, will I live to see a more intelligent adversary to the gahmen...

Anthony said...


I've only seen the suing for negative declarations as a strategic tool in international commercial litigation (basically to "shanghai" potentially negative judgements in other jurisdications via res judicata and comity and all those other cheem legal terms), but it didn't seem to me link it was THAT dificult to get.

Basically, you're ceding a tactical advantage (because -you- now have the burden of proof) to gain a strategic advantage.

There's a distinction between your example and the situation here - in your example, the situation hasn't happened, so it's speculative in some sense. That's not the situation here - the events have -actually- happened, so there's no speculation, just an issue of damages.

I guess they can be really creative and force the issue by suing for a breach of statutory damages/false imprisonment/defamation perhaps? Something which is actionable per se and does not require proof of damages? In that way, they can bypass the whole damages issue and do a "let the courts assess damages" thing to bypass the issue.

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

Well, as I said, the difficulty is that the police asked them to break up, and they obediently complied. If they had not complied, and if they had been arrested, then arguably they would have a real case for false imprisonment now.

Now the situation is, the police says: "Please stop demonstrating." They reply: "Okay, sure." Very hard to say that there is a case of false imprisonment here. It wasn't as if they were forcibly arrested and locked up at the police station for the next 18 hours.

Perhaps one way to look at it is whether you want to:

(a) proceed on non-constitutional grounds, and perhaps win, and get nominal damages of $1 (or the cost of your 4 T-shirts); or

(b) proceed on constitutional grounds, and lose, but get more publicity for your cause.

Frankly, I think (b) is the better tactical approach, if you think in terms of who these protestors are and what their mission is.

If you were them, would you rather be able to tell the press:

"I sued for the price of my 4 T-shirts, and I won! I get $24 in damages."


"I sued for my constitutional right to express my opinion in public and I lost! And all I was saying is that the government must be more transparent. There is no real freedom in Singapore!"

The ICL thingie you mentioned is different. It's on jurisdictional grounds. There is a question of which country to sue in, and you're trying to make one side stick to a particular country. It's quite a different kettle of fish, but as you know, it's quite technical, so let's skip it. The main point is that there is no reason for any court in any country other than Singapore to hear the present case.

On the difficulty of getting declarations - plow through the Rules of Court and see the range of kinds of orders which the court has the power to make. I suspect you won't even find anything that says a court can make declarations. You'll find provisions that say that the court can order X to pay Y money; can order X's house to be seized; can order X's bank account to be garnished etc etc, but I don't think you'll find anything to say that the court can make declarations like, "X is a bad boy."

veii said...

I used to imagine that all future IMF, G8 WTO etc. conferences would have to be held in places like S'pore, Shanghai or maybe KL, simply to avoid a repeat of Genoa or Seattle. Isn't allowing demonstrations to take place going to negate the benefit of doing it here in the first place?

Anthony said...

Rest well, Mr Wang,

The whole point I asked is because I -don't- have a copy of RoC with me and it isn't available on any free website in Singapore. Oh well.

Anthony said...

Rest well, Mr Wang,

The whole point I asked is because I -don't- have a copy of RoC with me and it isn't available on any free website in Singapore. Oh well.

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

It's here. Anthony, and free:


On the very rare occasions where a court declaration is being sought for, the argument usually builds around Order 92, Rule 4. As you can see, there are lots of problems here - eg what are the "inherent powers" of the court in the first place.

Anonymous said...

Mr Wang

you very convincing but it all appears very strange to me:

a court fettered to make a declaration
that police orders were "unconsitutional" based on the rules of court??

procedural rules of the courts trumphing constitutional powers to declare state sponsered actions illegal??

sounds strange to me...

The police order was to cease a legal activity they perceived to be illegal based on nuisance - I think that is the trouble, but i dun know.

All i look is that if can 4 t-shirts back - means good liao - this 4 t-shirts looks very important in this case leh..unless suddenly mata return the 4 t-shirt without court order...


opposition (oops, sorry, i mean 4 concerned singapore citizens) very good for case law development in Singapore...

Anonymous said...

Mr Wang

When the gang of four decided to gather, they were within their rights or at least within the law to gather.

I have been arrested twice and, innocent or otherwise, have no bailer and nobody to call. Which is a lot worse than what I hazard the gang of four were aware of what they may have had to go through had they stood their ground. They weren't planning to break into violence, and I see no reason the Empire's troopers would resort to violence without looking stupid. The most the gang of four would suffer is the humiliation of strip searches whilst under custody and perhaps three weeks enforced stay at a certain 'holiday inn' in Hougang.

After which they could proceed with their 'illegal detention' on constitutional grounds action. In your humble opinion, why did they decide to disband? They must have been aware their actions could invoke the kind of reaction subsequently displayed by the forces of the dark-side!