Court to hear Hougang by-election case

The High Court on Tuesday dismissed the attorney general’s arguments to have the application by Vellama Marie Muthu thrown out.

Vellama’s application sought the court to determine the Prime Minister’s discretionary powers in calling by-elections in Singapore.

In doing so, the courts have granted Vellama’s application for leave to have her case heard. In essence, Judge Philip Pillai’s decision means Vellama, through her lawyer M Ravi, has satisfied the Court that there is an arguable case against the State and that the courts recognise the need for clarification on the constitutional questions raised by Vellama in her application.

Last Friday, lawyers representing the two sides were in Pillai’s chambers for three hours presenting their arguments.

The attorney general was represented by chief counsel David Chong and senior state counsel Hema Subramanian.

On Tuesday, Judge Pillai decided that there is a prima facie case to be heard in open court and ordered two days to be set aside for it. The hearing will take place at 10 am on 16 April, with 17 April reserved for the proceedings if required.

The proceedings will be open to the public.

Suntec assault – taxi driver’s hope for justice

Taxi driver Tay Gek Heng no longer plies the Suntec City area for fares. He has also avoided crowded areas, especially where inebriated clubbers and pub goers throng. His decision to avoid these places is a result of what happened in April 2010.

Tay was one of two taxi drivers among the 4 Singaporeans assaulted by 3 Caucasians at Suntec City then. In that fracas, Paul Liew was severely injured after his head was bashed against a pillar by one of the 3 Caucasians; Laurence Wong Seong was punched several times, along with taxi drivers Tan Boon Kin and Tay.

Of the 3 Caucasians, only one has so far been brought to justice. Australian Nathan Robert Miller was charged and given a 3 week jail sentence. The other two – New Zealander Robert Stephen Dahlberg, and Briton Robert James Springall – have since absconded from the law. The Singapore authorities are presently looking into the possibility of extraditing the two men from their respective countries.

Tay got involved in the incident in 2010 when he went to assist his friend, Wong, who had himself gone to help Tan who was being harassed by the 3 foreigners. One of the foreigners, Miller, had earlier climbed onto and stomped on the bonnet of Tan’s taxi and damaged it, says Tay.

“I stood next to Laurence,” Tay told publichouse.sg as he recalls events of that night, “and took a look [at the damage on Tan’s taxi].” Miller, who by this time had occupied Tan’s taxi with the other two men, saw Tay and shouted at him, “Hey you! Come here! What are you doing?” Tay replied, “Well, sir, you damaged the taxi. You’re not allowed to leave. Please step out from the taxi.”

Miller came out of the car. Tay was then standing between Wong and Miller. “What the f*** are you trying to do?” Miller shouted, according to Tay. As he said this, Miller landed a punch on Wong. Seeing this, Tay pushed Miller away. This prompted Dahlberg to come out of the taxi too. Soon, a fracas ensued where Tay and Wong were assaulted by the other men. Liew came to try to calm things down but he too was assaulted, with his head slammed into a pillar by Dahlberg.

Tay didn’t see this happen, however. “It was only when I heard Laurence saying, ‘Oh Paul, shit!’ that I took a look at Paul. His face was covered in blood.” Miller continued to assault Tay. Eventually, Tay tried to run away from Miller and towards his taxi which was parked some ways away. Tay tripped and fell to the ground in doing so. Miller, who was chasing him, came up and stood over him, as Tay laid on the ground, and Miller continued to rain blows on Tay’s head.

“I just tried to protect myself [with my arms],” Tay says. Shortly after, the 3 Caucasians decided to flee the scene. Tay then went over to attend to Liew who had by then slumped to the ground in a pool of blood.

Blood was also streaming from Tay’s nose and he was in a daze. Eventually the police and the ambulance came and he and Liew were brought to the hospital.

When Tay eventually got home that night in the early hours, his wife and 3 teenage children were asleep. It was only the next morning that he told them about the assault. “My wife was shocked,” Tay says. He had bruises around both his eyes, with the swelling still visible then.

Tay, 47, has been a taxi driver for 15 years. He has always worked the evening shift, normally from 5pm to 5am, a gruelling 10 to 12 hours each day. While he has encountered unsavoury customers previously, this is the first time that he has been involved in a violent assault.

Following the incident, he could not work long hours because of the injuries he had suffered.

For the next one year, he would have nightmares and would wake up in the middle of the night. His wife would be awakened but he would tell her it was nothing to worry about.

The incident has also left him fearful of accepting Caucasian passengers, in particular. His wife would call him while he was at work to make sure that he was alright. “I told her not to worry. I am ok,” Tay says. His children were also upset about the assault, and the injuries their father sustained.

“My daughter, 13-years old, boiled an egg and rolled it over the areas around my eyes [to soothe the bruises],” Tay says, of how his children tried to comfort him following the assault.

He also received support from fellow taxi drivers who enquired about him and the progress of the investigations by the police. He is heartened by members of the public, especially those online, who have been supportive of the call for the authorities to bring the assailants to justice.

“Without the public’s support,” he says “I don’t think the authorities would take this seriously. I would like to thank the public.”

Along with Liew, Wong and Tan, his hope is that the 2 men who have absconded will be hauled back to face justice. When asked if he has forgiven the 3 assailants, now that it has been almost 2 years since that April evening in 2010, Tay says, “I have forgiven Miller but not Dahlberg, especially.” This is because Miller had stayed and took responsibility, while Dahlberg was the one who had caused the most severe injuries, the ones on Liew, and has run away from the law. Tay is also more forgiving towards Springall but is adamant that Dahlberg must be brought to justice. He calls on the New Zealander to “come back like a man” and face the consequences of his actions.

The Minister for Home Affairs and Deputy Prime Minister, Teo Chee Hean, revealed in Parliament in March that an internal police investigation is being conducted to establish the “full facts of how the Suntec case was handled.”

“If there were any lapses or negligence, the police will take appropriate disciplinary action against the officers involved,” DPM Teo said. He added that warrants of arrest have been issued against Dahlberg and Springall, and that the “police are working closely with Interpol to locate the men, but whether they can be extradited would depend on whether Singapore has an extradition treaty with the country they have fled to.”

When asked for his views about what DPM Teo said about the extradition of the 2 men, Tay says, “I will believe it when I see it.” His scepticism stems from the delay and the failure in the prosecution of the assailants by the authorities, and the fact that 2 of the assailants were allowed to flee the country.

Tay, however, does not see the matter as one of nationality. It is not a case of Singaporean vs foreigners, he says. “It is about justice.”

When asked how he would feel if Dahlberg and Springall were not brought back to Singapore to face the music, Tay pauses and says with resignation, “If that happens, then there is nothing I can do.”

By Andrew Loh

Losing faith because of police’s incompetence

We have lost faith in the system.

That’s how Mr Laurence Wong and Mr Paul Liew described their feelings about the way the police have handled the assault case which they were involved in.

The two men, together with Mr Wong’s then-fiance, were at Suntec City one evening in April 2010 when they came to the aid of a cab driver, Mr Tan Boon Kin, 57, who was being harassed and assaulted by 3 Caucasian men – New Zealander Robert Stephen Dahlberg, 34; Australian Nathan Robert Miller, 35; Briton Robert James Springall.

When the two men tried to stop the assailants from attacking Mr Tan, they were set upon by the Caucasians too. In the event, Mr Liew sustained a fractured nasal bone, a deep gash on the forehead and nose bleed. He had been slammed against the sharp edge of a pillar, had slumped to the floor and was repeatedly kicked on the head and face by the group of expats.

Mr Tay, who was the cab driver of a second taxi which Mr Wong had booked, also tried to help but was punched by the Caucasians. So was Mr Wong.

Miller has since been sentenced to 3 weeks’ jail. Dahlberg and Springall have fled Singapore.

The search for justice following the incident has left Mr Liew and Mr Wong utterly despondent and disappointed with the authorities. Although it has been almost 2 years after that fateful night, the two men still remember vividly the details of the punches, kicks and racist vulgarities hurled at them by the group of Caucasians as they were viciously attacked.

The way the police handled the case has left them losing faith in the legal and judicial system, the men told publichouse.sg.

Following the assault and looking for justice, Mr Wong has gone out of his way to assist the authorities in its investigation – but these were met with delays and seeming disinterest by the police.

On the night of the incident itself, for example, after the police had arrived, Mr Wong had informed them that there were witnesses at the nearby taxi stand and the club, Balaclava. “The few people who were clapping and applauding when we were being beaten up were still at the taxi stand. So, I told the officer, ‘Those guys saw it. Those Caucasians saw it. Can you talk to them?’ The [officer said], ‘Okay. Relax, relax.’ He went to them and [the Caucasians] said, ‘No, we don’t know, we didn’t see anything. We came here and the ambulance was already here.’ I said, ‘That’s a lie.’”

The officer then told Mr Wong, “Sir, if they say no, there’s nothing I can do, ok? Relax! Relax! Stand there!” Mr Wong was left helpless when he heard this. “I’m the victim but I’m very clear on this, but he didn’t believe me.”

Doing police work for the police

SpringallA week after the altercation, Mr Wong returned to the scene of the crime to take pictures of where the assault had taken place. He did up a story board of the incident with the pictures and marked out the specifics spots of each attack. He also highlighted the location of the closed-circuit televisions around the area on the board. To help the police even further, Mr Wong printed out a map of the area and marked out the assailants’ escape route on it.

It was Mr Wong’s then-fiance who suspected that the assailants might have originally emerged from an event which we understand was titled, “White Collar Boxing”, that evening at the Suntec City Convention Centre. The police was informed of this.

As far as we understand, the investigating officer did call the event organiser on the phone and had also emailed them but did not manage to get the information on the assailants.

About 3 weeks after the assault, Mr Wong went to that establishment at Suntec City and identified and obtained the names of the assailants himself from pictures of the men shown to him by the event organizer.

Mr Wong had decided to do this because the police seem not to have had the information.

Mr Wong then handed the story board with the pictures, the details of the assault, and the names of the assailants over to the police.

The police praised him for the “good job” in doing these.

But that was not the only thing Mr Wong did to help the police in its work. He had also assisted the police in retrieving medical records for the case.

He told publichouse.sg:

“After they caught the 3 of them, about 3 to 4 months, I said, ‘What’s been going on?’ They said, ‘Oh, we’re still waiting for the medical report from SGH.’ I said, ‘Ok. What’s taking you so long?’ ‘Oh, we called them but they said they are busy.’ I said, ‘Hang on. Cantonment Police Station, SGH. 500 steps away [from each other]? You have to send emails, up and down.’ They said, ‘Ah, we told them urgent already… We sent them 3 times emails. Nothing. We told them it’s urgent but nothing ah. Nothing can be done.’ I said, ‘So, nothing can be done. Can’t you walk over and ask them for it? Do you know how important this medical report is for us to submit the case [to the courts]?’ They said, ‘If they don’t release, what can we do?’”

It was out of frustration that Mr Wong took matters into his own hands. He called SGH himself. “I made a call and said, ‘This person, this case, I want to know who is the doctor in charge. I am about to go to the Ministry of Health. I want all your names. I’m going to the ministry and I’m going to speak to the minister. You either tell me now or you don’t give me the report.’ In 15 minutes, they said, ‘Sir, we found your report. It has been with us for a while… We can get you the report now.’ In 2 hours, it was done. Early the next day, in the morning, it was delivered to the [investigating officer]. I called the IO and said, ‘Settled?’ He replied, ‘Wah, steady lah, brother.’”

Mr Wong was flabbergasted at the officer’s reply.

It took Mr Wong just one phone call to get the report.

“Why did Laurence have to do his due diligence?” Mr Liew asked. “He is supposed to be protected by the law! He basically had to do the investigation [himself]. Why does he have to do it?”

The police, he says, were also not forthcoming with updates when he asked for them. “We are working on it,” or that “the case is under investigation” were what Mr Wong was told each time he asked for updates. This went on for months. In fact, Mr Wong says he was told by a police officer that the police has no duty to inform victims of the status of a case.

He only came to know of how the case was proceeding when he reads news reports of them.

Not the police’s duty to update victims

“[They] claim that it is not [their] duty to inform the victims of what is going on,” said Mr Liew. He only came to know that Springall had fled Singapore when he was informed through the media. “I’m receiving information from the press!” Mr Liew said. “Why is the press faster than the authorities?” he asked.

“I called the DSP [on Friday] asking for answers. Like, so what’s happening now? I called the [Attorney General’s department], the AG department say, ‘Go back to your IO [investigative officer].’ IO don’t want to give me answers. I called DSP, DSP again said, ‘Go back to your IO but don’t worry, we’ll get your IO to get back to you.’ You’re not providing me answers.”

Mr Liew, who is a student in an Australian university but is currently back in Singapore, said he would be able to provide the most help now that he is physically here in the country. Yet, the police doesn’t seem interested in this. “You’re not giving me direction, effort, nothing at all. Zilch. Communication is meek at best,” he said, referring to contact between himself and the police.

“When I signed on with the [Australian] school in September,” Mr Liew says, “I called the investigating officer and said to him, ‘Look, I’m leaving in February. So if possible, can you please try and settle this as soon as possible?’”

It was November when he informed the officer of this.

“The officer said, ‘Ok, ok. No problem.’ I trusted that they would do their job.”

In January, when Mr Liew was preparing to leave for Australia for his studies, he had still not heard from the police. “What do I need to do?” he wondered. “Do I need to get a lawyer?” So he called the police again. “Oh, you’re leaving now?” the officer responded. “You’re leaving in 2 weeks? Wow. Okay. Looks like we got to get something done huh?”

“It was only then that he called me down,” Mr Liew went on, “took my statement, made me sit beside his cubicle, print out all the statements and everything and then he said, ‘Ya, we will submit these as court documents as part of your testimonial.’

“So I asked him, ‘What is the status of the case?’ ‘Oh, it’s with AG and then there’s some involvement of the Foreign Affairs.’ I’m suddenly wondering, you know, logically these are non-Singaporeans so yes, Foreign Affairs is involved. [But] how much is Foreign Affairs involved that the case must sit with them? They [should not] impede the justice process just because these people are foreigners.”

“And even after leaving [Singapore] and being in Australia, I am still chasing after them. I’m still asking them what’s going on?”

Losing faith

Things got moving again when court proceedings started in June 2011. In the event, the 3 Caucasians were granted bail. All in all, the case has dragged on for 22 months since the assault.

Mr Wong and Mr Liew are also upset about why it had taken so long for the authorities to act when the assailants had already been picked up one week after the incident, and they had admitted to the assault about 3 to 4 months after that.

“All these were in place, A to Z already. So what was the extra ingredient that was required for the expediting of efficient justice?” Mr Liew asked. “It’s not rocket science. You have the assailants, you have the reports, you have the persons admitting to it.”

“Honestly, if you asked me, this case has now come to a dead end… I have somewhat lost belief in the system but I’m trying to find hope in it. I don’t blame the government. It is not my place to blame but it is very sad [and] I’ll say it anyway: if the person is not dead, nothing swift will be done.”

Mr Wong expressed the same sentiments as Mr Liew.

“Lets just say that I have totally given up,” he says. “Totally given up on our system. It is common sense, you know? If somebody beats up somebody, then you should arrest him and trial him before you let him go.

“What really makes me sad is not how incompetent our police or legal system is. It’s that people with authority and power to protect are not protecting us. They are not protecting us efficiently enough. I feel really sad for fellow Singaporeans…Those with the power that is invested in them to protect us are not doing their job well enough, in my perspective, because what will fellow Singaporeans do, what will your mother do, what will your brother do, your friends, when you see things like this happening? It has instilled fear in every Singaporean.”

“We’re being treated so unfairly now just because we want to save a fellow Singaporean who [is also] somebody’s father. Until now, I still do not know how to digest [this whole thing].”

Mr Liew [picture, right] plans to write to the Home Affairs and Law ministries about the matter.

Asked if he had contemplated a civil suit against the assailants, Mr Liew said, “Yes, I have. In fact, the reason why I dared not start a civil suit was because of the sluggish response by our investigation officers… I am not a rich person… I could [also] be [accused] of exploiting the system trying to earn money out of this [case].”

In the midst of deep frustration and disappointment with the system, however, Mr Liew is glad for one thing.

“I could have died that night. But I survived, fortunately.”

———————–

NOTE.

It is unclear if the Singapore authorities have made any requests with Interpol to bring back Dahlberg and Springall to stand trial in Singapore. It is also unclear what the authorities are planning or have planned to do, going forward, about the 2 remaining cases.

Mr Wong and Mr Liew have not been kept apprised or informed of any further steps the police intend to take, if any.

A wall of silence seems to have been erected by the police around the case.

In the meantime, a report in the New Zealand Herald on 12 February 2012 had this to say:

Dahlberg’s father Bill said in December his son had returned to New Zealand and would not go back to Singapore, where he had lived for five years.

On Friday, he told the Herald on Sunday his son was no longer in New Zealand but refused to comment further.

Dahlberg is accused of punching one man and pushing another, causing him to break his nose and cut his head when his face hit a pillar. One of his co-accused, Australian Nathan Miller, was sentenced on Monday to three weeks’ jail after he admitted a charge of causing hurt.

Neither Singapore nor New Zealand police would comment on the hunt for Dahlberg.

Singapore has an extradition agreement with Commonwealth countries, including New Zealand, but Singapore Attorney-General Chambers’ spokeswoman Jin Haw Li would not comment when asked if the office had made any requests for extradition.

New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade spokesman Adham Crichton said the ministry did not comment on specific details related to extradition processes while an international criminal investigation may be ongoing.

“There was no request for consular assistance in relation to this case when it first came up so the ministry has not been involved.”

——————–

Report in The New Paper on 13 May 2011:

3 men bashed for trying to help cabby

Taxi driver being attacked near Suntec City taxi stand was clutching chest and pleading for passers-by to help. -TNP

Fri, May 13, 2011

By Elysa Chen

FLEEING from his assailants, the cabby pleaded with two passers-by to help.

When Mr Wong Xiong, 38, and Mr Paul Louis Liew, 26, did so, they and another taxi driver ended up being attacked.

They allege that their assailants were three Caucasian men while a fourth acted as alookout.

The incident happened a year ago outside the Suntec City Convention Centre.

Mr Wong and Mr Liew told The New Paper (TNP) that they were wondering why police investigations into the incident were taking so long.

In response to queries from TNP, a police spokesman said investigations are still ongoing.

The police received a call at 12.20am on April 11 last year requesting for assistance at the taxi stand at Suntec City Tower 5.

“Upon police arrival, it was established that a group of Caucasian men had a scuffle with a few members of the public,” the spokesman said.

Mr Wong and Mr Liew said their alleged assailants had fled by then.

Although they had no idea who the men were, they were not about to let them get away.

After the incident, Mr Wong’s girlfriend figured that the alleged attackers, who were wearing suits, could have attended an event at the Suntec City Convention Centre.

She was right. There had been a function there earlier.

Two weeks later, Mr Wong said he managed to obtain some pictures of the function.

Identified men

As he had taken a photograph of one of the attackers with his mobile phone during the scuffle, he identified him from one of the pictures. He also recognised two other men from the same picture.

Mr Wong, a businessman, had also returned to the scene and taken pictures a week after the incident.

He marked out on the photos where the assault had taken place and where closed circuit television cameras were situated.

He printed a map of the area and indicated the assailants’ escape route on it.

He said he passed the information he collected to the police.

“I wanted to give as accurate information as possible to them to speed up their investigations,” he explained.

He said that while he understood that the investigations would take time, he was still frustrated by the lack of progress.

Though a year has passed, the details of the attack are still fresh in the minds of MrWong and Mr Liew.

Mr Wong recalled that at 11pm that night, the two of them and Mr Wong’s girlfriend went to Balaclava, a pub at Suntec City, which has since relocated to Ion Orchard.

Around midnight, as they were leaving the pub, they heard a commotion outside.

Mr Wong said they saw four Caucasian men heckling a Comfort taxi driver, who looked to be in his 50s. One man then punched the cabby.

As they walked towards a waiting taxi that they had booked, they noticed about 10 people at the taxi stand watching the antics of the men with amusement. No one went to help the cabby.

Mr Wong said he had noticed the Caucasians behaving in a rowdy manner at Balaclava earlier.

Mr Tan, who was the cabby being heckled, ran up to Mr Wong, grabbed his arm, and pleaded in Mandarin: “Young man, save me!”

Mr Wong said: “I continued walking as I didn’t want to get involved. They were making a fool of themselves.”

High blood pressure

But as he got into the other cab, Mr Tan said: “I have high blood pressure.”

Mr Wong recalled: “When I heard that and saw him clutching his chest, I just couldn’t walk away.”

So he got out and walked to Mr Tan’s taxi and took a picture of the man inside with his mobile phone.

“He reeked of alcohol and looked like he was about to drive off. I said, ‘Please leave this cab. You are committing a crime’,” said MrWong.

Another man then punched Mr Wong.

When Mr Liew and their Comfort cabby, known only as Ah Heng, tried to help, they were also assaulted.

Mr Wong pursued the men as they ran towards the Pan Pacific Hotel. Along the way, he asked a motorcyclist for help.

When the men got into a taxi, the motorcyclist blocked the taxi’s path. But Mr Wong, worried for his safety, told him to step aside. The taxi then drove off.

Mr Liew, who had a 9-cm gash on his head, and Ah Heng were taken to the Singapore General Hospital. Mr Liew said: “A few days later, Mr Tan called to thank me. He was crying.”

Ms Tammy Tan, group communications officer for ComfortDelGro, said the two cabbies have made police reports and are assisting the police in their investigations.

“We are in contact with the cabbies and have asked them to submit their medical claims to us,” she said, adding that they declined to be interviewed by TNP.

Though Mr Wong and Mr Liew have no regrets for going to Mr Tan’s aid, they were traumatised by the incident.

Mr Wong said: “Paul still shivers whenever he’s near that taxi stand. I just want justice to be served.”

When TNP contacted one of the men who was allegedly involved in the incident, he denied that he had assaulted anyone. He said he had merely witnessed the incident, but declined to give details.

————-

Publichouse.sg will have an exclusive piece on Paul Liew’s struggles since the assault.

Stay tuned.

————-

Report by Andrew Loh and Biddy Low.

MacPherson Cares fund to help elderly

“[Our] society has a duty to take care of those who have done so much for Singapore. The question to ask ourselves is: How much is this generation of young Singaporeans willing to give of ourselves, to support the older generation, especially those who came from the founding generation of Singapore citizens?” – Parliamentary speech on 21 October 2011 by Member of Parliament for Marine Parade GRC, Ms Tin Pei Ling.

The issue of the elderly has been a focus for Ms Tin since she became an MP after the General Election in May last year. Vilified, especially by netizens, for certain gaffes during the elections, Ms Tin nonetheless has shirked these off and has focused on her grassroots work.

“I pay particular attention to elderly issues, because about 1 in 3 residents in MacPherson are aged 50 years old and above,” she said in her Parliamentary speech last year. “But our entire nation is also ageing.” Ms Tin is MP for the MacPherson ward in Marine Parade.

“We have a moral responsibility to take care of them, to help them enjoy fulfilling lives in their silver years. We will all grow old, some sooner than others. This is a harsh reality of life, but we can make it less harsh,” she says.

Medical cost for the elderly is one issue which many are concerned with. Indeed, Ms Tin herself related how an elderly couple in her ward were “not visiting doctors to receive the medical attention they need because they are worried about high medical fees” even though there are subsidies for these. “Shockingly, the elderly lady even said that she is prepared to let the husband die,” Ms Tin said.

“This case shows that healthcare costs can weigh heavily on many elderly,” she said. “This may even deter them from seeking treatment early, increasing the risk of complications that can cost them more money later on and worse, endanger their lives. Some elderly may also not fully understand the range of different schemes available to help them. Many cannot tell the difference between Medisave, MediShield and Medifund. Sometimes, on probing an elderly Singaporean’s healthcare difficulties, we realized that they could have benefitted from MediShield and Medifund much earlier.”

While medical costs weighs heavily on Singaporeans, especially the elderly poor, there is one group of people which is “just a rung above the bottom” which Ms Tin is also concerned about. These are those who may have jobs but who, for various reasons, are not able to afford medical costs, and do not seek the treatment which they need.

“Some don’t go for follow-ups because of a fear of finding out about more illnesses they must spend on,” Ms Tin told the Straits Times on 6 February. “Some don’t want to burden their kids because the family is already struggling, or they’d rather spend on food.”

To help this group of people, Ms Tin and a group of young grassroots volunteers in her ward have initiated the MacPherson Cares fund. The fund will be launched next month and will disburse up to $300 a year in cash to elderly residents of the ward as reimbursement for their medical bills.

The scheme is not targeted at the very poor with critical or long-term illnesses. These can be helped with other government schemes, like Medifund.

MacPherson Cares is to encourage those who require medical care or follow-ups to continue to do so, bypassing the sometimes lengthy period required in applying for national schemes. “In the interim period,” Ms Tin said, “the fund can give them some financial relief and the confidence to continue seeking medical treatment.”

Ms Tin also raised a radical idea regarding basic healthcare for the elderly in her Parliamentary speech. “We now have improved financing policies, but still, we hear cries for more support and I think we can do more. Specifically, just like how Singapore citizen children in government primary schools need not pay for school fees (miscellaneous fees not included), might this House also consider taking the bold step of providing free basic healthcare to elderly Singaporeans in public healthcare settings?”

With Singapore’s aged population set to hit almost a million by 2030, healthcare will continue to be a major concern. This is especially so given that wages and job security for this group continue to be uncertain.

While the government contemplates more tweaks and introduction of new schemes to address healthcare needs, whatever help given to the elderly in the meantime, such as the MacPherson Cares fund, will be welcome by those who need the help.

Ong Boon Tat – Peranakan businessman

Boon Tat Street, right in the heart of Singapore’s Central Business District, is named after Ong Boon Tat (1888-1941) – a well-known, wealthy, Peranakan businessman who also served as Municipal Commissioner and Justice of Peace.

Boon Tat Street is parallel to Cross Street and runs from Amoy Street and intersecting with Telok Ayer Street, Robinson Road, Shenton Way and Raffles Quay. Interesting landmarks on Boon Tat Street include the SGX Centre (Singapore Exchange), the iconic neo-classical Ogilvy Centre, and the distinctive Octagon and historic landmark, Lau Pa Sat. And most importantly for many of us, part of Boon Tat Street is closed to traffic in the evenings to make way for dining at the row of Satay stalls just outside Lau Pa Sat.

Boon Tat Street used to be known as Japan Street before 1946 which possibly hints at another more benevolent role the Japanese played in Singapore long before the war and the terrible occupation. The Municipal Commissioners had the street renamed in 1946, soon after the Japanese occupation ended on 12 September 1945. It was the first street to be renamed after the war.

Ong Boon Tat was born in 1888, the elder son of Ong Sam Leong and Yeo Yean Neo. Unlike his father who had little education, Boon Tat and his brother, Peng Hock, were educated at Raffles Institution. Boon Tat started working in his father’s company at the age of 19, training to take over the business which was involved in supplying mining workers to Christmas Island. A report in the Straits Times in 1919 tells of him going to Christmas Island to help in investigations into worker riots.

Being prominent in society, the family’s social life was often reported in the newspapers. In 1932, the Singapore Free Press ran a story when the Ong brothers entertained 400 guests at their home, Bukit Rose, for their mother’s 69th birthday. The sons were said to love their mother dearly. And as a sign of their influence, the Sultan of Johor was reported to have sent his state band to play at her funeral.

The Ong brothers also opened The New World Amusement Park at Jalan Besar in 1923, which was later bought over by the Shaw brothers. The amusement park was famous for cabarets, boxing arenas and food stalls; and was associated with entertainers like Sakura Teng, striptease Rose Chan and boxer Felix Boy.

Ong Boon Tat died in 1941 after an accident when he was inspecting a sea pavilion for his new home on Pulau Dama Laut. He was survived by four sons and two daughters; one of his sons Tiong Wee was then the Municipal Commissioner. He was buried at the foot of his parents’ grave on the highest hill in Bukit Brown Cemetery. While his grave is under threat of exhumation and redevelopment, the street named after him is marked as a conservation area by the URA (Urban Redevelopment Authority).

By Yvonne Ho

MP Seng Han Thong apologises to NTWU

The following is a letter by Member of Parliament, Mr Seng Han Thong, to the National Transportation Workers’ Union (NTWU).

Dear brothers and sisters of NTWU,

1. The recent series of breakdown incidents in our SMRT system has raised the attention of the public. You have had to work extra hard to repair and maintain the system during this period. Your exemplary performance is the pride of NTWU and will be duly recognized by the Singapore public.

2. I know that it was you, the workers standing at the front line, who were facing all the stress and pressure from the public commuters, every minute and second when we tried our very best to resume the train service. May I thank you for your service to the travelling public.

3. In the recent Blog TV programme, I expressed my view that SMRT needs to improve on the public communications during an emergency. I recalled I heard on the radio a view that cited our workers’ difficulty in English is a reason for the communication problems at the MRT stations.

I disagreed and said that even broken English should be acceptable.

4. Unfortunately, in trying to defend you, I made the mistake of only mentioning our “Malay” and “Indian” workers where the original quote in the radio interview I was commenting on had cited MRT staff of different races, “Malay, Chinese, or Indians or any other race”.

5. My wish to defend you was further taken out of context and misconstrued by The Online Citizen. Their misleading title “MP Seng Han

Thong: SMRT’s unpreparedness also due to Malay and Indian staffs (sic) English language inefficiency” (Dec. 21), made it look like I was blaming any unpreparedness during a emergency on your language inefficiency.

6. I understand that this episode has hurt the feelings of our workers, as well as other Singaporeans, and I apologize to you for this misquotation. I never had any intention to belittle or push the blame of the recent MRT breakdown to the workers of SMRT. Having been executive secretary for NTWU for many years, I am well aware that our workers are competent to communicate with the public in English. That is why when I heard on radio that our workers had difficulty with English, I disagreed . So in my Blog TV interview, I tried to make the point that our not so perfect English should not prevent us from communicating effectively with the public, especially in times of emergency.

7. These are challenging times for you and SMRT. I am sure you will rise to the occasion and work in cooperation with the management to restore public confidence in our train system.

8. Once again, I ask for your understanding and urge you to work together to get MRT back in good shape. I salute your hard work at the frontline of our public transport system!

Han Thong

Students launch “Don’t Eat Shit” campaign

The following is a press release by a group of students which have launched a hygiene campaign targeted at coffeeshops and hawker centers.

PRESS RELEASE

Date: 2 November 2011

Website: www.worldtoiletday.com

STOP! Don’t Eat Shit!

Campaign calls the public to check on the state of public toilets in hawker centres and coffee shops.

The “Don’t Eat Shit” campaign is a student initiative led by a group of students from the Singapore Management University together with the World Toilet Organization. The campaign aims to highlight the conditions of public toilets in local hawker centres and coffee shops. Majority of them do not meet the required standards of public toilets in Singapore. Yet the situation simply continues with no action being taken.

These toilets are usually owned by owners who are more concerned with the crowds that go there to eat, than about hygiene. However, hawkers and vendors themselves use these toilets. Dirty toilets will result in unhygienic toilet habits and these food handlers may cause bacteria to be brought back to their stalls, passing them down to the food they sell.

The victim – customers.

This brings back the unfortunate incident of a lady who died from food poisoning after eating at a rojak stall in Geylang Serai. The chopping board had traces of bacteria that are found in faeces. If toilets at these places continue to be at its current state, it is just a matter of time before another person dies of the same reason.

The “Don’t Eat Shit” campaign aims to highlight to everyone that something has to be done to these dirty toilets. And it calls for people to stay away from these places which do not prioritize clean toilets. The campaign has seen support from popular retail chain NewUrbanMale.com which designed the campaign logo and we are looking to commence sale of the “Don’t Eat Shit” themed T-shirts in the near future.

The World Toilet Organization is reaching out to everyone in Singapore to become more aware of the surroundings that they eat in. With a majority outcry, hawker centres will one day have clean toilets accompanied with good food that Singaporeans enjoy.

Background

The “Don’t Eat Shit” campaign is basically a movement to persuade hawkers to provide clean toilets for their customers. This campaign is championed by a group of SMU students and supported by NewUrbanMale.com and the World Toilet Organization.

Most hawker centres and coffee shops toilets do not have soap or toilet paper, and customers are still going there to eat. However, without soap and toilet paper, the main and most frequent users are actually the hawkers themselves. After they have used the toilets, they do not use soap to clean off all the bacteria and viruses from their hands.

And the only way to clean them off is by transferring them to the food that they are preparing. So in reality, we are actually “EATING SHIT” indirectly. The main cause of all these problems is actually the condition of the toilets. The hawkers have no incentive to provide clean toilets, because it is already a common stereotype that you must have a dirty toilet to be called a hawker centre or coffee shop.

Lee Hoon Leong – grandfather of Lee Kuan Yew

Situated at a nondescript corner of Bukit Brown Cemetery sits the grave of one Lee Hoon Leong. If one had not known better, one would just give it a cursory glance, just as one would perhaps the more than 100,000 other graves at the graveyard just off Lornie Road.

But Lee Hoon Leong is no ordinary man, given the distinguished lineage of which he is part of, and his role especially in the early life of his grandson, Lee Kuan Yew, the former Prime Minister and Minister Mentor of Singapore.

In his memoirs, Lee Kuan Yew refers to his immigrant background as a fourth-generation Chinese Singaporean: his Hakka great-grandfather, Lee Bok Boon (born 1846), emigrated from the Dapu county of Guangdong province to the Straits Settlements in 1862.

“My grandfather, Lee Hoon Leong – whom I addressed as Kung or ‘grandfather’ in Chinese – was born in Singapore in 1871, and according to my father was educated at Raffles Institution up to standard V, which would be today’s lower secondary school,” Lee Kuan Yew said in his memoirs. “He himself told me he worked as a dispenser (an unqualified pharmacist) when he left school, but after a few years became a purser on board a steamer plying between Singapore and the Dutch East Indies. The ship was part of a fleet belonging to the Heap Eng Moh Shipping Line, which was owned by the Chinese millionaire sugar king of Java, Oei Tiong Ham.”

Lee Hoon Leong later became a managing director of the Heap Eng Moh Steamship Company Ltd.

“In between his travels he married my grandmother, Ko Liem Nio, in Semarang, a city in central Java. There is a document in Dutch, dated 25 March 1899, issued by the Orphan’s Court in Semarang, giving consent to Ko Liem Nio, age 16, to marry Lee Hoon Leong, age 26,” Lee Kuan Yew said in his memoirs.

Lee Hoon Leong had two wives, five daughters and three sons. Lee Chin Koon, one of the sons born to Lee Hoon Leong and Ko Liem Nio, would marry Chua Jim Neo who gave birth to Lee Kuan Yew, their eldest son, in 1923, at 92 Kampong Java Road in Singapore.

Lee Kuan Yew would later marry Kwa Geok Choo in London in 1947, and would have three children, one of whom is the current prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong.

One of Lee Hoon Leong’s daughters, Lee Choo Neo, “was the first woman medical doctor in Singapore. She overcame a level of cultural hostility to attain this distinction, and her concern for the status of other women led her to help establish the Chinese Ladies’ Association of Malaya, in which she was active for many years. Lee was also a leading member of the Malayan Branch of the British Medical Association.”

Lee Hoon Leong’s influence over the family was notable even in the names he chose for his grandsons. In those days, it was unusual to adopt British names. However, Lee Hoon Leong, who had much respect for the English, felt that his grandchildren should have these names. Thus, “Harry” was picked for Lee Kuan Yew, a name which, while seldom used by the former Minister Mentor himself, is nonetheless well-known as his English name. Lee Kuan Yew “was mostly known as ‘Harry Lee’ for his first 30 or so years, and still is to his friends in the West and to many close friends and family. He started using his Chinese name after entering politics.”

A cursory search of the Internet reveals that the name has a German origin and means “home ruler” or “Army ruler” or “house ruler”.

Lee Hoon Leong had risen to riches but saw his fortunes decline with the Great Depression in the 1930s. His son Lee Chin Koon “recalled his childhood in a wealthy family, and a time when he was allowed a ‘limitless account’ at Robinsons and John Little, two high-end department stores in Raffles Place.”

“My grandfather was very fond of me and I used to visit him and live with him on weekends and school holidays,” Lee Kuan Yew recalled in an interview.

Lee Hoon Leong passed away just after the Japanese occupied Singapore in 1942.

At his grave at Bukit Brown Cemetery, the picture on Lee Hoon Leong’s tombstone could hardly be seen. But when our photographer, Han Thon, converted the photo to black & white, the face in the picture became more visible.

Police questions Martyn See over forum invites

Mr Martyn See, Executive Secretary of Singaporeans For Democracy (SFD), was called up and questioned by the Singapore Police on Wednesday, 12 October, SFD says in a press release signed by its Executive Director, Dr James Gomez.

The group says Mr See “spent an hour and a half at the Cantonment Police Complex from 10am to 11.30am answering questions pertaining to an investigation under the Public Order Act 2009 for a private forum he organized on behalf of SFD on 24 September 2011.”

The forum, titled “Lee Kuan Yew: liberal democracy will do us in. Will it?”, featured Members of Parliament, Mr Tian Chua from Malaysia and Ms Mu Sochua from Cambodia, ex-ISA detainee Mr Vincent Cheng and blogger Mr Alex Au.

Among the topics raised was Singapore’s retention of the Internal Security Act (ISA). Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak had announced that his government would abolish the Act in his country. At the forum, Mr Tian Chua said he feels the Singapore government is under “tremendous pressure” to follow in Malaysia’s footsteps and do away with the Act as well.

The SFD says Mr See received a formal notice from the police on 5 October requesting him to present himself to one Officer S. Vickneshwaran (Officer-In-Charge, General Investigation Squad 5, Centra Police Division) to answer questions for the said investigation.

Mr See says he was questioned for 90 minutes, and was asked 48 questions, “mainly nitpicking if [the] event was private or public.”

In 2004, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced that indoor talks held in Singapore would no longer require permits or licenses. “[We’ve] decided we are going to exempt indoor talks from licensing requirements unless they touch on sensitive issues like race and religion,” PM Lee said then.

However, it appears that the police’s investigation of the 24 September forum is about “whether inviting participants through a Facebook events page and email was a private or public activity”, according to the SFD press release.

This is the second time Mr See has been investigated by the police. In 2005, he was placed under police probe for 15 months following the banning of his documentary ‘Singapore Rebel’ about opposition member, Dr Chee Soon Juan.

Dr Gomez, who accompained Mr See to Cantonment Police Complex said, “One of SFD’s objectives in its Constituition is to apply the use of new media tools for organizational decision making processes, information dissemination, networking, mobilization and advocacy to promote democracy. However, when our members do so, like in this instance to organise a private forum, they get called up for police investigations.”

Separately, the police is also investigating the events pertaining to another forum – this time organised by Dr Chee’s party, the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), which was held on 8 October. The forum, titled “Silenced No Longer”, featured video-conferencing with former ISA detainees, Mr Francis Seow and Ms Tang Fong Har.

It is understood that the police is looking into whether there was a “breach of law” in the forum having the two guests “involved in domestic politics at a public assembly in Singapore without being physically present and accountable”.

Mr Seow was arrested and detained in 1987 under the ISA for 72 days. Ms Tang was detained for 3 months. Both have since left Singapore and are resident in the United States and Hong Kong respectively.

As for Mr See, he is taking it all in his stride, as he did in 2005. “I was mostly bored,” he posted on his Facebook page about the police questioning. “In the meantime, it should be business as usual, folks. Don’t stop caring, engaging and speaking up.”

——————-

SFD Media Release

12 Oct 2011

Police Investigates Private Forum Under Public Order Act

Martyn See, Executive Secretary, Singaporeans For Democracy (SFD), today spent an hour and a half at the Cantonment Police Complex from 10am to 11.30am answering questions pertaining to an investigation under the Public Order Act 2009 for a private forum he organized on behalf of SFD on 24 September 2011.

The forum was held at private function room at the Public House, after the original venue administrator, Singapore Human Resources Institute (SHRI), cancelled the pre-paid booking by locking its venue and preventing entry to participants.

About 30 participants then proceeded to attend the talk at an alternate venue – Public House – after they were informed of the change at the site of the original venue.

The forum featured Members of Parliament, Tian Chua from Malaysia and Mu Sochua from Cambodia, ex-ISA detainee Vincent Cheng and blogger Alex Au.

Following a phone call on 3 October 2011, Mr See received a formal notice dated 5 October 2011 requesting him to present himself to appear in front of S. Vickneshwaran (Officer-In-Charge, General Investigation Squad 5, Central Police Division) to answer questions for the said investigation.

The nub of the questioning surrounded whether inviting participants through a Facebook events page and email was a private or public activity.

This is the second time Mr See has been investigated by the police. In 2005, See was placed under police probe for 15 months following the banning of his documentary ‘Singapore Rebel’. In 2009, See had to postpone a public forum on the Internal Security Act (ISA) after the original venue, Bestway Building, was visited by CID officers after the event was publicised on See’s blog. Police then called See to apply for a permit, to which See wrote to the Law Ministry requesting an explanation. The event was subsequently held at Quality Hotel without any permit application.

SFD emphasizes that the forum was organised as a private event and urge the police to cease investigations immediately.

Dr. James Gomez

Executive Director

Singaporeans For Democracy

s377A – do not disturb?

Will Singapore see a constitutional challenge of Section 377A in court?

“We do not proactively enforce Section 377A… [but] we have decided to keep the status quo on Section 377A. It is better to accept the legal untidiness and the ambiguity. It works, do not disturb it.” – Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, 23 October 2007.

The 2007 debate in Parliament on Section 377A, which criminalises consensual sex between adult men, ended with PM Lee’s statement that the Government will retain this law because “a heterosexual stable family is a social norm… and we do not approve of [homosexuals] actively promoting their lifestyles to others, or setting the tone for mainstream society.” Striking a conciliatory tone, he added that “homosexuals too must have a place in this society, and they too are entitled to their private lives… We do not proactively enforce Section 377A.”

Yet off the radar, this law was nevertheless used to prosecute and jail two men in September 2010. In the same month, another man was charged under s377A for sex in a public toilet. When this man’s lawyer M. Ravi filed an application challenging the constitutionality of s377A, the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) removed the charge, substituting it with a charge of public obscenity under Section 294(a). The man, Mr Tan, pleaded guilty to the s294(a) charge and was fined $3,000 in December 2010.

Though the case under the new charge has closed, the questions remain: Why was s377A used in the first place, when the lesser charge of s294(a) would have sufficed? Why does s377A, which only targets homosexual acts between men without legal distinction between private and public, consensual and non-consensual, mandate a jail sentence of up to 2 years, while the gender-neutral s294(a) has the option of a fine and/or a maximum jail sentence of only 3 months?

These questions might have been asked and addressed in the constitutional challenge of s377A – but this challenge was then struck out by the AGC. In December 2010 and again in March 2011, the Assistant Registrar and High Court respectively affirmed the AGC’s decision, which prevented the constitutional challenge from being discussed in the courts.

But the latest appeal on 27 September 2011 saw an unusual turn of events. Although Appeal Judges Andrew Phang and V K Rajah and Justice Judith Prakash reserved judgment at the end of the two-hour session, they did not clearly reaffirm the prior decisions made by AGC, an Assistant Registrar, and High Court judge Lai Siu Chiu. Instead, the three judges relentlessly questioned Deputy Public Prosecutor (DPP) Aedit Abdullah, often criticizing what one of them described as the “slippery slope” and “circular logic” of AGC’s arguments.

The spectre that is not real?

It is important to remember that even if the three judges decide to rule in favour of M. Ravi and his client, the appeal is still in its early stages. As emphasised by one of the Appeal Judges, the Court of Appeal was not concerned with the arguments of the actual constitutional challenge, because their duty was merely to decide if the s377A challenge should be heard in court or not.

The AGC argued against this, stating that Mr Tan’s actual rights and interests were not affected because he had not been prosecuted under s377A, and therefore did not suffer an injury or any credible threat of prosecution. In fact, there was “nothing left for him to complain about”, according to DPP Abdullah, who also pointed out that s377A had never been used against Mr Tan in the privacy of his home. “It is a spectre that is not real,” he said. In legal terms, AGC was arguing that Mr Tan had no locus standi and there was insufficient controversy in the issue, and therefore the challenge should not be brought to court.

However, in March 2011, this same argument had already been rebutted by Judge Lai Siu Choo, who echoed Justice Karthigesu J.A in Chan Hiang Leng Colin v Minister of Information and the Arts [1996] (“Colin Chan”) that “a citizen should not have to wait until he is prosecuted before he may assert his constitutional rights”, thus concluding that “Tan undoubtedly had locus standi.” Judge Lai also reaffirmed M. Ravi’s point that “the spectre of future prosecution [by s377A] was the second way Tan’s rights could be said to have been infringed.”

M. Ravi emphasised that s377A was indeed a real threat, given that Mr Tan had initially been charged with this. Although the charge was amended after the constitutional challenge, having been publicly identified as a homosexual man, Mr Tan now has to live in fear that the police might decide to change their currently non-proactive stance and arrest him, even in the privacy of his home. “This is not his lone predicament, but a predicament shared by thousands of gay men in Singapore, as they go about their otherwise law-abiding, tax-paying lives.”

No Executive Orders by Parliament

The AGC also frequently spoke of the assurance given by PM Lee, that “we do not proactively enforce Section 377A.”

However, M. Ravi pointed out that this was merely a Parliamentary discussion and not an Executive Order, which has the binding force of law. He compared the situation to Colin Chan [1996] and Eng Foong Ho v Attorney-General [2009] (“Eng Foong Ho”) in which Executive Orders were made. However, given the lack of an Executive Order on s377A’s supposed non-enforcement status, if the police chose to investigate and prosecute men for private consensual homosexual sex, it would still be perfectly legal.

M. Ravi also cited a few cases in which police enforcement took place without actual prosecution. For example in 2005, a man who was robbed after having sex with another man, reported the theft to the police. Instead of being sympathetic to the fact that he was robbed, the police warned him with respect to s377A. Even though he was never prosecuted, the police sent a letter to his employers about the s377A warning, which resulted in an unpleasant public spate in the media, and him eventually losing his job.

In general, the judges agreed that PM Lee’s statement was not a binding promise. One of them commented that “377A seems alive and kicking!” and that “as long as [the law] is on our statute books, you can’t say it won’t be used” – a point that the AGC also conceded. Another one reiterated that a mere “Parliament [discussion] does not bind AGC, and AGC does not bind future AGCs.”

On protecting minors and victims of non-consensual sex

The AGC also declared that “there are situations where 377A needs to be enforced, for example, if the people involved are below the age of maturity, or if it was not consensual.”

However, M. Ravi reminded the court that other gender-neutral laws already exist to protect people against such situations. Section 376A, for example, is meant to protect young people from sexual assault, regardless of gender. Section 294(a) protects public decency, and Section 376 protects everyone, regardless of gender, from non-consensual sexual penetration. In other words, even without s377A, gay men who commit crimes could still be convicted under these other Sections that would be equally applied to crimes involving heterosexual or lesbian acts.

Opening the floodgates to trivial constitutional challenges?

Another key thrust of the AGC’s arguments was that if this constitutional challenge was allowed to proceed, there would be a potential “flood of litigation” from anyone who felt that a particular law was unconstitutional. “The courts would be tied up by countless issues brought by people who have suffered no direct impact by the law” in cases that were “divorced from facts,” DPP Abdullah argued. The role of the courts would then shift from being a “litigator of conflicts” to being “a supervisor of Parliament” which should not be the case, he pointed out.

This point was described by one of the judges as a “slippery slope argument”. One of them also disgreed with DPP Abdullah, adding that “as far as we know, there have been no floodgates [causing a flood of litigation] in other countries” which allow constitutional challenges from those who have not been directly prosecuted by the law in question.

M. Ravi also mentioned the similar case of Leung T C William Roy v Secretary for Justice [2004] (“William Leung”) in Hong Kong, in which the Hong Kong Court of Appeal did not make prosecution a prerequisite for a constitutional challenge by a homosexual man. After William Leung [2004], Hong Kong has not experienced a surge in litigation, M. Ravi added, and there are many other factors that inhibit litigation besides standing: cost, time, even ability to find legal counsel willing to take on constitutional challenges.

An “exceptional case” of public interest?

M. Ravi also argued that this s377A constitutional challenge also fits the category of “exceptional cases”, as cited in William Leung [2004] which required “a cogent public or individual interest which could be advanced by the grant of a declaration” for a constitutional challenge to be heard.

He described the many ways in which gay men suffer under s377A even without actual prosecution – through passive enforcement that encourages abuse and exploitation of gay men, and a fear of prosecution that hinders their ability to access essential services for health and legal justice. According to M. Ravi, these inequalities suffered by gay men due to s377A make it a matter of public interest that deserves a constitutional challenge in court.

He also pointed out the legal incongruence with the Government’s latest statement at the UN CEDAW session, that “the principle of equality of all persons before the law is enshrined in the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore, regardless of gender, sexual orientation and gender identity” (Section 31.1, Pre-session working group report, CEDAW, July 2011).

Unfortunately, during the Court Appeal, the AGC did not address these arguments about the sufficient controversy created by the harmful trickle-down effects of passive enforcement for all gay men, except to repeat PM Lee’s assurance that s377A “would not be proactively enforced.”

Implications of a constitutional challenge of s377A

The difficulties involved in bringing the constitututional challenge of s377A to court is part of a broader picture of Singapore’s civil liberties, because the attitude towards one civil liberty issue necessarily pervades another, creating the overall climate for a country. A simple indicator of this is Singapore’s hesitation in signing the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966), which 74 countries have signed, and 167 more ratified or acceded to.

In such a climate, if a constitutional challenge of s377A is heard in court, this could potentially be a watershed case for Singapore’s civil liberties. Then again, will this have any real effect, in light of PM Lee’s prior declaration in 2007 that “the continued retention of section 377A would not be a contravention of the Constitution”?

The answer may well be a surprising yes. In 2009, the Law Minister K Shanmugam stated that while the present-day Government will not decriminalise gay sex, the courts have the power to decide how the law, Section 377, is applied. This comparatively relaxed attitude can be sharply contrasted to the Law Minister’s statement in 2010, in which he explicitly supported the mandatory death penalty as a “trade-off” the Government makes to protect “thousands of lives”. Perhaps the Government views a substantive voiding of s377A as a relatively low-risk political gamble that would improve Singapore’s international reputation, and stem the discontent of civil rights activists.

Whatever the political reasons, if s377A is modified or declared void due to a successful constitutional challenge, it would be a first for Singapore, and a step forward not just for gay men, but for supporters of general civil liberties. Even an unsuccessful constitutional challenge in court would openly address various civil liberty issues, and set the stage for future discussion. However, if a constitutional challenge is denied in spite of what the judges themselves describe as AGC’s “slippery slope” argument and “circular logic”, this would beg many more questions why – but for now, the jury is still out.

By Lisa Li