AHPETC's defence in trade fair case unconvincing: Judge

THE judge who fined the Workers' Party-run town council for holding a trade fair last year without a permit has set out the full grounds for his decision.

District Judge Victor Yeo said in a document released last week that he found the town council's main defence - that it believed it did not require a permit - to be unconvincing.

The Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council (AHPETC) ran the Chinese New Year fair at Hougang Central Hub for 22 days despite the National Environment Agency (NEA) refusing to issue it a permit.

It was fined $800 by Judge Yeo last December. AHPETC paid the fine, but filed a notice of appeal, which requires the judge to release his full grounds for the decision. Now, AHPETC has one month to decide whether to proceed with the appeal.

AHPETC had two lines of argument on why it did not require a permit.

The first was that the fair was held in a common area, which the Town Councils Act gives it the power to manage.

But Judge Yeo wrote that the Act does not "exempt town councils from the licensing laws of the land". The requirement to get an NEA permit to hold a temporary fair is one such national licensing law, he said.

AHPETC's second line of defence was it thought only a pasar malam required a permit, and its fair, with about five stalls, was a "community event" or "mini-fair".

Judge Yeo said he found these arguments unconvincing as AHPETC had e-mailed the NEA to check if a permit was required. NEA said "yes" and gave AHPETC the application forms.

AHPETC submitted an incomplete set of forms, missing documents it said were unreasonable demands - like a letter of support from the Citizens' Consultative Committee.

It also crossed out the words "trade fair" on the forms and replaced them with "event".

If AHPETC did not believe it required a permit, then its actions in submitting an incomplete and altered set of forms were "exceedingly puzzling", said the judge. Also, AHPETC did not explain its reasoning to NEA via e-mail at the time.

"At the very least, it was imperative to communicate something as fundamental, and as straightforward as this to the NEA," he wrote. But its actions in the exchange with NEA showed that it had a problem only with the suitability of the application forms, rather than the requirement of a permit per se.

The judge rejected AHPETC's argument that it had acted in good faith, calling its decision to cease correspondence with NEA over the permit "a conscious and deliberate move". And over the course of the fair, it met NEA's warnings to stop the fair "with complete silence and defiance".

rchang@sph.com.sg